#304: The Realm of the Impossible [ss] (2017) eds. John Pugmire and Brian Skupin – Week 4

Realm of the Impossible

You know the drill by now, and if not, where have you been?  Locked Room International put out this 430-page collection of obscureness and rarities in impossible crime fiction from the world over, and I’ve been going through it sort of continent-by-continent (not really, though, it’s much looser than that).

Here’s what’s elsewhere:

Week 1: The United Kingdom and Ireland
Week 2: Mainland Europe
Week 3: North Africa and the Middle East
Intermission: The Real Life Impossibilities
Week 5: Australia and the Americas

Which, now you’re all caught up, brings us to…

Week 4: India, China, and Japan

255px-flag_of_india-svgIndia first, and ‘The Venom of the Tarantula’ (1933) by Sharadindu Bandyopadhyay.  Essentially an update of Poe’s ‘The Purloined Letter’ (1844) in that a room known to contain something — in this case the eponymous drug — is searched repeatedly with no success, and yet the substance under detection is clearly present because the crotchety old man in the room is still getting high.  Watch though they might, his family cannot seem to restrict his access to the drug…so, howdunnit?

It’s an entertainingly-written story, and benefits from a good couple of potential false leads, but my difficulty with this type of thing is how the client always goes “We’ve thought of everything!” and then has clearly overlooked one gigantically obvious thing.  And, indeed, just as I started thinking “Hmmm, this is remarkably similar to [insert title of another short story that fails to impress me]” the solution to this is pretty much exactly the solution to that.  Now, yes, you’ll accuse me of knee-jerk reactionism on account of this similarity, but I just don’t buy these impossibilities that rely on blatant oversight.  Something more subtle is called for in my world.

It’s worth mentioning that one of the real life impossibilities contained herein is not dissimilar to this: the actor Louis Calhern is locked in his hotel room every night following a rigorous search but is always found blind drunk in the morning.  The solution to this is less subtle while also quite sly, and it made me laugh out loud.

taiwan-flagNext up is ‘The Miracle on Christmas Eve’ (2016) from Taiwanese author Szu-Yen Lin, whose novel Death in the House of Rain has just been published by LRI.  This is a beautifully child-like fable about the existence of Santa Claus that really benefits from simple, linear storytelling rooted in the clear, stark terms of how the very young see the world.  A boy whose schoolmates mock his belief in Santa is encouraged by his father to invite the group to stay in the house on Christmas Eve and, after taping up and locking the windows and doors to a room, a Christmas tree and various presents manage to appear inside without any of the seals being broken.

I like the lack of razzmatazz here: the solution is actually pretty workable and feels likely in the circumstances.  The sight of Santa and his reindeer flying across the moon I’m not so sold on, but the tree, presents, music box, and explanation work in a way that fits perfectly with the tone and intent of the story.  I’m less a fan of the cloying letter which then turns up at the end to spell out that which was best left implicit, but I suppose others more socially adjusted than me will enjoy that aspect of things.  All told, this bodes well for Death in the House of Rain, and I’m excited to see how he builds on this promise with a full-length mystery.

198Two tales from Japan wind up this week.  The first is ‘The Lure of the Green Door’ (1991) by Rintaro Norizuki, in which an avid book collector apparently commits suicide in his study having prophesied that “the green door will open” following his death.  Said door is one of two that open from the study: this one having been stuck fast for years and years, and the other one being bolted on the inside and broken in by the emergency crew when the death was discovered.  Norizuki’s amateur sleuth — called, er, Rintaro Norizuki — happens upon the case when the widow claims the dead man’s ghost appeared before her and asked her not to fulfil the terms of the will he wrote before his death.

It sounds a little busy, perhaps, but it’s one of the finest short form impossible crimes I’ve read in a long time.  The introduction to this story says the solution is original, and it certainly doesn’t disappoint: at the moment of revelation I had a sudden realisation of what the answer was and again laughed out loud…only for the solution to actually be something else that made me laugh even louder.  Possibly it involves rather too many people to work in reality — you’ll see what I mean — but this is simple, direct, perfectly fair, and genius-level brilliant, finding yet another wrinkle in how to resolve this type of impossibility.  Ye gods, I hope we get more of Norizuki’s stuff in English before too long…

198And so, on the subject of authors whose work needs more translated, we finish with Soji Shimada and ‘The Locked House of Pythagoras’ (2013).  Here we have a youthful Kiyoshi Mitarai — who would go on to solve The Tokyo Zodiac Murders (1981) — involving himself in the murder of a local artist and his mistress, both found inside a locked room inside a locked house surrounded by footprints which do not enter the premises.  It is, no doubt, a uniquely Japanese take on this kind of mystery: when you pause a moment to consider things, there’s a striking presentation of the crime, and more than enough complexity and adversity to fuddle even the most incisive armchair detective.

I’m pretty sure it doesn’t make a lick of sense — compare the elaboration here with the simplicity of Norizuki or Lin — but this is in no way intended to malign Shimada’s efforts: part of the joy of this subgenre is watching the great lengths someone can twist patterns from, and this is a sheer euphony of complexity and revelation.  One slight complaint, and doubtless a cross-cultural thing, is that the precise workings of the window locks is important for a small aspect and it’s difficult to convey their operation in a written way…but, that’s fine.  You’ll never figure the rest of it out anyway, so one extra complication is hardly going to undo it all.

