#377: The Men Who Explain Miracles – Episode 5.1: My 15 Favourite Impossible Crime Novels

TMWEM Top 15

It’s that time again: Dan who blogs at The Reader is Warned and I are here once more with another episode of our podcast The Men Who Explain Miracles, and things are about to get personal…

Our previous episode in February was a three-part look at the list of the top 15 impossible crime novels of all time, compéred by Edward D. Hoch in 1981 and the cumulative result of the votes of 18 individuals.  You can find our episodes on it here, here, and here.

In response to that list, Dan and I have each compiled separate personal selections of our favourite 15 impossible crime novels, and will be presenting them to you over the next two Saturdays.  I drew the short straw, so today is my turn.

No spoilers follow, merely a brief examination of the reasons behind my choices and then the fifteen books themselves with some discussion about our thoughts on them.  I’ll post the list itself at some future point, but for the time being you’re invited to have a listen and then share your thoughts on my selections below.  I’m guessing one book in particular may catch quite a few of you by surprise…

As ever, we hope you enjoy it, and thanks for listening.

89 thoughts on “#377: The Men Who Explain Miracles – Episode 5.1: My 15 Favourite Impossible Crime Novels

  1. i have just listened to your podcast. Though I liked most of the books in your list, only 6 of them would appear in my top 15 (pre 1981) list: The Footprints Of Satan, The Mystery Of The Yellow Room, The Problem Of The Green Capsule, Whistle Up The Devil, Till Death Do Us Part, And Then There Were None.

    • Firstly, thanks for listening. Secondly, yeah, I’m resigned now to a full week of being told how wrong my choices were… 😀

  2. My first comment here 🙂
    A bit embarrassing that I hadn’t heard about half of these and read only 3 but that also makes me all the more excited for future.

    Oh, and even though the green capsule was great, the best ever? Come on, that honour surely lies with Roger Ackroyd.

    • Nothing embarrassing about that at all — everyone hadn’t heard of them at some point, you just have the joy of discovery ahead of you. Consider yourself very lucky indeed.

      And Ackroyd…it’s a great <ending, no doubt, but my memory — now some 18 years old, I’ll confess, and with a plethora of other book memories occluding my view — is that the book leading up to that ending is actually pretty dull. Sure, I may get pilloried for this opinion, but I stand by it, all above caveats fully in force.

      • Thanks for listening Sherlock! I agree with JJ here that you have much joy ahead of you. We were hoping that these episodes would act is little tasty morsels to get people excited to find new works.

        And Ackroyd.. it never did strike me as a masterwork. And in terms of ‘locked room mysteries’ in particular, as these lists focus on, I feel the Locked Room element is not as good as some of her other works.

  3. You’ll probably be surprised by what I’m going to say here, JJ, but I largely agree with your list. I know, I know. Satan is pulling his winter coat out of mothballs as I write this.

    I was especially happy to hear your warm and much deserved praise for the humor and plotting of Bruce’s Case for Three Detectives. Every time an amateur detective is hamming up his performance, I hear Sgt. Beef in my head muttering these lines, “With their stepsons, and their bells, and their where-did-the-screams-come-from. Why, they try to make it complicated.” Yes, the multiple (false) solutions that parody the plotting techniques of Chesterton, Christie and Sayers were brilliant. This one really deserves a spot of any best-of list. Just like Murder on the Way, Whistle Up the Devil and Rim of the Pit.

    I was also glad that you included Inherit the Stars on your list. A classic of epic proportions and we should appropriate it from the SF genre. You know what? Let’s make it official. It’s ours now!

    You also made me want to re-read The Reader is Warned and The Case of the Green Capsule. And a grim reminder that I really have to redo my own list of favorite locked room mysteries.

    However, I would have replaced Invisible Green with Black Aura and omitted Rupert Penny. 😉

    • Well…well…I — what’s going on? I’m not sure I want to live in a world where we keep agreeing this much; I’d become so used to one of us being wrong half the time…

      In all seriousness, I’m delighted that you agree with these choices; I completely acknowledge that I expect it to be somehow overhauled when my reading has progressed five years from now, but it’s also a great feeling that these do represent the upper end of what the subgenre has to offer. Having someone who knows these sorts of books far better than I express a similar sentiment at least convinves me that I’m doing something right.

      Oh, yeah, Inherit the Stars is absolutely one of ours now. Thanks for putting me onto it in the first place — such a brilliant book, I still can’t get over the magnitude of what Hogan does to explain it all.

    • TomCat a joy to hear this from the man himself! Your lists both novel and short stories have been a great inspiration to us both, and I know to many others, so thanks for all the work you have done on them over the years.

      And I cannot wait to get to Case for Three Detectives, and Whistle up the Devil.

      • If you have read enough Chesterton, Christie and Sayers, you’ll love Case for Three Detectives. And as far as Christie is concernted, the most essential titles to read, in order to appreciate Bruce’s take on her, are Death on the Nile, Murder at the Vicarage and Evil Under the Sun.

        I’m always glad to help feed the addiction of fellow locked room enthusiasts!

  4. Is it bad that the impossible crime element didn’t really register in my brain for the Case for the Three Detectives, as I was genuinely going, ‘that’s impossible crime book?’ when I first heard your suggestion. However it is one that I love so all to the good. Also definitely in agreement with your choice of And Then There Were None. Another great episode. Glad there was no one blood shed.

    • I’d consider it a little odd that the impossible crime elemnt didn’t strike you, Kate, but I imagine it’s possibly because you read the book in about 18 minutes and so had the whirligig of the full experience just bouncing around inside your skull with merry delight. It’s a superb book, one the like of which we saw all too rarely in the annals of GAD.

