#148: So, Like, What Is an Impossible Crime or a Locked Room Mystery?

locked-room

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.

whistle-up-the-devilThe 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.

case-of-the-little-green-menAnd 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.

tumblr_o39dp60r3x1s634cgo1_1280

“Hmmm, two parallel lines in the mud with a pattern of curved imprints between them?  There simply is no explanation…”

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.

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18 thoughts on “#148: So, Like, What Is an Impossible Crime or a Locked Room Mystery?

  1. All good points. While I hardly qualify as an expert on impossible crimes, I think one could easily find several more relatively famous locked-room-puzzles which wouldn’t stand up under scrutiny. Sjöwall&Wahlöö’s “The Locked Room” is one I recall, where the room in question isn’t really a locked room at all (despite the title).

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    • Ha, yeah, gotta love those Swedish anarchists and their refusal to play by even the basic rules. Doubtless they were making some clever point about the oppression of the common working man or something. Which is why I’ll never pick up their dull, unimaginative, lazy, and thoroughly unedifying books ever again. Once bitten, and all that…!

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  2. While I haven’t read What A Body, I agree that Darkness At Pemberley can’t be regarded as an impossible crime story.
    The cartoon at the top titled The Locked Room reminded me of a novel with a similar impossible situation. Here the strangling was done by a trained python !

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  3. YOU’RE WRONG, I TELL, WRONG!!!

    Well… maybe you’re not entirely wrong. My memory on these two titles has muddled a bit, which might mean they will not completely stand up to re-reading, but remember them as a full-fledged locked room/impossible crime novels.

    I recall White’s Darkness at Pemberley struck me as somewhat dated, but still a locked room mystery. I definitely remember Green’s What a Body! being an impossible crime. However, my interest in the book was piqued by a baffling real-life case of a gunshot victim whose clothes were undamaged and wanted to know what a mystery writer could do with that premise. So this might have strengthened the impossible aspect of the plot for me.

    That being sad… YOU’RE STILL WRONG!!! WHAT DOES SOMEONE WHO LIKED RANDALL GARRETT KNOW ABOUT LOCKED ROOMS ANYWAY!!! YOU KNOW NOTHING!!! NOTHING!!!

    P.S. I absolutely loath those two Swedes. They nearly put me off detective stories after my discovery of A.C. Baantjer and Agatha Christie.

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  4. ‘Problematic’ are the stories that only feature an impossible setitng if you accept a certain premise. IIRC, Dickson’s The Judas Window is only an impossible crime/locked room if you accept that the defendant is not the murderer, but in-universe, it’s obviously not seen as one. Queen’s The Chinese Orange Mystery is an enigmatic case of a lot of people having group amnesia or something, because while you’ll see the title appear on some impossible crime lists, it’s only impossible if you accept a certain condition (though in this special case, I’d say calling it an impossible crime is really a crime on its own).

    One of the most memorable everyday life/slice-of-life mystery short stories I’ve read is “How to Make Delicious Chocolate Milk” by Honobu YONEZAWA (not available in translation). The premise is a very cute one: how did a person make two perfect cups of chocolate milk, using a very limited number of kitchenware? The premise is horribly mundane, but it’s presented perfectly as an impossible mystery, as the ‘detectives’ search the whole kitchen and check what was used in detail and can’t figure out how the person managed to follow a certain recipe in that amount of time/with the kitchenware. It helps that the ‘detectives’ are very good at coming up with hypotheses (which are proven wrong), and this story is a great example of how to do a good impossible mystery story with a ‘common’ problem by conveying in an convincing manner to the reader it was indeed a mystery how the ‘crime’ was committed.

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    • That. Sounds. Amazing! We need a translation of this story right now, I tell you, right this very instant!

