A rare glimpse into the nascent Australian detective field kicks us off — ‘Dead Man in the Scrub’ (1867) by Mary Fortune. Given Australia’s general culture being strung between the dual lines of the US and the UK, this unsurprisingly straddles the same divide — the discovery of a dead body inside a tent sealed up on the inside is what kicks us off, and from there it turns into a sort of Frontier western tale of convenience and coincidence that recalls Conan Doyle’s A Study in Scarlet (1887) as much as Melville Davisson Post (about whom more later).
Being the early days of this sort of thing, it doesn’t quite convince and the sealedness of the tent is explained early on, but it is fascinating to see this kind of story being taken in within a culture (that of prospectors) about which there has been very little written in detective fiction. It benefits from being contemporary to its writing, too, and while it will be no-one’s favourite story it’s a great little stepping stone to have in place for those of us who take keen interest in the history of the form.
Cross an ocean to South America and Argentina, where ‘The Twelve Figures of the World’ (1942) by Jorge Luis Borges and Adolfo Bioy Casares gives us a classical armchair detective to whom problems are brought and from whom explanations are received without his having to even step outside to investigate. The twist here is that our detective is imprisoned, and the problem brought to him concerns a man whose apparent psychic powers are unleashed by his inculcation at the hands of a cult whose precise nature I don’t think is ever made clear.
The trick here is a familiar one, and only really works on account of the loose, surreal feeling developed by the hazy and unhurried manner of the writing. I don’t dislike it, but it’s a story I find more interesting because of how it demonstrates the fluidity of the idea behind impossible crimes than because of its actual, y’know, quality. The interpolation of this manner of sleight of hand into a story-form that is probably doing something far loftier than merely telling an entertaining story is very interesting to me, but the story as a whole is a little frustrating and does not stand up well against the others selected herein.
Four stories from the USA round us out, so we’ll track them approximately geographically, too.
To get us into space, I’m going to assume a take-off from Kennedy Space Centre in Florida, and bring in ‘The Martian Crown Jewels’ (1956) by SF classicist and all-round legend Poul Anderson that way. What we have here is an impossible theft of the eponymous gems that were on an unmanned ship travelling from Earth back to Mars, and the consultation of effectively the Martian Sherlock Holmes in figuring it out. No-one has been near the ship since it left, the odds of someone being able to track and find the ship are impressively communicated as near-zero, and there’s a typically hard SF use of trajectories and momentum to further reinforce this anyway…so howdunnit?
Given the number of authors who struggle to make the familiar surrounds of a country house or a small village ring true, it’s wonderful to see Anderson so completely commit to and sell his Martian settings. And with a legitimate joke in there, too! Nonsense vocabulary abounds, but never in a way that seeks to overwhelm you with confusion and slip by some lazy bullshit in its wake. Nothing so slapdash for Anderson, whose reputation may not be quite what it was, but the rigour and cleverness of what unfolds here will hopefully go some way to addressing that. A great little story, and a timely reminder that I still have After Doomsday (1962) sitting on my shelves and should really read it before too long.
Strike out north for West Virginia, home of Melville Davisson Post‘s religious maniac Uncle Abner, who never met a situation he couldn’t somehow bring God into and get all preachy about. Thankfully, in ‘The Hidden Law’ (1914) we get plenty of the rich prose Post wrote so well, which goes some way towards making such bible-thumping actually quite a pleasure to read:
Men like Betts, cautious and secretive, are dumb before disaster. They conceal the deep mortal hurt as though to hide it from themselves.
Alas, this pleasure extends to the prose only, not the content, as said content is often offensively brusque in its treatment of anyone who doesn’t sign up wholesale to the Lord and His Ways. But there’s no getting around the fact that this is a sumptuously-told tale of a miser whose gold is stolen from his locked, barred, isolated house.
