The Hit List: Top 5 Intriguing Pieces of Impossible Crime Fiction That Vanished into Thin Air

Earlier this year, I put together a depressing list of our genre's so-called "lost media" section, "The Hit List: Top 10 Works of Detective Fiction That Have Been Lost to History," which focused exclusively on destroyed or irretrievably lost novels and short stories – eschewing still existent, unpublished manuscripts. Anthony Boucher's The Case of the Toad-in-the-Hole and Christianna Brand's The Chinese Puzzle are merely taking their time to get to the printers.

So the list ranges from Jacques Futrelle and the last batch of "The Thinking Machine" being among the casualties of the Titanic disaster to a collaboration between John Dickson Carr and playwright J.B. Priestley which never materialized. All the entries on the list were in various stages of completion, before the manuscripts got lost in a shuffle or simply destroyed. Never to be seen again in our reality, but I like to believe there's an alternate reality where Joseph Commings' One for the Devil and Hake Talbot's The Affair of the Half-Witness secured a place on "The Updated Mammoth List of My Favorite Tales of Locked Room Murders & Impossible Crimes."

I wanted to do another one of these lists, but had no original idea or worthy topic and "The Hit List: Top 10 Non-English Detective Novels That Need to Be Translated" didn't garner nearly enough reader suggestions to do a follow-up. Only recently it hit me. Something was left on the cutting room floor of the previous hit list that could be marshaled into a small, hopefully interesting addendum to the list of lost detective stories.

From my studies of Robert Adey's Locked Room Murders (1991) and Brian Skupin's Locked Room Murders: Supplement (2019), I found several novels and a collection of short stories of a particularly elusive nature going beyond being out-of-print, scarce and expensive – like A. & P. Shaffer's Withered Murder (1955). A short list of titles that were, technically speaking, published, but barely left a trace of their existence. Some would have been all but forgotten today had they not been listed by Adey and Skupin in Locked Room Murders. So here are five published locked room mysteries and impossible crime fiction that appear to have vanished into thin air.


1. Murder Through Locked Doors and Other Stories (????) by Jan Deuell

The first title on this list Jan Deuell's Murder Through Locked Doors and Other Stories. A collection of short stories listed in Skupin with three stories, "Murder Through Locked Doors," "The Spread-Eagled Man" and "The Case of the Castle Keep," published by Llanelli. Nobody knows when the collection was originally published and no copies can be found online or anywhere else for that matter. Only site mentioning the collection is Allen J. Hubin's "CrimeFiction IV, Part 31," suggesting "Jan Deuell" is probably a pseudonym and lists an additional, presumably non-impossible crime, story for the collection, "The Edinburgh Mail." These often tantalizing-sounding puzzles are solved by Gorden Darch and Doctor Jan, but not much else is known about this truly forgotten series. However, I have a theory to explain it.

I think the Gordon Darch and Doctor Jan stories were published or serialized in the Welsh newspaper The Llanelly Mercury, but never officially collected and published. This very ephemeral Murder Through Locked Doors and Other Stories could be nothing more than a scrapbook with the clippings of Deuell's newspaper serials or stories, which somehow ended up in Adey's impossible crime collection. A single, undated scrapbook of newspaper cuttings explains why neither Adey nor Skupin could give its original publication date, because the idea of Murder Through Locked Doors and Other Stories never got that far.


2. The Thirteenth Bed in the Ballroom (1937) by Esther Fonseca

This is the only dodgy title on the list as it's closer to an scarce extremely, out-of-print novel, but the reportedly 2012 reprint apparently disappeared without a trace.

I first learned of Esther Fonseca's The Thirteenth Bed in the Ballroom in Locked Room Murders: Supplement and noted a UK edition from 2012, but all the internet could turn up was a contemporary review of the original, 1937 US edition – published by Doubleday, Doran. I eventually cottoned on to the fact that the opposite page has a number of entries from Christopher Fowler's Peculiar Crimes Unit series from the 2010s. So to the mention of a 2012 reprint of The Thirteenth Bed in the Ballroom is simply a print error, which doesn't make the original edition any less obscure or rare. It has a few mentions online and that one review, but nothing else. Not even a book cover. Fonseca's Death Below the Dam (1936) fared a little better as used copies are still available. Just not cheaply. A shame. Something about the plot speaks to me ("a breaking dam... raging flood waters... an isolated island... and a murderer at large").


3. Pattern of Terror (1987) by Ayresome Johns

"Ayresome Johns" is the pseudonym of the late George Locke, pharmacist, antiquarian bookseller, bibliographer and publisher, who was primarily involved in the science-fiction and fantasy genres. Locke was also involved with the detective genre and not only published the first version of Adey's Locked Room Murders in 1979, but also published The Roger Sheringham Stories (1993) and The Anthony Berkeley Cox Files: Notes Towards a Bibliography (1993). A good two decades ahead of the reprint renaissance. More importantly, Locke wrote a fascinating sounding impossible crime novel under his "Ayresome Johns" penname.