      Plenty of blood was spilled, Dan even tried to strangle me at one point; I just edited it out so it all sounds jolly and fun. In reality, it was rather more traumatic an experience.

  5. I thought, “Oh, I’ll just listen to a few minutes of this to get the flavour.” 30 minutes later I had to stand up to stretch because I’ve just been nailed to my chair listening ;-). Bravo!
    Of course I have disagreements, but you know what? I think part of the enjoyment of this kind of work is precisely that, the disagreements. Preferably conducted in a long beer-soaked conversation in one’s favourite pub, as it were. But your list provoked me to think, “Hmm, do I agree with that or not?” And thereby learn something about my own preferences.
    Two points: (1) I add myself to the list of people who do not think Green Capsule is a perfect work. Oh, I think the central skeleton of the book is very sound, but there’s that whole subplot about poisoned chocolates at the local shop that has bugger-all to do with the main plot and is just an excuse for Carr to demonstrate his research into Christiana Edmunds the Chocolate Cream Killer. AND, as you note, the guy who gets shot in the back of the car because Act II was sagging. But one thing I seem to be the only one to have noticed is that the book would have been over a lot sooner if the police just made more of an attempt to actually see the film in question; it seems unlikely that they’d let it go like that, just to build up tension in the onlookers.
    (2) I actually have a copy of Inherit the Stars on my shelves, somewhere, and I’ll now have to find it and re-read it. But for me, Hogan is NOT a rational scientist. He first came to my attention as what’s called an “AIDS denialist”; he’s also not sound on climate change and the Holocaust, and he’s a Velikovskian catastrophist. It makes it more difficult for me to accept that he knows anything at all about science when he gets so much of it so wrong, and the key to hard science fiction is its stress on the science.
    Thanks for a VERY enjoyable 30 minutes — I even like the music! — and I’ll be back for the next round.

    • Thanks, Noah, I really appreciate that; Dan and I argued over whether to include his lounge cover of Shanks and Bigfoot’s ‘Sweet Like Chocolate’, but I appreciate now that the right call was made in excising it. Apologies, Dan, you were right.

      I know what you mean about Hogan and the difficulty it can take separating the author from the work — I’ve talked about it on here before, after all. Equally, Hogan’s science in ItS doesn’t need to be perfect since he’s so obviously making stuff up to explain this brilliant situation. I guess he’s definitely getting some of it wrong, but he’s getting it wrong a) possibly deliberately, and b) in a way that doesn’t stand out and so detract fom the story. But, yeah, the man is something of an Orson Scott Card when it comes to distateful personal views.

      As for Green Capsule…right now, my memory is of pure gloriousness all the way through, but I shall definitely undertake to reread it before updating this list in five or so years, and will be able to hopefully discuss it with a better appreciation of its merits then. And, heavens, something’s going to have to get kicked out to make room for other books, so perhaps the entire list will require a second look…

    • Thank you so much Noah! So glad you are enjoying these. I am one of those people who actually loved the poison chocolates subplot. To me it felt like it was a lovely way to add a seething tension to the beginning of affairs. And in my memory the investigation and getting to the film only takes a day, or 2 days? Or am I wrong? I don’t know. Anyhow like you said disagreements are where it’s at!

      Super surprised to hear about Hogan, thanks for mentioning that. It’s always so surprising that someone with great artistic skill can find themselves in these strange camps of thought.

      Hope you like my 15 as much as you did JJ’s!

    • Count me as another who loves the poisoned chocolates subplot. In fact, that almost stands out in my memory just as much as the main crime. The bit about the young boy buying some candy with the money he came across still sticks with me. Plus, Merrivale delivers a “poisoner” lecture in the form of the famous Locked Room Lecture from The Hollow Man.

  6. I will wager that Dan has a ten-criteria schematic that will carefully explain the placement of each of his choices next week, while you . . . can I just say that the pulling out of a hat was fun??? And since you mentioned to me in your last Berrow post that a Christie was on your list and it kept not coming out of the hat . . . well, as somebody once said, “The suspense is terrible; I hope it will last!”

    Given the pull of Carr for you guys, it was great to hear such nice things said about Brand and Christie. I’m amazed how many of these I actually own – and some of them I’ve even read!! Thanks to the most wonderful Secret Santa, Come to Paddington Fair awaits my attention. And one of these days, I’ll have to start Policeman’s Evidence for the fourth time! Ditto Murder on the Way. (Who gets me to buy these things?!?) Who knows, though? One or the other might become my very – *koff* – favorite mystery of all time.

    I also find myself struck by Sherlock’s comment above. Like you, JJ, I thought Ackroyd was a bit . . . pedestrian until the end, and this huge Christie fan is flummoxed at the thought that it could measure up in someone’s opinion to Green Capsule, let alone surpass it. Yes, I know Ackroyd is found in a locked room, so that counts. Isn’t it funny, though, that I never remember it as a locked room mystery? Is it because the shocker of an ending supersedes that aspect of the tale? Is the unbreakable alibi mystery a sub-genre of the impossible crime or a separate entity?

    Can all these questions be discussed when I guest host with you on your blog in June 2019?

    • What I especially liked about them coming out of a hat was how the order turned out even better than if I’d’ve planned it: being able to contrast Footprints of Satan and Plague Court, discussing small casts only for the Brand to crop up a few books later — man, sometimes it just works out, eh? Next time my order will be “The Best Way to Develop a Conversation”, I think. And, no, I’m not kidding.