      The idea of perception in-universe is key, too, isn’t it. Several of Carr’s most famous books are only impossible crimes because we accept the testimony of characters who are later proved to be lying and/or in league with the killer. Judas Window is an interesting example to pick because the first chapter, presenting the problem, is titled something like What Appeared to Happen, setting up that certainty from the reader’s perspective that Answell is innocent…holy cow, you’ve given me so much to think about here…

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  5. To echo Ho Ling, although without mentioning the name of the book again, the locked room mystery that is only locked for one person is the most irritating example to me. There’s at least one other book that I can think of that is touted as a locked room, but all that does is point an arrow to who the killer is…

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    • Yeah, I’m fascinated by this as a concept…I’m sure I’ve read other books which suffered from the same handicap, but now I need to go back and have a good think about them — good chat, guys, many thanks…I have a feeling i shall be returning to this before too long…

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  6. Despite Carr’s reputation as the master of locked rooms, several excellent books by him don’t even involve an impossible crime:
    The Emperor’s Snuff Box (one of my favorite) doesn’t involve an impossibility unless you look at it from the lens of the actual solution.
    The Reader Is Warned also lacks an impossibility, although it is certainly perplexing how the murders are predicted beforehand by someone who could seemingly have had no part, and there is the definite puzzle of how the victims were killed. The first murder takes place in an open enough space that theoretically anything could have happened. The second murder takes place in a location to which the reader knows there is an alternate entrance.
    I also felt a lack of impossibility while reading Fire, Burn! The location of the murder was in a hallway with multiple access points. Perhaps the impossibility lies in the angle at which the victim is struck, but I just felt that there could have been a number of solutions offered at the end.
    Nine Wrong Answers also fits the bill. I suppose the murder at the beginning of the story could be considered impossible, but it feels like a stretch.
    I have no complaints for any of these books. Each was an enjoyable read and there were puzzles of their own. Just not impossible crimes.

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  7. From my vague (and disgruntled) recollections, I would have classified the premise of the first third of ‘Darkness at Pemberley’ as a locked-room murder. But in terms of the significance of the crime for the narrative, and the way the solution was presented, it certainly didn’t seem to matter whether or not it got classified as one.

    I definitely agree that the locked-room scenario is one manifestation of the impossible crime sub-genre. One question I’ve been thinking about ever since watching the first episode of the live-action drama ‘Subete ga F ni Naru’/ ‘The Perfect Insider’ pertains to the purpose of creating a locked-room/ impossible murder. In this particular episode, the detective comments that it would have made more sense for the culprit to leave the back door open as it would have widened the field of suspects. Left as it is, the suspects were invariably restricted to those within the building. I suppose, in the case of ‘Whistle Up the Devil’ and ‘Policeman’s Evidence’, the purpose would have been to convince onlookers that the crime had to be attributed to supernatural agents?

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    • I have read quite a number of Queen-school locked room mysteries, where the crux of the problem lies not in how the locked room was made, but indeed how. I enjoy those a lot more actually, as they can be solved with less mechanical inspiration, and more with logical thinking.

      Oh, and for those interested, the drama of The Perfect Insider can be viewed for free (legally!) at Crunchyroll: http://www.crunchyroll.com/the-perfect-insider-drama . It’s a Japanese mystery series based on a highly popular novel series, featuring quite a few locked rooms. Episode 5 and 6 are based on the titular novel The Perfect Insider, which is one of the best known locked room mysteries from Japan of the 90s.

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        • No (English) translation available of the novel. Both the live-action drama (based on five of the ten books in the series of which The Perfect Insider is the first book), and the anime series (based completely on The Perfect Insider) are available with English subtitles on the above linked Crunchyroll though and can be seen for free w/o registration (the drama adaptation takes two episodes, and is a bit fast; the anime series takes like 12 episodes and is horribly slow).

          The drama series is pretty amusing though as a mystery series (I think it was 10 episodes at about 50 minutes an episode). Like JFW noted, the first two episodes are an interesting locked room murder mystery in a laboratory setting, while the Perfect Insider episodes (5 and 6) are about a locked room trick that was truly revolutionary at the time (though most people probably have a better idea of what it is now due to technology diffusion).

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          • Shall definitely check out the series in due course, but it’s always nice to read the book first! Perhaps if we raise enough interest we can get a translation greenlit — okay, peepes, your starter for ten is: Books We’d Like To Have Tranlsated (And Into What Language)…GO!!

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          • If I recall correctly, some of the shorter stories have already been translated – I purchased some via my Kindle… 😀

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  8. Pingback: But is it a Locked Room Mystery? The case of the impossible alibi. – The Reader Is Warned

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