The Locked Room Reader XI: Locked Out

Back in 2016, I compiled a blog-post, "The Locked Room Reader IV: The Lazy Anthologist," in response to an angry rant by JJ, of The Invisible Event, lambasting David Stuart Davies' Classic Locked Room Mysteries (2016) as one of "the laziest anthology of classic crime tales ever assembled" comprising largely of stories from the public domain – of which most had been anthologized countless times. JJ ended his rant wishing for someone to put together some "compendiums of unheralded locked room stories."

So I decided to play armchair anthologist and compiled a hypothetical locked room anthology, called Ye Olde Book of Locked Room Conundrums, with public domain stories that were never, or rarely, anthologized. Stories covering a period from Classical Greece to the First World War. Three months later, JJ made that anthology a reality and you can download it here (completely free).

There were quite a few locked room-themed anthologies published between The Locked Room Reader: Stories of Impossible Crimes and Escapes (1968) and the upcoming The Book of Extraordinary Impossible Crimes and Puzzling Deaths (2020), but there are some baffling omissions in all of those volumes. Since it was time for another, long overdue filler-post, I decided to compile another hypothetical impossible crime anthology with stories that have been inexplicably absent in previous anthologies – or simply deserve to be considered for future compendiums. I hope editors and anthologists who may be lurking on this blog will find this list helpful. Stories are listed in no particular order.

John Sladek's "By an Unknown Hand" emerged victorious in Times of London 1972 short story competition and earned a contract to publish, what would come to be regarded as, one of the finest, post-WWII impossible crime novels, Black Aura (1974). So a rather important short story that was collected The Times of London Anthology of Detective Stories (1973) and Maps: The Uncollected John Sladek (2001), but strangely enough never made an appearance in any of the locked room-themed anthologies. Sladek also penned a short-short parody of the genre, "The Locked Room" (1972), which amazingly has a story-within-a-story structure on a mere handful of pages. I think they're both perfect material for a future anthology.

D.L. Champion's "The Day Nobody Died" (1944) is one of the best impossible crime stories from the pulps, originally published in Dime Detective Magazine, which not only has a great locked room-trick, but a unforgettable cast of regular characters – headed by a mentally unhinged New York ex-homicide cop. Inspector Allhoff lost his legs during a botched arrest, resulting in a shootout, condemning him to live in a dirty flophouse, but his unique mind proved to be indispensable to his former colleagues. So now he acts as a special consultant under the condition that the man he holds responsible for the lost of his legs, Battersly, is assigned to him as a personal assistant. And enjoys mentally torturing the poor guy. This makes for a one-of-a-kind story and series.

Kendell Foster Crossen's "The Closed Door" (1953) is one of the earlier attempts at resettling the traditional detective story in a science-fiction territory and expending the plot into a full-length novel, or even a novella, could have resulted in a classic science-fiction mystery along the lines of Isaac Asimov's Caves of Steel (1954). However, the story is still anthology material on the strength of the cheeky, but clever, solution to an inexplicable slaying at a Planetary Hotel constructed out of nearly three-hundred different kind of plastics.

Edward D. Hoch kept the impossible crime story alive during the second half of the previous century and believe he has had a short story in practically every locked room anthology published in the past 50 years. There is, however, one story in particularly that deserves to be anthologized, "The Case of the Modern Medusa" (1973). A brilliant little gem taking place against the backdrop of a Mythology Fair, in Switzerland, where a man is stabbed to death in a small, crammed and locked office-room with a trident. The explanation for this little locked room riddle is one of Hoch's most creative and original!

I also recommend anthologists take a gander at Hoch's "Circus in the Sky" (2000), in which he found a logical explanation for the fantastical problem of man shredded to death on the top-floor room of a high-rise office by bloody claw-marks – as if a lion had appeared out of nowhere and then vanished. A new kind of impossible crime for a new century!

J.A. Konrath's "With a Twist" (2005) can also be labeled as a new kind of locked room story for a new century with a highly unconventional, but innovative, approach to the locked room problem. A lover of mysteries, games and puzzles decided to take his own live, but his elaborately staged suicide seems to defy any logical explanation and poses a challenge to the police. Christian, of Mysteries, Short and Sweet, even called the story "a modern classic of the genre." It certainly deserves to be anthologized.

Frederic Anderson's "Big Time" (1927) is a peculiar, little-known impossible crime tale, collected in Book of Murder (1930), which was overlooked by Robert Adey in Locked Room Murders (1991), but has a delightful solution for an utterly bizarre murder in a locked room. Something you would expect from Edmund Crispin.

Speaking of the devil, Crispin also wrote a short story rarely recognized as a locked room yarn, namely "A Country to Sell" (1955), collected in the posthumously published Fen Country: Twenty-Six Stories (1979) and takes place during the Cold War – as vital pieces of information are leaked from locked and secure room. Admittedly, the technical aspects of the solution makes the story a little dated, but still presents the reader with something a little off the beaten track.