      Is Ackroyd found in a lcoked room? Huh, I missed that, but then I knew whodunnit before going in. And even if you fail to love those aforementioned books as much as I do, just consider how lucky we are that we can read them and discover we don’t like them rather than spending a lifetime tracking them down, never finding them, and never knowing. I’m very much a proponent of the first!

      And, yeah. you ever find yourself in the UK, you have a standing invite to guest and pick apart all the above and more. The only condition is that you’re not allowed to say anything nasty about Paul Halter. Dan is very protective of anyone from Alsace, as I learned to my peril…

    • Ten-criteria! You belittle me! 25 for each book my friend, my episode is 4.5 hours long! On a serious note, thank you again for listening Brad and we look forward to the day when you are hear to host this with us.

      I am in the same boat as you with Ackroyd, I don’t think of it/remember it as an impossible crime. It didn’t make an impact on me, to the point where I can’t even remember how the locked room was worked!

      As far as the impossible alibi as a sub genre I did right about that a little while back, and TomCat and others had some lovely thoughts on what constitutes an alibi as an impossible crime:

      https://thereaderiswarned.wordpress.com/2017/03/16/but-is-it-a-locked-room-mystery-the-case-of-the-impossible-alibi/

      • Huzzah! I ask for a discussion and I get one! The world indeed does revolve around me! I hope you don’t mind, JJ, if I respond to Dan’s post here. I fall on the side of people who feel the unbreakable alibi trope is a subset of the impossible crime, just as the locked room trope is, but I understand why alibis would seem different since they tend to lack the “flash” of a locked room. In Carr, many/most suspects often had fake alibis because the sleuths did not yet understand the true wherefore and when of the crime. In Ackroyd, the killer sets up an elaborate situation to “prove” that they could not have committed the murder – it involves technology of several kinds and it fools people about the time of death. (The killer is then helped further by the lies told by at least one other suspect.)

        But isn’t this the main reason killers create a locked room situation? I know a few are all about the flash and glitter of fooling the police, but most impossible crimes are 1) for the sake of establishing the killer’s innocence, or 2) turn out to be accidents. The Problem of the Wire Cage excels at both elements! (Carr uses the accidental element a lot – and brilliantly!) The gimmick creating the impossible crime in Christie’s Hercule Poirot’s Christmas is designed to give the killer an alibi and, by default, gives EVERYONE an alibi!

        One of the things I love about the impossible crimes I love is their variety. Christie did NOT excel at the locked room crime, but she developed many variations on the impossible crime, including the unbreakable alibi, the “how-could-X-have-been-the-one-murdered” trick, and – most prevalent for her – the elimination of the murderer from the list of suspects. (This is where she excelled at surprise endings.) So if A is murdered and only B,C,D, or E could have possibly killed A and Poirot asks F to help him solve the crime because F must be innocent and THEN it turns out F is the killer . . . (whew!), isn’t that a form of impossible crime???

        • I’m going to have to spit this response in two Brad, because you bring up a pair of topics that each deserve their own discussion. First we’ll take on the unbreakable alibi. I totally get what you mean when you propose that it’s a subset of the impossible crime problem. Technically it isn’t, but, yeah, I’m on the same page.

          At a passing glance, “unbreakable alibi” conjures up scenarios where a murderer has some cronies account for their presence at a far away location at the time that a crime is committed. But, damn, if you could see what these GAD authors do with this tactic! This is an unbreakable alibi in the sense that you yourself the reader know with certainty that the character couldn’t have possibly committed the murder. It is impossible in retrospect!

          The injustice of the unbreakable alibi is that we can never discuss it in terms of the books that it pertains to. To do so might risk spoiler for some unfortunate soul. Especially for the learned reader – to know that a book features an unbreakable alibi causes one to immediately question time and space in all that they’re reading.

          It’s a shame, because Carr, Christie, and Brand have a wide range of impossible alibis, and nothing would be more satisfying than to discuss them openly. It’s so tempting to cite a particular early Carr novel as a prime example of the form, but I just can’t.

          • Ben, you’ve said this much more succinctly than I managed in my sprawling, confused response below, but I’m delighted to see that we’re of a mind here.

        • Huh. Well, I believe it was TomCat who said — and I shall say it much les artfully — that impossible alibis definitely count, so long as they’re backed up by evidence that isn’t just “We didn’t see him and so we assume he’s where he said he was”. There are, of course, a couple of Crofts novels (and doubtless more than a couple, but remember that I’m new here) where the crime itself isn’t impossible — someone is stabbed or shot or strangled in a way that they were entirely accessible at the time of death — and the killer lays such a complicated alibi problem that they’re not realistically under suspicion. I have difficulties in calling thes impossibilities, but I’ll explain why in the next paragraph (this one has been going on for a bit).

          In a way, calling these “impossible crimes” ruins them in advance, because the only thing that makes it impossible is that the one person who definitely could not be the killer is — spoilers — the killer. An impossible crime in my mind is something where the situation appears impossible withut that itself giving anything away: in The Plague Court Murders you have someone stabbed in the back in a locked and twice-bolted hut, say. Telling you that in no way indicates who is guilty. But when someone could have been killed easily by any old rando and it’s just a matter of working out who, even when the hugely unlikely and seemingly-impossible person turns out to’ve dunnit…saying up front “this is an impossible crime” gives the game away (koffChineseOrangeMysterykoff) and, to my classifying, stops it being impossible.

          In conclusion, I’d say impossible crimes are about the situations rather than the solutions seeming impossible. Alibi problems are perhaps a subsection of the impossible crime subgenre, but I’ll need to get my Venn diagrams out for that and it’s early here.

          Does this make sense?

