Locked and Loaded: A Selection of Short Impossible Crime and Locked Room Mystery Stories

Last year, I put together a hypothetical locked room anthology, "The Locked Room Reader XI: Locked Out," composed of short stories that were overlooked and never appeared in any of the anthologies published between The Locked Room Reader: Stories of Impossible Crimes and Escapes (1968) and The Book of Extraordinary Impossible Crimes and Puzzling Deaths (2020) – a list appended with my personal wishlist. A wishlist with interesting and intriguing-sounding stories that have been rarely been reprinted or stuck in obscure, often hard-to-get magazine publications.

Regrettably, most of the obscure stories on that wishlist remain out of my reach, but the backlog of short locked room and impossible crime stories has grown exponentially over the past twelve months. I've to acknowledge and thank Alexander, of The Detection Collection, who helped padding that backlog.

The backlog has become so cluttered that it was time for another bloated compilation post with review of uncollected stories. So let's dig in!

Table of Content:

"Murder on a Bet" by H.C. Kincaid

"The Loaded House" by Francis Bonnamy 

"The Thumbless Man" by Charles B. Child

"The Man Who Wasn't There" by Charles B. Child

"Murder in a Locked Box" by Patrick Meadows

"Virgil Tibbs and the Fallen Body" by John Ball

"The Gallowglass" by David Braly

H.C. Kincaid's "Murder on a Bet" appeared in the November, 1950, issue of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine as an "ultra contemporary" take on the locked room trope with a solution promising “the stuff of tomorrow's news.” A prediction that has since come true.

The story centers around a group of six businessmen who only have two things in common, "an almost fanatical respect for the pledged word" and "predilection for murder mysteries," which lead to a discussion and a challenge at the Malunion Club. A recent issue of EQMM had a locked room story and John Hendrix "vigorously denounced" such stories as unrealistic and gimmicky. Victor Julian challenges his opinion and assures everyone he could device a method without "the use of any mechanical device or any deception of the senses." So a $150,000 challenge is written down on paper.

Hendrix agreed to take residence in a hotel room stocked with enough food and drink to last him a week, which then has to be locked from the inside and the doors as well as the windows sealed shut with strips of adhesive tape – guards from a reputable detective agency were posted in the corridor for the whole week. When the time limit had expired, they opened the hotel room, noting the seals were intact, but Hendrix was dead. And there wasn't a mark on his body or a trace of poison in his system. Doc Kay is called in by the businessmen to help them get out of this mess and clear their names from suspicion.

A clever, two-part trick with the administration of death being a modern update of a trick that seasoned mystery readers will probably recognize, but Kincaid found a new way to use a locked, sealed and closely guarded room. A story worthy to be anthologized. 

Francis Bonnamy's "The Loaded House" was first published in the December, 1950, issue of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine as one of the winners of a short story contest. "The Loaded House" impressed the jury as a "bright and amusing" story with "a strange sort of Southern hospitality" and "chockful, ram-jam-loaded with detectives" – as multiple characters contribute to the solution. The breezy, lighthearted and sometimes flippant tone of the story did remind me of Delano Ames and Kelley Roos.

Francis "Frank" Bonnamy is the assistant of the well-known Peter Utley Shane, head of the Department of Criminology at the University of Chicago, but during his wartime stint, he lived in Alexandria, Virginia. The old port is preparing to celebrate its bicentennial and Frank wants to show his wife, Mavis, the place to meet the delightful friends he made there. There is, however, a problem. Every time Frank stays in that part of Virginia, the area "becomes littered with the sudden dead" and his old landlady greets him with, "Oh no! Not Death's advance man!" And the good, old detective curse lives up to it reputation when the Bonnamys gets invited to a housewarming party to unveil a garden-sized swimming pool with a body floating in it! A second body turns up on the doorstep, shot through the head, which is what earned this story a spot in Robert Adey's Locked Room Murders (1991).

However, to qualify the second murder as an impossible crime stretches the definition a little, but I'll allow it as it made splendid use of the historically rich past of the town and the antiques that litter the place. A very well done detective story that convinced me to take a closer look at Francis Bonnamy sometime in the future. I've know become incredibly curious about Death on a Dude Ranch (1939), A Rope of Sand (1944) and The King is Dead on Queen Street (1945).

Charles B. Child's "The Thumbless Man" was originally published as "The Invisible Killer" in the
January 21, 1955, publication of Collier's and reprinted under its current title in the December, 1961, issue of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine. It's one of those altogether too rare archaeological mysteries with an originally imagined premise and a good solution.

