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Locked-room mysteries and 'impossible' crimes

Page history last edited by PBworks 16 years ago

John Dickson Carr (aka Carter Dickson)


Carr stuck closely to a set of "core" impossible crime problems: 1) Locked room murders. 2) Bodies surrounded by sand or snow, where no footprints of a murderer came near them. 3) Murders that were actually witnessed, but where no killer was seen to commit the crime. 4) Impossible disappearances, from locked rooms or watched areas. He produced a large number of classics in each of these four kinds of problem. Such problems define "the impossible crime", in the minds of many mystery readers.


There are other types of problems in Carr, each of which involves fewer examples. 5) He wrote a handful of tales about searches for objects whose concealment seemingly impossibly defies the search: "The Fourth Suspect", "Hot Money", "The Gentleman from Paris", the vanishing gun in Till Death Do Us Part. This kind of tale was invented by Poe, in "The Purloined Letter", something which Carr explicitly notes in several of the tales. But Carr did not specialize in this sub-genre, the way Ellery Queen and Stuart Palmer did. Still, the four solutions to the four tales are all drastically different, showing Carr's inventiveness with the form. 6) Carr also dealt impressively with the vanishing building or street, in such tales as The Lost Gallows, "The Crime in Nobody's Room", "The Villa of the Damned". 7) Objects being moved around in locked, empty rooms: The Sleeping Sphinx, The Cavalier's Cup. This is a kind of problem I have never seen in any other author. 9) Special problems involving guns: the second murder in the book known as The Hollow Man or The Three Coffins, "The Third Bullet", "The Devil in the Summerhouse", The House at Satan's Elbow. 10) Tales in which all the suspects are watched and have alibis: Death-Watch, "Death in the Dressing Room", "The Black Minute". This kind of problem is quite similar to Carr's "core" impossible crime tales. Alibi puzzles were very popular among Realist school writers of the era: Freeman Wills Crofts and Christopher Bush specialized in them. 11) And Carr did not disdain the unclassifiable problem: "The New Invisible Man", "The Dead Sleep Lightly".


Carr sometimes attacked locked room problems directly. There are locked rooms in Carr that depend on the killer finding ingenious ways of locking a room from the outside; there are bodies surrounded by snow or sand in which the killer did ingenious things with footprints. But a surprising number of Carr cases have nothing to do with such direct attacks. Instead, many Carr tales center on some ingenious murder method, that can succeed even though the victim is in a locked room, isolated on a beach, or even being watched at the time of death by observers. In such stories, the room is locked simply because the victim locked it; or the victim is alone on a beach simply because the victim walked there. Then the murderer strikes, by a method that defies the victim's isolation. Such stories are often among Carr's most ingenious works.


Other authors have produced locked rooms, and bodies isolated on beaches and in snow. But the crime actually witnessed - but not understood, and with no apparent murderer - seems to be a very difficult trick to pull off, and perhaps less common. 1) In Carr, this includes The Unicorn Murders (1935), a classic treatment of the subject. 2) "Error at Daybreak" (1938) is also an innovative story, with some relationship to The Unicorn Murders. 3) Perhaps Captain Cut-Throat (1955) should also be considered a "public" murder. 4) Carr's other works here fall into related series of stories. Carr adapted his short story "The Silver Curtain" (1939) into a radio play, "Death Has Four Faces" (1944), improving the clue about the medicine, then used a variation in Panic in Box C (1966). 5) A second series involves The Crooked Hinge (1938), "The Bride Vanishes" (1942), The Skeleton in the Clock (1948), In Spite of Thunder (1960), and a related approach in Papa La-Bas (1968), all tales in which the impossible crimes have certain similarities in appearance and solution. Carr actually provides two solutions (one false and one true) to the murder in The Crooked Hinge, and both solutions find echoes in variations in the various subsequent works. Deadly Hall (1971), while a locked room problem, has features related to these stories. 6) Such Carr tales involving impossible poisonings as "As Drink the Dead..." (1926), Poison in Jest (1932) and Death in Five Boxes (1938) also belong here, as does the radio play "Vampire Tower" (1944), which reuses the plot ideas of Death in Five Boxes. In these tales, the victim takes a drink, and is poisoned, but witnesses concur that it would be impossible for anyone to have poisoned the drink. All of these poisoning stories show a formal similarity in their impossible crime problems and solutions. Death in Five Boxes is by far the best, showing a rich development into a full scale, high quality mystery plot. 7) Carr also wrote a classic non-impossible crime mystery, about witnesses who are baffled about what they see: the book known as The Black Spectacles or The Problem of the Green Capsule (1939).


