2018-03-02

Death Locked In (ed. Douglas G. Green & Robert Adey)

The editors of this anthology are two of the most well-versed people in the impossible mystery genre. (In the case of Adey, unfortunately it's now "were", as he sadly passed away in 2015.) Both men were also on the panel of experts who chose the fifteen most important impossible mystery novels in the preface of the last volume discussed here on the blog, "All But Impossible".

Otherwise, Douglas G. Greene is probably most known as our foremost expert on John Dickson Carr, having written a wonderful biography of the man, and also as the man responsible for the publishers Crippen & Landru, many of whose collections have already been discussed here.

As for Robert Adey, he wrote the single most important book about the impossible mystery genre, "Locked Room Murders". In it, he lists every impossible mystery he'd come across throughout his long career as mystery aficionado, also providing a description of the impossible situation as well as a reveal of the solution. (This latter part is in a different section of the book, so you don't have to worry that you'll read it by accident.)

So, anything these two men could collect in an anthology should be great, no? Let's see.


Lillian de la Torre - "The First Locked Room"

This doesn't feature de la Torre's main detective, Dr. Sam: Johnson. But since this is a fictional version of a 1733 murder, the connection to the real world is still there. Three women were found dead in their locked and shut room, and one of the women who were around when they were discovered is accused of the crime.

The solution is fairly easy to see through, and again I'm fairly bored with all of these 18th century people with their particular hypocrisies and prejudices. So, not something I'm particularly impressed with.

Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu - "Passage in the Secret History of an Irish Countess"

If Poe's "Murders in the Rue Morgue" has a rival for "first impossible mystery story", it's this story. Written as an epistolary story, it recounts a young woman's adventures living in her relatives' house when she has to stay in the room where a man previously died under mysterious circumstances. But since the room was locked and sealed, no one could prove that it was murder.

Unlike Poe's story, this is not a detective story per se - there's no one around who investigates the crime. Instead, the young woman protagonist just happens upon the solution to the impossibility. I've already talked about my disdain with the whole melodrama of these olden tales, and this unfortunately colours my perception of this story as well. The solution is fairly obvious, and it doesn't help that the story's quite long as well. I'm not having a good start to this anthology.

Ngaio Marsh - "I Can Find My Way Out"

A young script writer is having his first play set up in a theatre, but unfortunately, during the premiere, between two acts, one of the leading actors is found dead in his dressing room, killed by gas.

I might be the last defender of Marsh around these parts, because I quite enjoy her writing. This is probably her only venture into the impossible mystery genre (and one of only three short stories she wrote with her main detective, Roderick Alleyn). I thought this was pretty good. though it's also obvious that Marsh is a bit out of her element in this genre. The solution is a bit technical, but workable.

L. Frank Baum - "The Suicide of Kiaros"

The author of the stories about Oz provided us with an inverted murder mystery where a cashier kills a moneylender and then proceeds to make it into a locked room murder.

In contrast to Adrian over on Mysteries Ahoy!, I'm not overly fond of inverted mysteries. I like my murderer to be unknown and hidden, thank you very much. It's even more annoying when the impossible situation is described at the same time as when the murder takes place, because that means that the surprise of the explanation is also removed from the story. I'm not having much fun with the stories here yet, have I?

Fredric Brown - "The Spherical Ghoul"

Brown is one of the more outré authors out there, whatever genre he's trying his hands at. A man is working as a nightwatchman at a morgue, and at some point during the night, something seems to have gnawed away at one of the corpses. Since the room where it lay was locked, could it have been something else than the titular creepy crawly?

I'm not too sure what to make of this story, because the whole setting is wonderful and the impossibility is very, very nice, but the solution is such a letdown. I wonder if Brown was just having a bit of a joke here.

 Thomas Bailey Aldrich - "Out of His Head"

A man tells us the story of a young woman he admired from a distance and the two suitors she had. And how she died from a cut throat in a locked and sealed room.

This has some of the makings of a really good story. The impossibility is quite good, and the whole unreliable narrator thing does work to keep the reader off balance throughout the story. There's only two possible murderers, though, and as I saw through the misdirection as to which one of them was the villain, I felt a bit disappointed.

M. McDonnell Bodkin - "Murder by Proxy"

Squire Neville has been killed in his house. One of his nephews is found with the gun in his hand just after the murder, and the garden window was watched by the other nephew and the gardener.

So, the killer is super obvious. Really. 100% of all readers will know who it is. Especially since this is called an impossible mystery - it wouldn't be an impossible mystery if the killer wasn't that particular character. This is one story that would have been better off not being assigned to this genre, because it reveals too much. The solution to the impossibility is okay-ish. Very similar to a certain story by Melville Davisson Post, though I'm not wholly sure whose story came first.

Peter Godfrey - "Out of This World"

Already discussed in this post (as the rewritten version "The Flung-Back Lid").

M. M. B. - "The Mystery of the Hotel de l'Orme"

A young woman is accused of having killed her benefactress after she finds her murdered by suffocation, and her suitor must now find out who could be the real murderer.

The solution here is not particularly hard to guess once a certain fact becomes available. I guess that's why it wasn't revealed until very late in the story. Otherwise it's much of the same - there are so many 19th century stories so far that I'm just having a very hard time enjoying myself.


Edward D. Hoch - "The Magic Bullet"

Diplomat and secret service man Harry Ponder has to investigate when the US ambassador to a small Central American country is killed by a gunshot while driving his car on a bridge in full view of everyone. To make matters worse, there's no gun in the car, nor a bullet hole in the windows...

