2018-03-13

The Realm of the Impossible (ed. John Pugmire & Brian Skupin)

John Pugmire might be best known as the man behind Locked Room International (LRI) a publishing house that started as a way of translating and publishing impossible mysteries by Paul Halter, but has lately branched out to other authors, first only from France, but lately from other countries as well. And Brian Skupin is one of the publishers behind Mystery Scene Magazine, one of the most award winning mystery magazines around.

Together, they've gathered a bunch of generally never before collected impossible mystery stories in this volume (there's just a handful that I have seen elsewhere). A couple of the stories are specially written for this collection, and there are many stories from the non English-speaking world.

But not only that, they also add a number of descriptions real world instances of impossible crimes, some solved, some unsolved. I guess they could be seen as a bit of a gimmick, but a couple of them are quite interesting.

Pet peeve rant time: I always get annoyed by the way we (by "we" I mean the "Western world", for lack of a better term) handle the naming customs of the Far East. I know that the custom there is to present the family name first and the "Christian name" last. But why we have to follow that custom, I don't really know. Especially since we don't do that with Hungarian names, even though they have the same custom.

But what's even more annoying is when it's handled in different ways in different stories of the same anthology. And that's unfortunately the case with this anthology, where the Taiwanese story (by Szu-Yen Lin) and the second and final Japanese story (by Soji Shimada) is handled the way I like it - "Christian name" first, family name last - but the first Japanese story (by Rintarō Norizuki) does it the other way round - family name first, "Christian name" last. Yet, note that the name of the author in question is presented the Western way. Big sigh.



Paul Halter - Jacob's Ladder

Dr. Twist is told about a case where one of three brothers is killed by a fall from a great height. However, there's no mountains or anything similar for several miles around, so how did he die?

A clever story with a elegant and simple solution. As usual, I find that Halter works best in the shorter format.

Christianna Brand - Cyanide in the Sun

A serial killer is at work in a British seaside resort. And one day, one of the guests at a guesthouse is killed by eating a sandwich that was prepared by all the other guests who all were in sight of each other the entire time.

Another really good tale with a great impossibility and solution to start off this anthology. This is a lesser known story by Brand so it's extra great that Pugmire&Skupin have rescued it from obscurity.

Ulf Durling - Windfall

An old baron is found dead, lying under an apple tree, supposedly from natural causes.

I found this harder to enjoy. Durling's writing style takes some getting used to - everything is obscured and nothing is told straightforwardly - and I thought this made it hard to actually realise what the impossibility was. In fact, I didn't understand it until I was told the solution. So not the best story I've ever read.

Joseph Škvorecký - The Case of the Horizontal Trajectory

An old woman is killed in her locked room with a dagger-like object through the eye. The door is locked, though the window was open.

I wasn't completely enamoured with this tale either. The police detective of the story was a bit hard to take, and as with the Durling story I thought the writing style was a bit difficult. The solution to the impossibility was pretty good though. A fun ending.

Freeman Wills Crofts - The Mystery of the Sleeping-Car Express

A man and a woman are found killed in their compartment. It's soon shown that their only fellow passenger in the compartment, a young woman, couldn't have committed the murder.

This is one of Crofts's most well-known stories, even though it doesn't feature Inspector French. The impossibility is fine, as is the solution.

Mary Fortune - Dead Man in the Scrub

Set in the Australian bush, a man is found dead inside a tent. He's been lying there a long time, but there is no obvious entrance that the killer could have used.

Nothing much is made of the impossibility, since the author chose to put the focus elsewhere, and to be honest it's not fantastic either. Any investigator worth his salt should have noticed how it worked.

Melville Davisson Post - The Hidden Law

Uncle Abner investigates the case where an old prospector is hearing strange noises inside his locked cabin during the night. Somehow some of his gold has disappeared...

Okay, this is just stupid. When I was young, I read a Donald Duck/Uncle Scrooge story with the same solution, and even then I realised how stupid it was.

Alexandre Dumas - House Call

A young woman has been abducted from her boarding school, even though her room was locked from the inside.