The solution is a disappointment on par with the far more famous ‘The Doomdorf Mystery’ (1914) — probably Post’s The Hollow Man in how often you can’t mention the one without the other, though of course nowhere near as important or good — not least because this one leaves so many questions unanswered. What does set it apart is the motive, however, which is appropriately prepared for and shows some tolerance and a pleasing degree of collusion on Abner’s part (he’s a humourless bastard most of the time). If Chesterton’s content was this well conveyed, I would be a Chesterton acolyte. Post is a tougher prospect to line up behind, however.
To finish, two not just American stories but two “two men trapped in an isolated, snowbound cabin” impossibilities, taking place towards the northern end of the continent…
The first, ‘Deadfall’ (1958), is the sole impossibility from the mind of Samuel W. Taylor. The situation is achieved easily — friends on a hunting trip, a freak injury, shelter sought in the nearest (deserted) cabin, then snow trapping them there — but what comes out of it is a psychological horror story quite unlike anything you’ve read in the genre. It’s essentially a “footprints in the snow” story at first glance, but as it goes on, Taylor does something very clever and very subtle to shift the focus and expectation of what’s happening.
In only ten pages this is more effective and more inventive than many novels get to be — goddamn, I’d have loved this to be about six times as long, but that’s probably just all the Hollywood movies I’ve watched. Brevity is sometimes your friend. It’s not without niggles, as is often the way with finely-poised works of this ilk — the final line, for instance…I can’t believe things would play out that way, the opening impossibility being achieved in eight inches of snow seems…complicated, and it shares a lot in common with a story by Carr — but it’s a delight of confounded expectations, and plays the form perfectly.
Finally, then, and fittingly, the last word goes to short story specialist Edward D. Hoch and ‘The “Impossible” Impossible Crime’ (1968). Again a cabin surrounded by snow, again two men trapped in the vicinity, but this time one of them is murdered and the other one was not the murderer. I’ve not read much Hoch, something I’ve been meaning to correct for a while now, but this is a nice one — the method and reasoning covered well, even if the mechanics are revealed in a sort of “and then I realised all these complicated things at once…!” sort of way.
One point of interest here is how the situation, cast, and motive are the same in both cases — the last one there being a sort of Bechdel test in reverse. I don’t consider that a spoiler, because the limitations of the information provided — and the fact that you know an impossible crime is in the offing — sort of make it inevitable. I’d possibly not have noticed this so much if I hadn’t happened to finish with these two, though for any normal person reading these stories in the order they’re anthologised there is only one story between them and so the comparison is probably deliberate on the part of the editors.
So, what can we deduce from the selection above? With the exception of the Borges/Casares story — and that’s intended as a sort of parody anyway — there’s a clear obsession with isolation and open spaces (Anderson perhaps taking this further than the rest…). If the Eastern fixation on the home from last week is a feature of that culture’s approach to this type of story, the Western tales from these vast countries seem determined to go the opposite route and throw everything as far away as possible: leave everyone on an uneven footing, make the space around them a part of the narrative as much as are the events within. It’s a small sample size from which to draw such conclusions, but it certainly seems to have some basis in what we see in this collection.
And the collection overall? Well, it’s rather fabulous — with a very high proportion of strong stories and more than enough rarities, curiosities, and legitimate invention to warrant its place on the shelves of anyone with an interest in this kind of thing. It’s delightful to see someone going to the efforts that must have been involved here to bring us something out of the ordinary — traditional publishers take note, this is what you should be doing: read this, read Otto Penzler’s Black Lizard Book of Locked Room Mysteries, read the British Library’s Miraculous Mysteries collection and newly-published Foreign Bodies, read the two Mike Ashley compendiums, and then don’t republish any of those stories. Find something new, there’s clearly a lot of it out there; hell, TomCat and I did it (well, TomCat did it), so what’s your excuse?
Mind you, in order to produce anything worthwhile you probably need an Edwards, a Penzler, a Pugmire, or a Skupin behind it all, as they’ve shown themselves to have fine taste (mostly — why the hell Innes’ ‘The Sands of Thyme’ made it into two of those books is beyond me…) and the knowledge required to unearth some absolute gems. So, now, I come to think of it, leave it to the experts, eh?