Carr wrote four early Bencolin locked room short stories, later collected in The Door to Doom. "The Shadow of the Goat" (1926) contains no less than two impossible disappearances. A subsequent early Bencolin story, "The Ends of Justice" (1927), essentially repeats the second disappearance of "The Shadow of the Goat". Carr's Sherlock Holmes pastiche, "The Adventure of the Highgate Miracle" (1953), offers an ingenious variation on these earlier approaches, as do the impossible disappearances in The Curse of the Bronze Lamp (1945) and A Graveyard to Let (1949). The remarkable disappearance in the book known as The Hollow Man or The Three Coffins (1935) greatly develops ideas from the crime in "The Ends of Justice", with some ideas also thrown in from the first crime in "The Shadow of the Goat". Night at the Mocking Widow (1950) also offers an unusual disappearance, related to The Three Coffins. The unclassifiable "The New Invisible Man" (1938) is also in the tradition of The Three Coffins.


The locked room murder in "The Fourth Suspect" (1927) is the least original of Carr's early impossible crime Bencolin short stories. Its ideas derive from Israel Zangwill's The Big Bow Mystery (1890). Admittedly, Carr's version here is hard to guess - and he also throws in an alternative solution, also fairly conventional. Carr emphasized both of these approaches in his "locked room lecture" in The Hollow Man, which discusses the typical solutions used by locked room authors as a whole. But he rarely used these conventional ideas again in his fiction. He instead preferred completely original approaches.


"The Murder in Number Four" (1928) suffers from a subplot about a disappearing ghost, that is a cheat. There are also some fairness problems with some of the exposition surrounding the actual murder. Carr will do a much better job of scrupulous fairness throughout the rest of his published fiction. These problems aside, the actual murder is an impressive locked room idea.


Mike Grost

Penzler, Otto (Ed) -- Whodunit? Houdini? ''Thirteen Tales

of Magic, Murder, Mystery (1976)


Edited by Otto Penzler (born 1942)

Harper & Row


Short Story Anthology: 13 Stories

283 pages


This is an anthology of thirteen mystery stories dealing with the common theme of magic; yet this is not a book of fantasy: while magic is central to each story, the solutions (with one exception) are as down-to-earth as one could hope for (the exception, by John Collier, of course being sui generis).


Despite the title, Harry Houdini never does appear in propria persona; but his spirit seems to thread its way through this anthology, especially in "One Night in Paris": Houdin/Houdini lore becomes a large part of the rationale for the story's sometimes feverish action and resolution. (And even now, nine decades later, Houdini still excites interest.)


The authors in WHODUNIT? HOUDINI? include Clayton Rawson, Carter Dickson, Frederick Irving Anderson, William Irish, Walter B. Gibson, Stanley Ellin, and Erle Stanley Gardner: an impressive representation of some of pulp fiction's greatest practitioners. For that reason alone the book is worth seeking out.




Introduction (3 pages) by Otto Penzler: "The magicians in this book take many forms .... Here, some of the world's greatest writers have entered the many worlds of magic: the bright, happy world of exciting stage shows, the darker world of crime and murder, and the velvet black world of unrelenting terror. Some of these thirteen tales deal with the question of whodunit. But, as with all magicians and magic acts, the deeper question is howdunit. Sometimes, the answer seems impossible. But don't look too hard. You might not want to know." (pages x-xi)


1. "From Another World" (1948) by Clayton Rawson (1906-1971)


Introduction (1 page) by Penzler: "Rawson presented the problem in 'From Another World' to John Dickson Carr, who solved it and recorded his solution in a novel, He Wouldn't Kill Patience. Rawson's solution is entirely different." (page 1)


Arresting Sentences: "She gave the doctor a look that would have split an atom, and Gavigan, seeing the danger of a chain reaction if this sort of dialogue were allowed to continue, broke in quickly." (page 15)


"At that moment a torpedo hit the water-tight circumstantial case against Rosa Rhys and detonated with a roar." (page 19)


Comment: A locked-room murder solved by the Great Merlini; a very rich man dies in a sealed (literally) room, stabbed with a disappearing knife that was never handled by the only other person known to be present; seashells suddenly appear from nowhere, and auditory impressions assume the greatest significance.