          • Huh. Well, I believe it was TomCat who said — and I shall say it much les artfully — that impossible alibis definitely count, so long as they’re backed up by evidence that isn’t just “We didn’t see him and so we assume he’s where he said he was”.

            An apparently unbreakable alibi can only be considered an impossibility under one very strict condition: the alibi should not merely rely on witnesses (who can be manipulated) or train tickets (which can be misinterpreted), but the murderer should appear to have been physically unable to have carried out the crime. The TV-series Monk had several excellent examples of the impossible alibi and Agatha Christie wrote an absolute classic, but the impossibility there is only revealed at the end of the story. So you have to look around and discover that one for yourself.

            By the way, I have a review written and scheduled for the 27th that uses a locked room trick to create an apparently impossible alibi. Don’t worry. This is not a spoiler, because the murderer is known from the outset, but the police can’t prove it. So they turn to a brilliant amateur sleuth for help.

            • That book sounds very interesting indeed, I’ll look forward to your review with more than the usual anticipation.

        • The second topic Brad raised that deserves some discussion is the accidental impossibility. I’ve written about it before, and I’ll do it once again, simply because it makes my hair stand on end. We tend to focus on the how, but a good impossible crime should have a strong why for the impossibility, not just the motive. As a reader, I probably give a lot of books a pass on this, but then there are those few delicious stories that include a truly fantastic reason for why the impossibility existed in the first place.

          Merely avoiding guilt isn’t necessarily enough to justify a culprit setting up an impossible situation, as it maintains suspicion on everyone (unless you toss in an unbreakable alibi). An alternative is that you’re trying to cast suspicion on someone else (although this would typically not lead to an impossibility unless you did a poor job in the framing). The one case that I feel I can discuss without spoilers is The Judas Window, which is only impossible if you believe that the man found in the locked room alongside the corpse is in fact innocent.

          The accidental impossibility is a beast of its own. Something went awry in the killer’s cleverly laid plans and now the police have stumbled into a very different crime scene than intended. This of course is a topic that we can never truly discuss with examples, because foreknowledge of the accident can influence the reading. I’d give anything to have a no holds barred nerd fest on this subject where we throw out book after book and discuss the cleverness, but alas…

          • Why CAN’T we have a “no-holds-barred nerd-fest” one of these days??? Never say never, my friend!!

            So . . . this is in reply to the whole reply thread from JJ, TomCat and you. I totally get it, and I have sixty titles to discuss to PROVE that I get it . . . but I can’t go into them without attending the previously mentioned NHBN-F. So let me summarize this way:

            If a novel contains a surprise murderer because up until the end we believe this person has an unbreakable alibi, it is NOT an impossible crime, despite our having used the term “impossible” in describing the chances of this character having committed the murder. AGREED!

            If it’s a situation like Hercule Poirot’s Christmas where the victim is found slaughtered behind locked doors and everybody heard the victim being slaughtered and NOBODY was near the room when they heard the victim being slaughtered so EVERYBODY HAS AN ALIBI . . . well, that sure as shootin’ IS an impossible crime. AGREED

            Generally speaking, an impossible crime novel should shout the impossibility to the skies. Whether it was planned by a lunatic, created to provide an alibi, or an accident of circumstance, there should be a visible aspect to the crime that causes people to say: “Whoa, nellie! How the HECK could this have happened?” Simply having Lord Pennyfort Urthotts stabbed in his study while everyone was at dinner doesn’t immediately earn this murder the status of impossible crime. AGREED

            And (for JJ), if a man is discovered in the anteroom of an office with every piece of clothing and every stick of furniture turned backwards – or if a woman is found butchered in the room adjacent to the operating theatre of a hospital – and the door is locked and bolted so that nobody could have gotten in but the side door to the hallway if totally unlocked and accessible, then that is a CHEAT!!! AGREED!!

            (But just so you understand, JJ, the clever thing about Chinese Orange – and I fully agree that it is lesser Queen – is WHY the backward stuff was done, not how the killer got in.)

            • We are not going to disagree about the cleverness of the backward stuff in TCOM, Brad — it’s a superb idea, and only likely to suffer in the perception of its inspired nature because a key principle is no longer in widespread public use or awareness. And that’s a shame, I think, because it is darn-tootin’ a very smart concept.

              I’m with ben in my love of a well-motivated impossibliity and my even higher love of an accidental one. Equally, I love an impossibililty that comes purely from the charaterisation of the people involved (Christie wrote a belting one of these). In fact, before this list gets any longer, I’ll take every single type of impossibility apart from the Oh I’m Such a Clever Author Look At This Inversion of Some Key Principle That Shows How Clever I Am ones. They can all get fired into the sun as far as I care.

            • I’ll take every single type of impossibility apart from the ‘Oh I’m such a clever author look at this inversion of some key principle that shows how clever I am’ ones.

              Wait, I thought we weren’t going to trash Halter here . . .

            • Loving where this discussion is going. And love your round up of all the points here Brad, think we are getting things covered here! Maybe a good spoileriffic discussion could be held between us if we had an agreed couple of books to discuss that we had all read. But even then saying ‘have you read X’ would give it away as having an impossible alibi!

              My 2 pence here again on this: Jonathan Creek has an amazing couple of episodes where the central impossibility is created by the killer to actually give them an ‘impossible’ alibi. Indeed there is one episode where the entire premise looks at the impossible alibi idea as it’s substance.

              And man I LOVE the accidental impossibility. There is an amazing short story (I won’t tell you who it’s by) where the murderer pretends to be a victim of the killer as they are caught on the scene of the crime. So he fakes a description of the killer, describing how he ran out of a certain door. When the door is checked it is locked from the inside. The person then has accidentally set up an impossible situation by lying about what happened, and is then forced into a position in the later part of the story where he has to make the impossibility work. Such an awesome idea. And of course this is all revealed in retrospect.

