#252: Your Favourite Bad Solutions…

Bunny facepalm

In the comments of my post on reality and Golden Age Detective fiction from last Saturday, Harry shared his frustration with the solution to Murder on the Marsh (1930) by John Ferguson — it’s very spoilerific, be warned (though it also sounds terrible, so…) — and I in turn recounted a couple of awful solutions to locked room short stories in sympathy.  Because, let’s face it, we’ve all read some stinkers in our time, haven’t we?

My comment, which relates to the stories ‘Murder in Monkeyland’ (2006) by Lois H. Gresh & Robert Weinberg and ‘Three Blind Rats’ (2006) by Laird Long — both published in The Mammoth Book of Perfect Crimes & Impossible Mysteries (2006) edited by Mike Ashley — runs thus:

Oh, god, you’ve got me thinking back now over what might be my — ahem — favourite awful solution. I think the locked room murder where the method was a tiny remote-controlled miniature fly that was flown into the victim’s nasal passage with some poison on it and then overlooked by the investigators because it was either a) too tiny or b) able to escape the room unobserved when it was opened…or perhaps the “someone who committed a crime was already dead at the time” story where there’s a sort of projection device that is able to perfectly replicate someone else’s face over your own, so they looked like the dead man. Yeah, those were some serious nadirs in this genre (both fairly recent short stories, too, from people who have evidently learned nothing from the hundreds and thousands of brilliant books available to them).

Awful, awful times, I think we can all agree.  Well, today is the Bodies from the Library conference at the British Library, where we shall be discussing a lot of what is great about GAD, and I therefore invite those of you who will be unable to attend to share your favourite bad solutions to crime and mystery novels and stories in the comments below.  C’mon, get it off your chest, you know it’s been bugging you for aaaaages

Suffice to say, spoilers are encouraged, and so to preserve safety just in case — someone might plan on readin’ what you’re spoilin’, after all — I suggest giving the title and author at the very top of your comment and then leaving a line or two before venting your spleen.

Okay, form an orderly queue; who’s first…?

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74 thoughts on “#252: Your Favourite Bad Solutions…

  1. No spoilers in this comment!

    One of my personal favorite solution(s) of the bad variety will probably make you screech in protest, but always loved the series of extraterrestrial-like killings from Mack Reynolds’ The Case of the Little Green Men. You absolutely have a point with your criticism about the ridiculousness of the method used to stage a deadly drop from a flying saucer. However, the book was never meant to be taken too seriously and that has to be taken into account when judging it.

    I should also mention the first bad solution I loved: A.C. Baantjer’s De Cock en danse macabre, which has an eclectic group of collectors dying of heart attacks while wearing Robin Hood-style tights. The solution is as bizarre as it is silly. Still, I didn’t dislike it.

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    • My main problem with CotLGM is that it is superbly written, and the solutions are all garbage — one of them even has the detective (upon seeing a supposedly impossible situation) say “Hmmm, ot sort of looks like such-and-such happened” and, forty pages later, that is exactly how it was done!! It could have been a classic, becasue the situations and the writing are sublime — ugh — if ver abook failed to deliver on the rest of its promise it was this one.

      Still, on the plus side, it has got me reading Reynolds’ SF writings, and they’re a lot of fun….

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  2. I remember thinking the solution (the how) of A Man Lay Dead by Ngaio Marsh was pretty appalling – the whole book is quite poor and if it had been my first experience of the author I feel sure it would have been my last, but that solution in particular really got my back up.

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    • Colin, do you mean the killer’s alibi in particular? Because I agree that’s terrible, though for some reason it has stuck with me–maybe because it was the first “break the cast-iron alibi” book I read.

      Anyway, I completely agree that the whole book is quite poor.

      BTW, has anyone written a very good “murder at a murder game” mystery? For some reason, if someone has, it has slipped my mind.

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      • Yes, that. Mind you, the whole thing (alibi, method and all) left me pretty disgusted. Of course it does take extraordinary chutzpah to even consider writing something lie that.

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      • “BTW, has anyone written a very good “murder at a murder game” mystery?”
        Well, there is one by Agatha Christie, but whether it is very good is a matter of opinion !

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        • Dead Man’s Folly? Yes, I had that in mind when I wrote. A good Christie but not, I think, a great one. Any others that we can think of?

          Besides that, A Man Lay Dead, and EQ’s “The Dead Cat” (which is at more of a Hallowe’en party than a “murder game”), I can’t think of any. Berkeley’s The Second Shot? (I haven’t read it.)