Seriously, though, why has no more Shimada been translated?  He must have some absolute classics in his bibliography…when are we going to get them in English?!


Is there an overall theme to draw on here?  There’s definitely more of a focus on personal space and architecture here than elsewhere in this collection — the use of the familiar trappings of the home, the safe and secure place where things are familiar and the outside world should not intrude, as a hotbed of the inexplicable and baffling.  And this feels like a very deliberate attempt to bring the consequences of the crimes to bear on the people involved — there’s no palliative effect of it being on an anonymous train, or a beach, or the side of a mountain…these settings are close to the hearts of the people involved, and the ramifications of these crimes are intended to linger and be felt, you can’t help but sense, by people down the generations.  If — and I dispute the claim myself — GAD simply was “snobbery with violence”, then the Eastern shin honkaku take on the puzzle plot is at last bringing back the personal substance of it all.

Next week, to finish up, Australia and the Americas…

22 thoughts on “#304: The Realm of the Impossible [ss] (2017) eds. John Pugmire and Brian Skupin – Week 4

  1. I, too, wish that more Soji Shimada will be translated into English. Much of his oeuvre has been translated into Chinese, but my command of this language is such that I will be much happier reading his works in English. I seem to gather that the translation rights for Soji Shimada’s second novel, ‘Slanted Mansion’, have been procured – but there’s no sign of an imminent publication?

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Nice review, JJ.
    It’s a joy to know that there’s so much good literature out there, waiting to be unlocked. If we could only breed babel fish (but they would have to work for the printed word too and ‘put this fish in your eye’ is an unappealing proposition, not to mention impractical).


  3. I actually went through a brief Bandyopadhyay enthusiasm last year and got three collections of his translated short stories (from Penguin/Puffin, as I recall) … ultimately, the settings and characters are exotic and interesting but the mysteries are less than superb. I also solved the mystery of the story you read pretty much as the main clue was revealed. But there’s a great deal of charm in his writing, hearkening back to an earlier age.
    Someday I’ll have enough material to write an article about the flourishing trade in GAD plots among writers in South Asia. Apparently the copyright situation in places like Bangladesh is sufficiently different that a well-known author can write his own “James Bond” series of hundreds of novels … I once had an unpleasant online discussion with an Urdu mystery enthusiast who was horrified to learn (and pretty much didn’t believe) that his favourite mystery writer had been reworking what seemed to be the entirety of John Dickson Carr into Urdu. We did agree that the central premise of The Judas Window was brilliant, just not who was responsible for it.
    I should of course add that this “borrowing” has nothing at all to do with Bandyopadhyay, whose work is entirely his own.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Thanks for clearing that up about Bandyopadhyay’s stories — pretty much what I expected, but it’s always nice to have these things confirmed. They’re the sort of thing I imagine I’d buy if I happen upon them while secondhand book shopping, but I’m unlikely to make the effort to track them down.

      Love that JDC story. Reminds me of Their Brilliant Careers, a connected sereis of shrort stories about fictional authors, in which one of the authors works in Cutsoms and is able to suppress all copies of a book before it enters the country (we’re talking Ulysses and other classics). He then retypes them and claims the work as his own. Many years later this leads to two schools of thought: those who believe he’s the original author and was ripped off by Joyce and the like, and the others who maintain that he’s the plagiarist…it’s funnier than I make it sound, too.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. “Seriously, though, why has no more Shimada been translated? He must have some absolute classics in his bibliography…when are we going to get them in English?!”

    There was a mention on Adrian McKinty’s blog some time ago, that Shimada had contacted him to thank him for recommending “The Tokyo Zodiac Murders”, since the English translation by Pushkin Press had apparently sold pretty well, so much so that the publisher was considering having more of Shimada’s mysteries translated, but apparently this is either still a work in progress or they have given up on the project.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Hi, I’m pleased to be able to tell you that I’ve just finished translating Soji Shimada’s Murder at the Crooked House, a sequel to the Tokyo Zodiac Murders, and it will be released in January 2019 by Pushkin Vertigo.



    • I could not be more delighted by this news — thank-you so much for your efforts and for letting us know. We’re all very excited to be getting more Shimada in English…!


  6. Sorry to dig this post up from the past, but I was just about to translate “The Miracle on Christmas Eve”, and I managed to find a discrepancy almost immediately on the first few pages. 🙂

    Do you (or anyone else) know who the translator of this lovely story is? I’d like to get in touch just to get clarification on the young boy’s age. He’s said to have lived for 28 years in Hualien, and yet it’s only been 16 years since the Miracle when he was seven years old…


    • Meh, scratch that. It later turns out that the Miracle actually took place when the boy was twelve years old, so I guess that could actually work in the stated time frame.


      • Fair enough! For future reference, I believe Lin does his own translating — he certainly did for Death in the House of Rain…which presumably means we have to wait for him to finish writing whatever he’s working on before we have any chance of any further translations…dammit.


  7. Pingback: Locked Room Stories I’m Reading: Rintarō Norizuki “The Lure of the Green Door” 1991 (Trans. Ho-Ling Wong) – A Crime is Afoot

  8. Pingback: Locked Room Stories I’m Reading: Sōji Shimada “The Locked House of Pythagoras” 1999 (Trans. Yuko Shimada and John Pugmire) – A Crime is Afoot

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