I cobbled together a hypothetical anthology in a 2019 blog-post, "The Locked Room Reader XI: Locked Out," which comprised of short impossible crime and locked room stories that were unjustly overlooked, or ignored, by editors and never appeared in any of the well-known, locked room-themed anthologies – published between 1968 and 2020. I ended the post with a personal wishlist filled with obscure, long out-of-print stories with intriguing and promising-sounding premises. Why wait for an anthologist to get the hint and get to work on a personalized anthology?
Last year, I reviewed seven, relatively obscure, short stories under the title "Locked and Loaded: A Selection of Short Impossible Crime and Locked Room Mystery Stories," which included an item listed from my original wishlist. Alexander, of The Detection Collection, deserves all the credit for helping me in my, uhm, scholarly pursuit. This time, he helped me cross even more titles from the big list. So let's get started!
Table of Content:
Edgar D. Smith's "Killer in Khaki" (1941)
James Yaffe's "Cul de Sac" (1945)
Bruce D. Pelletier's "The Hedgehog and the Fox" (1961)
Don Knowlton's "The Room at the End of the Hall" (1961)
Edward D. Hoch's "The Weapon Out of the Past" (1980)
John Hudson Tiner's "The Preacher and the Locked Shed" (1990)
Edgar D. Smith's "Killer in Khaki" was originally published in the February, 1941, issue of Detective Fiction Weekly and reprinted in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine of August, 1948. EQMM introduced the story as "one of the most ingenious variations" on "the always fascinating theme of the invisible man," but equally fascinating is the backdrop of the story."Killer in Khaki" takes place in an army boot camp, located in the Canadian Rockies, where a man who should never have been a soldier has blended with the rest of his khaki-clad comrades and is now "moving with a quiet stealth" through the camp – knifing and bayoneting soldiers right and left. Someone who can "kill in the presence of a sentry" and "then vanish under everyone's nose." The bodies continue to litter the camp grounds until Private Enly realizes they've "gone about solving this case in the wrong way" and corners the elusive killer. I don't think the solution to the how, or who, is quite as ingenious as the introduction suggests, but the overall story is pretty solid and can only be compared to John Dickson Carr's massively underrated Captain Cut-Throat (1955).
James Yaffe's "Cul de Sac" appeared in the March, 1945, issue of EQMM and is one of half dozen short stories the then teenage prodigy wrote about Paul Dawn, of the NYPD, who's the head and sole member of "an obscure office of the Homicide Squad." An office known as the Department of Impossible Crimes.
Paul Dawn is "the foremost authority" on "murderers who disappeared as if by magic, corpses in impossible positions" and "all the headaches that surround the locked room." The problem brought to him in "Cul de Sac" concerns a spy who had been trapped by two policemen in a cul-de-sac with an incriminating document on him, but the man had been searched, X-rayed and practically turned inside out without result. Nor were there any places in the cul-de-sac where the document could have been secreted. Regrettably, the solution has a glaring flaw and Robert Adey mentioned in Locked Room Murders (1991) that in a subsequent issue of EQMM, the Yaffe and the editor apologized for not knowing the trick would never work. And that makes it the weakest story of the lot.
Bruce D. Pelletier's "The Hedgehog and the Fox" was published in the April, 1961, issue of EQMM and combines the armchair detective story with the locked room mystery to craft an impossible crime tale in the tradition of Carr, G.K. Chesterton and Paul Halter – which were threatened with extinction in the sixties. The hedgehog and fox of the title are Inspector Ishikawa, of the Tokyo Metropolitan Police, and a professor of Moral Philosophy, John Balfour. Inspector Ishikawa called upon Professor Balfour to sound him out on "how it is that an old man can be stabbed in full view of people," during a closed door conference, "without even one of then knowing he was dead." Let alone having seen the murderer plunging the knife into the victim.
Admittedly, the mechanics of the impossible murder can be considered as fairly routine and not very difficult to solve, but what makes it standout is the philosophical underpinnings (religious and political) of the crime, which governed the actions of both the murderer and victim. Professor Balfour understands these philosophical underpinnings are as important as the physical clues and dovetails them to reveal a beautifully reasoned, somewhat Chestertonian, solution to the murder. So very well-written short story with an excellently realized backdrop and should be considered for inclusion in a future locked room anthology.