            • It struck me that your last scenario at the end was remarkably similar to the circumstances in The Dutch Shoe Mystery.
              1. That isn’t presented as a locked room mystery, and thus there is no cheat.
              2. The solution to that is actually really clever.

            • Oooo, look at you and your “I had enough patience to read The Dutch Shoe Mystery”. We get it Ben, there’s no need to go on and on about it… 😀

          • In chapter 12 of The White Priory Murders, H.M discusses the motive of the murderer not for committing the crime but for creating an impossible situation. He considers 3 possibilities. The first is that he wants to make it look like suicide. The second that he wants to make it look like a supernatural event. The third possibility is that the impossible situation occurs by chance there being no intention.
            In chapter 19 of The Peacock Feather Murders , a fourth possibility is considered. A murderer cannot be convicted if the method of murder can’t be ascertained even if all other evidence point to him. Hence he creates an impossible situation.

            • Indeed, as with the idea in The Ten Teacups (which I think you’ll find is the correct title of that book…), The Reader is Warned is predicated entirely on these grounds: the impossibility is owned up to by an individual who then challenges the powers that be to show how it could be done…knowing that their inability to do so will result in him being set free at trial.

          • The one case that I feel I can discuss without spoilers is The Judas Window, which is only impossible if you believe that the man found in the locked room alongside the corpse is in fact innocent.

            Thankfully you’re safe there, because we’re told in the very first chapter that he indeed is innocent. In case anyone was worried that this was a spoiler. It’s really not at all.

          • I’m semi-inactive for a day or two and the comments on here doubled!

            I’m not going to respond to every single thing, but, regarding the motivation for creating a locked room mystery, Merrivale goes over a number of possible motives in The White Priory Murders and The Peacock Feather Murders. You can read this lists of reasons as a supplement to the Locked Room Lecture from The Hollow Man.

            However, Carr didn’t list every single reason for creating an impossible crime and, since then, there have been a number of mystery writers who came up with a very specific reason for a locked room illusion. A recent and notable example is Alice Arisugawa’s The Moai Island Puzzle, but, only yesterday, I wrote a review of a three-part Detective Conan episode offering an entirely new and original reason for committing not one, but two, locked room murders – which will be posted on my blog in a week or two. Yeah, I’m still way ahead of schedule.

            The accidental impossibility is a beast of its own.

            I’m very fond of these kind of impossibility, because, when they’re done correctly, they can be the most convincing type of impossible crime. The Third Bullet is perhaps not Carr’s most celebrated locked room story, but always loved how one, unforeseen snag turned a perfectly planned murder into an impossible crime. And, if I remember correctly, the murderer was not too pleased about that.

            • Damn, only just noticed Santosh already mentioned Merrivale’s listing of locked room motives!

            • Just one more thing! Herbert Resnicow’s The Gold Deadline (a personal favorite of mine) is a tongue-in-cheek treatment of the locked room motive and has the murderer go through truly insane lengths to get to the victim, which ends up looking like an impossible crime.

              Admittedly, the murder method stretches credulity and, taken by itself, looks contrived, but the characterization of the nasty victim functioned as a sugarcoat to help the reader swallow this method. You not only understand why the murderer would go through such lengths to get to the victim, but also baffled that the walls around the locked, inaccessible theater box isn’t studded with knives, bullet holes, poisoned darts, arrows and tomahawks from other would-be-assassins who tried to take him out.

            • We diverge on Resnicow, as you’re aware, and that book was for me the one that broke me. I don’t question its ability to work, nor the motivation behind it, but as a method it seemed to be so many of the things an impossible crime shouldn’t be, the worst of which is inelegant.

  7. This was great fun. You gents are really brilliant at this working this podcast-conversation format … under cover of highly entertaining banter and humor, you convey lots of keen insights and considered opinion.

    • That is phenomenally kind of you to say, Christophe, and I’m delighted to think that people are enjoying these. We have a superb time making them — some of the really nerdy stuff got edited out because I felt we we wandering from the point a bit, but we’re very lucky to live so clse to each other, enjoying these things to the same depth, and get on enough to suffer talking about it at great length every couple of months.

      It’s fair to say that we’d do it every week if we could afford the time, and while neither of us is exactly sycophantically obsessed with what people think of us, we do really enjoy knowing that other people are enjoying listening to us be all geeky. So, thank-you, it really means a lot.

    • Thank you so much Christophe! And thanks for tuning in. We have really have had so much fun making these podcasts and I am glad something of that comes across to the listener. And that also we say something of value in the episodes somewhere!

  8. Great list and some interesting pointers in there for me. The Bruce book sounds great so I now have to set about finding a copy, and I’m both intrigued by the Hogan title but also a little concerned that the “hard science” aspect may put me off – is it in any way suitable for what might be termed a “scientific idiot” such as myself?

    • The hard science in the hogan is going to be at least slightly fictional because we’ve not found a 10,000 year-old man on the Moon — or have we?!?!?! — and therefore he needs to invent some things. Inside of that, it’s all put in a very clear context and explained well…indeed, it’s the fact that it’s explained so well that makes it just a little dry: every aspect is gone into in fine detail so as to look at the possible permutations and explanations.

      I guess it’s like a Crofts novel in that regard. You don’t avoid Crofts because you’re not fully au fait with detection methods of the 1930s; this is like that, but with science!

