#259: ‘The Yellow Book’ (2017) by Paul Halter [trans. John Pugmire 2017] and Categorising No Footprints Murders…

Of late, I have found myself surrounded by invisible men.  Entirely fictional, of course, but there have been a lot of them: shooting someone in an empty room in You’ll Die Laughing (1945) by Bruce Elliott, disappearing into darkness in I’ll Grind Their Bones (1936) by Theodore Roscoe, vanishing from rooms and beaches in Thursday’s forthcoming Wilders Walk Away by Herbert Brean, performing miracle appearances and disappearances as I reread Rim of the Pit (1944) by Hake Talbot…everywhere I look, people are vanishing.

This came to a head in the current issue of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, which contains a new short story from Paul Halter entitled ‘The Yellow Book’ that happens to be an example of my very favourite vanishing murderer trick: the no footprints problem.  You know the score: someone is killed in a manner that requires their killer to be close to them, but they’re standing on soft or easily-marked ground — snowy, muddy, sandy, freshly painted — and the only footprints in evidence are those of the victim.   There is something about this particular trick that gives me a real kick, and the examples of it in fiction run the gamut from the sublime to ‘The Sands of Thyme’ (1954) by Michael Innes.

EQMM July 2017‘The Yellow Book’ contains a setup as delightfully hoary as it is instantly recognisable and thrilling: a group of people gather to communicate with spirits, only for the spirits to tell them that a murder has been committed.  Halter’s twist on this is then especially delicious: not only is there murder, but it’s being committed at that very moment and by one of the people sat at the table.  Someone takes this seriously enough to investigate and — long story short — a murder is indeed discovered that took place at the time indicated, but the house in which is occurred was locked up and the recent snowfall surrounding the house shows no sign of anyone having entered or left.  It should go without saying, but let’s not risk it, that only the victim is present inside…

Halter is doubling down on my two favourites here — I love a séance, too — and returning to ground that has reaped fertile fruit for him before: The Fourth Door (1987, tr. 1999), The Lord of Misrule (1994, tr. 2006), The Seven Wonders of Crime (1997, tr. 2011), and The Vampire Tree (1996, tr. 2016) are the Halter novels thus far translated by John Pugmire that all offer up their own take on how to kill someone without leaving footprints behind (and there’s one in the short story collection The Night of the Wolf, too) and each solution is as clever as it is distinct.  There’s one particular solution trope in this style of story that has been used time and again — from Agatha Christie’s ‘The Idol House of Astarte’ from The Thirteen Problems (1932) to Edward D. Hoch’s ‘The Man from Nowhere’ (1956) and countless others before, between, and since — that (hang on…checking…checking) Halter has not only avoided but also made seem positively trite by the diversity he’s brought to this type of problem.  If someone stabs me to death without leaving any footprints, I hope it’s anywhere near as creatively achieved.

At this point I started doing the inevitable — that is, compiling a list of the best and worst such examples in the short form — but I’ve decided against that because, well, it’s not like I’m going to recommend anything most of you won’t think of: from the wonderful end of the spectrum represented by ‘No Killer Has Wings’ (1960) by Arthur Porges and ‘The Silver Curtain’ (1940) by Carter Dickson, through the interesting-but-flawed ‘Murder at an Island Mansion’ from The Mysteries of Reverend Dean (2008) by Hal White, all the way down to Innes.  There are people far better placed than I to do this (which, no, hasn’t stopped me in the past), and recommending individual stories still necessitates the buying of a collection or anthology that may not be of interest in quite the same way.

Instead, I wondered if it might be possible to categorise these problems in a manner not unlike (yet legally distinct from) the far broader sweep of locked room murders as Gideon Fell does in The Hollow Man (1935) — a novel that contains, lest we forget, a no footprints murder all of its own.  So, well, here goes…

footprints

Category 1: The victim is killed by the first person to approach or discover them

Through coincidence, connivery, or collaboration, the victim is in fact unaware they are intended to be a victim until they are approach by their killer who kills them and then ‘discovers’ that they have been stabbed, shot, poisoned, or otherwise dispatched with.  This holds equally well whether there are witness on hand or not, and includes victims carrying their killers on their shoulders under the impression they are wounded, or playing a game, or involved in any other chicanery.

