You'll Die Laughing (1945) by Bruce Elliott

Bruce Elliott was an American author, editor, screenwriter and magician whose work ranged from detective and science-fiction novels to contributing short stories, under the house name "Maxwell Grant," to The Shadow pulp magazine and penning episodes for the 1950s TV-series Flash Gordon – reportedly wrote some Captain Marvel and Mighty Thor comics for Marvel. Elliott also wrote several non-fiction books about the art of conjuring (e.g. The Best in Magic, 1956) and co-founded the magic magazine The Phoenix with the creator of The Shadow, Walter B. Gibson.

Despite an impressive resume, Elliott is practically forgotten today and even has to go without a page on the GADWiki. A usual haunt of the genre's obscure and forgotten, but Elliott is nowhere to be found. Generally, information about Elliott's work is scarce, scattered and evidently incomplete. I very likely would not have given Elliott's obscure, long-forgotten mystery novel Robert Adey listed in Locked Room Murders (1991) any special consideration had it not been for Jim "JJ" Noy of The Invisible Event.

Jim reviewed Elliott's You'll Die Laughing (1945) back in 2017 and called it "a pacy piece of light, fun detective fiction" that's "frustratingly close to brilliant." Last year, Jim included You'll Die Laughing in "A Locked Room Library: One Hundred Recommended Books" with the added comment, "you could add perhaps three lines to this and make it one of the most enjoyable minor classics the subgenre ever produced." I was sufficiently intrigued to finally track down a copy of this obscure, largely forgotten locked room mystery. Surprisingly easy to find as a reprint edition of You'll Die Laughing has been available from Ramble House since 2006! So let's see if Jim got it wrong as usually or end up agreeing with him and consequently moving humanity an inch closer to the end times.

Elliott dedication of You'll Die Laughing reads, "for my wife, because she loves mysteries as much as she hates practical jokers." The practical joke is the theme of the story embodied by a single character and prime-mover of the plot, Jesse Grimsby, who's a notorious practical joker blessed, or cursed, with a streak of originality – mingled with a childish sadism. Admittedly, Jesse did get laughs out of people and some of the anecdotes of his hi-jinks are funny. For example, Jesse pulled a childishly cruel prank on a business enemy by staging a seemingly impossible situation. Jesse hired some workmen to take a small tractor apart, move the pieces into the man's house and had it reconstructed in the center of his study ("he was more upset trying to figure out how it got there than by its actual presence"). So the kind of character you only want to hear or read about, lest you become a target for one of his loony pranks.

One of the characters notes, "you need a tough constitution to last out one of his parties" and the story takes place during a weekend party at Jesse's Riverdale mansion (somewhere in the borough of Manhattan) crammed with tricks and gimmicks.

So, as to be expected, Jesse Grimsby begins to subject his guests to a series of jokes from tampering with their food to a rather ingenious prank involving the swimming pool that would have got him a passing grade at Acme Looniversity. While merely jokes, the guests are all but ready to murder their host and some even get physical when Jesse's joking and taunting begins to cut a little too close on the personal front ("...this Jesse Grimsby was going through life just asking for lead poisoning"). This situation culminates with a clap of thunder and the sound of a gunshot coming from the first of three bedrooms on the first floor that Jesse had entered moments before. Several people saw him going inside and swear the room was empty "except for Jesse and the usual bedroom furniture," before closing and locking the door. So they break open the door, but Jesse and the bed have disappeared into thin air. And the remaining bedroom furniture is smashed to pieces. All of this happened in a locked room, while several people were standing outside the door, but the case gets even stranger. Jesse's body miraculously reappears moments later in the second, unlocked bedroom next door with a fatal bullet wound.