Chief Inspector Chafik J. Chafik, of the Baghdad police, is summoned to an archaeological excavation of an ancient city, Akkar, where two bodies were found in a burial chamber. One of the bodies is close to 4000-year-old with a modern knife in his back and the second, much fresher, body belongs to a representative of the Department of Antiquities, Jamil Goury – who was found with strange strangulation marks on his throat. And those marks suggest he had been killed by someone with exceptionally hard, thumbless hands. What makes the murder an outright impossibility is the passageway into the tomb was very narrow and one section could only be passed by crawling. Goury headed a party into the tomb, but appeared to be attacked, and strangled, while the people behind were unable to help or save him. Only person on the other side is a dusty corpse almost as old as recorded history. 

"The Thumbless Man" is a truly wonderful story with a fascinating backdrop and impossible crime, but it's Chafik who steals the show with his lines and some excellent scenes. Such as when Chafik has a brush with death and awakens inside a tent to immediately admonish the first person he sees by saying, "I did not die here; my corpse should not have been moved." Chafik also channeled John Dickson Carr's Henri Bencolin when telling the murderer that "the devil and I have much in common" and gave [redacted] a taste of hell by placing [redacted] in Goury's position. I seriously need to go after a copy of Child's The Sleuth of Baghdad (2002).

On a side note: Steve, of MysteryFile, reviewed "The Thumbless Man" back in May and, while he liked the story, questioned why "the killer decided to go to such length to commit such a murder" that's bound to raise more questions than a staged accident. A collapse, or faulty wiring, would have been as dangerous to the murderer in those circumstances as to the victim. So the murderer adopted this roundabout way to create an impossibility that also functions as an alibi.

Charles B. Child's "The Man Who Wasn't There" was published in the April, 1969, issue of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine and brings Chief Inspector Chafik to the home of an Egyptian exile and recluse, Faris Zakir. Constable Abdul Rahim had been called three times to the house in one week on account of an unauthorized person entering the premise. A person who was seen and left "alien footprints" on the stairs to an unoccupied upper floor and vanished, but even more baffling is how this person managed to enter the house. The place was practically a fortress with a heavy bar on the front doors and all of the windows either protected with iron grills or shuttered. Chafik leaves the inexperienced constable in charge of the case, which proves to have fatal consequences.

Unfortunately, Child glosses over the impossibility of the footprints on the stairs, which detracted from the overall quality of the story, but the dangerous game Chafik plays with the murderer to extract an unlawful kind of justice was excellently done. So this one was better written than plotted.

Patrick Meadows' "Murder in a Locked Box" is a short-short story, originally published in the August, 1969, issue of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine and takes place in a police station where a "dropout from the underworld was comfortable and coddled" in a prison cell – while closely watched by Chief Delany on TV screen. Chief Delany witnesses "Chops" Moran dropping to floor, twitches twice and then remained eerily motionless. Moran had been poisoned with cyanide and suicide is out of the question, but how then was the poison administrated? Chief Delany makes short work of the case and apprehends the murderer before this person can even begin to feel apprehensive about being caught. This is not bad for something so short, but neither is it particular clever or memorable. A snack sized locked room story and nothing more than that.

John Ball's "Virgil Tibbs and the Fallen Body" was first published in the September, 1978, issue of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine and brings the impossible crime to the modern police procedural. Police Detective Virgil Tibbs is present when body falls with "a violent thud" on the sidewalk of a towering building. Tibbs notices some clues arguing against suicide, but an interview with the building's general manager makes murder equally impossible. Only a few windows in the building can be opened and then only very slightly, which barely allows enough room to crawl through. Since the building is only partially rented out, everything above the thirty-second floor is blocked-off and access is severely restricted. And the dust on the roof was undisturbed. So where did the body come from since "he couldn't have fallen out of the sky."

The solution is interesting, but terribly unconvincing with the who-and why treated as an afterthought and left me somewhat disappointed. It could have worked, if the idea had been elaborated on. No recommendation here. Nonetheless, I've now bumped Ball's Singapore (1986) op my to-be-read pile to see what he did with a novel-length locked room mystery.

David Braly's "The Gallowglass" was originally published in the August, 1986, issue of Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine and collected in Murder at Teatime: Mysteries in the Classic Cozy Tradition (1996), which will make some of you cringe, but don't despair. This story is not a cozy. "The Gallowglass" is an old-fashioned, traditionally fashioned locked room mystery with everything but a warm, cozy backdrop for a gruesome killing with a medieval weapon.