Herbert Resnicow was a civil engineer who brought his drafting pencil to the detective story in the 1980s and brought something never seen before to the (Western) impossible crime tale: large-scale, architectural mysteries that turned whole floors or entire buildings into tightly locked crime scenes. The Gold Deadline (1984) and The Dead Room (1987) are classic examples of this. Resnicow wrote only one short, but very charming, locked room mystery, "The Christmas Bear" (1990), in which a great-grandmother explains how a teddy bear could have taken from the top row of a rickety shelf.

During the mid-1920s, the Father of the Japanese Detective Story, Edogawa Rampo, wrote two short stories as a response to critics who claimed it was impossible to set a Western-style locked room mystery in the wood-and-paper house of Japan – showing it was possible in "D zaka no satsujin-jiken" ("The Case of the Murder on D. Hill," 1925). However, the solution to the locked room problem was routine and uninspired. Something he would improve with a classic example of the inverted impossible crime story, "Yaneura no sanposha" ("The Stalker in the Attic," 1925), which is the earliest Japanese story to incorporate unusual architectural features into its plot. A corner stone story that deserves to be absorbed into a Western locked room anthology!

A more modern examples are Soji Shimada's "Hakkyō-suru jūyaka" ("The Executive Who Lost His Mind," 1984) and Takemaru Abiko's "Ningyou wa tent de suiri suru" ("A Smart Dummy in the Tent," 1990). The former is the utterly bizarre done correct with the problem of a body decomposing at a supernatural speed and the latter is in a more lighthearted vein with an impossible murder in a carnival tent, which has a satisfyingly simple, but original, explanation and unusual protagonist – a ventriloquist with a split personality. Both of these stories would make fine additions to any locked room anthology.

Back in 2013, I compiled a small list with real-life examples of the locked room mystery, entitled "Out of the Tidy, Clipped Maze of Fiction," which included a case solved by a well-known magician, John Scarne. A puzzling problem how horse race results could have leaked into a locked, soundproof room where a bookie entertained his customers and encouraged them to bet on horses. Two months later, I accidentally came across a fictionalized account of the case written by Richard Curtis, "Odd Bodkins and the Locked Room Caper" (1969), who added a very well done false-solution to the plot. The result is an excellent detective story with an interesting back-story.

Arthur Porges produced two all-time classics of the impossible crime stories, "No Killer Has Wings" (1961) and "Coffee Break" (1964), but one story anthologists should consider including in a future volume is "The Unguarded Path" (1963). A devilishly clever story with an unconventional, but original, premise: a murder has to be prevented with the victim locked up in tightly guarded house. The solution is a completely new take on the macabre Judas window from Carter Dickson's The Judas Window (1938). Other stories by Porges worth considering are "Dead Drunk" (1959), "Horse Collar Homicide" (1960) and "The Scientist and the Wife Killer" (1966).

Theodore Roscoe is known to locked room readers as the author of the brilliant Murder on the Way! (1935) and the much lesser-known I'll Grind Their Bones (1936), but, during the 1930s, he also wrote a series for Argosy about a small town full of criminal intent, Four Corners – which may have inspired Ellery Queen's Wrightsville (Calamity Town, 1942) and Shinn Corners (The Glass Village, 1954). One of the stories in the series, "I Was the Kid With the Drum" (1937), is an excellent impossible crime story about a phantom drummer and an impossible disappearance.

James Holding's "The Japanese Card Mystery" (1965) has a plot along the lines of Crispin's "A Country to Sell" and Curtis' "Odd Bodkind and the Locked Room Caper" with the impossible leakage/transmission of information as its central plot-point and there are multiple false-solutions given to the problem. A shamefully overlooked story!

Historically, Max Rittenberg's "The Invisible Bullet" (1914) is another woefully forgotten, unappreciated locked room story about an impossible shooting in a fencing saloon on the top-floor or a high-rise building and the solution shows the kind of ingenuity often lacking in detective stories from that period – a solution that in some ways the works of John Dickson Carr, Alan Green and Clayton Rawson. One of the best locked room mysteries from the 1910s.

The premise and solution to Max Afford's "The Vanishing Trick" (1948) could have easily been the plot of Jonathan Creek episode (c.f. Ghosts' Forge, 1999) with someone miraculously disappearing from a hungry room with an appetite for humans. Admittedly, this is a very minor locked room mystery, but Afford came up with a splendidly original solution and cleverly planted one of those tell-tale clues.

Robert Arthur is the creator of The Three Investigators and wrote a collection of short detective stories for Young Adults, Mystery and More Mystery (1966), which probably explains why the crown jewel from that collection, "The Glass Bridge," has never been acknowledged as a locked room classic! A semi-inverted mystery centering on the question how a gravely-ill, physically weak man could have murdered a woman and made her body vanish into thin air. Xavier Lechard, of At the Villa Rose, is the only other one who recognized its greatness. And placed it on his list of twelve favorite short stories.