Category 2: The victim was killed by an action committed earlier, and dropped dead without anyone realising anything was wrong, giving the impression of an impossible murder

Perhaps a refinement of the above, extending to include the last person to see them before they died as opposed to the first person to approach them ‘after’ their death.

knife_old_style_of_1932_eurofighter_pocket_klappmesser_4249e_kla4249e00001_medium_

Category 3: The victim was killed previously and placed in a position to make it appear their death occurred impossibly

A further refinement of Category 2, but distinct enough to warrant it.  This allows for a dead body to be placed as if it has recently died, and then an impression of life given by chicanery to throw off suspicion, or for the killer to — for example — walk in snow carrying the dead body and escape in such a way as to leave no departing footprints of their own  (via balloon, say), or dump a dead body in seemingly impossible circumstance by firing it out of a canon.

Category 4: There is a means of egress which is overlooked due to careful clewing or misrepresentation

A subcategory of the above.  One example of this had a killer walking on planks between stones on a beach, the stones being close enough together to support the ends of the planks so that no marks were left on the sand; some good examples in this category do also exist, but, well, spoilers…

53819_childcow_md

Also, this happened once.

Category 5: The victim is killed by someone in the vicinity by use of a concealed mechanical projectile

Giving the impression of a sudden stabbing by a ghostly killer, but in fact a knife or other weapon is fired by an air gun, miniature trebuchet, or some other hidden means that enables the act to be committed in full view and perhaps make this appear a Category 1 killing.  If there are no witnesses, this does not have to be a concealed device, of course.

Category 6: It is suicide or an accident, made to appear murder by some coincidence or misrepresentation

The victim may or may not wish their death to appear mysterious, and by accident or design ends up creating an impossible situation.  Not as dissatisfying as it first sounds, as, again, I have read some superb examples that have done exactly this.

~

So, well, what have I missed?  I’ve tried to consider all the possible cases I can bring to mind — novels, short stories, TV — in formulating this list…but inevitably some don’t quite fit perfectly into one or t’other.  I think I’ve got them pretty well covered, however, though you must feel free to disagree!  And, to bring this dithering dithyramb to an end, allow me to share with you the Paul Halter news as announced in the introduction to ‘The Yellow Book’:

Halter EQMM

Alan Twist will return…

~

In the comments below, Ho-Ling mentions (and provides the categories within) the solutions for a no-footprints murder as discussed by the Japanese author Nikaido Reito in his 4000-page epic Family of Vampires.  John Pugmire has very kindly sent on a translation of the table as it appears in that brobdingnagian tome, and you can view it here.

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60 thoughts on “#259: ‘The Yellow Book’ (2017) by Paul Halter [trans. John Pugmire 2017] and Categorising No Footprints Murders…

  1. The Japanese mystery writer Reito NIKAIDŌ came up with this categorization for the (no-)footprints-in-the-snow trope (original text available here: http://nikaidou.a.la9.jp/asiato.htm). Well, technically, it’s not just no footprints.

    1) Obscuring what footprints where coming to and leaving the crime scene.
    a. The circumstances make it look the prints coming are the ones leaving, and vice versa.
    b. Walking backwards on their own footprints to leave the crime scene.

    2) Messing with the footprints.
    a. Making footprints appear like that of something non-human.
    b. Using somebody else’se shoes to leave prints.
    c. Covering footprints already made with new footprints by stepping on them.
    d. Hide footprints among a great number of other footprints
    e. The footprints left are so faint they go unnoticed.

    3) Leaving no footprints.
    a. Approaching the crime scene above ground, for example with a wire or a cable.
    b. Climbing over objects to approach the crime scene w/o anyone noticing.
    c. Erasing footprints after the crime through some way.

    4) Movement of the victim.
    a. The victim was fatally wounded elsewhere, but made it to another place on their own, where they died. This new location is seen as the crime scene.
    b. The victim died elsewhere, but was moved to the location where the body was discovered.

    5) Remaining on the crime scene and leaving after the body has been discovered.

    6) Mistaken time.
    a. The crime was committed earlier than presumed.
    b. The crime was committed later than presumed.

    7) No culprit.
    a. A suicide or accident that appears to be a homicide.
    b. Death by animal that appears to be a homicide.

    8. Remote killer. The murder was committed over a distance, but made to look like a murder committed up close.

    9. Automatic murder.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Well, I’m pretty chuffed that as far as footprints are concerned we seem to agree — thanks for this, I wasn’t under any illusion I was doing something original, and it’s very pleasing to see a consensus on the main ideas. I was racking my brains thinking of as many as I could — Jonathan Creek, Suddenly at His Residence, Monk, etc — to cover all the bases. It’s actually a lot of fun!

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    • Yeah, I think I have a copy of that somewhere, but am yet to read it; I’m not entirely sure how I came to hear it was an impossible crime, and I didn’t even know it was this type of impossibility, so that’s all good news as far as I’m concerned!

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  2. I tried to wreck my brains for any additions to both your list and the one Ho-Ling posted, but could only come up with an addendum to your fifth category: a body is used as a projectile with the victim landing on a patch of snow-covered ground or wet sand bare of any footprints. A method that can be rather silly, however, it has actually been used.

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  3. Great list. The only other thing I could think of, though I think it is a variation on points 3+4 rather than a new category – is where the killer waits for the place in which the footprints are made to change substance. I.e, concrete or paint drying, then walking away after making no prints.

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    • Is…is that something you’ve read somewhere? ‘Cos I don’t see where they’d stand, unless it’s on the body. And how did they get there in the first place? So many questions come out of this, so I’d be intrigued if it’s a solution you’ve come across…

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Thanks for the “footprints in the snow lecture,” JJ! And here I was, just about to put the finishing touches on Geoff Lord’s first impossible crime, which fits into this category! 🙂

    As for “The Yellow Book,” I actually read it right after The Phantom Passage. (My library subscribes to EQMM.)

    Clever little tale, but did you notice the solution’s myriad similarities to one particular solution in The Fourth Door?

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    • Hands up, I have to admit that the precise details of the situation in The Fourth Door are now somewhat hazy in my mind, being several years and many, many books ago. So I’m afraid I’ll have to bow to your greater recall on that one.

      Here’s hoping I don’t embarrass myself on the next Lord story after accidentally revealing every possible form of solution. I mean, that would look pretty bad, wouldn’t it? 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      • Oh, gosh, no worries!

        (To be honest, I think “my” solution for the Lord story is something different–though connected to one of those you mention, to be sure–but I apologize for not describing it until I have the story done, if you don’t mind. 🙂 )

        I’ve got to say, the second murder in The Fourth Door is one of my favorite Halter solutions (along with the first in that book and, now, The Phantom Passage), which is probably why I remembered it…

        Liked by 1 person

        • Hmmm, well f you rate it that highly perhaps I should give it another look; it’s a book that would warrant rereading, especially given how well my experience with Halter has turned out; good to return to the beginnings, like…

          Liked by 1 person

        • I do mean to write down my thoughts on Halter, relatively coherently on my blog, as I’m sure it seems that I’m all over the place, but I was a great fan of the two solutions in The Fourth Door but thought the telling (and writing) very weak, unfortunately. (And that one postmodernistic twist–I’m sure you know what I mean–was completely unnecessary.) Still, purely for ingenuity of solution, the two in The Fourth Door are superb. Whereas, on the other hand, I liked the telling in The Invisible Circle and The Crimson Fog more than the solutions! The Phantom Passage is, as stated, the only one where I liked both elements (telling and puzzle-plot) so far.

          Liked by 1 person

        • The body-swap in The Fourth Door is frank genius. I remember the suggested false solution to the no footprints murder in the house, but the actual one eludes me (unless what I’m remembering is the actual one…hmmm). And, I agree, the writing shows a lack of polish, but thankfully that’s something that has improved (or appear to have, of course — I’m reading him in translation) and his postmodern twists have become more…I don’t know the word…perhaps “integral”?