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          • I have a review of The Second Shot hereabouts. It’s an odd book, because you don’t need to read half of it, and that’s made very explicitly clear by the author when you’re reading it. Make of that what you will…

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          • Who can forget “A Murder Is Announced”? That’s a Christie mystery with a ‘murder at a murder game”. In my opinion, it’s one of her best. I agree with what was said about “Dead Man’s Folly”; it’s a good Christie but it’s under-rated and not as praised by fans and critics like AMIA is.

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          • Yes, I suppose so, although I was thinking more of those books (like A Man Lay Dead) where all the suspects are playing a game and the one is killed during it. If that makes any sense. In A Murder is Announced, which is indeed a very good Christie, nobody is really “playing the game” (except–well–you know who), if I remember correctly.

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          • Come to think of it, in Margery Allingham’s The Crime at Black Dudley (1929) the cast are playing what’s essentially a murder game when the fell deed is done. It’s technically her first Campion novel, although he’s merely a peripheral character; I can’t remember if it’s her first novel overall but, like Marsh’s A Man Lay Dead (op cit), it’s surprisingly poor bearing in mind what’s to come.

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          • There is a murder game in Carr’s THE TEN TEACUPS, but it’s oddly placed: it’s a very significant evening in terms of the murder, but the whole crime takes place somewhere else.

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          • What made Dead Man’s Folly so memorable for me was not just the murder game, Ariadne Oliver, or the solution to the mystery but the way the body was disposed of and where it was found. And when the unearthing of the body begins with “the blows of the pick ax”, that’s where the story ends. It ends perfectly. We don’t need a description of the unearthed body or everyone’s reaction as an amateurish writer or one who merely wants to shock would do. It’s not necessary. Christie ends the book on such a chilling note . . . . chilling, but oh, so memorable just like Five Little Pigs does. Anyways, I digress!

            By the way, I hope I got this italicizing thing right. I was trying to italicize the book title. This is my first time doing this.

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          • Great italicizing, Brian! I guess the ending of Dead Man’s Folly is effective, but I found the whole mystery itself tiresomely similar to other, better Christie tales. The “stick figure” aspect of the characters is magnified by the fact that they become the inspiration for Mrs. Oliver’s cliched murder game. The only figure who feels more than a stereotype is Amy Folliat, and it’s hard to forgive her for her actions by the end.

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          • I remember liking Dead Man’s Folly, but I recall very few specifics. Oh, er, wow, I thought I’d have more to say on this subject. Oh, well.

            Superlative use of italics, by the way. A bold new life opens up in front of you…!

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          • Oh, I agree it’s quite a good book, Brian—and a fascinating reworking of some of Christie’s oft-used themes, dating back to the beginning. Not one of my favorites, but still good.

            By the way, speaking of AC’s themes, I saw a superbly clever near-parody of them in Christianna Brand’s Tour de Force, which I only recently finished.

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          • I’d love to hear (well, read) you expand on that parody concept, because it’s not something I picked up on when I read Tour de Force. I can see a lot of similarities, but I’d be very interested to see someone e frame them from a parodic perspective…

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      • I quite enjoyed ‘Murder at the Murder at Mimosa Inn’ by Joan Hess, which came highly recommended by Puzzle Doctor. 🙂

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      • I own — but have not yet read — Norman Berrow’s One Thrilling Night, which is that exact setup. Expect a review in due course. And, if you allow for a generous reframing of the problem, Carr’s The Ten Teacups is sort of a murder game problem…

        But, in answer to the actual question you asked, no, not yet, that I can remember.

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    • the whole book is quite poor

      Too right. To be fair to Marsh, it was her first novel. And the solution was indeed pretty dire.

      I’ve read an essay by her where she describes how it came into being. She was living alone and broke in London, passing the time reading mystery novels because that was cheap, and thought to herself, “I could do as well as some of these people.” So she got herself some paper and sharpened her pencils . . . and the rest is history. In one sense, she was lucky to get it published; in another, she was right: poor as it is, it is still better than some of the others that were around.

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      • Well, at least Ngaio Marsh tried. It sure takes a lot of chutzpah to write a mystery, not only to write one but to finish it! A Man Lay Dead is certainly not the best mystery out there, and of course, not her best, but usually a writer improves with each subsequent book. Marsh certainly wrote better ones than her debut, though as a whole, her writing style takes some getting used to. It did for me and still does, actually.

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        • I couldn’t agree with you more. Although one of the reasons I like Marsh’s work is because of the writing style, which I find full of both compassion and wit. Anyone who can read, say, the first page of Grave Mistake without a chuckle is a sad soul indeed.

