#412: On the Appeal of Impossible Crimes – At Death’s Door…


I’ll he honest, I’m not really sure what this post is about.  See, I’ve been mulling the appeal of the impossible crime novel for, well, years now, and having previously looked at what makes something an impossible crime the thing I’ve been mulling lately why the concept of an impossible crime is so appealing.  This, then, is the end result of those lucubrations, unfocused as they are despite being pinned on a very small area of interest.

What I’ve been mulling is the inherent perversity at the heart of the impossible crime from the perspective of someone (i.e., me) who already findsthem very appealing.  My essential point is this: the very best impossible crimes only work because it’s their appearing impossible that actually makes them possible.  I’m going to have to explain that with some details, and so in order to do so I’ll pick two books there’s a fairly good chance you, reader of this GAD blog with a heavy focus on impossible crime fiction, will likely have read: The Hollow Man, a.k.a. The Three Coffins (1935) by John Dickson Carr and Nine Times Nine (1940) by Anthony Boucher.  I’ll also wave my hands in the direction of The Chinese Orange Mystery (1934) by Ellery Queen and He Who Whispers (1946) by John Dickson Carr, but shall indicate these paragraphs with book covers so they can be identified and skipped if necessary.

I can’t promise there aren’t spoilers for those books in the following; there are certainly going to be some heavy-handed hints and discussion of mechanics for the first two.  Some of these hints will, yes, be filtered through my somewhat-faulty memory and so therefore not necessarily spoilerful, but if you’ve not read either of those books I still suggest you do, and then come back here when you have.



No spoilers just yet, but here’s a quick run through of the essential situations under consideration:

Hollow ManIn both The Hollow Man and Nine Times Nine someone is killed in a room that is both barred to outsiders and situated in such a way that any insiders are unable to escape without detection.  For the sake of brevity, we shall refer to this a the room being ‘hermetically sealed’: entry from without or exit from within would undeniably be detectable rather quickly through immediate observation.  The door to the room of The Hollow Man is locked following Dr. Charles Grimaud’s admission of the man who goes on to shoot him, leaving just the two of them in the room alone.  Ten minutes pass.  A gunshot sounds.  The door is, eventually, broken down, and Grimaud is found alone, shot in the stomach, the window open indicating the exit of his assailant, yet pristine snow all about the house belies such a simple explanation.  His killer has vanished into thin air.

Nine Times NineNine Times Nine has the famed religious debunker Wolfe Harrigan alone in his study whose doors and windows are either locked or (in one case) observed by an unimpeachable witness.  As the sun moves across the windows, observers in the garden outside catch sight of the yellow-robed Ahasver, leader of the most recent cult to catch Harrigan’s eye, standing over the other man’s desk.  Unable to get in through the doors from the garden, they run around into the house, fail to get in through one locked door, and eventually get in through another to find that Ahasver has vanished and Harrigan is dead.  The locks remain locked, that unimpeachable witness maintains that no-one went out past them.  The killer has again vanished into thin air.

Now, having made that clear, here’s my point: those locked doors — precluding ingress or egress and therefore rendering some element of the problem insoluble — they are the very reason the tricks work.  Now, here be spoilers…


Seriously. Beware.


Hollow ManIn The Hollow Man, if the door is not locked, consider what happens: Stuart Mills, Grimaud’s secretary, rushes across the corridor, opens the door, and sees Grimaud alone, possibly crouching by the fire having just set off a firecracker, possibly walking across the room to collapse artfully in a suggestive heap on the floor, but crucially alone.  Even had Brother Henri been in the room to begin with, and jumped straight for the window in the short time it took Mills to get there, no way did he shimmy down the rope and vanish in a mere couple of seconds.  The staggering absence of Grimaud’s ‘killer’ only works because the time it takes to break down the door and realise there is no-one else present is sufficient for something — sure, we don’t know what — to’ve gone down and allowed some ingenious escape.  The door being locked provides that delay.  Indeed, this is central to Grimaud’s plan — the snow generates the impossibility accidentally, so the locked door was even more crucial on account of what it enables the mind to suggest.

nine-times-nine-times-nineEqually, Nine Times Nine.  If Matt Duncan rushes across the garden and opens the first available door to the study, he finds Wolfe Harrigan’s body standing over his desk, wearing a yellow paper robe, propped up by a stick which has a rope running into the fire burning in the grate.  If he gains entry by the first available door inside the house, leaving Uncle Russ heaving for breath in his wake, he finds Harrigan’s body, as required, but possibly catches sight of the robe being pulled across the floor by said rope or has enough time to see the yellow robe burning in the fire.  Once again, the illusion of the impossible disappearance is created by the necessary delay of being unable to gain entry to the room.