Finally, I want to submit a recently translated story from my neck of the woods, Anne van Doorn's "De dichter die zichzelf opsloot" ("The Poet Who Locked Himself In," 2017), in which a poet apparently killed himself behind the locked door of a log cabin in the woods. The plot is entirely focused on proving this was a case of murder. So a pure, John Rhode-like, howdunit centered around a sealed room puzzle and therefore a fitting story for a locked room anthology.

I believe this constitutes as a pretty strong selection of unheralded locked room stories, but, since these stories have already been crossed off my list, I would like to end this bloated filler-post with a modest wish list – comprising of obscure, hard-to-find stories that sound interesting. I'll keep it as short as possible. :)

Anthony Abbot's "About the Disappearance of Agatha King" (1932). Herbert Brean's "The Man Who Talked with Spirits" (1951) and "Nine Hours Late on Opening Run" (1954). Vincent Cornier's "Dust of Lions" (1933). Arlton Eadie's "The Clue from Mars" (1924). Bruce Elliott's "Death Paces the Widow's Walk" (1944). Allan Vaughan Elston's "The Shanghaied Ship" (1933). Alfred Feeny's "The Mystery of the Round House" (1906). Wilson S. Freesland's "Treachery Tarmac" (1932). Vincent Griffin's "Martin Speed Unveils the Invisible Death" (1957). Rex Hardinge's "The Cinema Murder Mystery" (1927). Bruce D. Pelletier's "The Hedgehog and the Fox" (1961). Edgar D. Smith's "Killer in Khaki" (1948). Leonard Thompson's "Close Shave" (1946) and "Squeeze Play" (1946). And pretty much everything that hasn't been anthologized, collected and reprinted by Joseph Commings.

I told you my wish list was rather modest. Sure, I trimmed it down a bit, but, hopefully, this list will proof useful to someone in the future.


  1. This is a great list. Maybe you can find a publisher for your proposed anthology. There are enough published fans in this community who might be able to help you do it.

    1. This is just a list with suggestions for any anthologist/publishers who may be lurking out there. They're free to use it. :)

      I just noticed I overlooked an important title myself: Hake Talbot's "The High House." Even this list of overlooked impossible crime stories has overlooked impossible crime stories. What a hack job!

    2. I second Anonymous's suggestion. Start looking for potentially interested publishers, TomCat,

  2. Another outstanding round-up, TC.

    Excited to learn of The Book of Extraordinary Impossible Crimes and Puzzling Deaths, even if it promises the best new stories in the genre -- I'm hoping that's some design boilerplate given that the image on Amazon has the old "ipsem lorem" filler text. I appreciate rights issues can be tricky, but -- as you prove above -- there are still so many classics that are nearly impossible to track down, I can't help but feel I'd prefer 20 or 30 of those in a collection instead. Time will tell...

    And having read Bruce Elliot's 'Death paces the Widow's Walk' I can assure you that you need not go to any special lengths to encounter it. Perfectly fine, possibly a little bland, and nowhere near as hilariously enjoyable as his impossible disappearance novel You'll Die Laughing.

    1. Thanks! I've snooped around to see if I could find a content-listing for The Book of Extraordinary Impossible Crimes and Puzzling Deaths, but, so far, nothing else has been released except the title and book-cover. Like you, I'm still excited at the prospect of another anthology, even if they're modern (21st century?) locked room stories. Just as long as they're of the same caliber as Hoch's "Circus in the Sky" or Konrath's "With a Twist" and not some abomination like Laird Long's "Three Blind Rats."

      "And having read Bruce Elliot's 'Death paces the Widow's Walk' I can assure you that you need not go to any special lengths to encounter it..."

      What a pity. A widow's walk really appealed to me as a location for an impossible crime.

    2. Ha, Three Blind Rats. Oh, yikes, what a horror that was.

  3. Thanks for the mention! And for the heads-up on Jakobowski's anthology next year. I'll be sure to get that one. You don't happen to know what the contents will be?

    Out of all the stories you mentioned - all of which I'd certainly like to see collected somewhere - the Talbot story you named here in the comments is the one I really, REALLY want to see collected, because I've never seen it available anywhere. I've read his other short story (and of course both his novels), but this one's proved elusive so far.

    1. Yeah, I've no idea how "The High House" slipped my mind when putting together this post, but that one ranks alongside Sladek's "By an Unknown Hand" as a story baffling absent from any past locked room anthologies.

      "...because I've never seen it available anywhere."

      You know what's frustrating? The internet archive has archived several copies of The Mystery Book Magazine, but not the Spring 1948 issue with "The High House."

    2. I have a scanned copy of The High House by Hake Talbot. I think folks will be a bit disappointed -- it certainly does not live up to his other works. I'm not sure of the legalities of providing this to others, but you can email me at mdavidson6611@yahoo.com

  4. Very interesting list. As regards Maxim Jakubowski's locked room anthology, the deadline for submissions hasn't expired yet, so it will be some time before he is able to release the contents list.

    1. So they're all going to be brand new stories? Very interesting! Hopefully, some of those submissions will include new translations of older, non-English stories.

      Thanks for letting us know!