Of late, I have found myself surrounded by invisible men. Entirely fictional, of course, but there have been a lot of them: shooting someone in an empty room in You’ll Die Laughing (1945) by Bruce Elliott, disappearing into darkness in I’ll Grind Their Bones (1936) by Theodore Roscoe, vanishing from rooms and beaches in Thursday’s forthcoming Wilders Walk Away (1948) by Herbert Brean, performing miracle appearances and disappearances as I reread Rim of the Pit (1944) by Hake Talbot…everywhere I look, people are vanishing.
This came to a head in the current issue of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, which contains a new short story from Paul Halter entitled ‘The Yellow Book’ that happens to be an example of my very favourite vanishing murderer trick: the no footprints problem. You know the score: someone is killed in a manner that requires their killer to be close to them, but they’re standing on soft or easily-marked ground — snowy, muddy, sandy, freshly painted — and the only footprints in evidence are those of the victim. There is something about this particular trick that gives me a real kick, and the examples of it in fiction run the gamut from the sublime to ‘The Sands of Thyme’ (1954) by Michael Innes.
‘The Yellow Book’ contains a setup as delightfully hoary as it is instantly recognisable and thrilling: a group of people gather to communicate with spirits, only for the spirits to tell them that a murder has been committed. Halter’s twist on this is then especially delicious: not only is there murder, but it’s being committed at that very moment and by one of the people sat at the table. Someone takes this seriously enough to investigate and — long story short — a murder is indeed discovered that took place at the time indicated, but the house in which is occurred was locked up and the recent snowfall surrounding the house shows no sign of anyone having entered or left. It should go without saying, but let’s not risk it, that only the victim is present inside…
Halter is doubling down on my two favourites here — I love a séance, too — and returning to ground that has reaped fertile fruit for him before: The Fourth Door (1987, tr. 1999), The Lord of Misrule (1994, tr. 2006), The Seven Wonders of Crime (1997, tr. 2011), and The Vampire Tree (1996, tr. 2016) are the Halter novels thus far translated by John Pugmire that all offer up their own take on how to kill someone without leaving footprints behind (and there’s one in the short story collection The Night of the Wolf, too) and each solution is as clever as it is distinct. There’s one particular solution trope in this style of story that has been used time and again — from Agatha Christie’s ‘The Idol House of Astarte’ from The Thirteen Problems (1932) to Edward D. Hoch’s ‘The Man from Nowhere’ (1956) and countless others before, between, and since — that (hang on…checking…checking) Halter has not only avoided but also made seem positively trite by the diversity he’s brought to this type of problem. If someone stabs me to death without leaving any footprints, I hope it’s anywhere near as creatively achieved.
At this point I started doing the inevitable — that is, compiling a list of the best and worst such examples in the short form — but I’ve decided against that because, well, it’s not like I’m going to recommend anything most of you won’t think of: from the wonderful end of the spectrum represented by ‘No Killer Has Wings’ (1960) by Arthur Porges and ‘The Silver Curtain’ (1940) by Carter Dickson, through the interesting-but-flawed ‘Murder at an Island Mansion’ from The Mysteries of Reverend Dean (2008) by Hal White, all the way down to Innes. There are people far better placed than I to do this (which, no, hasn’t stopped me in the past), and recommending individual stories still necessitates the buying of a collection or anthology that may not be of interest in quite the same way.
Instead, I wondered if it might be possible to categorise these problems in a manner not unlike (yet legally distinct from) the far broader sweep of locked room murders as Gideon Fell does in The Hollow Man (1935) — a novel that contains, lest we forget, a no footprints murder all of its own. So, well, here goes…
Category 1: The victim is killed by the first person to approach or discover them
Through coincidence, connivery, or collaboration, the victim is in fact unaware they are intended to be a victim until they are approach by their killer who kills them and then ‘discovers’ that they have been stabbed, shot, poisoned, or otherwise dispatched with. This holds equally well whether there are witness on hand or not, and includes victims carrying their killers on their shoulders under the impression they are wounded, or playing a game, or involved in any other chicanery.
Category 2: The victim was killed by an action committed earlier, and dropped dead without anyone realising anything was wrong, giving the impression of an impossible murder
Perhaps a refinement of the above, extending to include the last person to see them before they died as opposed to the first person to approach them ‘after’ their death.
Category 3: The victim was killed previously and placed in a position to make it appear their death occurred impossibly
A further refinement of Category 2, but distinct enough to warrant it. This allows for a dead body to be placed as if it has recently died, and then an impression of life given by chicanery to throw off suspicion, or for the killer to — for example — walk in snow carrying the dead body and escape in such a way as to leave no departing footprints of their own (via balloon, say), or dump a dead body in seemingly impossible circumstance by firing it out of a canon.
Category 4: There is a means of egress which is overlooked due to careful clewing or misrepresentation
A subcategory of the above. One example of this had a killer walking on planks between stones on a beach, the stones being close enough together to support the ends of the planks so that no marks were left on the sand; some good examples in this category do also exist, but, well, spoilers…
Category 5: The victim is killed by someone in the vicinity by use of a concealed mechanical projectile
Giving the impression of a sudden stabbing by a ghostly killer, but in fact a knife or other weapon is fired by an air gun, miniature trebuchet, or some other hidden means that enables the act to be committed in full view and perhaps make this appear a Category 1 killing. If there are no witnesses, this does not have to be a concealed device, of course.
Category 6: It is suicide or an accident, made to appear murder by some coincidence or misrepresentation
The victim may or may not wish their death to appear mysterious, and by accident or design ends up creating an impossible situation. Not as dissatisfying as it first sounds, as, again, I have read some superb examples that have done exactly this.