Locked-room mysteries and other impossible crime stories have been relished by puzzle-lovers ever since the invention of detective fiction. Fiendishly intricate cases were particularly well suited to the cerebral type of detective story that became so popular during the ‘golden age of murder’ between the two world wars. But the tradition goes back to the days of Wilkie Collins, and impossible crime stories have been written by such luminaries as Arthur Conan Doyle, G.K. Chesterton, Dorothy L. Sayers and Margery Allingham. This anthology celebrates their work, alongside long-hidden gems by less familiar writers. Together these stories demonstrate the range and high accomplishment of the classic British impossible crime story over more than half a century.
Of course, impossible crimes immediately makes one think of the typical locked room mystery: a room, locked from the inside, with a dead body. Most of the stories are exactly that but a few also feature miraculously disappearing weapons, bodies, trains or whole houses.
The Lost Special – Arthur Conan Doyle 😐
How can a whole train disappear without a trace? The case is once again solved by…nobody really.
This story had some similarities to the Conan Doyle story in Blood on the Tracks and not only because both stories feature a seemingly impossible crime involving a train. Just like The Man with the Watches, this story has no detective, just somebody involved in the crime who explains it all, once it won’t have any consequences for him anymore. That’s…cheap. And while I fully understand Doyle’s reluctance to make up a detective, even just for a single story, this simply isn’t what I expect from a ‘proper’ mystery.
The Thing Invisible – William Hope Hodgson ☹
An invisible thing held the dagger that stabbed the butler in the chapel. That’s what everybody who was there when it happens claims. So was there really a ghost or is there another explanation? Carnacki the Ghostfinder investigates.
Carnacki is yet another ‘rival’ of Sherlock Holmes and the stories are set up in a similar way, with the narrator being a friend of Carnacki. But the difference is that the two don’t actually work together. In The Thing Invisible Carnacki comes to visit the narrator after he solved the case and tells him all about it which rather defeats the purpose in my opinion. Especially because a sizeable part of the narration is spent on Carnacki explaining how scared he was in the chapel, with frequent interjections a la ‘You must really understand how terrified I was at that point’ which rather killed the atmosphere instead adding to it. Which is a shame, because if you strip away all that, a clever impossible crime remains. But I almost didn’t notice because I got so bored while reading.
The Case of the Tragedies in the Greek Room – Sax Rohmer 😃
Two people end up dead in a museum room. Both times a Greek harp has been removed from its case but not stolen. It’s still in the room.
After the – for Martin Edwards – very lukewarm introduction to this story I didn’t expect much but this story is fun. It’s clearly pulp fiction with its high drama, impossible science, beautiful women and ridiculous coincidences. But it’s also fun.
The Aluminium Dagger – R. Austin Freeman 😃
An unlikeable man is stabbed in a locked room by a left-handed person. But was he really?
Thorndyke is…reliable. I never came across a Thorndyke-story I didn’t enjoy but I can also see how Freeman’s obsession with scientific details isn’t for everybody. Still, a very realistic locked-room mystery is a nice change
The Miracle of Moon Crescent – G.K. Chesterton ☹
Three Atheists stand in a room. Behind them a locked door. A priest walks in and wants to speak to the man behind the locked door. The man is missing.
I swear the Father Brown stories I’ve read before weren’t that…preachy. Or perhaps my memory is playing tricks on me since I watched much more adaptations (which in some cases are only very loosely based on the stories) than read Chesterton. This story felt like a religious treatise with some murder in the background and that was rather…exhausting. And dull.
The Invisible Weapon – Nicholas Oide 😃
The case seems clear-cut. A man is dead. Another man who had a motive to kill him stayed in the same house and he had the opportunity. But there’s a tiny detail: the murder weapon is nowhere to be found and the suspect wouldn’t have had the time to get rid of it. How can you batter someone to death with your bare hands?
Even though the question is not “Who killed the man behind closed doors?” but “Where did the weapon go?” this is one of the most typical locked room mysteries in this collection. The solution is brilliant but also plain and simple once explained (and relies on some very convenient coincidences)
The Diary of Death – Marten Cumberland 😐
A crazed serial killer has developed an obsession with a once-famous actress. She died impoverished but left a diary behind in which she accused her former friends of abandoning her. Somebody has gotten hold of that diary and is now out for revenge. One of the actress’s friends is convinced he is next so he takes precautions and locks himself up. But…
…you will be surprised by what happens next.
The focus of this story isn’t that much the impossible aspect (the solution to that is rather simple) but the story of the actress and who (and why) would be out to avenge her. As such it is…nice.
The Broadcast Murder – Grenville Robbins ☹
A radio announcer is murdered live on air. All the nation could listen to it. But when the police enter the radio-station there is no body to be found.
The Music Room – Sapper ☹
The owner of a mansion entertains his guests with a story about a decades-old unsolved murder about an unknown man, found in a locked room, beaten to death. One day later there’s a very recent body in one of the rooms.
I’m putting these two together because I was bothered by very similar things in them. For me, a satisfying ending is important for a mystery. That doesn’t mean that it has to turn out that the most unlikeable character has to turn out to be the killer and everybody else gets to live happily ever after. But some sort of feeling that in the end, people got what they deserved is nice. And that isn’t the case in either of those stories. In one case the guilty party even remains completely free (for reasons that make no sense at all), in the other, the author takes great pains to point out how unsatisfying and depressing the ending is.
Death at 8.30 – Christopher St. John Sprigg 😐
A blackmailer is on the loose. He demands money and threatens to kill when his demands aren’t met and he has done so already three times. When he finds another victim and promises death at 8.30 on a certain day, the police want to stop him and make sure the man is guarded well when that time comes.
Spoiler: it goes badly. But I called the ‘how’ very quickly, and the rest of the story was somewhat underwhelming.
Too Clever By Half – G.D.H. and Margaret Cole 😃
A man shots himself. His brother-in-law – who had reason to kill him – was downstairs with a group of people when the shot fired. So was it really suicide? Or is the brother-in-law perhaps…*drumroll*…to clever by half?
Another quite classical story told in a somewhat unusual manner but still fun.
Locked In – E. Charles Vivian 😐
Suicide seems to run in the family when a man shoots himself twenty-three years after his father. There seems to be no question that it was suicide since it happened behind closed doors. But is it really? (No it’s not)
Nothing special. And a solution that felt like cheating.
The Haunted Policeman – Dorothy L. Sayers ❤
While making his rounds a constable hears a blood-curdling scream. It comes from house number 13 and when he peeks through the letter-box he sees a dead body. But when he returns with a fellow officer there is no house number 13. And when they check all the houses on the street there is no body – and no interior that looks like the one the constable saw. Fortunately, the constable later bumps into Lord Peter (who needs fresh air after the stressful experience of watching his wife deliver their son) who can’t resist such a good mystery.
And it is a great one. It is again a very typical impossible mystery – with a solution that makes sense but is also quite insane – but Wimsey is a great character.
The final three stories The Sands of Thyme by Michael Innes, Beware of the Trains by Edmund Crispin and The Villa Marie Celeste by Margery Allingham are all fairly short and there is little to say about them. They’re all enjoyable but not particularly memorable.
All-in-all I did enjoy Miraculous Mysteries more than Blood on the Tracks but that has to do with the fact that I enjoy trying to figure the how of an impossible mystery more than reading about trains.