Adey lists Pattern of Terror with no less than three impossible situations: death by shooting with "no external wound to correspond with the heart wound," an inexplicable poisoning and "various locked room murder" – "actual and proposed." The detective tackling these problems is "ace investigator of the Antiquarian Booksellers Society of Great Britain," John Anderson. I peeked at Adey's comment at the back of the book, while holding my hand over the solutions, praising it as "a great pudding-mix of a novel" and called the solution to the first impossibility ingenious. Regrettably, Locke was a small, independent publisher who only printed limited copies. So available copies or additional information are non-existent. I really would like to see Pattern of Terror return to print, because it strikes me as the kind of wildly imaginative detective story that would be much appreciated in today's reprint renaissance and locked room revival. Fingers crossed!


4. Murder at the Drum Tower (1965?) by Ning Xu

Just like the previous entry is a perfect fit for today's locked room revival, Ning Xu's Murder at the Drum Tower sounds like it missed out on the current translation wave. Skupin notes in Locked Room Murders: Supplement that Murder at the Drum Tower was published by Australian publisher Whitecross in 1994, but good luck finding any trace or scrap of information on the book. You really to vary and juggle your search terms to get an atom of proof the book actually exists. So there's a ready-made translation out there, somewhere in the Australian outbacks, of a Chinese detective novel centering on a stabbing and shooting inside a locked tower room. For some, unsubstantiated reason I assume Murder at the Drum Tower is a historical mystery. So a reprint would make an interesting companion piece to Chin Shunshin's Pekin yūyūkan (Murder in a Peking Studio, 1976), Futaro Yamada's Meiji dantodai (The Meiji Guillotine Murders, 1979) and Taku Ashibe's Koromu no satusjin (Murder in the Red Chamber, 2004)


5. The Mountain by Night (1997) by Maisie Birmingham

Maisie Birmingham is the author of the short-lived Kate Weatherly series, published during the 1970s, but added one last title to the series decades later. Skupin's introduction to Locked Room Murders: Supplement highlighted The Mountain by Night as "worthy of note" concerning a strangulation in a locked house, but, once again, copies appeared to be non-existent. I suspected at the time Birmingham had privately published The Mountain by Night, because Amazon gives "M.P. Birmingham" as its publisher. This proved to be a correct assumption.

A 2021 comment from Jamie Sturgeon shed some light on the elusiveness of The Mountain by Night: "the Maisie Birmingham was published by the author herself, I corresponded briefly with her (in the early 2000s I think it was) and she sent me a copy, all I remember is that it was spiral bound and was a locked room mystery, I sold the book to Bob Adey hence it turning up in the Skupin book. As to what happened to Bob Adey's copy I do not know." I later came across this archived link providing some background on the series, a plot description of The Mountain by Night and how "copies of the book can be purchased from the author." So a limited print run of a privately published novel is the culprit once again and fear detective novels like Pattern of Terror and The Mountain by Night are in danger of eventually becoming irretrievably lost. But not all hope is lost. Derek Smith's Come to Paddington Fair started out as an unpublished manuscript written in the 1950s, before Japanese collector Mori Hideo published it in a limited print-run of a hundred copies. John Pugmire's Locked Room International finally made it widely available a decade ago when they published The Derek Smith Omnibus (2014). A year later, LRI reprinted a separate, long overdue edition of Come to Paddington Fair. So there's still some hope, but time in their case is probably ticking.

An honorable mention: Jacques Aanrooy's Off the Track (1895) and Sir Henry Juta's Off the Track (1925). The 1895 novel was published in South Africa by J.C. Juta & Co and has a detective by the name of Donald Fraser cracking the case of a fatal stabbing in a locked surgery, while the 1925 novel has a Ronald Fraser tackling a stabbing in a locked consulting room. A case of parallel thinking? Blatant plagiarism? Well, neither. Jacques Aanrooy was the pseudonym of a South African judge, lawyer and politician, Sir Henry Juta, who probably reworked his old, forgotten novel to be republished under his own name. It's impossible to check to what extend the 1925 title is a rewrite of the 1895 original, because the one thing both versions have in common is how just how scarce they have managed to made themselves. If they differ enormously, I would love to see a twofer reprint edition. Yes, this honorable mention is just an excuse to have a cover included in this poor excuse of a filler-post and "off the track" fits the theme of the list. So there you go.

If I'm going to do another one of these hit lists, I'm going to pick a more upbeat topic without trying to find an excuse to meander on about obscure, long-lost locked room mysteries.

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