Stray impossibilities - part two

This is part two of my posts on a number of impossible mystery short stories found here and there but not in any of the collections or anthologies already discussed here. Let's just dive into it, shall we?

Adrian Conan Doyle/John Dickson Carr - The Adventure of the Sealed Room (1954)

A friend of Dr. Watson's wife approaches Sherlock Holmes with a story of a family tragedy. Apparently, a colonel has shot himself and his wife inside a closed and locked room. But she just cannot believe these appearances and asks Holmes to investigate.

This was mainly written by Doyle, and to be honest, this is not bad at all. Sure, the culprit is easily found, but the impossibility is fine and the clues that Holmes uses to reach the solution are scrupulously fair. It's fairly run of the mill, but still a good impossible mystery.

Adrian Conan Doyle/John Dickson Carr - The Adventure of the Deptford Horror (1954)

Inspector Lestrade consults Holmes regarding a case where several members of a family have died. In the latest case, a young man has died from what seems to be natural causes.

Another one that was mainly written by Doyle, and this is much worse. It's more or less a rewrite of "The Speckled Band". The culprit is obvious, the solution is silly, and this is really not worth reading.

Thomas Flanagan - The Fine Italian Hand (1949)

In the 1400s, a messenger from Cesare Borgia is told about the theft of a treasure from a locked room. There were two guards posted outside the room, and one of them is dead and the other badly wounded.

The impossibility of the story is swiftly swept aside and is just a minor part of this story. However, there are other very clever features of this story which elevates it to near greatness. A really good read.

Jacques Futrelle - The Missing Necklace (1908)

A thief manages to steal a necklace in Britain, and gets on an ocean liner to America with it, with a Scotland Yard man in pursuit. The Yard man searches his cabin and cannot find it, and as they reach the US, the man is stopped and searched, and yet the necklace just cannot be found.

I like the solution in this story. Unlike many others from Futrelle this is a fairly grounded one, though I must admit that the Scotland Yard fellow doesn't acquit himself very well here.

Jacques Futrelle - The Lost Radium (1908)

A professor has a very small amount of the rare element radium in his laboratory, but after a visit from a lady the radium is suddenly gone even though the professor had the laboratory door in his sights the entire time and the lady never came close to it.

This story, on the other hand, is pretty bad. It's more typical of Futrelle's more outlandish solutions and it does get me to roll my eyes from time to time.

Jacques Futrelle - The Crystal Gazer (1908)

A man visits a psychic and in his crystal ball he sees a scene - a scene where he himself is murdered in his own apartment.

It's an interesting setup, but I don't think Futrelle follows up very well on it. The solution to the scene in the crystal ball is somewhat clever, but the rest of the story is quite hokey and unoriginal.

Jacques Futrelle - The Roswell Tiara (1906)

An upper class lady keeps her jewels in a safe in her bedroom at night, but night after night the jewels in her tiara are broken off and stolen.

No, this doesn't work at all. An author who offers this kind of solution needs to make the story a humorous one - it doesn't do to offer it in all seriousness. One of those outré early impossible mystery stories that were superseded by more grounded tales later on.

Paul Halter - Nausicaa's Ball (2008)

Alan Twist is on holiday in the Greek archipelago and runs into the eternal triangle (or is it a tetrangle?). The woman in question is later seen returning from a secluded beach with all her clothes in disarray and her new beau decides to have it out with her husband. And then the husband turns up dead on the beach...

Another fine Halter tale with an interesting solution that seems a bit involved, but actually might just be workable.

Paul Halter - The Robber's Grave (2002)

Alan Twist is out on one of his many car treks around the country. This time he ends up on a Welsh inn where the barkeep tells a story about the grave of a robber which is haunted in some way - it seems grass never grows on the grave. Even though a business man took several precautions to stop anyone from reaching the grave, the newly sown grass just wilted and died.

This story from Halter is a bit slighter, but still a fun read. It's a pretty clever solution to what seems an impossible situation.

Maria Hudgins - Murder on the London Eye (2007)

Two policemen are sent on a case to the London Eye where an elderly woman has been found killed in one of the cars. No one was seen inside the glass car even though she was strangled.

A fairly recent and interesting mystery with a really good setting. The solution isn't the best I've ever seen - it's been used in a lot of other stories - though it's still workable, but using such a famous tourist attraction as the setting elevates the story quite a bit.

Ronald Knox - Solved by Inspection (1931)

Miles Bredon investigates the case of an old man who's been found dead from starvation in his bed after having been in his room for several days. And yet there was food available in the room...

One of the classics of the genre, this is fairly clever, if perhaps a bit farfetched. With today's forensic science I'm pretty sure the police would have seen through the misdirection immediately.