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          • Hmmm, I’m going to have to read “Grave Mistake” — especially the first page. It’s one I haven’t read as of yet.

            Also, how do you guys ‘italicize’ a word within a post?

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          • Also, how do you guys ‘italicize’ a word within a post?

            It’s done [i]thus[/i] except that, instead of using square brackets, you use the chevron-like ones (shift-comma and shift-period on the US keyboard).

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    • Hw did perseveing with Marsh work out? I’ve read…some…between five and eight, they sort of run together…and she’s always struck me as perfectly sort of just about fine if you make some allowances. I intend to return to Off with His Head at some point, but and not convinced theyre’ll be much else to tempt me back. So, any overally feelings or recommendations?

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      • I’ve had a similar response, generally readable but lacking what I might call a zest that would hook me.
        I guess I’ve read somewhere around the same number as yourself. I think I started off with Death in Ecstasy and I guess found it good enough to try more. I remember feeling Color Scheme was, while a tad slow in places, was fine and used its setting well. I left her books for a time and then had a really rotten experience with A Man Lay Dead, so much so thatI believed I’d had it with Marsh and wasn’t going to waste my time reading such piffle again.
        Towards the end of last year (probably spurred on by the fact I have a big pile of her books and I hate to feel anything had gotten the better of me) I thought I’d try again. Artists in Crime was my pick and I liked it so immediately followed it up with the seasonal Tied Up in Tinsel, but I reckon that one was trying too hard to be cute and whimsical – I found it arch.
        As it happens I’m in the middle of Scales of Justice as we speak and all I can say right now is: so far, so good.

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        • Well, between us I think we haven’t repeated a single title — no mean feat! I enjoyed Death in a White Tie the most, but she kills the most interesting character and it becomes something of a trudge after that; Death at the Bar was…fine…but murder in a pub feels rather more a case for Sergeant Beef than uptight Alleyn. Overture to Death (I think…) was fairly god, but when the workings are revealed I felt it was something of a cheat to not include a floorplan, since it makes the entire thing rather simple. The others…I don’t really recall enough.

          I figured an impossible crime might help me through the trials of another Marsh at some point, but how son that will be remains to be seen…

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  3. My favorite bad solution comes from a rare mystery called THE BL AND END ALL OF CRIME by Donna Getta Goh.

    In it, a group of classic crime enthusiasts are being bumped off one by one while attending an international symposium on the Golden Age of Detection. Each is killed in the manner of his or her favorite style of mystery. For example, GG, the comic relief, is found strangled in a commode that is locked from the inside. His body rests on a mound of toilet paper, untouched by footprints. The most dramatic murder happens to the elegant Katherine, who is trampled to death by a herd of pygmy goats while scoffing aloud during a workshop on the greatness of MISS PYM DISPOSES.

    Scotland Yard narrows its suspicions on an erudite American, Freeman Bradley, who had professed deep jealousy at not being able to attend the convention. Yet this brilliant fellow remains in California, and the only way it seems he could have committed his clever acts of murderous larceny would be through astral projection.

    The ending is a double bluff. At the climax, the Inspector proves that Mr. Bradley DID commit the murders through astral projection. As the remaining members of the conference light torches and threaten to storm the Yard for imposing a supernatural ending on a classic mystery, Bradley wakes up – yes! it was all a wonderful dream . . .

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  4. Well, JJ, I suppose it depends on what you mean by “favorite.” And by “bad.” (I know, I know–I analyze everything far too much!)

    I’m thinking you’re referring to what may be called “fun-bad” in the movies–Ed Wood-style, where it’s so bad that it’s actually entertaining.

    There are quite a few Van Dine solutions that I like that are probably “bad” (in the sense that they lack fair-play and are kind of pulled out of nowhere); Greene and Bishop come to mind.

    EQ’s solution in Chinese Orange is patently ridiculous (I haven’t yet read American Gun), but it has some great ideas, and it’s quite clever in its absurdity.

    Others? I think HM’s solution to Carr’s He Wouldn’t Kill Patience is just silly, but–again–it has some great ideas. Still, this case is one of the very few where Clayton Rawson was able to beat the Master. (“From Another World” is one of the all-time great locked-room [or, more properly, sealed-room] stories.)

    From the same collection you reference above: “An Almost Perfect Crime” has a wildly technical but also wildly imaginative solution; I find “A Duel of Shadows” ridiculous, but there’s definite cleverness there.