“Sure,” you say.  “So what?”.  And it’s a good question.  The appeal of the impossible crime lies — for me, at least — in the revelation of how something that didn’t seem like it could be done actually turning out to be (sometimes only by a liberal stretch of the imagination) rational all along.  There are countless Edwardian crime stories where a man is, for example, playing the piano alone in his Music Room with the door locked so, for example, the cat doesn’t get in, and a gunshot rings out and he’s discovered shot in the head with no-one else present once the door is broken down.  And in nearly all of these stories it transpires that a gun was hidden in the lid of the piano with a wire attached to the F-sharp in the third octave that pulls the string and fires the gun because some business rival wants him out the way (the pecuniary motive really blossomed into the apotheosis of dullness in this era).  In cases like these, the locked door is incidental, but becomes part of the problem because it apparently provides an impenetrable barrier through which no killer could escape.  It’s a door, a window, or a loft hatch that’s there purely as part of the framing of the problem.

For me there is a key difference between that earlier school of approach that saw this barrier as a problem in and of itself, almost entirely separate to the murder that occurs (other forms of detection would be available to show no-one else entered or left the room), and the later school that developed to use the locked door as part of the solution.  Something about the inherent contradiction of the very barrier that makes it so difficult to see how it could be done actually contributing to the commission of the crime amuses me.  A sea-change came over the impossible crime genre the moment people stopped sitting down and going “Well, the locked door is the problem, so we’ll get around that with a mechanical device or a — ahem — secret passage or loose panel in the wall” and started instead saying “Well the door has to be locked, so how does that contribute to the execution of the crime?”.  Whether it enables a delay that buys time for the rope-and-pulley trick to reset itself (there’s a very clever idea along these lines in a Lord Darcy story by Randall Garrett, spoiled only by the ham-fisted forcing of bullshit lazy magical ‘detection’ to enable the discovery — one of the few cases in which Garrett really fails to apply his own in-universe rules) or provides some insight into the commission of the crime itself, the cerebrations around the utilisation of the door over its mere presence really mark a step up in the planning and intelligence applied within this subgenre.

Chinese Orange MysteryIt’s such a vital piece of progression in this type of story that it often gets taken as the sole basis on which something can be called a locked room or impossible crime tale.  Only in the most excessively benevolent extremes can The Chinese Orange Mystery (1934) by Ellery Queen be considered an impossible crime, and yet plenty of people far better-read than I felt it to be so and voted onto the Ed Hoch-curated list of best impossible crimes novel in 1981 (more about that here, if you’re curious…and the Roland Lacourbe list of 2007.  This is in no way a criticism — well, okay, it slightly is — but more than anything it goes to show just how much the concept of an impossible crime was shaken up by such a development.  It wasn’t just a crime taking place in a locked room any more, it was now a crime taking place because of a locked room.


Honestly, this just here for consistency.

he-who-whispersConsider; the door of a locked room is a tangible and unarguable piece of physicality which when used utilised in the commission of an impossibility stands in stark contrast to, say, the psychological shenanigans that admits the impossibility in the case of, for example, He Who Whispers (1946) by John Dickson Carr.  There’s no physical barrier in that case, simply a solution — no spoilers — that can be easily explained if one person is willing to open their mouth and explain something that is perfectly clear and rational if said, but generates a mystery within a mystery of far-reaching implications on account of a tongue held.  That’s simply evidence of the wider possibilities for impossible crimes, and something I may return to in a future post, because it’s intrinsically linked to this topic but not what I wish to focus on.  Nevertheless, ‘someone who knows something doesn’t tell what they know’ is, essentially, the basis of all detective fiction — if the detective turns up on page 12 to begin investigating the murder and on page 13 the criminal says “Yes, I dunnit — I shot him and stole his watch because he took it from my father after promising he’d sell it to buy his way out of Rangoon but instead left him there to rot!” (ungrammatical, that, but passionate speech tends to be) we’d have very little left to do.  So ‘withholding evidence’ is as old as the hills on which were grown the trees whose paper the first detective story were printed upon.  ‘Making the hermetically sealed room a part of the crime’ was very new, and changed the genre for the better.