Lieutenant Leonard Brissk has his work cut out when arriving at the house. Not only has he to figure out how the body of Jesse Grimsby could pass through a solid wall into the next room, "the blank wall of the impossibility of the crime," but where the murderer could possibly have concealed the bulky gun and had his men "practically rip the house apart" without finding a trace – a missing phonograph poses a similar puzzle ("not bulky, but not too easy to conceal, because of it's peculiar shape"). These two concealed objects "which cannot be found through extensive searches" suggests Elliott was familiar and very likely influenced by the works of Ellery Queen and Stuart Palmer. An exhaustive search for concealed or missing items often feature in their detective stories (e.g. Palmer's "The Riddle of the Whirling Lights," 1935), but there are also some hardboiled intrusions along the way. Most notably, the two gangsters who break into the house to make an attempt on one of the characters and have shootout with the police as they make their escape. Impressively, Elliott subtly integrated this violent intrusion into the puzzle plot and linked them together with a cleverly planted clue.

I can see why Jim called You'll Die Laughing frustratingly close to brilliant or why Tom Mead picked You'll Die Laughing as one of his "5 Underrated Locked Room Mysteries." Elliott packed a lot of great stuff into a mere 120 pages, which would have struggled to crack the 100 page mark had Ramble House used a smaller size font, but it feels like a full-fledged novel that you just breeze through in one sitting. So you can't help but feel a little disappointed that such a fun, loopy roller coaster ride with its, to quote Jim, "haywire, helter-skelter pace" and "the all-out pell-mell tone" is over when it feels like it has only just begun. However, I honestly don't see how you can improve upon it. Even by adding only a couple of lines or wrinkles. 

You'll Die Laughing is not a locked room mystery a la John Dickson Carr or Christianna Brand, but a short, fast-paced and pulp-style impossible crime story in the spirit of John Russell Fearn, Virgil Markham and Theodore Roscoe. Judged purely as a pulp-style locked room mystery, You'll Die Laughing genuinely can be counted as a minor classic with all the usual out-of-the-box ingenuity often found in the more imaginative pulp stories of the impossible variety. I think most readers can probably take a pretty good guess in which direction the solution to the locked room problem is heading, but Elliott skillfully elaborated on the main core of the trick and the answer to the broken, moved pieces of bedroom furniture is a stroke of absolute genius! Satisfyingly, the who-and why were not entirely overlooked in all the tumult, parlor tricks and discussions of crimes committed by three-dimensional humans in a world of two-dimensional creatures or a fourth-dimensional kidnapping someone unseen from the third dimension.

So, yeah, what else can I say except that You'll Die Laughing comes highly recommended to locked room fans and a warm commendations to everyone else looking for a Golden Age mystery that's not quite like the others. 

A note for the curious: Ramble House has low-key reprinted a lot of great, unusual and often original locked room/impossible crime fiction, which all standout for one reason or another. Firstly, there are Hake Talbot's two celebrated novels, The Hangman's Handyman (1942) and Rim of the Pit (1944). Max Afford's The Dead Are Blind (1937) and "The Vanishing Trick" (1948) from Two Locked Room Mysteries and a Ripping Yarn (2008). Norman Berrow's The Three Tiers of Fantasy (1947) and The Footprints of Satan (1950). Walter S. Masterman's The Wrong Letter (1926), Maurice C. Johnson's Damning Trifles (1932), Virgil Markham's The Devil Drives (1932), Manly Wade Wellman's Devil's Planet (1942) and RH edition of E.R. Punshon's Six Were Present (1956). All do something interesting, slightly different or downright original, but only recently realized how overlooked and underestimated RH's selection of locked room reprints are. They deserve to better known and might go for another Afford or Berrow next. So stay tuned!


  1. Normally when you recommend a GAD novel, it is one that I know I will enjoy, so I bumped up You'll Die Laughing to the top of my TBR pile and it did not disappoint.

    I have never laughed out loud reading an impossible crime story, but I did when the forlorn, jealous wife pulled the handle on the commode and a siren went off. Practical jokester genius.

    This has all the ingredients I like: fast paced page-turner that I did not want to put down, repellent/odious victim, interesting characters, solution to impossible crime that felt felt fair and easy to understand (in fact it was brilliant). Thanks again for the recommendation.

    1. I'm glad to hear the streak of recommendations continue to amuse and entertain! If you like short, snappy, fast paced page-turning impossible crime stories, you definitely have to take a look at Virgil Markham's The Devil Drives. Wellman's Devil's Planet is another one I would recommend, but it's a science-fiction/mystery hybrid and not everyone likes genre blenders. So decide for yourself.