          The Tiger’s Head has a doozy of a puzzle, and is fiercely satisfying, too. The Seventh Hypothesis, too, though be aware going in that the impossibilities are a minor part of that and it should just be enjoyed for the amazing back-and-forth of a genius piece of plot and counter-plot.

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        • Though I can read French fairly well, I’m also reading Halter in translation–mostly because John Pugmire’s translations are the only copies of Halter’s books to which I have access!

          Does that mean Halter has more postmodern twists? Oh, Lord… (The only authors I’ve read who can do literary postmodernism well are Borges and Calvino.)

          I completely agree on the body swap in The Fourth Door. A grand solution.

          One of these days I’ll have to hunt down The Seventh Hypothesis. I’ve heard it’s a bit like Sleuth, which has always been a favorite of mine…

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        • Well, there’s one more twist of that type in one of the LRI titles…but I think it works very well indeed. Narratively it’s just about spot on, and does that whole feedback loop thing of making the preceding chapters make a lot more sense in a different way. But, well, that’s just my opinion. Others might disagree!

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        • Oh, I’m hoping I haven’t read it and just forgotten. I’ve read (so far) The Night of the Wolf, The Fourth Door, The Crimson Fog, The Invisible Circle, The Demon of Dartmoor, and The Seven Wonders of Crime. (And now The Phantom Passage.) Not to give many hints, but I don’t suppose it’s one of those?

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        • I know which one JJ is talking about. I didn’t like it much, and the meta aspect annoyed me as much as 4th Door. You’ll know it when you see it, trust me!

          Why isn’t Madman’s Room up for order on Amazon yet?

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  5. I’m not sure I should read this too closely! Isn’t this a handy chart to the solutions of all footprint mysteries? Aren’t you giving everything away??? I’m still reeling from reading two locked room novels back to back where in one the stabbed victim turns out to have been shot and in the other the shot victim turns out to have been stabbed. Can’t keep . . . track. Brain . . . . . . explodes . . . . . . . . . . . .

    Liked by 1 person

    • Wellllll, broadly; I’d say this list is less a spoiler for this genus of story than your comment is for the two books you’re talking about 😛 — there’s nothing here beyond generalisations that most people could come up with in five minutes, and definitely nothing like specific plot details (well, okay, that picture of someone riding a cow, but I’ve already warned people off that book — it’s deeply flawed and a complete no-go as a legitimate impossibility).

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  6. Ugh, I just started reading The Problem of the Wire Cage this morning, so I couldn’t allow myself to read past the part where you start listing the categories. I’m sure you’ve approached things appropriately, but I can’t risk seeing through the solution for this or other books I have left to read.

    You can no doubt guess that my favorite footprints mystery is The White Priory Murders. A much less heralded title that deserves more recognition is Carr’s late career historical, The Witch of the Low Tide. If it weren’t for some problems that I have with the ending (detailed in the spoilers section of my review), this could well be one of my favorite titles by the author.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I said that this post was spoiler-ific! Didn’t I say that? I read it with my eyes half closed, Ben, so that I wouldn’t spoil The White Priory Murders when I get to it!

      Liked by 1 person

  7. “The latest Twist novel is The Madman’s Room.”
    Does it mean that it is the next English translation ?
    I have read it in French and found it very good !

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    • I presume it means the next one in English — it was published in French in like 1990, and I doubt EQMM is that out of date… 🙂 Glad it’s a good ‘un!

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        • That is good news! Figured it had to be soon on account of EQMM mentioning it, but nice to have that confirmed; good work, many thanks.

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  8. An excellent post. You are probably already familiar with it, but if not, I can strongly recommend Bob Adey’s Locked Room Murders, which gives 20 potential solutions to cover all mysteries of the locked room type, including but not limited to footprints mysteries.

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  9. I have just read Spiral by Paul Halter. There is a locked room murder which doesn’t fit in any of the 6 categories mentioned by you

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  10. I have finished La Malédiction de Barberousse by Paul Halter. There is a weird and gruesome murder here which does not fall in any of the 6 categories mentioned by you. The solution is a real shocker !

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