2. "In the House of Suddhoo" (1886) by Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936)


Introduction (1 page) by Penzler: "'In the House of Suddhoo' is the oldest story in this book, but it could have been written yesterday." (page 29)


Arresting Sentences: "Then there is me, of course, but I am only the chorus that comes in at the end to explain things. So I do not count." (page 30)


"Read Poe's account of the voice that came from the mesmerized dying man, and you will realize less than one half of the horror of that head's voice." (page 34)


Comment: A confidence trick, Indian-style, with the "mark" an anxious, feeble old man; "'The magic that is always demanding gifts is no true magic'" (page 35); with a little rearranging of the story's elements, John Dickson Carr could have made an entire novel of this vignette.


3. "Rope Enough" (1941) by John Collier (1901-1980)


Introduction (1 page) by Penzler: In "the Indian rope trick ... an apparently ordinary rope rises vertically in the air and remains in that position. In 'Rope Enough,' the reader will discover what is beyond the top end of the rope." (page 37)


Arresting Sentences: "Down came a leg, thump onto the ground, then an arm, a thigh, a head and other joints, and finally (no ladies being present) a bare backside, which struck the earth like a bomb." (page 38)


"She reproached him with the loss of his job, the poor quality of his manhood, with the time he let her little dog get run over on the bund, and with a glance he had cast at a Parsee maiden at Bombay." (page 41)


Comment: You'll either love or hate this one; with John Collier, there's usually no middle ground.


4. "The New Invisible Man" (1940) by Carter Dickson (1906-1977)


Introduction (1 page) by Penzler: In this story, "Colonel March, the head of Scotland Yard's aptly-named Department of Queer Complaints, calmly hears an account of a murder committed by a pistol fired by a glove -- an empty glove unattached to an arm in an otherwise unoccupied room." (page 44)


Arresting Sentences: "Some maintain that Colonel March was put in charge of it because nothing on earth could possibly surprise him. He is also well served by his vast fund of good-for-nothing information, and his absorption in any kind of puzzle from a jigsaw up." (page 45)


"That was when I began to have a queer sensation that something spongy had got into my head where the brain ought to be." (page 50)


Comment: It looks like murder, but where's the body? Colonel March solves it in no time flat; think REAR WINDOW without the grue.


5. "Blind Man's Buff" (1914) by Frederick Irving Anderson (1877-1947)


Introduction (1 page) by Penzler: This story features "the American counterpart" of A.J. Raffles, the Infallible Godahl, who "... is such a brilliant thief that he has never been suspected of a crime. The intellectual superior of any potential adversary on the side of the law, his nefarious endeavors are inevitably successful. They cannot fail, because Godahl's massive brain has foreseen every possibility, anticipated every difficulty, and discovered a solution to every problem." (page 60)


Arresting Sentences: "What attracted the vortex, however, was not so much the man himself as the fact that he wore a black mask. The mask was impenetrable. People said he had no eyes. It was Malvino the Magician, born to eternal darkness." (page 61)


"Godahl, if I could see I think I would be like you -- looking on and laughing." (page 66)


"After all, magic is but the clever arrangement of properties." (page 67)


Comment: Godahl outwits everybody and shows that Barnum's dictum about one being born every minute was low by a factor of fifty -- no, make that fifty-ONE.


6. "The Lord of Time" (1946) by Rafael Sabatini (1875-1950)


Introduction (1 page) by Penzler: This "... is a story about Cagliostro, who was a master magician. Or was he? It is surely a crime story, because a brutal murder is committed. Or is it? At least a clever con job is pulled off. Or is it?" (page 77)


Arresting Sentences: "In short, this Count Cagliostro, coming no man knew whence, was being pronounced divine." (page 78)


"Between this and that stand for you the walls of a dozen deaths, a dozen rebirths .... It was sixteen centuries ago in Antioch. You were a Roman proconsul, and I was, mutatis mutandis, much as I am now, a wanderer upon the face of the earth, a traveler down the ages." (page 81)


Comment: The author of THE SEA HAWK, SCARAMOUCHE, and CAPTAIN BLOOD offers a tale about one of history's greatest con men; it's told in that pseudo-archaic style appropriate to the time and place of the story; if nothing else, it's a pleasurable read.


