#293: On Narrowness in Impossible Crimes, via ‘Locked In’ (1939) by E. Charles Vivian

Miraculous Mysteries

I recently read, with no large amount of pleasure, Evidence in Blue (1938) by E. Charles Vivian.  However, I’m not a man to write someone off after one bad book.  So the presence of a locked room story by Vivian in the Martin Edwards-edited collection of such impossibilities Miraculous Mysteries (2017) from the British Library Crime Classics series was a chance to give him another go.

The story in question is ‘Locked In’ (1939) and features Superintendent Wadden and Detective Inspector Head from that previous novel.  In essence, they are called to a country house where The Squire has done gone shot hisself in the head, his body discovered alongside the gun in a room on the top floor with the door locked from the inside and the window similarly sealed.  A little moment of self-awareness sees Head immediately suspect the first person into the room (entry obtained by smashing the window, having seen the body inside), but first suicide must be excepted and then murder and method proven.

It is not a good story.  In fact, when you take in its vintage — a year after Carr’s The Judas Window (1938) and Rawson’s Death from a Top Hat (1938), the same year as The Problem of the Green Capsule (1939) — it’s really rather bad indeed.  The eventual solution belongs in something from the 1880s, and somewhat dampens my enthusiasm for the sole impossible crime novel Vivian wrote that Edwards mentions in his introduction to the story.  I’ll still not write Vivian off — though I’m less likely to jump at anything else he wrote — but he does seem to be a touch limited in his scope on these two occasions.  If the novel mentioned up top is waaaaay too long, the story here is too slight…and, in part, that may be part of the problem.

See, I think this setup is bloody hard to do well.  Not just shooting someone in a locked room — excellent examples inevitably exist, with ‘Duel of Shadows’ (1934) by Vincent Cornier and, oh, I don’t know, ‘The Dream’ (1932) by Agatha Christie springing to mind — but the fact that everything is so very, very sealed and the gun has to be in the room as well complicates matters somewhat.  The wound is determined to be immediately fatal, so it’s not as if he could have been shot elsewhere and barricaded himself in for his own safety, or been shot in the room and thrown his killer out and similarly locked himself away…the scope is immediately reduced.  I’ve spoken about interesting impossibilities before, and I think the main difficulty Vivian sets himself here is that it’s an archetypal locked room trying to be very fair in its presentation (the gun is the gun that shot him, he was shot in the room, there is no other access beyond the door and the window) and that is extremely hard to do well without a large degree of narrative chutzpah…something I fear Vivian lacks.

Take, for instance, Leonardo’s Law (1978) by Warren B. Murphy.  I shall not spoil it here, it’s too good a book for that, but the essential trick is something that could easily be worked in this brief a space and result in the same effect…but be a damn sight more creative and memorable for it.  Equally, the impossible shooting halfway through The House That Kills (1932) by Noel Vindry is a perfect example of how to set up, motivate, execute, and explain an impossibility of this ilk in very little space and time.  I deliberately choose two examples of locked room shootings that could be written in short story form because it seems only fair to compare like with like.  Yes, Carr’s The Hollow Man (1935) or Alice Arisugawa’s The Moai Island Puzzle (1989) admit similarly impossible shootings with no lack of élan, but also necessitate a lot more scope in their narratives to cover the events that allow and explain them.  In short, to achieve the sort of effect Vivian is going for, you need to be shameless in what you’re going to attempt.  Vivian is simply taking an easy way out with his solution, and it’s very disappointing, but I still think he deserves some respect for trying.

If you’re going to preclude the credulity of the victim required for the similar murder in The Peacock Feather Murders (1937) — another “shooting with the weapon in the room” that could possibly be made to work in short form — or get around the presence of the weapon via method used in Murder on the Way! (1935) by Theodore Roscoe then you’ve straight away made your setup far harder than most of the impossible shootings you’d care to name actually do.  Sure, they appear impossible in spite, and sometimes because, of the situations surrounding them, but that’s where the clever misdirection comes in.  They key to an effective impossible crime is to make any possible commission beyond consideration while in fact leaving a metaphorical window open.  Indeed, I have a theory that shootings lend themselves very poorly to this overall and that most of the great examples instead invoke knoves as their weapon of choice. but having recently learned the peril of veering off-topic mid-post I’ll perhaps leave that for a future reflection.

Vivian’s difficulty, then, is that he lacks the legerity to make the problem seem anything other than exactly what it is, and as soon as that happens you limit your options to a fatal degree, something that will anathematise you within the hallowed halls of the Grandest Game in the World.  One wonders if Vivian is spiritual kin to Walter S. Masterman in utilising plotting concepts from some 50 years prior, because both are capable of acute and incisive phrasing but find themselves adrift in the limited examples I’ve read when it comes to offering something new in this field.  But, as I say, I’m still reluctant to write Vivian off, and if the British Library republish his vanishing footprints novel Accessory After (1934) I’ll snap it up and perhaps then come to some judgement on the man and his writing.