        • I guess it’s a simple question, then: how curious are you about a 10,000 year-old man in a functioning spacesuit on the Moon? If the concept doesn’t make you itch with curisoity about how it could possibly be explained, the dryness will doubtless put you off.

          That reads back to me like I’m being facetious, but I promise you I’m not!

          • No, not at all – that’s not how it comes across to me
            The idea certainly got my attention when you guys talked about it and I’m not averse to mixing SF and mysteries, although my reading experience in that area is still pretty limited. So yeah, the setup grabs me for sure but I also know I’ tend to favor those books where the balance is tilted slightly more to the storytelling side than the purely technical side.
            I’ll just have to read it and make up my own mind, which is a nice “problem” to have – so thanks for making me aware of its existence.

            • Well, this is a pretty deep crossover to dive into! If you want to wet your toes a little first, The Real-Town Murders by Adam Roberts has an impossibly-appearing body in a futuristic society that is drawn in the finest of hands and with the lightest of touches. It becomes a bit 39 Steps towards the end, but it’s a great combination of the SF and the impossible-but-rationally-explained. I’ve a review on the blog if you’re curious.

            • Ah, that sounds interesting – I’m going to check out the review. I have read enjoyed The Caves of Steel and The Naked Sun by Asimov and enjoyed those, for what it’s worth.

            • I liked The Caves of Steel; I did not care for the first 40 pages of The naked Sun and so have read no further. Having been completely in love with Asimov and his SF worldview for years it was like I suddenly compleel fell out of love with him in the space of about four minutes. I’ve since tracked down som Black Widowers stuff and shall see how I fare there at some point…

            • Ooh, the Black Widowers. I really wonder what you’ll make of them. They’re Encyclopedia Brown-ish to the extreme (obviously with much harder clues to see through), so I love them. They’re also archetypal armchair sleuth stories. Complete antithesis to Carr, to be honest. 🙂

            • That’s okay, my reading encompasses a broad church — I look forward to seeing a different side of Asimov, it’s just a matter of when…

  9. I love the vibrancy that you bring to these stories in these podcasts. It’s one thing to read posts about these books, but to hear it in spoken form… It’s like all of those nerdy conversations that have run through my own head countless times, but now I’m hearing someone else speak the words. There’s an air of excitement that really stirs the memories of my own experiences when reading some of these titles.

    As to the list – well done. I’ve read a decent number of them, although I’m happy to say there are quite a few I have to look forward to. It probably comes as no surprise that I share your opinion that The Problem of the Green Capsule is the finest realization of the form put to paper.

    There aren’t any books that you placed on your list that I’m prepared to challenge (of course there are a number that I haven’t read). I do find your championing of The Reader is Warned to be surprisingly refreshing, and your recent posts have me reminiscing over how much I really enjoyed that book.

    Of course, it’s easy to throw stones by saying “why didn’t this book make your list?” In that regard, I’m going to throw out a few titles that I think I’d be inclined to include – The Judas Window and The White Priory Murders. Mind you, I’m well aware of why you didn’t include either of them, but they’re stories I’d be hard pressed to not include on my own list.

    • One criteria I initially had was “no more than two books by any author” — but since this only ended up applying to Carr and Christie I dropped it and so didn;t mention it in conversation (and I technically did stick to it, with two by John Dickson Carr and two by Carter Dickson…). This is how I ended up excluding the likes of He Wouldn’t Kill Patience, Constant Suicides, Hollow Man, etc. Even then, for my tastes, Judas Window would be a way down the “best Carr impossibilities” list. But, as you say, it’s all a matter of taste.

      Thanks for your very considerate comments about the format and content; I think the fact that we record in a very informal way — we’re in my lounge, with my books three-deep on the shelves next to us — lends to a bit of appreciation of how much there is to talk about, and so we tend to reall go for it when we do meet up. The only problem this raises is what to edit out — there’s quite a bit of stuff mmissing from this episode because I didn’t feel it really contributed to the core discussion. Maybe one day we’ll just do a “JJ and Dan Ramble About Impossibliities for an Hour” episode and post it without cutting anything out… 🙂

  10. Interesting as always. My main takeaways are that we have similar but differing tastes. <- Solid deduction there.

    Like Kate, I didn't actually remember "Case of Three Detectives" being an impossible mystery. It was admittedly several years ago that I read it, so I'll not berate myself too much. I'll have to add it to my re-read. 🙂

    I won't be quibbling too much about your selections by Carr, Leroux, Smith, Talbot, Brand, Christie and Sladek. I might have selected a couple of different ones from Carr (and I'm still not completely convinced by Leroux), but all of them are worthy and I completely understand why you would choose them.

    As for Penny's, Hogan's and Berrow's offerings – I've read none of them, but will try to rectify that. I love me some hard SF, so that's always nice.

    Which leaves Roscoe's "Murder on the Way", which I just finished reading this week. I was surprised to hear your description of "several impossible situations", because as I remember it, in the end there was only one (or possibly two), because everything else is explained almost immediately after the situation has come up. I thought it was rather good, bordering on great, but some of the casual racism in the book appalled me – and I'm definitely not easily appalled by such!

    And as always, if I made such a list, as soon as I revealed it I'd remember five other titles that I just plain forgot about… Someone should really make a list of all impossible mysteries available. 🙂

    • My memory is, as discussed elsewhere on this site (I think) not the best, but I don’t recall the casual racism in MotW being anything like as pronounced in many other examples from this era. It’s something I remember especially, because I was curious of what Bold Venture’s response would be if anything actually offensive to modern audiences was encountered.