J. A. Konrath - With a Twist (2005)

Lieutenant Jack Daniels is investigating a suspicious death where an old man has been found in his living room. His wounds are consistent with falling from a great height, and yet there are signs that he must have landed on the very carpet he is now lying on.

Konrath's second impossible crime for Jack Daniels, and unfortunately it seems the only other one. (The first was collected in Mike Ashley's "The Mammoth Book of Perfect Crimes and Impossible Mysteries", where it was one of the highlights.) This shows signs of being written as an homage to several impossible crime writers. It's quite a clever story where the culprit is never in any doubt but the puzzles within the mysteries are great. Another winner from Konrath.

Theodore Mathieson - Leonardo da Vinci, Detective (1959)

Leonardo is called in by the French king and queen to investigate how a nobleman could have been killed in the middle of an amphitheatre when a large circle of soldiers were guarding the place.

An interesting period piece. Mathieson sets up a good impossibility and resolves it with a pretty good explanation. I'm still not all that fond of all these intrigues among the nobility, but I still enjoyed this story.

Arthur Porges - Murder of a Priest (1967) 

During World War II a resistance member - the titular priest - has been captured and the Allies need to make sure that he doesn't break down from the Germans' torture. A special agent is sent in to either set the priest free or ensure his silence - a rather impossible mission since he is under heavy guard in an impenetrable prison.

An interesting variation of the impossible crime story where the aim isn't to explain an impossible crime, but rather to commit one. As you might have guessed, this doesn't feature any of Porges's regular problem solvers. But a very good story, nonetheless.

Bill Pronzini - Devil's Brew (2006)

John Quincannon has been called in to investigate a murder in a brewery, and is certain that he has identified the killer. But as Quincannon approaches him,  he takes to his heels and vanishes into the store rooms, looking the door after him. Then a shot rings out and the suspected killer is found dead - and several things point to murder even though there was no one around in the store rooms!

Another clever impossibility for Quincannon to solve. The solution is quite prosaic and simple, and I did spot the villain immediately, but still a fine and rewarding tale.

Bill Pronzini - The Carville Ghost (2007)

A man has come to Quincannon & Carpenter's detective agency with a story about a ghost that's haunting some abandoned cars outside his home. The apparition leaves no traces, and when Quincannon comes to investigate, a man is found dead in the middle of the sand with no footprints surrounding him apart from his own.

This is only a semi-impossibility - the murder is quickly shown to be not impossible at all which only leaves the ghost appearances. But as usual Pronzini weaves a fine tale and it's another good read.

Craig Rice - His Heart Could Break (1943)

John J. Malone is on his way to the prison to visit a client there. However, when he arrives his client is dead, hanging from a rope in his cell. Everything points to suicide, but how did he get a rope into his cell?

An impossible crime featuring a dying message as well, not too bad! Rice didn't write many impossible crimes, but this one is not bad at all. It doesn't focus too hard on the impossibility itself, instead concentrating on Malone's trials and tribulations, but Rice has crafted a fine tale here.

Dorothy Sayers - Talboys (1972) 

Lord Peter Wimsey is called out to investigate how some fruit was stolen from a neighbour's garden - if nothing else, then to try to dispel any suspicions from falling on his son.

A silly little story, the final one about Lord Peter and his offspring. It's not all that serious and the impossibility is solved in the most obvious way possible.

Rex Stout - The Fourth of July Picnic (1958)

Nero Wolfe is on a rare outing from his brownstone house, invited to give a speech at a Fourth of July picnic. While there one of the arrangers falls ill and is laid to rest inside a tent. "Laid to rest" is a good expression, because soon he also turns up dead.

This isn't a locked room mystery (or even a locked tent mystery) because there are several people who openly go into the tent. I just thought I'd include it here because I've seen it mentioned as Stout's only impossible crime story - and it is not that. It's a run of the mill Nero Wolfe story, you'll know exactly what you'll get.

And this is where we'll end part two. A final part, featuring only Edward D. Hoch stories, will be coming next.


  1. I'm a little bit more enthusiastic about the gem that's "The Adventure of the Sealed Room," but agree with your assessment of the story. A wonderfully clued locked room mystery and a quality pastiche.

    Speaking of pastiches, "Solved by Inspection" always struck me as the only example of a truly Chesterton-like detective story that succeeded without recycling one of his plots. I can easily imagine Father Brown explaining the paradoxical problem of a starved man in a locked room surrounded by food.

    1. You might have something there with the Knox story. When presented like that it certainly sounds like a Chestertonian paradox.

      So I guess I'm happy it was Knox who wrote it. :)