When I first realised that impossible crime fiction was a thing — oh, happy day! — I did an internet search and came up with two priceless resources: this variety of lists on Mystery*File with an excellent introduction by John Pugmire (who went to form Locked Room International) and this list of recommended books from locked room conoisseur TomCat.
TomCat’s love of an impossible situation is well-documented, but following a disappointing run of more recent impossible crime novels, a feeling of inanition was creeping into this joy, and so I offered to brave these non-classical waters in an attempt to dig up something unheralded which would hopefully reinvigorate that passion (this before the discovery of Roger Ormerod, which has done the job without any help from me…).
Somewhere in the back of my mind was a vague notion that the son of a United States President had written some mysteries about his father’s time in office, and that one of them featured a locked room mystery. Thank-you Google, Inc. for helping me to discover that this was the case, and that the son of FDR had indeed published this title in 1989, one of a raft of mysteries featuring Eleanor Roosevelt as an amateur sleuth involved in crimes and shenanigans during her husband’s presidency. It seemed an interesting background for an impossible crime, and written by someone who had enough of an insight into the people involved to probably do a half decent job. So, is it one for TomCat and the ages?
Well, thankfully, it’s not quite the unabashed hagiography one might fear, and Roosevelt displays some pleasantly evocative turns of phrase and uses of mood while also acknowledging the flaws in the people involved. Eleanor Roosevelt is a sleuth in the Jessica Fletcher mode (hey, Murder, She Wrote would have been huge at the time), but moments of doubt abound: reflecting that her husband tends to prefer taking his breakfast in bed with his devoted secretary sitting nearby in her nightgown, or about to comfort a grieving widow and reflecting that “the situation demanded poise she was not sure she had”. Some of the semi-prominent nominal ‘good guy’ characters display era-appropriate flaws late on, too, which while not exactly laced with acerbic distaste also don’t leave them as incorruptible exemplars of The Good and the True.
It’s true that Roosevelt does tend to introduce characters by telling you everything about their appearance, their job, their role, and any notable events in their past before allowing them to say anything, but equally his dialogue captures them as people very well indeed, and he will throw in some wonderful touches and turns of phrase, like saying of the chain-smoking Louis Howe that “the thick smoke simply disappeared into him; very little of it ever trickled out”. The writing is laced with tiny anachronisms, too, such as Negro-only hotels or investigators physically tracing (onto wax paper) a signature from the register in a hotel, which hints at the 1934 setting without bludgeoning you to death with it.
And on the subject of death…
The suicide of a congressman in the Oval Office with all the doors and windows locked and bolted from the inside doesn’t get off to a great start, with the observation that…
…the bullet had entered the head from behind the right ear and had not exited; it was still in the brain.
…swiftly followed by the assertion that…
The wound on his forehead was no neat hole; it was a gaping rupture of flesh and bone.
…so you spend most of the book wondering if he was shot in the front or the back of the head. However, the setup and investigation of this murder (no spoiler, that; it’s in the title) is given a surprising number of pages. We get a map of the West Wing, a diagram of the bolt mechanism on the doors, a conversation mentioning The Big Bow Mystery, and Arthur Conan Doyle having written “something of the like”, as well as something approximating the suggestion of false solutions that can be discarded because of XYZ in the physical evidence, and a description where the murder “bolted the doors, dissolved, and went up the chimney like a wisp of smoke”. Roosevelt is actually trying to use this locked room conceit, and he commits a good chunk of the novel to doing so.
Allow me to thoroughly torpedo your hopes, though. For all his very good writing — I genuinely enjoyed reading this, much more than I thought I would — the locked room solution is basic at best. Sure, he has a lot of fun with it, but it’s an old idea that we’ve seen a huge number of times before. It’s fair probably on the basis of its familiarity, but there are really no proper clues, and the divining of the method is achieved by someone remembering a childhood prank they pulled while at school…which is a little disappointing, as I’d hoped for a more rigorous route up to what seemed to be an obvious solution once the appropriate information was given.
For all its faults it’s a good time, and while Roosevelt doesn’t strike me as the most adaptable or revolutionary of mystery authors I would read something else by him if there’s another impossibility in his oeuvre. I had a pretty good idea who his guilty party was, but since at least some of the people in here are actual historical figures — famous names like Lyndon B. Johnson, Jean Harlow, Bing Crosby, and J. Edgar Hoover fly past, but some of FDR’s cronies must be real, too — I couldn’t guarantee that they were getting some focus on account of them later featuring prominently in actual history at some point. I shan’t tell you if I was right. That’s half the fun.
So I dunno, TomCat. You could do much worse for writing, plotting, enjoyment, and general fun, but it’s far from original or blisteringly necessary. I shall not consider my offer fulfilled on this alone, though, so keep an eye out for future instalments…
Finding a Modern Locked Room Mystery ‘for TomCat’ attempts: