As discussed previously, Tuesdays here on The Invisible Event will now pursue a particular theme each month, and throughout October I shall be looking at the new, multi-national short story collection The Realm of the Impossible (2017) from Locked Room International.
In stark contrast to other recent impossible crime collections this is pretty damn impressive in its scope: 26 stories from 20 countries, a lot of them appearing here in English for the first time or reprinted from the vaults where they have lingered forgotten for many a decade. In addition, we also have 12 brief retellings of real life impossibilities from a range of countries and historical ages, from mysteriously-moving coffins to a classic impossible hanging, sometimes resolved and sometimes left unsolved. We should take a moment to be extremely grateful for the work editors John Pugmire and Brian Skupin have done in getting this out — the logistics of this undertaking are phenomenal, and they’ve clearly put in more than a few metric tons of work to bring us something far from the ordinary.
I shall be tackling this by approximate grouping of countries each week. Not only will this help give me a bit of a focus in how to approach the reading of this collection, it might also tease out some similarities and differences where different nationalities are involved. And, besides, Otto Penzler already did the “grouping by impossibility type” thing in the superbly comprehensive The Black Lizard Book of Locked Room Mysteries (2014), and so this will hopefully prove to be legally distinct from that approach.
So, here we go…
Week 1: The United Kingdom and Ireland
By pure coincidence, then, I start with two of the titans of Golden Age detective fiction.
First up — and republished here for the first time since its original appearance — is ‘Cyanide in the Sun’ (1958) by Christianna Brand, with its none-more-English setting of a seaside guest-house in holiday season and the slight complication of a series of seemingly random murders being committed in the vicinity over the preceding months. Brand has, of course, a wonderful way with character and mood, and gives us gem after gem along the lines of
Her white, peevish face — powdered whiter than ever to attract sympathy for her purely imaginary ailments — was more peevish than ever.
When one of the guests at the above-mentioned establishment is poisoned in seemingly impossible circumstances we get a near-textbook exercise in how to increase stakes and suspicion without compromising on plot. That more than a few character strands are left incomplete is actually a huge part of the charm, and it’s a suitably clever piece of authorly brinkmanship that sees the scheme revealed and justice done. How this took so long to be anthologised is beyond me; it’s a great little story, and Brand is hardly an unknown…but, well, we have it now, and that’s what really matters.
Next is ‘The Mystery of the Sleeping-Car Express’ (1921) by my new best friend Freeman Wills Crofts. The setup here is the sort of gold we long for — two people shot on a train in circumstances that make it impossible for anyone else to be guilty and suicide excepted on account of a missing gun — added to the thoroughness we’ve come to expect from Crofts. His exploration of possible solutions, all relayed in conversation rather than the doing (as in “We also did this…but it’s no good as an explanation because…”) is impressively entertaining and comprehensive, and the situation is sewn up perfectly, completely stumping the nameless investigators.
The difficulty for me is that the solution requires a very precise knowledge of the workings of early 20th century trains that I don’t possess…and I can’t believe too many other people around today do, either. You’ll all prove me wrong by pointing out the basic thing I missed, I’m sure, but I read the explanation three times and am clearly missing something. It sounds clever, that’s for sure, but this is more notable for its casual division of the British people into their respective ‘class’ compartments and the (honestly very interesting) workings of the train’s safety brake than the final revelation. Still, it was his first ever short story, and it’s not like he didn’t improve from here.
Thirdly from these shores, and continuing the British obsession with railways and their workings, is ‘Sir Gilbert Murrell’s Picture’ (1905) from the pen of Victor L. Whitechurch, in which a carriage vanishes from a train mid-journey. This being an early take on the genre, I personally feel it’s told the wrong way round — you’ll see what I mean when you read it — but there’s enough material here for the curious. The solution becomes clear as you go, mainly because there only seems to be one answer to all of it, but the fascinating realisation of, say, the ignorance of key physical evidence on behalf of the police, or the manner in which a caller can be trusted to represent who they say they do, is a window on another time completely.
In contrast to the Crofts, there’s also technical information here that can be deduced from context even when not immediately obvious (aah, to feel smug because you’re paying attention…). Interestingly, too, what both these stories do share is a lack of actual detection when it comes to the method: here as there we have the guilty party confessing the workings of their plot, and a moment of frank and brilliant trust from our villain in the detective which I’m still at a loss to explain. So the whole thing works as a look at post-Victorian attitudes as well as a fun take on a problem that it’d be interesting to see updated. And it has the distinction of the most incongruous final line of probably any short story ever.
Oh, wait, I’ve just remembered that this idea was updated in an episode of Sherlock and it was terrible. This is a much better take on the problem, and maybe this is the ideal age in which to deploy it.
Finally for this week, there’s ‘The Warder of the Door’ (1897) by famed duo L.T. Meade and Robert Eustace, a good old “family curse” story in which the impossbility turned out not to be at all what I was expecting: when the elderly patriarch dreams the location of a much-cursed tomb I imagined the nature of this dream would be the miracle exploded…but, not to be. Instead we get the eponymous ghostly warder determined to trap our protagonists inside and the dream is left unexplained. However, there is a lovely moment of confounded logic when — as with all the best curse stories — the precise wording comes under scrutiny…and, well, I’ll leave the payoff of that little adventure to you.
Meade and Eustace wrote some very atmospheric tales that have aged far better than Poe’s and should probably be more widely recognised, and this is one of them. It is 120 years old, lest we forget, and while you can guess and the eventual direction, it and the others of theirs I have read show a degree of invention and innovation that the genre was lucky to have at this early stage. They remind me of a more readable Maurice Leblanc, all gloomy atmosphere and weird conversational shifts but with rather more fun at the back of what they’re doing. This, along with ‘The Mystery of the Circular Chamber’ that was included in Ye Olde Book of Locked Room Conundrums, will hopefully convince many others to investigate their work post-haste.
So, what do we learn about the UK from these stories? Well, there’s a firm tradition of class-separation evident in the earlier three stories that has well and truly passed in time for Brand’s more grounded tale. Where in one story an aristocrat is responsible for a crime he is shielded for no better reason than his position (or so it seems), whereas Brand brings the milieu down to a more relatable and more even field. Maybe there’s more, and I’m sure someone less close to the attitudes exhibited here — I have spent my entire life surrounded by this, and it’s casting in such historical terms has formed a significant majority of my reading over the last 7 or 8 years — would pick out something more telling, but, well, I’m new to this insight lark and will hopefully have more to say as the settings and cultures become less familiar to me.
Next week: mainland Europe, with stories from Portugal, France, Italy, Greece, the Czech Republic, Germany, Finland, and Sweden. Yeesh, I better get reading…!