7. "Papa Benjamin" (1935) by William Irish (1903-1968)


Introduction (1 page) by Penzler: "Black magic is one of the oldest forms of magic, of apparently supernatural force. It is easy to ridicule it, to disbelieve it, to laugh at it (if you dare). Yet whole nations have believed in its power for centuries. Why?" (page 99)


Arresting Sentences: "Still it's his face, more than who he is or how he's dressed, that would draw stares anywhere. It's the face of a dead man -- the face of a dead man on a living body .... You see faces like that looking up at you from hospital cots when all hope has been abandoned -- when the grave is already waiting." (pages 100-101)


"He speaks, and if the unburied dead ever spoke, this is the voice they'd use. 'I've killed a man. Just now. A little while ago. At half-past three.'" (page 101)


"You're so well-balanced you haven't even got the extra little touch of imagination most actors and musicians have." (page 131)


Comment: "William Irish," of course, was a nom de plume of Cornell George Hopley-Woolrich, who often wrote with the Cornell Woolrich byline; you might have read this one under its original title, "Dark Melody of Madness"; but whatever it's called, the narrative's compelling power derives unmistakably from its atmosphere, gloomy and oppressive and all-enveloping -- an achievement comparable to the best efforts of another writer to whom Woolrich, personally and professionally, bears some resemblance, Edgar Allan Poe. You probably won't forget this story for a long time, if ever.


8. "Juliet and the Magician" (1953/1958) by Manuel Peyrou (1902-1974)


Introduction (1 page) by Penzler: "When the great writers of mystery and detective stories are discussed, the names that head the list of immortals are almost exclusively English and American, as if writers from other nations eschewed the genre. Well, to be truthful, both quantitatively and qualitatively, they lag far behind the English-language authors. Of course there are exceptions, but not enough to notice. Among writers in Spanish ... are Jorge Luis Borges" and "his close friend, Manuel Peyrou ...." (page 139)


Arresting Sentences: "... all of his power as illusionist was of no avail in breaking the biological charm contrived by tiny glands which conspired to make the girl's fickle heart beat faster." (page 141)


"Finally, a police officer arrived and put into effect official measures. The measures were almost exclusively telephone calls in which he requested orders." (page 143)


Comment: A murder on-stage during a magician's act; with it, the killer hopes to rid himself of a vexatious person and establish an unbreakable alibi at the same time; but some clever armchair (actually, barstool) deductions by an onlooker severely curtail what had seemed a most unpromising career.


9. "The Mad Magician" (1938) by "Maxwell Grant" (1931-1967)


Introduction (1 page) by Penzler: This story from CRIME BUSTERS magazine features "... Norgil the Magician. The suave, handsome, and mustached conjurer appeared in a series of stories that never approached the success of the Shadow tales, but consistently ranked among the magazine's most popular features .... Filled with action and colloquial speech, it is typical of the Norgil stories and, in fact, of most pulp fiction. Its background of magic is absolutely authentic ...." (page 150)


Arresting Sentences: "The man turned around. Norgil met the gaze of tiny, brilliant eyes that formed the only life in a hollow-cheeked face which had saffron skin, drawn as tight as the surface of a snare drum. From dryish lips came a tone that was no longer wheezy, but harsh ...." (page 156)


"... there was a rattle from the oblong box at the end wall of the room. Its door shot open, showing a figure in the cabinet. A bare arm thrust forward, aiming a big dueling pistol ...." (page 167)


Comment: Norgil the Magician solves two crimes at once with the assistance of his pretty protege Miriam and a very curious cat, despite a tricky Japanese Box and a murderous mummy case; not a fair-play mystery, but nevertheless diverting.