Ed Hoch to the rescue! This is so good. A terrific impossibility and not a 19th century word in sight. I'm very impressed with the whole story.

Wilkie Collins - "A Terribly Strange Bed"

A man has some good luck in a gambling house and is convinced to not go home that night because he's too inebriated and might be robbed. Instead he is offered a bed on the upper floor of the gambling house. Not being too stupid, he locks himself in as securely as possible, and yet there is an attempt at his life at night...

I don't want to harp on too much, because you already know my feelings. It doesn't help that this is more or less an inverted mystery - to be more exact, everything takes place in real time, similar to Le Fanu's story earlier. So there's no real mystery here either.

Cornell Woolrich - "The Room with Something Wrong"

A hotel detective becomes suspicious when year after year people who check into room 913 die by jumping out of the window.

Another great story. It's more or less of novella length, so we get a whole bunch of background describing the different people who check into the room over the years. Okay, the solution is a bit... well, I'm not sure people would actually behave the way they do just because the murderer did his things. But Woolrich builds up to the whole reveal so satisfyingly, so excitingly that that feels like a minor quibble.

John Dickson Carr - "Invisible Hands"

Already discussed in this post (under its original title "King Arthur's Chair").

Joseph Commings - "The X Street Murders"

Already discussed in this post.

Nicholas Carter - "The Mystery of Room No. 11"

A young man follows his mother into a dingy old house, but when he searches it she is nowhere to be found.

The whole story is based on a Sherlock Holmes story, and the explanation is not particularly good.

L. T. Meade & Robert Eustace - "The Man Who Disappeared"

A British lawyer is asked to provide a house to a Spanish lady, her brother and her daughter. He is warned by the daughter not to let his friend Oscar Digby go and visit them, but of course he does. And as the title indicates, he disappears without a trace.

Meade & Eustace were quite prolific impossible mystery writers, but this is not the best solution I've ever encountered, and one that would never work in modern times with all our scientific advances.

G. K. Chesterton - "The Invisible Man"

Two rivals for a woman's affection are deadly enemies, and one of them disappears from a house that was watched by several persons. Yet no one saw anyone enter or come out.

This is Chesterton's most famous story, and it's got a fairly ludicrous solution which is a variant of Poe's "Purloined Letter" trick. And it's a complete cheat, because it would never work in reality.

Ellery Queen - "The Man Who Could Double the Size of Diamonds"

A radio script, not a short story, so I'll forgo discussing it. Maybe I'll put up posts discussing Queen's and Carr's scripts some time in the future. (Quite a good tale, though.)

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle - "The Mystery of the Lost Special"

Already discussed in this post.

Clayton Rawson - "Off the Face of the Earth"

Already discussed in this post.

May Futrelle & Jacques Futrelle - "The Grinning God/The House That Was"

A man who is in a mental institution explains the circumstances that put him there. He was driving alone one stormy night and ended up in an old house where an old man livesd But every time the man tried to make himself known to the old man, the latter just went on with his business without acknowledging him.

The first part is pure melodrama. I mean, who ends up in a mental institution just from such an experience? Still, Jacques Futrelle (who wrote the second half explaining the whole situation) makes quite a good job of it. It kinda helps that there's only one possible solution (that everyone, including mr man in the mental institution, should have at least guessed at). On the whole, this is not particularly good, but kudos to Jacques Futrelle for making something out of it.

Bill Pronzini - "Thin Air"

The Nameless detective is tailing a man whose wife has accused him of having a mistress. After following him the whole evening, the man drives into an abandoned parking lot. Nameless watches the car the entire night, but when he later approaches it, the man is nowhere to be seen. And then he turns up dead in a wholly different place a few hours later.

Another great story. The whole impossible situation is fantastic and Pronzini works wonders in explaining how it worked.

Anthony Boucher - "Elsewhen"

A man can travel through time and uses this ability to kill his cousin so he can come into an inheritance.

So, not really an impossible crime since time travel is possible. (This is stated outright in the story, so that's not a spoiler.) I generally like Fergus O'Breen better in the novels where he solves real world mysteries. But a fun story when I'm in the right mood.

Conclusion

How to summarise this, then? Well, considering the editors' pedigree I have to say that on the whole I was quite disappointed with this anthology. There are very few great stories here, and most of them are available elsewhere.

However, it must be said that the selections are very carefully made to provide the reader with several lesser known stories of the impossible variety, and some of them are true cornerstones of the genre. Therefore, the anthology is still invaluable to all lovers of impossible mysteries. And if you're not as impatient with 19th century prose as I am, then you'll probably have a better time than I did.

What to include in my project? Well, if we only look at the stories that are unique to this anthology, then I'll go with Hoch's, Pronzini's and Woolrich's stories. I might include Marsh's as well, depending on the mood I'm in when I make the final selection.

2 comments:

  1. "Ed Hoch to the rescue!"

    You could always count on Hoch to deliver one of the better stories in an anthology!

    I have to agree with you that the selection of stories here is uneven in quality, but still invaluable to the locked room reader. Even more so at the time it was first published. Back then, most of these stories weren't as easily available to readers as they're today. Now you can simply grab the oldest ones, like "The Suicide of Kiaros," from the internet.

    By the way, I loved "The Spherical Ghoul" and "The Room With Something Wrong."

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    1. Yeah, Hoch and Pronzini are my go-to guys now.

      And at least I loved "The Room With Something Wrong"!

      Brown's story was great until the final pages. I just think the solution is such a cop-out. Or as I said, Brown might've just had a bit of a joke.

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