This coming Tuesday sees the final instalment in my month-long look at Locked Room International’s multi-national impossible crime short story collection, and I thought I’d take this opportunity to address an oversight Puzzle Doctor, TomCat, and I have all been guilty of: the 12 real-life cases also contained within.
Covering a range from historical hearsay to personal experience, these quick little snippets of the impossible shown possible in everyday life (the longest runs to a page-and-a-half) are fascinating for two reasons — firstly in that it goes to underline just how such appearances actually can be achieved, and secondly because in a handful of cases there is as yet no solution to the problem as posed…so prepare for your mind to work overtime! I couldn’t quite decide on whether to take a Top 5, or a Most Alphabetical Seven, or even a Assign a Fictional Sleuth and Determine How They’d Solve It, so instead I’ll simply precis all of them and add whatever thoughts I have as I have them. This will result in more being said about some than others but, well, life is like that sometimes, hey?
So, with only this much extra ado, here we go:
1. Louis Calhern’s Weakness [solution provided]
I made reference to this in last Tuesday’s post: the story of an alcoholic actor who is locked in his meticulously-searched hotel room every night without any access to the booze that so blights his performances and yet is found blind drunk in the morning. This is one of those fun ones, where the answer is as enjoyable as the setup itself — in fact, there’s a chance Calhern may even have stolen it from a famous and well-regarded locked room novel, which simply makes it more delightful.
2. Moving Coffins [no solution provided]
Early 19th century Barbados is the fitting setting of this mystery of the coffins within a family vault being violently disturbed — flung across the sealed space, not merely shifted around a bit — without there being any way for them to have been moved. Echoes of a particular Jonathan Creek episode abound here, as do similarities with the Elizabeth Peters story in this very collection, but the additional difficulties of the tomb being opened repeatedly to this disarray and earthquakes and flooding ruled out give this an added piquancy. Answers on a postcard…
3. Bridge to Death [solution provided]
Cites the story referred to in S.S. van Dine’s The Greene Murder Case (1928) — which also gave rise to a Sherlock Holmes story — of a man found shot at close range on a bridge and the way this achieves an impossible aspect. Most interestingly, this then goes on to cite a more modern extrapolation of the same idea that may well have been gleaned from an episode of CSI: Crime Scene Investigation. For all its relative hoariness — even Father Brown stole this idea, though that’s not exactly a revelation — I still think there’s a great story to be told utilising this method. One has occurred to me, in fact, so maybe if LRI do another one of these collections I’ll see if I can replicate Pietro de Palma’s success and join the ranks of legit published short story writers.
4. Death of the Empress Elisabeth [solution provided]
An inverted telling, this, which talks you through the commission of the crime and then goes on to explain how it may have seemed impossible. A method seen elsewhere — most recently that I’m aware of in one of the best episodes of Sherlock — that I still sort of love for its gimmickry. Be aware, too, that this telling of the tale spoils Georgette Heyer’s Envious Casca (1941), but in reality you’re being done a favour there — it’s not a good book, and you’re saving time cooped up with miserable, horrible people that could instead be spent familiarising yourself with Max Afford or E.C.R. Lorac.
5. Mass Murder in the Basement [solution provided]
I’m not a squeamish man by any measure, but this story of a mother and her children found dead in their cellar as a suspected murder-suicide is creepy and more than a little unsettling. Legitimate detection wins the day, and as methods go it seems the height of innovation for the late 19th century commission of the crime…but, man, it’s more than a little dark.
6. Houdini Defeated [solution provided]
If you wish to get technical, this isn’t an impossibility at all. But I am delighted to learn that what I thought was an apocryphal story about Harry Houdini being locked in a prison cell and unable to crack the lock on the door is in fact true. That’s all I have to say, really, except that the disappointing impossible crime novel The Dime Museum Murders (1999) by Daniel Stashower ends with a different imagining of a similar event, which may be where my confusion comes from.