The impossibility here wasn't the greatest, but to my surprise I quite enjoyed Dumas's writing. Is it possible that what it takes for me to enjoy a story from the 1700s or the 1800s is that it should actually be written by a person from that century?

Jorge Luis Borges & Adolfo Bioy Casares - The Twelve Figures of the World

A man recounts the story of when he was invited to a secret society and asked to perform an initiation rite. During that rite, one of the members is killed and then the house is burned down.

The impossibility is good and the solution is fine as well, but for some reason I didn't really enjoy this story. I think it's possibly the way Borges & Casares write the story, and there's some casual xenophobia towards the end that stuck out to me as well.

Herodotus - Rhampsinitos and the Thief

A thief manages to enter the king's chamber and steals some of his riches without leaving any traces of how he entered.

This is an old legend from Egypt, and can be said to be one of the first stories with an underlying impossible mystery. But since this is not a mystery, there is no particular focus on that bit. An interesting read, nevertheless.

Poul Anderson - Martian Crown Jewels

Previously discussed in this post.

Dudley Hoys - Leaving No Evidence

An American tourist in Lebanon is told by his guide how people vanish on a certain stretch of road. And when they too venture out on the road their companions disappear, one after another...

This isn't really a mystery either, but rather something similar to horror. I don't know if the impossibility really would have worked, but it's still a pretty fun explanation.

Sharadindu Bandyopadhyay - The Venom of the Tarantula

Somehow, a man who is immobile and constantly under watch from his family is still receiving drugs from somewhere.

I thought the solution here was fairly easy to see through. Perhaps one of the drawbacks when you make a room too well locked - there's generally just one way to penetrate it then... An okay read, nothing more.

Victor L. Whitechurch - Sir Gilbert Murrell's Picture

An entire train waggon - sitting in the middle of the train - containing certain pieces of art disappears while the train is on the way between two stations.Though it is quickly found, the paintings are no longer present.

This is a great impossibility with a perfect solution that I definitely didn't see through. I wish Whitechurch had done a bit more with it, because that bit's really just a short part of the whole story. Still, a very good read.

Szu-Yen Lin - The Miracle on Christmas Eve

A young boy believes in Santa Claus and all the Christmas trappings, and gets some flak from his classmates about it. So his father invite them all into their house before Christmas - he has promised to prove Santa Claus's existence. He says he will leave them presents inside a closed and locked room, while they are sleeping outside the door.

This is not a mystery (well, it's not a crime, at least), but it's the awesomest, bestest story of them all. This may have something to do with the sentimental streak in me, but this was enormously affecting to me. And of course it's no drawback that the impossible situation is wonderful, with an equally wonderful solution.

Aleksis Kivi - Seven Brothers

In the snow, the footprints of a man come to a sudden stop and instead the tracks of a fox are visible.

Being an extract from a much longer tale, this is just a short vignette, and not a mystery story either. Clever, though being what it is there's no chance of fair clueing or anything of that sort.

Afonso Carreiro - Lying Dead and Turning Cold

A group of people are gathered in a country house a snowy winter evening. They hear a shriek or a howl outside, and one of them exits the house. The others soon follow him and when they reach him he is unconscious just beside the corpse of a man, with no other footprints leading to the dead man but those of the unconscious man.

Now, there's some beautiful misdirection by Carreiro in this story. Otherwise, the impossibility isn't all that hard to solve, but Carreiro hides it quite well. In all, a fine story.

Edward D. Hoch - The "Impossible" Impossible Crime

Two men are on an expedition alone in northern Canada. They live in a cabin in the woods with snow surrounding them everywhere. One morning, one of them finds the other sitting by the breakfast table, shot from a distance. But the windows were all opaque because of the snow and frost.

As usual with Hoch, this is a clever setup. There's really not much question of who the culprit is, but Hoch manages with some sleight of hand to hide the solution as well as he possibly can.

Elizabeth Peters - The Locked Tomb Mystery

In Pharaonic Egypt, an old woman has died and has been interred in a mountain chamber. The following year, a priest and her son find that her tomb has been robbed.