19 thoughts on “#293: On Narrowness in Impossible Crimes, via ‘Locked In’ (1939) by E. Charles Vivian

  1. Well, I’ve got that anthology but not got to that one yet … (been bouncing around a bit – I always do that in anthologies, practically never read the items straight through … depends if you want to re-read stuff of course)

  2. I only read this story earlier this year, but can’t remember a thing about it and consulting my review of Miraculous Mysteries showed I had dismissed the story with a couple, non-descriptive sentences. So I’ll just concur with everything you said here about it.

    And about shootings inside a locked room… I have come across a ton of locked room novels and short stories, using a firearm, that offer explanations that hinge on slight variations of The Judas Window. The trick is actually over used at this point, but have to admit that I liked the basic idea, because it uses the properties of a small bullet to create the illusion of a murderer having entered, and left, an apparently locked or sealed room.

    • The judas Window trick works especially well where it’s not the sole focus, too, in my opinion. Carr did a good job stringing it out for a whole book, but you feel like once that was revealed the jig was up and more was needed to surround it. I’d wager it’s the first thing most of us think of when we hear “someone shot in a locked room” ut — as you say — the basic idea is strong enough on its own. I’ve read, but shall not name, plenty of novels that used this as part of their setup and pulled it off very well indeed.

    • Yes, I unfortunately have. The essential mechanics of that I actually don’t have a problem with — obvious though they were to this moderately seasoned reader. What I particularly dislike about TKiD is how the victim survives and then conveniently can remember nothing of the events he would clearly have seen just so we can get another 80-odd pages of plot. Gaaaaah!

      Perhaps that’s a future Verdict of Us All — a novel that should really be a short story…

      • What I particularly dislike about TKiD is how the victim survives and then conveniently can remember nothing of the events he would clearly have seen just so we can get another 80-odd pages of plot. Gaaaaah!

        Wasn’t that done to justify a visit to Wrightsville? Either way, I hated it.

        • In the leaky, dusty, clattering boiler of my memory I seem to recall that Ellery and Richard Queen don’t get off the island until the very end of the book once everything is resolved…several weeks after they first arrive. I could be misremembering, though.

          • Actually, when Ellery Queen learns that the three brothers were all born in Wrightsville, he decides to travel to Wrightsville to do some research and returns to the island after 16 days.

            • Thanks, Santosh — see, I said my memory was leaky.

              Should anyone require a breakdown of any embarrassing situation I’ve ever been in in my entire life, however, I have every single detail primed and ready to go…

        • I recall Ellery was allowed to (briefly) leave the island, while his father stayed behind, and visited Wrightsville during his time away. But maybe I remembered it wrong.

        • Somehow, I missed Santosh’s comment. Maybe it got posted before my comment was approved? Anyhow, good to know my memory is does not suffer from any leakage problems.

  3. Legerity! There’s a new word! As in “You don’t have the legerity to retire from public life.” Are we a sadistic bunch that we get such a kick out of reading you when you have finished something rotten? Frankly, JJ, I don’t understand how you can keep returning to Vivian if he never fails to disappoint.

    In other news entirely, I have just begun The Seven Wonders of Crime . . . . .

    • I didn’t think I went after Vivian that hard here, but maybe I’m wrong. And, to be fair to the man, it’s only twice he’s disappointed me, and reading ‘Locked In’ now just seemed a nice link to the previous review. (I would have read it anyway at some stage!). Around three or four bad experiences is when I consider checking out, Sometimes seven.

      Will be interested to see your thoughts on TSWoC when you finish it three months from now 😉

      • I fear Brad might have some problems with various components of the, admittedly, ambitious plot of The Seven Wonders of Crime. Not to mention the behavior of a certain character.

  4. I salute your policy to persevere with someone if they have at least something that sparks your interest. If my first Christie had been ‘The Big Four’ or ‘Postern of Fate’ or my first Henry Wade ‘The Litmore Snatch’, I might have missed out on some great reading. Besides, even if your next Vivian is a washout, we still get the review.

      • Well, it’s not actually an awful book, there’s just a callous tone and flatness which would have put me off, had I not read some much better ones first. I hope you like it more than I did. But if you don’t, read Mist on the Saltings and Lonely Magdalen before consigning Wade to the ‘authors who will never assist my TBR pile in its quest to be high enough to reach Jupiter, again’ pile.

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