And so we return to the multi-national short story impossibility-fest that is The Realm of the Impossible from Locked Room International. Once again, I’m taking a different selection of stories each week by approximate geographical grouping and comparing and contrasting the themes and approaches.
Rather than simply taking these in order of inclusion in the collection as I did last week — that would be far too easy to follow — I’m instead going to trace an approximate route through the continent, starting in the South-West and finishing up in the South-East.
From Portugal, we have ‘Lying Dead and Turning Cold’ (1952) by Afonso Carreiro, here in its first ever English translation from Henrique Valle. At heart this is a simple “body strangled in the snow with no footprints around it” tale, but it benefits from an almost European peasantry-level obsession with witchcraft and folk tales to enrich its background. A theme of long-gestating evil is carried over from the (unsolved) stories within the narrative’s own past feels like the sort of elaboration that would exist in small, isolated communities like the one sketched here — a trek through snowy woodland required to reach their destination, “high in the hills, nestled against the rocky, sterile slopes” — and in credulous times like the unspecified but keenly-felt era herein.
There’s an interesting overlaying of this sort of superstition and the wisdom placed in semi-prophetic dreams spooling out alongside the more modern story that provides the motivation of the actions herein: the rumoured return home of a man’s disgraced son. Interesting, too, is the Ellery Queen-citing challenge to the reader ensuring you that you possess all the necessary information to solve the crime. This is, surprisingly, true in this case, though to be fair it’s not the most baffling of solutions and many a reader will twig before the reveal, but the story nevertheless has a density and an oppression that marks it out from less successful attempts at the same concept.
A brace of stories from France next, the first chronologically coming from the unexpected quarter that is Alexandre Dumas (yup, that Alexandre Dumas). ‘House Call’ is an adaptation of two chapters from his novel Les Mohicans de Paris (1854) and concerns the supposed impossible abduction of a young woman from her boarding school during the night. It’s interesting to see a positive assertion made here in absolute confidence that would be later exploded in the genre as complete nonsense — namely the ability of someone to step in an existing set of footprints without it being obvious. Indeed, a lot of attention is paid to shoes and footprints here, and it’s difficult not to reflect how much this method of detection — an arrangement of nails on the sole, the wearing of one side of a shoe indicating a manner of walking — is completely out of vogue these days.
The trick here is, as acknowledged in the introduction, an old one now and simply explained, but it’s interesting to see it employed in this manner of story. Precisely why the crime in question needed to be accomplished in such as way as to make it appear impossible remains unclear…maybe to buy time? Still, there’s an udeniable charm to proceedings, it’s the sort of classic framing you’d happily read all day (or I would, anyway), reminiscent in its tone of Gaston Leroux with its clean, clear lines of investigation and the simple way observations are used to build up a too-detailed picture. The notion of this being quite revolutionary at the time is a quaintly diverting idea, and while this won’t surprise anyone it gets by on charm enough for three stories.
Our second French connection, and opening the collection overall, is ‘Jacob’s Ladder’ (2014) from Locked Room International mainstay Paul Halter. Here, the eldest of three detestable brothers, having been taken with a religious fanaticism, claims to have seen a golden ladder ascending into the sky. After several viewings of this phenomenon, he declares his intention to climb it…a scream is heard, a massive impact shakes the ground, and his dead body is found having clearly fallen from a great height. No tall trees or nearby buildings are sufficiently high to explain the injuries that lead to his death…so what happened?
The clewing here is really very good indeed — one aspect in particular — but the problem overall suffers from there only being one possible explanation, and therefore many readers will glom onto the pertinent details as they emerge. However, it’s an uncommon enough type of problem and it deserves kudos for the telling; Halter has done a huge amount of work in this field, and it’s wonderful to see him continuing to find ways to take on less-heralded types of this particular genus of problem. It’s also a far superior solution to the only other take I’ve seen on this impossibility, and benefits from Alans Twist’s armchair detection being especially shrewd and well explained.
A detour into Italy brings us to Pietro de Palma, maven of Death Can Read, and ‘The Barese Mystery’ (2017), an original story for this anthology. Here’s the locked room fan’s dream: an amateur with a keen interest in fictional impossible crimes called to the site of an impossible murder…the victim themself an avid reader of impossible murders. There’s more than a little of The Judas Window (1938) in the purity of the setup here — door locked from the inside, windows shuttered — and this demonstrates, in a way that was beyond E. Charles Vivian a couple of weeks ago, how to find a clever, simple, and retrospectively obvious way to resolve the situation.
The shame of it is that we’re not quite made privy to the process by which our detective achieves the solution — you’re more or less told “I had a look around the room for a bit, then I figured it out” — and there’s one key element arguably not revealed until after you’re told howdunnit, but for sheer inventiveness and an uncommon way to resolve this sort of setup I’d prefer to dwell on what de Palma has done well here. And it’s great to see that he, published in an anthology of some repute, is living the dream of an impossible crime blogger as much as his character is living the dream of an impossible crime reader. Congratulations, sir! Hopefully we’ll see more from you in future.
