book review

The Locked Room Reader

When I bought the The Locked Room Reader , I thought I had only read one of the stories. As it turned out, I had read a few of them. (Damn you, early onset of Alzheimer’s!) Nevertheless, I thought I’d write some impressions. Collections of shorts (be they stories or films) tend to vary in quality. This particular collection gets better as it goes along.

The Locked Room — John Dickson Carr

Scenario — a man is struck in the head by an invisible (and silent) assailant while his employees are outside. When they break open the door, the safe has been robbed, the victim is nearly dead, and the window is locked. However, a ladder remains propped up against the outside wall.

This is one I had previously read in the collection,The Third Bullet. It’s far from top-tier Carr. The solution is not particularly inspired, and I’ve found most of his short stories don’t have that lovely, simmering menace of his novels. However, the misdirection works very well as the victim provides a perfect alibi for all the suspects. The solution is slightly on the mechanical side of things but not overbearingly so. There’s a lovely, honest moment right before the shenanigans that is the key to the puzzle.

The Dauphin’s Doll — Ellery Queen

Scenario — a master criminal steals a heavily-guarded doll from a department store in broad daylight (as opposed to narrow nighttime).

This one provided an interesting experiment because I knew the solution before I turned the second page. I may have even known it before I started reading. Seriously, I can’t imagine this story fooling anyone with a functioning brain cell. A famous Agathie Christie piece that is neither novel nor story uses the same device, as does an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, as does–okay, it’s been done approximately 8,353,964 times. So, did I enjoy it? Yes and no. Yes, because it’s often quite funny (I love the word dollection). No, because it’s difficult to enjoy a trick you can see through so easily.

Nothing Is Impossible — Clayton Rawson

A man is shot inside a locked room with no gun. The main suspect is in the room but…umm…naked and possibly probed by aliens??? I may have made that last part up.

I had read this one as well, but forgot. Once again, that is not a good sign. The first Rawson I ever read was Death From a Top Hat. I loved it. It was a book built with impossibility piled on impossibility with a seemingly endless supply of mini-climaxes. J.J. at theinvisibleevent recommended the short story, Off the Face of the Earth. I bought a collection of Merlini stories and loved that one too. I should have stopped there. The lack of narrative thrust (tantalizing and fascinating in those two works) has become stale and dull the more I read. And I…I just don’t like Merlini. I know that’s lame criticism, but I wouldn’t have a beer with the guy.

His Heart Could Break — Craig Rice

Scenario — A prisoner, whose chances for freedom were good, is found hanging in his cell. How did he get the rope?

Hard-boiled and fatalistic, this is a small master class in grim noir. “You’re a liar,” Malone said, not unpleasantly. He ran an experimental finger along her ribs. She did giggle. Then he kissed her…. Just gorgeous. The first outright winner of the set.

The Oracle of the Dog — G.K. Chesterton

Scenario — A Colonel is stabbed inside of a summer-house with only one entrance, which was under constant surveillance. To top it off, the Colonel’s dog begins barking at one of the prime suspects.

This is God-awful. It’s really bad. The solution would be fine if only the presentation wasn’t so half-assed and middling. Nothing in this story even begins to approach inexorability. It is as if the elements of plot are simply piled on top of each other with no weaving of the threads at all. One of the pleasures of a mystery (of any sort) is the callback of information. Something is noticed that ends up playing a large (unexpected) part of the mystery. It’s one of the key elements of fair play. Not here. And the dog–don’t get me started on the damn dog. Brown’s solution (pulled directly from his bowels) as to the dog’s behavior pissed me off so much. At least have the decency to perform some scuba shit first before you just rattle off this solution. I would have still been upset, but at the very least, Chesterton could have shown he cared a little about the reader. Nope–Brown just says it’s what happened, so it’s what happened. Fuck this story.

When a Felon Needs a Friend — Morris Hershman

Scenario — A convict is able to escape jail to attend a poetry recital before reappearing.

It’s not horrible–there are lots of funny bits. Unfortunately, it acts as if the trick is clever when it’s decidedly not. Meh.

The Doomdorf Mystery — Melville Davisson Post

A man is found shot to death inside of a locked room.

This is another I had read and then completely forgotten about. After reading it again, I know why. Uncle Abner is considered to be an important American contribution to the list of detectives. Many famous authors raved about Post. I’ll try and check out The Angel of the Lord someday. This was not impressive.

The Big Bow Mystery — Israel Zangwill

A man is found inside a locked room with his throat slit.

When I began my love affair with impossible crimes, this was among the batch of my first reads. I loved it then and still do. It’s construction is so clever and the (shall we say) commitment of the criminal so creepy. I name checked this in Goodnight Irene as a token of my appreciation. Essential reading.

The Man Who Read John Dickson Carr — William Brittain

Hilarious. I’m not the biggest fan of inverted mysteries, but this one-joke wonder is a dazzling example. It’s been about a week, and it still makes me chuckle.

The Long Way Down — Edward D. Hoch

Scenario — A man leaps from the executive floor of a building, disappears in mid-air, and then, three hours and forty-five minutes later, lands to his death.

For my money, this is the jewel of the collection. The clewing here is out of sight. Nothing interrupts the narrative flow and yet it’s all there for you to piece together. Outstanding!