    From TV’s Jonathan Creek: The Judas Tree, where the ideas broke the probability line and kept on running, and The Seer of the Sands, which contained several brilliant elements but ended up with an incoherent mess of a story that failed to convince.

    Then there’s a category that may refer to “badness” because the story doesn’t satisfy from a puzzle-plotting perspective (no “aha!” feeling), in which I’d put a few Christie stories: “The Case of the Missing Lady,” “The Girl in the Train,” “The Arcadian Deer,” some of the Mr. Quin stories, Death Comes as the End, and Ordeal by Innocence. Now, I actually like all of these stories a great deal, but their solutions may not satisfy the reader who’s only looking for that “aha!” sensation. I know there are other examples, not from Christie, but they’re not coming to mind.

    A third category is just the dreck that, for whatever reason, still stays in mind. “Death and the Rope Trick,” also from that collection, is there for me. Others? Hm, I’ll have to get back to you (and I’ve gone on far too long already)…

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    • Duel of Shadows is, in my opinion, a genius piece of short stoy plotting — it’s clever, surprising, uses a series of recognisable situations together in a manner that is unexpected…what ruins it is Mike Ashley’s introduction, which gives away the entire thing. Horrible, horrible editoring on his part there.

      Not yet read He Wouldn’t Kill Patience, but I don’t love ‘From Another World’ as much as everyone else seems to. Rawson’s peak was ‘Off the Face of the Earth’, which is one of the best impossible disappearances ever written. I have recently tracked down HWKP, though, so, as ever, it’ll be reached at some point…

      There’s such a variation in qualitty in Jonathan Creek that at times it can be hard to bear. Personally I hated The Judas Tree, The Grinning Man, and everything since…the most recent episode (Daeomn’s Roost) marks a return to form for some, I know, but that’s mainly on account of how awfully far of the mark the preceding years were. The nadir is probably the disappearing body in The Savant’s Thumb…but, lordy, don’t let’s get me started on that!

      Just read a book that sort of — very sort of, it’s certainly of the same kingdom — used the same trick as ‘Death and the Rope Trick’. Not sure if it does it well or not, and must now spend a few days deciding 🙂

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      • Just wondering, JJ, what exactly is it that you dislike about “From Another World”? I have read “Off the Face of the Earth” and enjoyed it (I’ve enjoyed Rawson’s short stories far more than his novels), but I still find “From Another World” superior, especially in that one trick involving sound. Now, there are some stories and movies that I don’t like that it feels everyone else does, so I know what you mean; I’m just wondering!

        “Death and the Rope Trick” has such a good idea, doesn’t it? Shame about how weak the solution and storytelling are.

        I haven’t seen Daemons’ Roost–as I’m on this side of the Atlantic, I’m at the mercy of PBS or the local library–but I quite liked The Grinning Man. A silly solution, but fun in a pulpy way. Hmm… Maybe I should have put that on instead of The Judas Tree, which wasn’t anywhere as good.

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        • Y’know, it’s difficult to quantify what I don’t like about ‘FAW’; partly the sound trick, partly the thing with the footprints, partly that I never really bought the framing of it…each aspect is just a little off so that the accrued whole somehow doesn’t join up for me. Conversely I really like the assumption you’re drawn into with ‘Off the Face fo the Earth’ — it feels smarter, in the sense that you feel stupider as a reader for being lulled into it.

          There’s a Bill Pronzini story that has a not dissimilar trick to ‘Death and the Rope Trick’ and I like it about as much — should be a very clever idea, but the problems with pulling it off mar my enjoyment. Still, they’re both better than the last inventive impossible crime story I published 😀

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          • One of these days (after I finish working out another solution to the first set-up in The Three Coffins–God only knows when that will be!), I’ll try to find the time to work on an impossible crime story involving the Indian Rope Trick. Now, the magicians Penn and Teller, and several others, have pretty much debunked the idea that the trick was ever actually performed, but I’ve got an old book in which the author actually worked out a solution to the trick-as-usually-written, which I found (a) cleverer than anything in “Death and the Rope Trick” and (b) probably the only way the Indian Rope Trick could actually be performed. // Anyhoo, what’s funny to me is that what you think about “From Another World” is what I think about “Nothing Is Impossible” (now that I think about it, Rawson probably should have reversed those titles)–the one with the alien and the little footprints in the dust. I never found the solution all that clever–though the set-up is excellent.