10. "One Night in Paris" (1955) by Walter B. Gibson (1897-1985)


Introduction (1 page) by Penzler: "The Great Gerard fights crime in two stories," both of which were penned by Walter Gibson who "... produced more than a million words a year for fifteen years. He wrote more than 300 novels, 283 about a single character -- one of the most important heroes ever to stride majestically across the pages of a popular publication: The Shadow. The 'Maxwell Grant' byline under which the stories appeared was a Street and Smith 'house name' used by Gibson (and occasionally a few other writers) during the 1930s and 1940s. The only other pulp hero created by Gibson ('Grant') is Norgil the Magician, who appears in the previous story." (page 170)


Arresting Sentences: "Driven through his body, halfway to its hilt, was his favorite blade, projecting from the blood-dyed front of his tuxedo shirt." (page 175)


"This is a perfect sealed room mystery." (page 176)


"This is one sealed room mystery that makes sense -- the wrong way." (page 178)


Comment: Someone commits a locked-room murder and tries to pin it on the Great Gerard: BIG mistake, because as a trained magician he knows how to avoid traps as well as set them; the next time you're in Paris at the Cabaret de la Mort ("Soiree Fantastique"), between La danse des squelettes and the cotelette de loup garou, watch out for the man with the mitraillette ....


11. "The Shadow" (1931) by Ben Hecht (1894-1964)


Introduction (1 page) by Penzler: Hecht is best-known for his plays and movies (GUNGA DIN, NOTORIOUS, SPELLBOUND, KISS OF DEATH) but "... his stories inexplicably lack the popularity of less talented writers of the same period," among them being "'The Shadow,' a strange tale of retribution involving the Marvelous Sarastro ...." (page 203)


Arresting Sentences: "The Marvelous Sarastro came from Warsaw although he sometimes hinted at Tibet and the Mountains of the Moon." (page 203)


"It is in the eyes that the soul of a woman is usually to be seen. Anna's eyes were empty. She could neither see nor be seen by them. But the spirit which found these eyes closed lighted the rest of her face and body. A kindly, radiant child spoke from her lips." (page 207)


"Ah, how subtle he was, how graceful! But that is the way of those whose souls are fashioned in hell." (page 209)


Comment: An unrelievedly grim story of doom and irony that for some reason reminds me most of Poe's "William Wilson".


12. "The Moment of Decision" (1955) by Stanley Ellin (1916-1986)


Introduction (1 page) by Penzler: "In some ways the ultimate detective story is the riddle story -- the puzzle without a solution, the winding road that leads nowhere. In these tales of uncertain endings, there is only one detective who can offer an answer to the problem: you .... this brilliant riddle story is ... unforgettable and hauntingly terrifying .... Read this .... Then make YOUR'' decision." (page 219)


Arresting Sentences: "So there it was. An Eden with flawless lawns and no awful nerves and complexes, and not even the glimmer of a serpent in the offing. That is, not a glimmer until the day Raymond made his entrance on the scene." (page 222)


"'You are positively medieval,' he said. 'And of all things men should have learned since that time, the biggest is that there are no easy answers, no solutions one can give with the snap of the fingers. I can only hope for you that someday you may be faced with the perfect dilemma, the unanswerable question. You would find that a revelation ....'" (page 227)


Comment: A clever variation of Stockton's "The Lady or the Tiger?"; Penzler tells us this story was televised in 1961 with Fred Astaire in a non-singing, non-dancing dramatic role.


13. "The Hand is Quicker than the Eye" (1939) by Erle Stanley Gardner (1889-1970)


Introduction (1 page) by Penzler: Unlike Gardner's other literary creations (e.g., Perry Mason), "Lester Leith is a different kettle of herring. He is on the opposite side of the legal coin, a confidence man of the first rank. He appeared in about seventy-five adventures, beginning in 1929 and extending through the vital days of the pulps. He solves crimes merely by reading newspaper accounts of them, then proves to the thieves that crime does not pay by 'liberating' their ill-gotten gains. There is little fear of legal retribution because his victims are not likely to press charges. Leith turns the swag over to charity -- minus 20 percent for 'costs of collection.'" (page 243)


Arresting Sentences: "The crime has everything to challenge the imagination of the investigator: Oriental background, fabulous pearls, a mysterious disappearance ..." (page 246)


"Are you a detective?"

"Heaven forbid!" (page 250)


"Leith said, 'We are going in for prestidigitation, legerdemain, sleight of hand, optical illusions, parlor magic, and general hocus-pocus, Scuttle.'" (page 253)


Comment: Lester Leith turns to magic to recover a stolen necklace and succeeds right under the noses of the criminals and the police; story is fast-paced and quite entertaining; its original title was "Lester Leith, Magician".



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