On a dark, stormy night, Sergeant Brian Sullivan is taking a locksmith to a mansion in the County of Cork, Ireland, which used to belong to a 17th century gallowglass (mercenary) who had built the original house that formed the center of the current building and, when he was slain in battle, cursed the place – swearing he would kill every Englishman "till the crack of doom." However, the ghost is one of the two things that attracted the very English Dr. George and Elizabeth Harrogate to the mansion with the other being that "Ireland doesn't tax authors" (kind of true). Dr. Harrogate makes his money with writing textbooks, science-fiction novels and working on his invention, the sea camera. A combination of photography and computer radar that would show "a lake or sea as being transparent."

They lived there for three years without anything untoward happening, but, during one of the greatest storms the locals can remember, Dr. Harrogate uncharacteristically bolted his study door. And he doesn't respond to his wife's knocking. So she calls the police, but even the locksmith is unable to force the sturdy, solid oak door and the windows were nailed close years ago. When they finally managed to break into the room, they find Dr. Harrogate's body with battleaxe "embedded deeply" in his chest and the papers concerning his invention are missing.

Sergeant Sullivan arrested a well-known housebreaker, who was seen near the house at the time of the murder, but has no earthly idea how he managed to get out of that tightly shut room. So they fly in Detective Chief Inspector Phelim Kane from Dublin to Cork to help Sullivan with that last piece of the puzzle, but Kane is there "to investigate all aspects of the case" and investigate he does. Kane arrives at an entirely different conclusion than his local colleague.

The locked room-trick is fairly simple and straightforward, but not one of those hackneyed, routine solutions so often employed by writers who wanted to write a locked room story without knowing how to plot one – like turning a key with special tweezers or drawing a bolt with string. Braly was a little more sophisticated than that and his explanation nicely dovetailed with the situation of the house, the storm and fitted the murderer perfectly. I also admired how effortlessly the story slipped into an adjacent genre in its closing pages.

Braly's "The Gallowglass" is another story deserving the attention of editors and anthologists for inclusion in a future locked room collection.

Well, I hope you have enjoyed my rambling about all these loose, uncollected locked room and impossible crime stories. Hopefully, they will one day find their way into another locked room anthology. And that I'll have read most of the obscure stories in that hypothetical anthology is a sacrifice I'm willing to make for all of you.


  1. Thanks for the pointers! I'll take a look at the first two, at least.

    1. My pleasure. :) Hope you enjoy the stories. Braly's "The Gallowglass" is also worth a look, even if it doesn't add anything new to the locked room genre.

  2. This is quite a surfeit of riches you've assembled here. I'd be interested to learn just how you tracked some of these down. As I can't figure out a way to make my comments into an coherent whole, I'll just go through them one by one.

    Murder on a Bet sounds like a fun story. The promise of an update to a known trick is always exciting and I really like stories with that sort of meta-commentary.

    The plot of The Loaded House sounds quite good and the writing even better, but what really gets me is the realistic reaction to the appearance of the herald of death, er, I mean the detective. I've always wondered why they didn't run Ellery out of Wrightsville, and if Conan Edogawa showed up anywhere near me, I'd hightail it out of there quick.

    The Thumbless Man sounds like another good read, especially as you're quite right about the unfortunate dearth of archaeological mysteries. This one sounds even better then most, with a problem that I've found myself speculating about in my idle moments and a fascinating detective.

    Finally, The Gallowglass sounds like a wonderfully atmospheric story and it's always nice when a story can successfully shift gears from one genre to another. I got a laugh at the idea of it being anthologized in a cozy collection, although it very well may have been the best story in it. :D

    I have no clue how I'm going to hunt down these stories, but I'll have to make the attempt, especially for the first three. Congratulations on being able to read these and thanks for bringing them to our attention!

    1. I acknowledged Alexander/JPRidgeway, of the Detection Collection, as the one who helped pad out my backlog of short stories and will do more of them next year. So stay tuned.

      "...if Conan Edogawa showed up anywhere near me, I'd hightail it out of there quick."

      Sleeping Moore always gets the blame for being the murder magnet. :)

      "...especially as you're quite right about the unfortunate dearth of archaeological mysteries."

      I'm still keeping my fingers crossed for a translation of Rafael Bernal's Un muerto en la tumba, which is an archaeological (locked room) mystery Boucher praised in the 1940s.

      "I got a laugh at the idea of it being anthologized in a cozy collection, although it very well may have been the best story in it. :D "

      Cozy is probably not the best description of that anthology because it has stories by Christianna Brand, E.C. Bentley, G.K. Chesterton, Peter Lovesey, Dorothy L. Sayers and, hilariously, Julian "Bloody" Symons!

      Good luck hunting!