Recent experiences of reading Darkness at Pemberley by T.H. White and What a Body! by Alan Green — oh my days, I’ve only just noticed that they’re both named after colours… — have made me wonder on the above question. See, both are listed here, on a compendium of the best ever locked room mysteries voted on by an international collection of people who know about this stuff, and both are listed here, on a rundown of the favourite locked room mysteries by resident blogosphere expert TomCat…yet personally, in the face of public opinion from such well-informed and respected sources, I’m reluctant to consider either of them as locked room mysteries. Even taking my famously contrary nature out of the equation…what the hell?
For clarity’s sake, let’s define some terms. The question above includes impossible crimes, and I’ve only used the phrase “locked room mystery”. I suppose technically — and please do call me up on this if you disagree — locked room mysteries are simply a type of impossible crime. It’s in the name, after all: a body is found in a locked room, somehow mysteriously murdered. And not just a locked room — not like the killer just shot them and then left, locking the door with a key on the way out — but locked in a way that means it must be either the person inside who locked themselves in prior to mysteriously perishing, or the killer somehow locked themselves in with their victim and the real mystery is how come the killer isn’t there any more. I’ll even take the room not being locked per se but being inaccessible due to being under constant observation and/or unapproachable without leaving some obvious sign. Difficulty in entry is the key here, and the more impossible the better.
The vanishing of whoever stabbed Roger Querrin in the back in Derek Smith’s Whistle Up the Devil when both doors to the room he was in were locked and watched is a classic example — as is the second murder in that book, whose nature I shan’t reveal because it’s a beaut, but it relies on the same inaccessibility of the victim. Or Clayton Rawson’s first novel featuring the Great Merlini, Death from a Top Hat, wherein several murders are committed each time with the room being provably inaccessible and the killer vanishing without a trace.
But on these grounds, most locked room mysteries aren’t really about the locking of the room or the death of the resident. The killer of Charles Grimaud in The Hollow Man by John Dickson Carr is observed entering Grimaud’s study and locking the two of them in, and the mystery actually comes from how they then exited over a snow-covered garden without leaving a single footprint. Equally the stabbing of Sir Richard WhosesurnameIcan’tremember in Christianna Brand’s The Crooked Wreath is committed by someone who manages to not only stab the miserable old bastard in a room with a dusty floor and leave nary a mark thereon but also approaches the cottage to commit the killing without leaving a footprint or vault-mark on the sanded paths that provide access. So in fact the locked room is simply the dressing that makes the story about the impossibility of the approach or egress, becoming impossible vanishing stories, or something similar.
And so the field widens to become “impossible crimes”: the vanishing sword from the impossible-to-open cabinet (in an easily accessible room) of The Bishop’s Sword by Norman Berrow, the repeated disappearances of the killer in The Crimson Fog by Paul Halter when hemmed in on all sides, the rapidly-decaying body in The Hangman’s Handyman by Hake Talbot which degrades by significantly more than a few hours overnight, the body crushed as if fallen from a great height when the tallest structure in the surrounding area is a one-storey summer-house in The Case of the Little Green Men by Mack Reynolds…anything where the immediate situation would on the face of it not be attainable and has clearly been attained qualifies now. So “locked room mystery” and “impossible crime” aren’t really interchangeable, but hey can be used to refer to the same principle (this is part of the reason I tag all my impossible crime posts with “Impossible Crimes”, because I’m not too bothered about the splitting of hairs, though others are — to their immense credit — more particular about this than I).
To be honest, had I not read Mr. White and Mr. Green so proximally to each other, I’d probably let each of them go on a technicality. I suppose I’m just curious why so many people are happy to welcome them into a party for which I feel convinced they are not suitably attired.
Taking the White first: as I said in my review, it’s almost an impossible crime, but the way it’s presented precludes this. It’s shown that the door can be easily unlocked (and therefore, we assume, locked) from the outside, so there’s no mystery there, and the presentation of the murder is done in such a way that it could be used to underscore an apparent impossibility but instead the policeman of the piece simply dives at the first suspect and they happen to be guilty and admit it. Yes, I know, there’s a bit with a contraption that does a thing, but it’s never used in the way that provides a necessary alibi — it’s simply there, never referred to again, and doesn’t point at the guilty person when unpicked anyway.