The impossibility is very good, but the solution is rather obvious, I'd have to say. Or at least the culprit. The exact workings of the impossibility is quite involved, perhaps a tad too involved.

Samuel W. Taylor - Deadfall

Two men are together in a cabin at winter. One of them has injured his leg, and the other is not savvy enough to find the way back to their car. So they are stuck together, and when one of them finds footprints in the snow, leaving the cabin but never returning, tensions start to fray...

A very clever little story. It's interesting to compare this with Hoch's previous tale, because they have certain things in common. I liked the prosaic solution to the impossibility, and Taylor's way of writing is an important part of the misdirection.

Rintarō Norizuki - The Lure of the Green Door

A man has been found hanging in his study. The main door was locked, and the only other door to the room hasn't been opened for a long time and is therefore completely stuck.

I'll never quite get used to some of the cultural differences between Japan and here - there's always something that'll make my head spin a bit. But this was a good story, and I thought it had a pretty clever solution to the impossibility, all things told.

Pietro de Palma - The Barese Mystery

An old book collector is found dead in his study with books scattered all over the floor. The door is locked and the shutters outside both the windows were closed and impossible to move.

This specially written story from fellow blogger Pietro de Palma is a fine impossible tale with a clever solution.

Jochen Füseler - The Witch Doctor's Revenge

A man phones the police, reporting a strange case where he and his friend were threatened and cursed by a witchdoctor during an expedition in Africa. And now his friend has called him, screaming that he needs help, but when he reached his friend's hotel room, no one answers his knocks.

That's a marvellous set-up, folks, and I have to say that Füseler does well with his explanation. This story was also specially written for this volume, and I think it's noticeable that Füseler is not a professional writer, because there are some bits that ring a bit false, particularly the ending with the secretary, which comes a bit out of left field. But as a mystery, it's really good.

Charles B. Child - All the Birds of the Air

A man has been killed by a blow on the head inside a room with no windows and the door was watched - perhaps a bit fitfully, but still watched. The only thing found inside with the dead man is a dead bird.

I thought the solution was kinda clever, though I'm not sure I think the tale was really an impossible one - the sleeping guard sort of opens other possibilities, I think.

L. T. Meade & Robert Eustace - The Warder of the Door

A family father asks his son never to marry, having a fear that their family is cursed. Their ghosts are tasked with guarding a door to a secret chamber.

This was perhaps the low point of this anthology. Really hokey and silly.

Soji Shimada - The Locked House of Pythagoras

An artist and his mistress are found killed in their geometrically strange house. There's papers covering the entire floor in the locked room they died in, and there's no weapon present.

But at least the final story of the volume is here to pick up the slack. This was another really fine tale with a good impossibility and an equally good solution.

Conclusion

On the whole, this was a great read. There are very few true disappointments here, and even though some of the stories felt a bit so-so, there were a lot of stories with great impossibilities and authors that felt new to me. So I had a very good experience with this collection. Warmly recommended to everyone with a passing interest in impossibilities.

I'll be using a whopping 12 stories for my own impossible collection: "Jacob's Ladder", "Cyanide in the Sun", "The Mystery of the Sleeping-Car Express", "Sir Gilbert Murrell's Picture", "The Miracle on Christmas Eve", "Lying Dead and Turning Cold", "The 'Impossible' Impossible Murder", "Deadfall", "The Lure of the Green Door", "The Barese Mystery", "The Witch Doctor's Revenge" and "The Locked House of Pythagoras".

Being a recent release, this has been discussed by several fellow bloggers.

TomCat over on Beneath the Stains of Time: http://moonlight-detective.blogspot.se/2017/10/the-greatest-miracles-on-earth.html

The Puzzle Doctor at In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel:  https://classicmystery.wordpress.com/2017/10/26/the-realm-of-the-impossible-ed-john-pugmire-brian-skupin/

And The Invisible Event: https://theinvisibleevent.com/2017/10/31/307/. J. J. reviewed it in several instalments. This link leads to the final one, with links to all previous ones.

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