      It’s true that many of the characters are described unattractively, shall we say, and that some of those character who are described less than sympathetically are of Caribbean origin…but there’s nothing about them that’s either made unattractive or played up as deliberately unpleasant because of their Caribbean origin. The Widow Gladys is a hideous creation, but I wouldn’t call that racism, they’re all hideous characters, and more’s the better for it.

      But, then, we all read differnt books, don’t we?

      • No, the characterisation isn’t really what stuck out to me (mainly because almost everyone is unpleasant…) It’s all the casually dropped “darkeys” and constant reminding the reader that characters are Negroes/black/dark/swarthy/whatever, like that’s their main characteristic. I don’t think there’s a single description of any of the Caribbean characters that doesn’t casually mention that.

        To be honest, I’ve never found that as pronounced in any of my other readings. But as you say, we may not have read the same works…

        • I agree with Christian Henriksson. The tone of the narrator is contemptuous and racist towards the Caribbeans. As Henriksson mentions , the characters are continuously referred to as Negroes/black/dark/swarthy/whatever. More degrading terms are used like ‘half a ton of charcoal’ ‘gorilla’ , ‘head woolly as a cauliflower’, etc

        • I’ve gone back and had a search through the manuscript, and I can’t deny that youre correct — man, it really did not feel that prevalent when I was proofing it (in fairness it’s about 8 or 9 occurrences throughout the book, but still). I guess I had my mind on other things.

          Oh, well, at least I get to be wrong in public!

  11. Very interesting list! Speaking of Whistle Up The Devil, every description I’ve read of it sounds wonderful, mystery-wise, but just in the preview I’ve read, the portrayal of women and sexual harassment is god-awful. Is the actual detective aspect of the book good enough to make up for that, or does it get worse?

    (Also, I think I must be one of the few if not the only locked room fan to find the solution to The Mystery of the Yellow Room ridiculous, though I’m willing to be persuaded otherwise.)

    • Is this the Amazon preview you’re talking about? And, if so, am I missing something about “the portrayal of women and sexual harassment”? I just gave it a skim-read and can’t see anything in there to cause even the slightest offence — not to say that I’m right and you’re wrong, I’m just really curious what I seem to not be seeing, especially as only yesterday an aspect of racial offensiveness was raised in a book and I don’t see what that was about either…

      But, to answer your question, yes, the detective elements are superb. At least, I’d say so.

      • It is the Amazon one, and I’m talking about both the way the hero just out of nowhere kisses the victim’s fiancee, and the sexy maid who is sexy and is flattered when the fiancee’s uncle smacks her sexy butt because she is sexy. Offhand, the worst in this area I remembered previously come across was the “feminists just need a good screw” bit from The Hollow Man, and it was a bit of a surprise getting so much period misogyny.

        Still, it can hardly be worse than The God of the Gongs was race-wise, and if the detection’s as good as you say I’ll probably give it a shot.

        • IIRC, Smith wasn’t much of a fan of how he wrote Algy Lawrence’s attitude to women — feeling that he (Lawrence) was a bit bland, Smith added a “search ing for his life’s love” aspect to his character but I have a feeling wasn’t all that keen on it as an addition to the narrative. So any awkwardness in Algy’s relation to women — and there are a couple of handbrake turns into sudden yearning after said fiancee that do rather come out of nowhere — can doubtless be put down to that. It’s far from a major aspect of the story, but worth considering.

          I don’t think the preview I read got as far as the fiancee, so we must be looking at Amazons in different countries…

  12. VAGUE SPOILER ALERT FOR ROGER ACKROYD
    I admit that I have read much less detective fiction than other bloggers here, but I stand by my opinion that roger ackroyd is the best ever. And hey, I am not the only one who thinks that way!
    https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/news/agatha-christies-the-murder-of-roger-ackroyd-voted-best-crime-novel-ever-8923395.html

    “I did little what was to be done” and “The letter came at twenty minutes to nine. I left at ten minutes to nine, the letter still unread” are, in my opinion, the best possible misdirection in a mystery novel!

    And even though I liked the Green capsule, I was not blown away by it. Sure, the solution to impossibility is great and the killer is a surprise despite lack of suspects, but there is a awful shooting near the end and it could be argued if the subplot involving poisoned chocolates is really necessary.

    • We are in complete agreement about the letter misdirection, but I hate — hate, I tell you! — the aspect of blurring over something that turns out to be vitally important of that “what little ther ewas to be done”. It’s only a fraction of a step away from “I picked up a small object to examine later” only for it to be revealed at the end that the object in question was a photograph of the killer committing the crime while also holding a speech bubble explaining why they were doing it and how their alibi trick was worked.

      A certain amount being left to interpretation is one thing, but I’d say it’s a slippery slope — the implicit nature of those ten minues opens enough interpretation because you’re attention is brought to a ten monute gap in proceedings. “What little there was to be done” ranges from “fed the cat” to “spent fifty minutes beating a man to death and planting evidence to make it look like a mob of Amish goat-herders were responsible”. Too far.

  13. I am a new commenter, who has been following your blog and several others for several months now and I have very much been enjoying this world of GAD blogging.
    Amazing work on the podcast JJ and Dan.I am very much looking forward to Dans installment of the list as the idea of making your own Top 15 is very enchanting to a large degree.
    I definitely agree with your choices,especially Death of Jezebel and Till Death Do Us Part.I consider both to be absolute classics of the genre and some of the greatest novels ever written.
    Of course,I am a complete Christianna Brand fanboy and Death of Jezebel isn’t even my favorite of hers so my opinion might need to be taken with a pinch of salt.

    • Thanks, Bekir, and welcome! It was all the superb blogs we had several years ago that got me into this in the first place, so I know there’s plenty out there to enjoy, as even more great ones have started in the meantime.

