Okay, after threeweeks of opinion, and with Tyline Perry’s murder-in-a-coalmine-centred The Owner Lies Dead (1930) up for review this Thursday, let’s have some much-needed objectivity: here is a selection of crimes where altitude plays a part.
Disclaimer: All heights are approximate. And fictional.
Obelists Fly High (1935) by C. Daly King — A terrible, terrible book, published the same year as the similarly plane-set Death in the Clouds by Agatha Christie, but a book with one very clever idea at its heart: the murder of the intended victim, at a pre-warned time, when he’s in a plane, and the only person near him is the investigator tasked with protecting him. It falls apart come the end, because without the investigator there this wouldn’t work and the specific threat made is therefore entirely without purpose or value, but for those bright few pages wherein this scheme is executed and explained this comes wonderfully to life. But it’s still not enough to save the juddering mess of the narrative, alas.
‘The Impossible Murder of Dr. Satanus’ (1965) by William Krohn — A marvellous short story, in which a conjurer enters an elevator on the eleventh floor of his hotel, proceeds directly to the lobby, and is found dead on arrival. No nonsense with trapdoors, either, because the emergency exit in the roof is bolted on the inside. The same concept has been used in novels such at The Death of Laurence Vining (1928) by Alan Thomas and Fatal Descent (1939) by John Rhode and Carter Dickson, but since I’ve read neither all I can say is that I’d be amazed if their solutions were of the standard that Krohn manages here (significantly better than that of ‘Death Rides the Elevator’ (2000) by Lois H. Gresh & Robert Weinberg, which was similarly anthologised by Mike Ashley). And this absolute beauty of the form is the only impossible crime story Krohn published! Godammit!
The Invisible Circle (1996, trans. 2014) by Paul Halter — Sure, for tower-set impossible murders you can go to The Case of the Constant Suicides (1941) or He Who Whispers (1946) by John Dickson Carr, but Halter’s take is bonkers fun, a man in a sealed room at the top of a tower stabbed by a sword that physically could not have gotten into the room. This is one of those bespoke situations Dan was talking about recently, where you just have to shake your head, chuckle along, and admire the inventiveness on show. No, not everyone is happy seeing the genre treated so irreverently, but if we can’t enjoy ourselves once in a while then what the hell are we doing with our lives? Someone once described this as an impossible crime novel for Terry Pratchett fans, and I find it difficult to disagree. Onwards!
Murder on the Way! (1935) by Theodore Roscoe — Funerals are never exactly a fun or relaxing affair, but we take that to something of an extreme here: when a trip to Haiti to bury an old family associate turns into a nightmarish tontine with our heroic couple caught amidst a coterie of grotesques and swept up in impossible vanishings, impossible shootings, accusations flying back and forth, and the small matter of a zombie uprising, it’s difficult not to feel that the guy in the coffin is possibly the one who is faring best in the circumstances. After all, this was originally serialised — in slightly different form, true — under the title A Grave Must Be Deep, so that grave must provide some sort of purpose, right? Yeah, yeah, I go on about this a lot, even utilising the podcast Dan and I record to publicise it, but hairy Aaron it’s a marvellous ride.
The Perfect Insider, episodes 5 and 6 (2014) — A child genius kills her family at age 14 and spends the next 15 years working in self-imposed isolation in the basement of an island-based laboratory, the sole entrance to which is monitored 24/7. Then one day all the computers break down and her limbless corpse is discovered wearing a wedding dress…despite no-one else having ever gone into the lab. I strongly suspect this is nonsense of the highest order, but it’s very entertaining even if there’s one piece of ridiculous misdirection towards the end that absolutely no-one would fall for. The show overall brings a lot of invention to an already crowded field, and the central duo of Emi Takei and Gou Ayano are superb, but the molasses-slow pacing does drive me crazy (it is never really necessary to watch the first part of these two-part stories, for instance — the scripts could be much, much tighter).
There will naturally be many others, so fee free to pitch in with your own additions below. In the meantime, I’ll tick off another item on my Just the Facts Golden Age Bingo card by applying Obelists Fly High to the category On a mode of transportation.