#59: On Locked Rooms and Impossible Crimes in fiction – something of a ramble

footprints

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!

floorplan

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…!

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23 thoughts on “#59: On Locked Rooms and Impossible Crimes in fiction – something of a ramble

  1. Am I expected to answer “what makes an interesting impossibility” in a short, concise manner in a comment section, because I find that to be a impossibility worthy of Carr or Hoch. I can easily fill a blog-post that’s twice the length of this post in an attempt to answer that question, which I might actually do. Not sure when. But I feel this might turn in one of those over-long, bloated filler-posts over at my blog.

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  2. I’m not averse to a predictable set-up provided the solution is something new – or at least a twist on something new. For me, I’m more likely to be disappointed by the reverse of your thoughts – the solution being dull rather than the problem. Paul Doherty’s Corpse Candle starts with an intriguing locked room murder with a very disappointing solution. Luckily the rest of the book (including the many, many other murders) is great fun but if that had been the only component, I’d have come away disappointed…

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    • It’s a tricky one, isn’t it? The solution is so much a part of the problem that it’s difficult to separate them out, but the fact remains that some problems are more interesting (and dull problems have spawned many a fascinating solution!).

      If we were going for disappointing solutions, Sladek wins for me with the disappearance from the locked toilet in Black Aura…a beautifully simple and baffling problem, but a solution so irritating it made me.fear for the other solutions to come in that book!

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  3. I’m not sure I’ve read enough locked room/impossible crime novels to say what makes a good or bad one (though this post has certainly given me some pointers for future reading) in regards to the impossible crime aspect. But I know for me that I do get bored if the solution is really really really long and very technically detailed. This may be though as I am more focused on the characters and the narrative style or rather these two criteria are more important for me to enjoy a book than how outré the problem is.

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  4. I think there was some discussion about what makes a good locked-room murder mystery in ‘Hard Cheese’, and one of the conclusions was that a solution that yields no spatial transgression, i.e., it was a suicide/ an accident after all!

    I think I agree with that, though one or two of Carr’s overly-technical explanations of actual spatial transgressions haven’t won me over either. I’m thinking in particular of ‘Till Death Do Us Part’ – I struggled to make sense of the solution visually – which was otherwise a very entertaining novel. ‘Constant Suicides’, in contrast, was thankfully comprehensible…

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    • TDDUP is one of the Carr’s I’ve not yet got to, so I’m afraid I can’t comment there, though I understand it to be generally well-received. And, yes, a basic level of comprehension is a minimum standard…I read book fairly recently where come the end I still didn’t know quite what had gone on. Bloody annoying!

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      • What do you make of impossible/ locked-room mysteries where there is no genuine spatial transgression, ie, it actually was a suicide or an accident…? I wouldn’t go so far as to say that the author cheated, but would echo the sentiment reflected in ‘Hard Cheese’ that such a solution is somehow lacking.

        ‘Till Death Do Us Part’ is, its solution notwithstanding, still a very good novel. The novel you were reading must have been inscrutable – considering you can make sense of, even enjoy, Rupert Penny’s solutions, which have the reputation of being dense…

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        • Without wishing to spoil anything, one of my favourite impossible crime novels has a solution with elements of what we’re calling spatial transgression in its solution; the sheer audacity of the solution is a marvel to behold, and done in such a superb way that it’s honestly difficult to object to it…but I appreciate this is a rare occurrence. I can’t think of anything else I’ve read that does this, which is probably why that book stands out so claerly in my mind, but I also can’t honestly say that it would be unacceptable to me.

          And, well, you’ve read Rupert Penny, you know what his solutions are like (one of them, at least). Everything I’ve encountered of his has been clear – involved, certainly, but there’s nothing unique or wrong with that. He is if anything among the clearest of explainers! Someone like, say, Anthony Boucher could have learned a thing or two from Penny’s summations, certainly.

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  6. I read Drakenfeld last year and thought the impossible crimes were the weakest part of the story. The solutions to both impossible mysteries (there is another one later with a body found on a beach without any footsteps leading to it) were really by-the-numbers, so I cannot imagine anyone but complete newbies to the impossible crime subgenre being baffled by them. The book seemed to me like a lesser version of John Maddox Roberts’ SPQR novels.
    And what a coincidence: My copy ended up at the local charity shop too 🙂
    I wonder, have you read “Jack Glass” by Adam Roberts? It’s a sci-fi novel paying homage to classic Golden Age mysteries. It has three impossible crimes all taking place in a futuristic setting, but otherwise fairly clued. It might not be for everyone, but it is definitely worth taking a look at if you are a fan of impossible crimes.
    And before I forget: I really enjoy reading your blog posts, although my own knowledge of locked-room mysteries is rather modest, but it is nice to learn to learn something new from experts such as yourself.

