Here we are at the final week of Locked Room International’s The Realm of the Impossible, with me working through in non-anthologised order to instead group them culture-by-culture.
We have previously had:
Week 1: The United Kingdom and Ireland
Week 2: Mainland Europe
Week 3: North Africa and the Middle East
Week 4: India, China, and Japan
Intermission: The Real Life Impossibilities
And so, to bring us on home, we have…
Week 5: Australia and the Americas
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.