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          • Aha, well clearly I’m mixing my stories up…but I didn’t especially like either of ’em, so that’s fine. And any discussion on the Indian Rope Trick would be a worthy addition that story — it’s an explanation there that works, but obviously has a lot of problems (and could be displayed in a better way). if you’ve got a way to do it, well, you might just make a fortune…

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  5. I’ll agree with the comment above — Ellery Queen’s “The Chinese Orange Mystery”. Sublime, but ridiculous.
    And if we’re allowing television programmes, Jonathan Creek’s episode called “The Curse of the Bronze Lamp”. Has absolutely nothing in common with Carr’s novel of the same name. Does contain the most audacious example of solution by coincidence EVER. Had it been a book, I would have set fire to it. And along the way, is extremely cruel to a middle-aged female character, apparently for the entire purpose of showing a male corpse’s bare bum and her nearly-bared breasts. Saw this a few weeks ago and I’m still so angry, I may add a TV category to my “Books you should Die before you Read” heading.

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    • Yeah, it’s painfully, deeply awful, and was allowed to be made, I think, pirely because the other two episodes that made up this shortened series were so, so, so, so much worse. ‘The Sinner and the Sandman’ (or something like that) was the preceding episode and is…well, I mean…it really has to be seen to be believed. And not, I hasten to add, in a way that should raise anyone’s hopes.

      But, if it gets you to resurrect 100 Mysteries to Die Before You Read, Noah, it will all have been worth it 🙂

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  6. I’ll go spoiler-free on mine – Seeing is Believing by Carter Dickson.

    I find this to be a fine book and overlooked gem. When people complain about it, it is typically for a “cheat” which I think is completely fair on the author’s part. Instead, I take issue with the solution to what is otherwise an excellent puzzle – a man stabbed by his hypnotized wife using a knife that was plainly shown to be made of rubber just moments earlier. The trick employed is so ridiculous that I can’t imagine it being used outside of a children’s cartoon. In fact, I guarantee that Wiley Coyote and others of the era employed a similar tactic multiple times.

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  7. For just plain bad, bad and bad solutions, EQ’s The Last Woman in his Life.

    But the one that’s stuck in my mind for, now I think of it, almost exactly a full half-century was a novel whose title and author I can no longer remember — beyond that the author’s name was given as merely “Lord Something.”

    His lordship’s plot is of the long and rambling variety (probably a full 100,000 words of it), and it has mercifully escaped my memory altogether. But the device — oh yes! The baddie was able to throw the detective/cops/whoever off the track by taking plastercasts of the scapegoat’s fingertips, then from these making a set of jolly little rubber slip-ons, kind of like thimbles, that he could put on his own hands while perpetrating the heinous deed(s).

    Quite why this wouldn’t work and is daft anyway . . . but I have run out of paper and time, so must leave this exercise to you, good reader.

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  8. AH, I’ve read that anthology. Always wondered why the editor picked stories like that, since the collection had some genuine gems in it.

    My own contributions are the solutions to the locked rooms in episodes 2 and 4 of 33 Minute Detective. Though that might be because I can’t comprehend the sheer brilliance of them. I’m sure that, if you or TomCat were to ever see them, I’m sure that you two would renounce Carr and Halter as overrated hacks with no talent and skill.

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    • Oh, I think that about Carr and Halter already. Shhhh, don’t tell anyone…

      Don’t know The 33 Minute Detective, I’ll have to check it out. If it’s terrible then it’s not worht my time, I’m aware, but curiou=sityhas seized me now.

      As for the Ashley anthology…I think a lot of people offered to write new stories for it (the two I mention above were original for this collection) and he couldn’t really turn them down once they submitted. The first impossible crime anthology in the same series is far better, but at least this second volume brought ‘The Impossible Murder of Doctor Satanus’ and ‘No KIller Has Wings’ to something approaching a wider audience (i.e., me). Two of the finest impossible crimes stories ever written, them.

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  9. The robotic fly up the nose had me laughing out loud. I don’t think I have read anything as bad as that, but I always thought that The Strange Case Of Steinkelwintz by MacKinlay Kantor was pretty disappointing. Particularly as the set up of a piano disappearing from a locked flat is nice idea.

    I read one in a collection this week which actually had the killer hitting the person over the head with a block of ice and then waiting for it to melt. I can’t believe anyone would actually use that, it was like a matchbox riddle. Then they said at the end ‘oh it reminds me of one of those riddles’… bluurgh.

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    • I heard of one today that takes the setup of The Judas Window — two men having a drink, one passes out, wakes up to find his companion shot dead but the door is locked — with the soluton being that the other man drugged the drink and shot himself to frame the first for his murder… And, I mean…well, it’s just too… Y’know, I think I’ll just leave it there.

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