I was recently reading a book on the promise of it providing a locked room murder, to which I am rather partial. When said murder arrived, it took on this approximate form: a large indoor hall with a free-standing stone chapel inside it which has one door and no windows or other points of ingress, a crowd witnesses a lady entering said chapel – which is deserted – alone and the doors are shut, only for them to be opened some time later and said lady found beaten, bruised and devoid of life. It’s moderately classic in its setup and should therefore provide some interest, but once I read the details of the crime I gave up on the book and will not return to it (in fact, it’s already down the charity shop).
This is not due to any squeamishness on my part, or a particular problem I had with the writing or the characters – both were fine, if unexceptional – but rather just because it just wasn’t interesting. It is hard to put this in words, which is why I imagine this post may run rather longer than usual, but there were simply no features of intrigue to me in that supposedly impossible murder. And so I got to thinking…forget plot or prose or atmosphere, take away all the context of an impossible crime, particularly forget about the solutions: what makes an interesting fictional impossibility?
Just to clear one thing up straight away, it is nothing to do with being able to figure out the solution. The fact that this particular book had established such a closed-room problem that only really one or two things could be the solution has (I think) nothing to do with it. The Bishop’s Sword by Norman Berrow when I read it last year provided four impossibilities and I figured out every single one rather quickly, but I still enjoyed them all individually (yes, they worked well in the plot, too, but we’re ignoring those considerations for now). In fact when it comes to working out the solution, the opposite of what I might reasonably expect regarding its impact on my enjoyment is true: when I discovered the wealth of impossible mysteries available, I was initially reluctant to read too many because I always wanted the surprise of the how, but the more I do read the more I enjoy the speculation and comparison that comes from having a low-to-moderate coverage of the lower slopes of the genre. I’m not denying that total bafflement isn’t lovely, but being able to spot patterns and ideas within such undertakings has if anything increased my enjoyment of them.
To take a counter-point to this nameless book, consider John Dickson Carr’s The Plague Court Murders, his first Henry Merrivale book published under the Carter Dickson nom de plume. In that, a man enters a free-standing stone hut in the garden of an old house, the door is locked, bolted and barred (from both inside and out) and, to cut a long story short, he is later found covered in blood having been stabbed repeatedly in the back even though all locks, seals, and bars are in place and could not have been moved. The setup is not unlike the Nameless Book, but remains infinitely more compelling to my mind (even taking my Carr devoteeism out of the equation). The difference is that it provides perhaps more room for interpretation: the hut in this case has high windows covered by a fine mesh that cannot be and is not removed, there is a chimney leading down to a hearth but barred with, er, bars to block entry and the mud surrounding the entire hut is free of even a single footprint… If anything, it’s no more impossible than the stone chapel problem, but somehow those details stack up to a far ‘better’ problem, a far more attractive impossibility.
And the weird thing is that the opposite should be true, right? It’s almost a decreasing scale: as details increase, interests decreases, an excess of detail or caveats would be if anything even less compelling. The more scope there is for some kind of trick – the more filigree’d additions the setup has – the more likely it is that you’ll be hornswaggled by some dross that’s likely to prove irritating, like there being no witnesses to a crime because everyone present blinked at exactly the same time (thankfully not an explanation I’ve yet encountered, but © me all the same..). The simple, frank, unimpeachable impossibility of the NB should make a much more compelling problem…but it just doesn’t.
Which, of course, raises the inevitable question: Just what is my idea of a compelling impossibility? Given that the Chapel Problem from the Nameless Book represents a dull impossible murder, what is intriguing as an impossibility? Well, I suppose that fictional impossibilities broadly break down into three categories: something disappears, something appears, and someone dies. I mean, sure, you can refine that somewhat, but taking them in that order let’s have a look…
1 – The Disappearance
Of the “a man is seen entering a room, every exit is observed or locked and he doesn’t leave, but then it turns out he’s not really in there” or variety, and without a doubt my favourite type of impossibility (a side note, but in the first season of Game of Thrones, Peter Dinklage’s character Tyrion Lannister is kidnapped/captured and imprisoned in a bare stone cell where the end wall is open to reveal a staggering drop; I would love nothing more than to be able to devise an impossible disappearance for someone in that situation).
John Dickson Carr’s The Hollow Man disappears a man marvellously, but my enthusiasm for this effect obviously extends to any objects, bodies, etc. that are provably in a place and then aren’t and no-one is sure how. My favourite examples: Nine Times Nine by Anthony Boucher does this with the killer, Arthur Porges made a knife disappear in the WYSIWYG-titled ‘The Scientist and the Vanished Weapon’, The Bishop’s Sword threw in three versions of this idea, and Clayton Rawson’s ‘Off the Face of the Earth’ sees a man vanish from a watched telephone booth. And of course The Mystery of the Yellow Room sees a murder suspect vanish in a corridor even as people close in on them from all sides leaving nowhere for them to run to!
Paul Halter’s The Phantom Passage extends this by vanishing an entire alleyway, Ellery Queen dispatched with a house in The Lamp of God, Arthur Conan Doyle with a train in ‘The Lost Special’…there’s no limit to the glee I feel at recalling these things. Back when it was good, the Jonathan Creek episode No Trace of Tracy had a person seen walking through a door on one side and not arriving on the other, and The Omega Man made an acid-skinned alien vanish from the back of a guarded military truck – again, simply marvellous ideas. Had the woman from the Chapel Problem above vanished from the chapel I would have ploughed on regardless, even though there are realistically only a few options, because there’s something my brain just loves about stuff like this.