Don Knowlton's "The Room at the End of the Hall" was published in the July, 1961, issue of EQMM and is a fine example how a changing world opened, not closed, new avenues to explore. You just have to know your way around a plot to find them.
"The Room at the End of the Hall" was published EQMM as a Crime Story and right up until the solution it plays out like a serious crime drama with some psychological touches as the protagonist seems to be going mad – one way or another. One night, Gerald Cartright is stumbling home from a class reunion with more than one drink behind him when he comes across a house. The house is in complete darkness except for "a brilliantly lighted room at the far end of the house" and, peeking through the window, Gerald can look down into a room at the end of a hallway. And what he witnesses, sobers him up immediately.
Gerald sees a beautiful woman standing in the center of the room with a tall, sinister-looking man standing behind her and he plunges a knife, up to the hilt, between her shoulder blades. She sank to the floor and the lights went out! Gerald hastened to the local police station and they smelled alcohol on his breath, but, to be sure, a constable goes to the house to investigate and finds that everything is quiet and peaceful. There's neither a body to be found in the house or a room brilliantly lighted by a big chandelier. So what did he witnessed? The police is willing to dismiss the incident as a drunken mistake, but words get around the "overgrown village" and begins to have serious consequences for Gerald's personal and professional life. Because he's either crazy or a drunk.
I instinctively guessed the solution, but dismissed it very quickly as it didn't appear to fit the tone of the story. Nonetheless, it turned out to be correct and some might find it a touch to light as an answer as to what, exactly, caused the disintegration of Gerald's marriage and career. Still a good, well-written crime story that interestingly used the time-honored locked room trope as a framing device for a psychological crime/suspense story.
Edward D. Hoch's "The Weapon Out of the Past" was published in the April, 1980, issue of EQMM and stars his reputedly 2000-year-old paranormal investigator, Simon Ark, who believes he's destined to do "battle with Satan himself." Until then, Ark brings light in all kinds of weird, or seemingly impossible, crimes and inexplicable occurrences. "The Weapon Out of the Past" brings one of those weird, long-forgotten incidents to the present when an old, recently discovered, diary gives an account of a raid on a farmhouse in 1755. A raid locally remembered as the Battle of Lonely Tree during which an Indian hunting knife, "hurled by a French colonel," vanished in thin air. There was a "hint of witches and dark doings" about the vanishing knife, which is exactly what attracted Ark's attention.
Two hundred and twenty-five years later, the farmhouse has become the scene of a lively pageant reenactment of the skirmish with one notable difference: someone, dressed as a Colonial officer, is struck down by an old hunting knife in the very spot where it had vanished mid-air all those years ago! A wonderful premise and Hoch nicely tied to the two problems together, but I preferred the treacherous, double-layered solution to the vanishing knife more than how it reappeared two centuries later. On a whole, it's a good and solid Hoch story with a clever historical clue and red herring. I also liked how Ark had to conduct his investigation while people dressed as soldiers and Indians were running around the place and rubber-tipped arrows showered from the sky.
John Hudson Tiner's "The Preacher and the Locked Shed" is a short-short purely focused on the locked room puzzle and has, to my knowledge, appeared only in the December, 1990, issue of EQMM. The titular, nameless preacher is "legally insane" and the ethical adviser of Freedholder Enterprise. During a weekly staff meeting, the preachers hears of their intention to sack the company's ground keeper as the person responsible for the equipment in the shed, which he closed and padlocked on Friday evening – only to discover on Monday that everything of value had been stolen. Even the garden tractor was gone! I think seasoned (locked room) mystery readers will immediately recognize the trick, as they'll probably read one or two stories with variations of the trick, but Tiner was the first one to use it... in the 1990s. Hoch has a superior version of the trick that predates this short-short by a good three decades.
Interestingly, "The Preacher and the Locked Shed" only explains how the equipment was stolen, but not who's behind it. The preacher tells the staff that he never promised "to catch a thief," but "merely show a set of circumstances" showing someone else could have looted the padlocked garden shed. So not too bad for a short-short.