Time Trammel — Miriam Allen deFord

Technically,this is not a locked room mystery so I shan’t treat it as such. It’s science fiction, folks. It isn’t bad, but I couldn’t help but think of the vast possibilities of the premise. There were so many things deFord could have done. What do we get? A humdrum, Faustian bit with a punchline you can see a mile away…behind a corner…covered by 8-inch thick steel. I will admit, a straight-up mystery with a (sudden) supernatural conclusion would have been frightfully disappointing, but still– time travel + locked room (should) = a lot more than this.

Reprieve — Lawrence G. Blochman

Scenario — A man is found gassed to death inside of a locked motel with the gas turned off.

Not bad. It hits the right notes and the investigative work is clever enough. The most interesting element is the ever-changing image of the dead man. It’s noirish and the character have a nice scummy sheen of self-interest. The presentation works and the solution is reasonable. Nice.

The Smoke-Filled Locked Room — Anthony Boucher

Scenario — A California Democrat is found in the bathroom with his throat slit.

I really wanted to like this. Firstly, Nine Times Nine is one of my favorite impossible crime novels. Secondly, I’ve always meant to read more Boucher. Finally, the covers to his other novels look amazing. Alas, this works better as a political portrait than a locked-room mystery. Uninspired.

Bones For Davy Jones — Joseph Commings

Scenario — A man dives to investigate a sunken boat. When his body is pulled back up twenty minutes later, he has been stabbed in the chest.

This was beautifully executed. I loved the characters because they aren’t the typical ones we find in these stories. The presentation is awesome. Out of all these stories, this has the best atmosphere. The smells and unclear underwater views are beautifully rendered to the reader.

The Fine Italian Hand — Thomas Flanagan

Scenario — A Count’s emeralds are stolen from a guarded room. One of the guards is dead and the other wounded. No one left through the doorway. The only other exit leads to a 1000-foot drop.

The form of this story (with it’s mute witness and drawn reproductions of the possible solutions) is intriguing. It would probably be enjoyed more by those who require their impossibilities tied tightly to character. A good example of how odd details need to be applied for certain locked-room crimes to be pulled off.

The Narrowing Lust — Henry Kane

Scenario — A man is found dead within two locked structures. The garage is bolted on the inside, as is the office holding the corpse. The murder weapon in the dead man’s hands and the nitrate impregnation both point to suicide. RIght? Right?

Dames, guns, booze, sex, quadruple reversals, did I mention dames. This is the most typical of the stories presented herein and, dare I say, the most fun. Beneath all the snappy banter and shifting motivations lies an engaging impossible crime, sitting in the background and making you care about the plot. A nice way to end.

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5 thoughts on “The Locked Room Reader”

  1. The solution would be fine if only the presentation wasn’t so half-assed and middling

    This is, unfortunately, how I feel about Chesterton in general. I really want to like him because his ideas are so good — ‘The Queer Feet’ contains one of the best pieces of reasoning in the genre — but, man, does his structure and verbosity ever need some help. I’m hoping that he, like whisky, will be something I come to appreciate when my impetuous youth is far enough behind me.

    That Brittain story is wonderful, however. I really must check out the Crippen & Landru collection of Brittain’s work they put together earlier this year. And they have an Uncollected Freeman Will Crofts due out in 2020, so, y’know, that’s also a cause for huge excitement in my house.

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  2. I must admit I was fooled by “The Dauphin’s Doll” the first time I read it… but then I was about 13 at the time, so I feel exempted from accusations of lacking brain cells.
    And as for Chesterton – well, you either like Chesterton or you don’t. I do like him (without being blind to his faults), but again this may be because I read all the Father Brown stories at a very young age. Have you read any of his other work, such as “The Man Who Knew Too Much”? (Nothing to do with the Hitchcock film, BTW)

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  3. Reading Ellery Queen at 13 absolves you of any wrongdoing.

    I can see how Brown’s folksy charm would be appealing. I read The Eye of Apollo a while back but I don’t remember it being nearly this bad. I’ll put The Man Who Knew Too Much on the list. Hopefully, it’s the one with Peter Lorre. 🙂

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  4. Uncle Abner is considered to be an important American contribution to the list of detectives. Many famous authors raved about Post.

    “The Doomdorf Mystery” is one of the most overrated short (impossible crime) stories ever written and the two other stories I’ve read, “The Bradmoor Murder” and “The Hidden Law,” managed to be even worst. The former is a rip-off of a Sherlock Holmes story and the latter is as disappointing as it’s forgettable. Post’s fiction can have its charm, but his stories never seem to be able to deliver the goods in the end.

    I agree mostly with you on Commings and Hoch, but would place “Bones for Davy Jones” above “The Long Way Down” for the sheer originality of both the premise of the impossible situation and its solution. “The Man Who Read John Dickson Carr” is hands down one of the funniest genre parodies. John Sladek attempted something similar in his short-short, “The Locked Room,” but that one was more impressive for its story-within-story structure than its punchline.

    Chesterton’s best locked room story is not “The Invisible Man” or “The Oracle of the Dog,” but “The Miracle of Moon Crescent.” A story that has only been anthologized in Miraculous Mysteries. Just baffling!

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