2 – The Appearance
Of the “how the hell did that get there?!” variety, and so much more than the mere reversal of the trick above. Here, it’s also the sudden revelation that entices me: the jarring shock of someone being blindsided, as above, and the sudden reappraisal you have to do as a reader (assuming fairness is being observed, of course). The Seventh Hypothesis by Paul Halter has a body appear in a dustbin that was empty a few moments previously, Peter Lovesey’s Bloodhounds makes something appear in a place so unexpected that I hesitate to give it away, and next week’s review The Footprints of Satan by Norman Berrow (him again) has a variation on the inexplicable appearance that really marks it out for me.
Carr did a lovely riff on this in The Blind Barber, where a murder victim appears on a cruise ship in the middle of the ocean but none of the guests or staff are missing. However, I think my favourite example overall is from Halter’s debut, The Fourth Door: a man enters an empty, exitless room and is locked inside, the door frame around the lock then covered with candle wax and an impression of a rare coin is made in the wax to ensure its integrity. Some time later the door – wax and imprint still intact – is opened, and at first it appears that the man has been stabbed in the back…only for it not to be the same man who went in! The essential ingredients match that initial dull problem, but Halter, as ever, finds that extra flourish to really make it stand apart.
A slight variation on this is, say, Black Aura by John Sladek, which contains a levitation trick several storeys up that I’d count as an appearance because he appears outside the window, as is the demon that appears at a séance in multi-impossibility masterpiece Rim of the Pit by Hake Talbot which also contains a flying murderer who both disappears from a locked room and reappears suddenly in the middle of a snowdrift as vouched for by his footprints.
3 – Straight-up Murder (even if no-one is killed…)
This is astonishingly broad, I’m aware, but that is largely thanks to the ingenuity of authors who have evolved beyond slow-acting poisons unknown to science and someone being stabbed but not realising it for a really, really long time. Here we’re in “how in the name of all that’s rational did that happen?” mode: person or persons not necessarily in a room alone, more just unreachable – so “no footprints in the snow” also qualifies, of course – and then stabbed/shot/strangled/attacked, but also someone provably guilty of a crime but also provably elsewhere (see, say, The Problem of the Green Capsule rather than Inspector French’s alibi problems).
My favourites? Well, Derek Smith’s Whistle up the Devil, of course, wherein a man is stabbed in the back by a ghost and a second man is strangled without anyone being able to go near him, Policeman’s Evidence by Rupert Penny in which a man appears to definitely commit suicide while locked in his office but without there being any reason for doing so, Carr’s The Peacock Feather Murders sees a man shot twice in the back whilst alone in a room that does not contain a gun (which I don’t count as a disappearance because there was no expectation of a gun being there beforehand, if you appreciate the distinction), and Halter’s The Demon of Dartmoor has a man shoved out of a window when no-one was anywhere near him (side note: the solution to this is quite breathlessly clever).
Notable versions of this type of problem encountered recently are 1) Catherine Aird’s His Burial Too, in which a body is found in the bell tower of a church with a statue having been pushed over on top of it to crush the poor soul to death. The only problem? Because of how it has fallen, the statue prevents the door to the tower being opened…so how did the murderer get out? And 2) The King is Dead by Ellery Queen, in which a man in one room of a building points an empty gun at a wall, on the other side of which is someone he has vowed to kill, and upon pulling the trigger he manages to shoot this person who is also in a locked and guarded room (side note: the solution to this is awful).
So how about some dull ones…?
If I really want to figure this out, a few mentions of the less interesting problems is doubtless due (remember, problems only, nothing to do with books or solutions). Hmmm, so Leo Bruce’s Case for Three Detectives – a wonderful, wonderful book – has someone with their throat slit behind their locked bedroom door…no shortage of possibilities there, as four solutions are presented come the end, but it’s a bit uninspiring as a setup; The Crooked Wreath by Christianna Brand has a dead body in a house with not only no footprints outside but also none in the dust inside near the corpse, and for some reason that just doesn’t intrigue me enough to be worth immediately checking out had I not already read it; Soji Shimada’s The Tokyo Zodiac Murders never really presents either its locked room murder or the impossible vanishing of seven people simultaneously in a way that feels interesting.
I’m missing plenty out, of course, but then I’ve also strayed over 2000 words and if anyone is still reading this they’ll be wondering when I’m going to get to the point (the good news is that it looks like I’ll be able to do this kind of thing on Twitter in the future…). Honestly, I’m too scared to go back and reread this and find that I’ve just blathered on about nothing without any real focus, even if I do feel better for getting this out of my head. I shall not blame you for not finishing this, let’s just tie things up in as unsatisfactory a manner as they’ve proceeded so far and say no more about this, eh? My thanks and my apologies if you are still with me: we’re nearly there!
I suppose the question still remains: what makes an interesting impossibility? Or, to flip it around, what makes a dull one? I’m not sure I’m any closer to the answer for my tastes, but does anyone have criteria or some insight gleaned from this self-indulgent brain-emetic of mine? Or was there just an impossible crime that you found a bit boring? I have a feeling I may return to this idea when it’s more fully-formed, but I throw it out to you in case anyone wishes to offer something. And, don’t worry, I have learned my lesson and will never do this again…!