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.
7. The Impossible Theft of 1,000 Rare Books [solution provided]
The setup here is simply too tantalising — an old monastery, a library filled with rare tomes that can only be reached through a single locked door at the end of a guarded passage, books that keep going missing nonetheless. The locks are changed, twice, to no avail. The room is searched over and over again, to no avail. Books keep vanishing… The solution is, as so often happens in real life, rather prosaic, but weirdly historically fitting at the same time. I would love someone with more creativity than I to turn this into a novel and stir in a ghost and some impossible murders, too…provided they come up with a better solution to this book vanishing, that is.
8. Murder on the Metro [no solution provided]
This is enough to get even the most jaded and cynical armchair detective to sit up and start sketching crime scene plans: passengers entering a train on the Paris metro flood into an empty carriage from the doors at either end…only to discover a body that has only just been stabbed sitting alone in the middle of the coach. Very little blood has yet been spilled, the weapon is still in evidence, the crowds barging in at either end would have made the murderer plainly visible…howdunnit? And, yes, of course suicide was ruled out — we’re not in the 19th century any more. Answers on a postcard once again…
9. Hanged Too High [solution provided]
The central impossible hanging is now familiar to folk as a sort of thought experiment, but no less interesting for that. What is compelling is the context surrounding this hanging — sure, the litany of events described herein could easily be attributed to a run of quit astounding bad luck, but the idea of this whole things being stage-managed by some elaborate Machiavellian genius behind the scenes is too tempting to ignore. Doubtless that’s just the fictional murder nerd in me getting carried away, though. Also recalls one of the better Lord Darcy short stories by Randall Garrett, though the solution here is very different to that one.
This is not from either.
10. The Murder of Isidor Fink [no solution provided]
Another piece of open-ended wonderment here, with a shooting that can’t be suicide — precluded not just by the absence of the gun but also the wounds — in a setting where the only two exits are locked on the inside and/or bolted and nailed shut. Two fictional resolutions to this do apparently already exist — anyone read them? There’s a simplicity to the arrangement that implies a lot of machinations would be needed to make it appear so uncomplicated…but, dude, I’d love to know how this was done. Failing that, I might try to track down those two takes on it to see what they’re like…
11. The Murder of King Edward II [solution provided]
This is another story I’d heard somewhere, my memory says at an early stage of my youth, but wasn’t sure of its veracity. Even the recitation of it here calls doubts on its own adherence to strict fact, but it’s a grim and suitably unpleasant thing to contemplate as an adult. Recalls aspects of one story by Hal White, though that runs in a very different direction…
12. Miracle on 42nd Street [solution provided]
Concerning a certain Mr. and Mrs. P who are separated on the New York subway — Mrs. P going ahead, her husband missing the train and having to wait for the next one — only for Mrs. P to arrive at her destination and find her husband there ahead of her. There is no way for the second train to have overtaken the first, so howdunnit? The effect of this is one of those clever things achieved in certain circumstances, and, frankly, I can’t think of a nicer little tale to round out these real life cases…the possible identity of the central couple no doubt jumping to the minds of many readers giving this an extra sense of rightness with the world.
The inclusion of these cases, and the brevity of their telling, goes a long way to enrich this anthology, providing a clear reminder that we can stumble into any such situation in our normal life — with only the slightest change of perspective making something seem unfathomable. It’s difficult to look for any links here because there really aren’t any to be found, so instead I ask you this: have you ever found yourself in a situation that might provide material for this type of real life impossibile situation? TomCat has made a record of this kind of thing over the years, my favourite example involving the novelist Jill McGown, which you can read about here, but I’m curious if anyone has any direct experience to share…