We now head north to Germany and ‘The Witch Doctor’s Revenge’ (2017) by Jochen Fueseler where we encounter a curse reaching out 13 years after being, uh, cast (?) to miraculously kill one man in a locked room and then cause both the body and a second man to vanish. It’s an ambitious setup and mostly works — the second vanishing won’t delight you, but the first is cleverly worked and there’s a very strong piece of misdirection in explaining…something that would need explaining. I didn’t initially buy the motive for this being impossible, but upon reflection it’s actually pretty savvy — as much as I thirst for more and more impossibilities, I like for there to be a good reason behind them, and this manages to do that very well. Good work.
What’s less pleasing is, and this will be difficult without spoilers, firstly the presentation of the crime (let’s say) and secondly the explanation of how it was worked. See, because part of the workings requires something to be done that is actually impossible. In the first paragraph of page 361, the action described in sentence beginning “Finally…” — how was that achieved at that time? It could be finally in the sense of “this is the final action that needs explaining” and it was done earlier, but then something else couldn’t be done. And but for this rather fatal flaw, this works superbly, so I’m especially bummed to have to raise it.
Still heading north, cross the border into the Czech Republic for ‘The Case of the Horizontal Trajectory’ (1966) from the convention-baiting Joseph Škvorecký, author of Sins for Father Knox (1988). An old woman stabbed in her bed behind a locked door, fine. But stabbed in such a way that it would have been impossible to definitely find the victim with such precision because the room was in complete darkness…now you’re talking. Maybe this is an improbable crime, since the probabilities are simply very, very small rather than zero, but I still really like it. It declares some information a little too late to be useful, but it also manages to do that thing of lulling you into an assumption that, once you realise it’s nonsense, should have been nonsense all along and you never noticed. I’m kind of a sucker for that sort of thing.
There’s a great sense of contrasting domestic setups, too, and more than a little filial angst and displeasure to go around, and Škvorecký has a great eye for communicating these furies and unhappinesses with precision. The solution may be a little far-fetched, but there’s plenty of Peter Robinson available if you want ordinary nonsense, and for the sense of oppression and lightness rubbing so close against each other I find this difficult not to recommend. The farceur done good, this is a lovely little story and deserves to be better known.
Keep heading north, and when you hit the Baltic Sea hire a rowing boat and make your way to Sweden. It’s okay, I’ll wait. This is the home of Ulf Durling and his story ‘Windfall’ (2014), in which a man confesses to a seemingly-perfect murder without giving any idea of how the murder was committed. The murder itself is presented in an interesting way — though giving a character props for using an idea from a Sherlock Holmes story without having read that story…when you, the author, clearly have…strikes me as odd — and I enjoy Durling’s tone (or at least the tone as it comes across in Bertil Falk’s translations) as I’ve said before. Again we have here a finely-spun sense of the domestic arrangements, with an emphasis on the influence of family that seems to be an increasingly Scandinavian (and, er, Czech Republic) facet of writing.
But, well, the resolution of this story overall is…odd. Firstly it relies on little in the way of actual proof, instead calling on much more acute psychology than I’d say is ever humanly possible, and secondly it requires a…uh, well, a leap of let’s say “logic” that I honestly can’t believe anyone would make, and especially not given the time frame involved. I applaud the fact the Durling has taken on this sort of problem and worked this sort of solution into the setup, but it has to be argued that we now see why this sort of thing is not used very often in these types of stories: because it doesn’t work.
A quick border-hop brings us to the top of the continent and Finland, with an extract from Aleksis Kivi‘s novel Seven Brothers (1870). This extremely short piece — less than a page-and-a-half — is nevertheless rather wonderful, concerning a man’s footprints suddenly turning into those of a fox mid-snowdrift. To get setup, detection, discovery, motivation, and resolution in such a short space is very canny and, to be honest, if I write two paragraphs about this I may end up giving things away or spoiling the brevity of an excellent discovery. Sure, some of you will see it coming, but admire the compactness of what is done here and be thankful you didn’t have to wade through a late-nineteenth century Finnish novel to find it. I’m also starting to think that footprints problems are my new favourites, especially when they’re as graceful as this.
Okay, there’s no easy way to get around this next leg: you need to head 3,500 kilometres south and about 2,500 years back in time. Yup, it’s old friend ‘Rhampsinitus and the Thief’ (c. 440 BC) from Herodotus, just pipping Poe to the earliest locked room mystery. Given the narrative callowness of the time, the storytelling here obviously leaves a lot to be desired, but the sight of this sort of thing being thrown around — scant on actual locked room details, it’s true, with access simply built in via a secret passage (no spoilers, this is like the third line) — from such a long time ago is quite a thrill. Sure, it seems like a more naive age and the narrative is necessarily simple, but from the perspective of pure genre history this is thrilling, charming, enlightening, and thankfully brief.
Whew, that was quite a trek! But overall well worth it, I feel — some of what has resulted from this continent displays a talent for the difficulty of the short-form mystery that we’d remain ignorant of were it not for this collection. It’s fair to say that the southern end of the continent appears to go more for atmosphere — shadowy stranger, folk tales, witchcraft, religion — where the northern reaches are much more relatable in terms of ordinary people in normal situations suddenly confronting a blank wall of the inexplicable. It’s a small sample size for such a sweeping generalisation, sure, but the level-headedness of the Scandinavian tales here does stand in stark contrast to the framing elsewhere that recalls to me the words of William Hazlitt: “How loth were we to give up our pious belief in ghosts and witches, so we could persecute the one, and frighten ourselves to death with the other!”.
Right, I’m off for a lie down. Next week: North Africa and the Middle East…