      I have to ask — what is your favourite Brand book? I’m relatively new to her — I’ve read Green for Danger, Crooked Wreath, Tour de Force, and Jezebel — and I DoJ is definitely my favourite of those. Is there something even better waiting for me?!

      • Oh dear,sorry for my late relply but my answer might disappoint you.
        My favorite Brand is actually The Crooked Wreath which beat out DoJ because of a few simple features.
        For one,CW is a much more character driven novel and actually benefits from it.The monologue Bella gives is my favorite moment in all of GAD.Even the character of the dead Serafina (I hope I spelled her name right) is beautifully drawn in just a few paragraphs.
        I also love the solutions to the two impossible crimes with the first having a solution that was so obvious in retrospect.
        Finally,like DoJ,there is a huge amount of false solutions which are creative and would have worked as separate solutions for other novels.
        This was also my first Brand and even inspired me to try to write a mystery novel,which I’m still plotting.

        • The Crooked Wreath is a great impossible crime novel, and a superb example of what Brand does so well. I agree, too, that the individuals are much more finely realised (the characters in DoJ have all sort of merged a bit in my mind), and as such you really feel their plight much more keenly.

          For my tastes the “outside path” impossibility is far, far better than the “dusty floor” one, and I love how the final workings aren’t revealed until the very last line of the book. I need to return to Brand at some point.

          And don’t worry about a late reply — I’m here every day, so everything gets seen!

  14. This was a most enjoyable podcast as usual from the pair of you. I must re-read Case for Three Detectives before long, as I’d forgotten the locked-room aspect…

    Is there a PC aspect in the fact that no-one uses “The Black Spectacles” as the original UK title of “The Problem of the Green Capsule”? (Incidentally, I wonder how many people have read “And Then There Were None” and have no idea what it was originally called!)

    • A PC aspect? As in, the word “black” not being socially acceptable any more? Um, no, since it refers to someone wearing spectacles that are black in colour and so occlude the wearer’s view. And Then There Were none had an outright offensive word in the original title, as we know, this simply has the word “black” in it. Looking for controversy here is like trying to pick on The Mystery of the Yellow Room for racial insensitivity.

      Personally, I prefer Green Cpasule because, well, it is a problem about a green capsule (sort of), whereas the black spectacles thing feels a little forced. I know the phrase is actually used in the book, and I know it refers to the exact principle that marcus Chesney dies trying to illustrate, but I just…prefer TPotGC. Other will disagree, I’m sure.

      Also, I’m starting to feel sorry for Case for Three Detectives: one of the best locked room novels of the 1930s, and everyone seems to’ve forgotten it even is a locked room! Man, what does a plot have to do to be remembered around here? 🙂

    • Nah, they’re just the US and the UK titles, is all, and some people prefer one or t’other (or neither). No debate, as the book is actually called both of those things.

      • Personally, I try to use the UK titles, since Carr wrote most of his work there and directed it mostly to his British publishers first, though some of the titles actually appeared in the US first.

        The same way I wouldn’t use the US configurations of Beatles albums, for example. 🙂

  15. Thanks for sharing your top 15 list, and I’m glad I’ve read a handful of them – and have the rest sitting on my shelf or in my Kindle. Except for the science fiction title – I’m sure it’s great, but I’m not sure I’m ready for “hard science”. >.<

    I definitely concur with the inclusion of Rupert Penny’s “Policeman’s Evidence”, Christianna Brand’s “Death of Jezebel” and Derek Smith’s “Whistle up the Devil”. I didn’r concur with one particular title, but I suppose I’ve criticised it enough for me to hold back from saying anything here! 😀

    I was surprised not even one Paul Halter made it. Though perhaps I missed an aspect of the criterion that would have explained the omission?

    • No Paul Halter because I set a 1981 latest date, as per the original Hoch list. Halter’s The Fourth Door was originally from 1987, so he was fully out of contention.

      I don’t think there’s ever been a book written that’s to everyone’s tatste, so a little dissent is entirelty in order… 🙂

      • A couple, for sure — things get a bit barren post-1981 for English-language impossibile crimes, which is where I think the international market has certainly helped out.

        In five or so years, Dan and I may even sit down and see about making that list happen…but, well, let’s get some more shin honkaku, more Taiwanese and Chinese mysteries, and a few more obscure gems before we commit anything to audio.

  16. Interesting list, although I’ve only read like one book on there. Surprised that The Hollow Man isn’t on there, although I guess its too obvious by this point.

    Whistle up the Devil is a good choice, though more for the second murder and the culprit in my opinion. The Christie is unconventional, but valid, most people really don’t think of it as an impossible crime, but that’s probably because that it only becomes “impossible ” very late in the book. All and all interesting, I’ll take aim at Dan’s next. 😛

    • Yeah, ATTWN probably falls foul of my “major part of the plot” criterion, but I’m allowed to ignore my own rules 😛

      The Hollow Man is undoubtedly a great impossible crime, but I confess I’m a little bored at its being repeatedly and lazily wheeled out to the exclusion of many other, equally valid titles. It would be in a list of, say, my top 100 impossible crime novels, but I’ll look elsewhere for shorter and more interesting lists. And Whistle Up the Devil’s second murder is rather superb…all the more so for my not knowing it was even coming.

      I’m delighted to find us largely in agreement!

  17. Pingback: Reflections on parody in detective fiction – Case for Three Detectives: Leo Bruce (1936) – The Reader Is Warned

  18. Pingback: #434: Locked Room International is 30 – My Favourite 15 Books | The Invisible Event

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