Simple criteria: novels only, readily available, not conceived in the fertile ground of John Dickson Carr’s imagination. I’ve also restricted the impossible crime to being the comission of the murder – people stabbed or shot while alone in a room, effectively – more to help reduce the possible contenders than anything else. Several stone cold classics are absent through the inclusion of other invisible events but that’s a future list (or five…).
Carr – doyen of the impossible crime, responsible for more brilliant work in this subgenre than any other three authors combined – will eventually get his own list (or five…), I just have to figure out how to separate them out; restricting it to five novels was hard enough for this list, but if you’re looking to get started in locked room murders these would be my suggestions:
Nine Times Nine (1940) by Anthony Boucher Take on the religious fanatics at your peril (Scientology, I’m not looking at you…not even glancing that far back in the dictionary)! One minute the killer’s not in the room, then you can see him through the window, and the next minute he’s gone…but all the windows were locked and the doors were either locked or observed from the outside (and, no, no-one is lying). Simple, compelling, superbly written. And the amateur detective is a nun! Boucher did not write enough crime novels, but was hugely influential in the genre and this shows you why. The sequel is, alas, really quite poor, but put that out of your mind and dive into this at the earliest opportunity. [Available from Orion in print and ebook]
Mr. Splitfoot (1968) by Helen McCloy Not technically a locked room, because the door is deliberately left open, but that’s mere nit-picking. No-one is near our stooge poor unfortunate when they peg it, so it’s still an impossible murder. Death By Vengeful Poltergeist is the initial verdict, practically a sub-subgenre of its own, but then if people will keep sleeping in haunted rooms what do they expect? Does the ‘group of people in a house and one of them must be the killer’ thing very well, there’s something almost classically Christie about it in that regard; I would have loved a map of the house, part of me just loves a crime scene map, but it’s a minor issue and a very clever idea that builds well on the foundations of the genre. [Available from Orion in print and ebook]
Sealed Room Murder (1951) by Rupert Penny Looking for a murder in a sealed room? Where better to start!? This is a witty, gorgeously-plotted mystery with clues all over the place, a virtual textbook in the long-game of setting everything up in the first two-thirds before paying off to maximum effect. There is even a series of diagrams come the explanation of this stabbing-in-the-back-while-alone-in-a-room that show how the whole thing was done, so don’t flick ahead or you’ll ruin it. Perhaps a bit technical for some, but I’ve never had a problem with clever technical schemes, and this is the origin of one of the cleverest. Of all my discoveries in recent years, Rupert Penny is probably my favourite and, though this was his final locked room, it’s a perfect introduction. [Available from Ramble House in print only]
Come to Paddington Fair (195?) by Derek Smith Until recently you would have to pay “we’ve kidnapped your children” quantities of money to spend five minutes in a room where a copy of this was rumoured to have once been, it was that rare. Thanks to the detective-like endeavours of John Pugmire, however, it’s now available to everyone. Not a locked room, but a shooting on a London stage that adds layer upon layer of cleverness until you’re staring a frank impossibility in the face. This was never published in Smith’s lifetime and his debut, Whistle Up the Devil, is probably better known and equally ingeniously impossible, but I want to advertise this so that people are aware of it as well. Don’t ask me to pick between them, however. [Available from Locked Room International in print and ebook]
The Big Bow Mystery (1892) by Israel Zangwill Not, as I first imagined, a mystery concerning a particularly large and ornate knot, but one instead set in the district of east London. Anyone rolling their eyes and considering it a token inclusion has my sympathies, because they’ve missed out on a truly exceptional little book. If you just want the murder of a lodger found with his throat slashed in his locked and sealed room, read only the first and last chapters and be done with it. If, however, you’re interested in how to convey social attitudes to class, convention, societal progress and the petty furies of human endeavour – I know, yawn, right – in a way that’s light on its feet and honestly, timelessly funny then read the intervening chapters too (the court proceedings still make me smile). And while doing this Zangwill is also innovating many of the ideas still used in crime fiction today, and with a freshness most contemporary authors can only dream about. Not too shabby for something over 120 years old, eh? [Available in various print versions, or free as an ebook, and recently republished by Collins as The Perfect Crime in print and ebook]
Disclaimer: opinions are my own, other novels are available, consult your doctor if symptoms persist.
13 thoughts on “#11: Five to Try – Non-Carr impossible murders”
Thanks for the recommendations! I’m always glad to stumble upon a post that recommends titles that I’ve not gotten round to reading/ buying, or that I’ve not even heard of… ‘Mr Splitfoot’ and ‘Come to Paddington Fair’ are awaiting reading – but I probably should get round to ‘Whistle up the Devil’ first. I think I’ve heard of Rupert Penny; I seem to think that he has written some Policemen novels?