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    • Firstly, you are far too kind – I’m no expert, merely an enthusiastic amateur. TomCat from Beneath the Stains of Time is the expert, and perhaps in another eight to ten years I may claim expert status alongside him, but by then he’ll’ve moved on ahead again…dammit!

      Secondly, I’m glad (well, not glad, but…vindicated) that someone who has actually finished that book found it as uninspiring as I feared it may be. Not that I was experiencing any doubts or regret, but at least I didn’t miss out on something unexpectedly fabulous. There’s plenty of scope of decent crossover imposible crime novels (see Isaac Asimov, Randall Garrett), but Newton didn’t really seem to be firmly in either camp; he may yet turn out to be a brilliant novellist, but I doubt he’ll ever be for me.

      And thirdly – no, I have neither read nor heard of Jack Glass. I am very excited to hear of Jack Glass! I am going to buy Jack Glass this weekend, I’m honestly very intrigued. Thank-you so much for bringing it to my attention!

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  7. Hmm. I think there are a lot of things needed for a good impossible crime: clarity, both in terms of what has happened and why it’s impossible; uniqueness, because sadly mere impossibility isn’t enough to be interesting any more; thematic relevance, because otherwise the story will feel like a rushed detective novel with an impossibility jammed into it, etc. etc.

    The list really would be very long, especially because every point will have a counterpoint (When does something stop being clear and start being overly simple? Can something be so unique that it’s hard to follow, because there’s no point of comparison? How do you stop a well-integrated impossibility from bogging down the pace, as characters discuss the various possibilities?)

    But one thing which I think authors often overlook and which doesn’t get much discussion is that there needs to be enough play in the puzzle for the characters to actively discuss it. Far too many mysteries introduce impossibilities early on and then barely discuss them until the solution, because the author knows that the setup is too flimsy to withstand much investigation. False solutions aren’t just useful because they allow for twists and double-twists, they also help prevent impossible crimes from being ostracised in the middle of their own plots.

    For example, I just finished reading the Death in Paradise novel The Killing of Polly Carter, and while it has a nice setup for an impossible crime, there’s really only one possible explanation, and the path of reasoning that takes you there is pretty short, once you’ve worked out why a particular item was moved. So the only way to keep the secret until the end while still being fair was to have the detective repeatedly point out how important that item was, but then refuse to actually think about the ramifications of it all…! Which in the end harms both plot and character.

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    • The idea of there being ‘play’ in the situation to allow exploration in the book is a key one. Drakenfeld by Mark Charan Newton does this appallingly badly – the impossible murder early on can only have been done in one way because it’s so ridiculously impossible, which immediately makes it so uninteresting. A good counter-example here is my buddy Paul Halter’s The Demon of Dartmoor, which gives you a ghost shoving man out a window and doesn’t really explore it greatly but them provideds an abolute kicker of a solution.

      Killing of Polly Carter is an interesting one, because the situation – you’re right – only really has one solution, but I’ll be honest that I was so distracted by how much fun he was having playing on the hoary tropes of the genre (secret passgae, twins, etc) that I sort of forgot to try and solve the mystery. That, and Thorogood’s novel writing is still so hilariously amateur that I was simply racing through it as fast as I could, reading about a third of each page to reduce the pain. For someone who does such good TV writing, he’s a deeply flawed novelist.

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      • “Thorogood’s novel writing is still so hilariously amateur that I was simply racing through it as fast as I could, reading about a third of each page to reduce the pain. For someone who does such good TV writing, he’s a deeply flawed novelist.”

        Good to know! I won’t be wasting my time on these then. Although I haven’t even watched the series, so I might do that instead.

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        • They are, unfortunately, difficult to recommend. His good intentions bode well, but with so much else out there doing your time is currently better spent elsewhere. The show is very good, though — a lot of fun, worth checking out if you get the chance.

          In impossible crime fiction news, I now have Jack Glass! Planning a bit of an impossible crime genre-crossover spree, so watch this space…

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        • With Thorogood, I think it depends if you’re inclined to notice slapdash technique and whether it bothers you once you do. JJ’s right, the writing is often hilariously or infuriatingly amateurish. I just want to be given a day with Thorogood to go through it with him and teach him all the simple ways he could streamline his writing. It really wouldn’t take any longer than that, and it would make the books so much better!

          And because most of my day job involves correcting (or gently suggesting corrections to!) errors for enthusiastic but technically flawed novelists, I don’t really want it to infect my leisure time as well. But then I find it difficult to read And Then There Were None because of how often Christie uses “[Surname] [verb] [bizarre adverb] [colon]” to signal dialogue, so I’m definitely abnormal here! Puzzle Doctor over at Classic Mystery loves Thorogood’s books, for example, and called the latest one “almost flawless”, so the writing style doesn’t bother everyone, and the plots ARE fun and clever. I’d definitely watch the show first, though.

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      • ”I was simply racing through it as fast as I could, reading about a third of each page to reduce the pain.”
        Well, I did the same thing with Death From A Top Hat by Clayton Rawson !

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