The Green is more culpable because it spins an impossibility and a mystery where there is none. A certain amount of the difficulty spins from the fact that not even for a second does it occur to anyone that it’s possible to lift up the bottom of a pyjama jacket, place a gun against the wearer’s skin, and shoot them. A huge amount of time goes into the question “How on earth could anyone be shot without the bullet going through his pyjamas?”. It’s very simple: he can’t. It’s not like he was shot while inside a locked steel coffin, or through a body stocking which could not be easily rearranged to put blank flesh on display. An assumption is then additionally made — and backed up, it must be said, with a clever piece of false secondary reasoning — that there’s an additional impossible element to the shooting based on the shooter’s location: namely, they’d have to be standing on the surface of a swimming pool down below, or shooting from under the surface (though the second possibility merely makes this bloody unlikely).
Again, there is a really, really simple alternate case that isn’t even mentioned because — quelle surprise — that turns out to be the answer. But no-one ever floats it as a suggestion, not even once, and not even when the “shooting while walking on water” clearly doesn’t tally with the physical facts of the murder. Now, I’m sorry: failing to look at the simple evidence in front of you and therefore concocting an impossible shooting on two fronts grossly ignorant fronts (the Undamaged Pyjama Mystery and the Jesus-as-Shooter Mystery) does not make this impossible.
As a comparison, consider G.K. Chesterton’s story ‘The Invisible Man’. As you may be aware, I loathe this with a passion because it does a similar thing: posits an impossible situation — no-one goes past a man stationed in a corridor outside a room in which there is a dead body, or possibly a live body, I forget, but there’s a person in a room and the room is being observed and when the door is opened the person is no longer there — and then resolves it by revealing that a key thing hasn’t been considered — namely [CUE SPOILERS] the postman went past the sentry, but he didn’t think the postman counted [END SPOILERS]. It ignores simple physical evidence — the simplest, in fact, though people will tell you that Chesterton is making a clever point (he isn’t, it’s a singularly frustrating reading experience) — and so concocts a mystery out of nothing.
Imagine if in Murder on the Orient Express [CUE MILD SPOILERS] Poirot looked at the different depth of knife wounds in Charles Ratchett’s body and concluded that the killer just stabbed him in a variety of ways for reasons that will never be uncovered [END SPOILERS]. It’s floated as an idea, I seem to remember, but then rightly dismissed, or at least considered alongside other ideas that could also explain the situation. And this sort of thing not being done isn’t even a case of you, the reader, being clever and spotting some well-laid clue, it’s simply the characters being poorly-written, the mechanics of a crime being poorly-disguised, or a situation being poorly-conceived.
As I have said before, detective fiction mostly comes down to identity or location, and if you’re going to play the game then you need to obfuscate appropriately but also deal with that obfuscation intelligently. Reaching for the first and most visible (that is, having been experienced by the largest proportion of poeple likely to read this) example, let’s go with the stabbing in the locked shower comparment from the second episode of the third series of Sherlock, ‘The Sign of Three’. As the situation is prevented, a guardsman is found dead in his shower having been stabbed in the back but his body is accessible from outside the compartment and there’s no sign of the weapon. Clearly he can’t have been stabbed while in there, so must have been stabbed before…but no-one was seen near him immediately before, and he’d been walking around as normal beforehand and clearly made it into the shower under his own steam (hmmm, just realised that’s a pun of sorts). Bam: instant bafflement. Your options are covered, so further investigation is needed. This is what Green doesn’t do, and why it doesn’t qualify for me.
Detective fiction is, without a doubt, the most demanding genre in which to write, and the rigours demanded by impossible crimes ratchet this up even higher. I don’t wish to come across as having a complete downer on these books — read my reviews, they each do something very well that is to be celebrated — but I’m keen to preserve the authenticity of what we mean when we talk about this very specialised subset of a very specialised niche. But, hey, feel free to tell me that I’m wrong…!
I submit the Prologue Books cover of The Case of the Little Green Men above for the Golden Age Vintage Cover Scavenger Hunt at My Reader’s Block under the category Magnifying Glass.