If memory serves, there were eight ‘Policeman’ books (though not all of them have Policeman in the title – Shad Had to Have Gas, Sweet Poison, er, possibly one more), starting with The Talkative Policeman in about 1936. The four I’ve read are just wonderful classic puzzles, I recommend all of them unreservedly and would love to hear what you think of them. I need to get more Penny reiews on the blog, especially now Puzzle Doctor has kindly garnered me all this extra attention; word needs to be spread! Penny also wrote what I understand to be a straight thriller called Cut and Run under the name Martin Tanner, but I’ve not read it yet so can’t comment. Thankfully, all are available from Ramble House and not likely to disappear soon.
I’m afraid the Penny novel was the one on your list that I had not heard of prior to my visit to your review site. Though I vaguely recall reading a review of one of his Policeman novels… A preliminary search over the internet has yielded only exorbitantly priced copies of his novels. It would be nice to read a review or two of Penny’s novels. 🙂
I guess it depends on what you’re willing to pay, but the Ramble House editons shouldn’t be too pricey either through Amazon or Lulu. Failing that, you could contact Fender Tucker (the guys who runs RH) through the Ramble House website as he’s pretty fair on offering discounts…just a thought. Will get to reviewing Penny soon; got The Hollow Man tee’d up for this week, so might pick one and put something up the week after if you’re content to wait…
Oh, and you don’t have to read Whistle up the Devil before …Paddington Fair; there is at best a passing reference, but no outright spoiler as far as I remember. Both are awesome; when I eventually get round to finalising my top ten impossible crimes, one is going to have to be excluded and I seriously think it will have to be decided on the flip of a coin.
Thanks so much for the tip regarding Ramble House – I suspect I will be making some purchases soon…! 🙂 If I had to start with one of the Policeman novels, to see if I like them, which might you recommend?
Ah, delighted to hear it! Sealed Room Murder is a perfectly good introduction, but I’ll probably review Policeman’s Evidence next week if you want to have something to compare your own option to. PE is probably more of a classic puzzle, hence why I’m reviewing that first, but SRM is a beautifully complete novel that rewards your patience with a wonderfully involved solution…take your pick!
I was thinking of getting two, so thanks for the recommendations! 🙂
Hey JJ, just thought I would re-visit our conversation one year ago to say that I’ve finally got round to blowing the dust off my Derek Smith omnibus and reading ‘Whistle up the Devil’. I picked it up as I was in a mood for something intricately staged, and I definitely was not disappointed. 🙂 If ‘Come to Paddington Fair’ is as good as the debut, then I shall save it up as a treat for another occasion. Just wondering if you have read the novella included in the omnibus? If it doesn’t spoil ‘Paddington Fair’, I might read it first so as to save the best for the last. 😀
[On a related note concerning spoilers, while ‘Whistle up the Devil’ doesn’t technically reveal the solutions to the other novels it alludes to in one of the early chapters, there is nevertheless a clear indication as to which class of impossibilities Penny’s ‘Sealed Room Murder’ belongs to.]
One thought that came to me quite strongly was that Paul Halter’s works seem to come closer to ‘Whistle up the Devil’ than the writings of John Dickson Carr. Both Halter and Smith lean towards Gothic atmospheres, and their characters are somewhat cipher-like with one or two stark defining qualities – in particular, the nervous younger brother and the gorgeous fiance.
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Delighted you enjoyed WUtD so much. I think it’s a proper classic, though it’s rather late in the Golden Age, and it is such a shame that Smith didn’t write more — for my money, CtPF is even better again, as he does a lot more with a bigger cast and manages to unfold events in a manner that is both suspenseful and realistic…with an absolute kicker of a crime scenario once you get there. And, now you mention it, the Halter comparison is actually very apt…hadn’t thought of that before, it’s an excellent point.
The novella isn’t part of the Algy Lawrence canon, so should spoil nothing — it features Sexton Blake, but was apparently considered too cerebral and not really the kind of thing that the average Blake reader was after. I have not yet read it, partly because I’m saving it but mainly because I’ve had so much else to read.
Now go and spread the word about Derek Smith! Everyone needs to appreciate his brilliance!
Glad to hear from you JJ – hope all is well at your end. 🙂
I shall read the novella before ‘Come to Paddington Fair’, and leave the best for the last. But my TBR pile is getting higher, as I’ve just received some books from Ramble House: two more Penny novels (non-Policeman), one Afford, and one Burton. 😀
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