And my point?  Well, as I said up top, I’m not really sure what my point is or what this post is about.  But it was fun while it lasted, eh?  This has, believe it or not, been going around in my head for a little while, and the only way to see if it had any merit was to write it out and see what someone else does with it.  I apologise if you feel I’ve wasted your time, and I refer you to the No Refunds policy of this blog.  Have a lovely weekend!


Since there are some pretty heavy spoilers up top, I’ll take this opportunity to inform you that my mano a mano confrontation with Fog of Doubt, a.k.a. London Particular (1952) by Christiana Brand will be going up in exactly a fortnight on Saturday 28th July 2018.  Anyone wishing to play along at home, you have two weeks…!

11 thoughts on “#412: On the Appeal of Impossible Crimes – At Death’s Door…

  1. Hmm, if Ross Harte rushes across the garden and opens the first available door to the study… he’s going to say “wait a minute, this isn’t a Great Merlini novel!” 🙂

    More seriously, thanks for writing this essay – it got me to thinking about Edward D. Hoch’s various impossible crimes and how a number of them also involve delay being necessary to there being an impossibility (including some that were not locked rooms). He probably learned as much from Carr as any author ever did!


    • Hahaha, dammit. Well, I did say this was all coming from my faulty memory 🙄 I’ll go in and correct that in due course — thanks for pointintg that out.

      The thing that really struck me when I started thinking about this was the necessiy of delay and mechanics, yes, and once you start looking for it you see a huge change come over the genre at a very specific point. I’m delighted to think somebody finished this and might have snjouyed it, because I appreciate it’s a somewhat unformed collection of thoughts that only vaguely meanders towards a point. But, man, it would not stop running round in my head, so I had to write it down…


  2. Interesting approach to the topic. It’s tempting to rattle off a series of titles but I’m debating whether that is fair game. I’ll side step timing being the specific factor and focus on the general essence of the impossibility.

    The Unicorn Murder by Carr has a delicious impossibility where the very impossibility is so central to….well everything! Why was it impossible? Well it just had to be!!!!! That’s my attempt to walk the tightrope of discussing a title without giving things away.


    • Here’s the difficulty — I wanted to specifically look at a couple of cases where the focus is on the delay caused by a locked door partly because, well, it narrows the field, and partly because the element of timig is far, far bigger once removed from a hermetically sealed situation. Believe it or not, I went into a massive detour on the subject of timing — or at least I started writing about it, and realised how massive a detour it would be — and cited The Unicorn Murders, but then realised it’s easier to look at that in non-sealed situations separately. Also, as you say, there’s the risk of spoilers because some of the titles it would be possible to suggest hide their delays brilliantly and it’s a shame to call attention to them by even saying “Oh, hey, I’ll be discussing Title and Title 2 in the following…” because even if people decide to check out at the point they know to look for elements of delay and misdirection.

      Ugh, considering the feelings of others is the worst.

      Anyway, this might be the first of an occasional series on this sort of thing, or it might be the only time I loosely wander around a set of vaguely connected ideas to show how stuff is different now from how what it used to was in them pasts, like. An important point, I think no-one will agree, and one that does not need 2000 words in order to bring it to people’s attention.


      • I scanned my bookshelf and found two other Carr’s that I think fit the criteria of a combination of a locked room combined with timing – you’ve read them both. Perhaps we can follow up via email (although I’ll have undoubtably forgotten which titles I had in mind by then).

        I encourage you to explore this vein for future blog posts. It was an intriguing read, albeit a difficult one to openly share my thoughts on without risk of spoilers. Another excellent topic would be the accidental impossible crime, in which the murderer’s attempt to establish an alibi or throw suspicion on another backfires.


        • Ben if you wish to initiate a nerdy locked-room email chain I find myself entirely powerless to stop you. Just be aware it’s the end of term soon and I’m not super-hot on replying to emails at present. But I’d love to know the books you have in mind.

          I’ll mull future themed posts, because I feel I’d like to make a point that feels a bit more…concrete than this one does, but I’m obviously not going to shy away from more thought pieces on the developing nature of impossible crimes in fiction. That diversion into aspects of timing is niggling away, so I’ll think it through and see what I can work together. It’s — as you say — also important not to spoil too much, and so if this can’t be done without reference to at least a couple of ‘common knowledge’ impossible crime novels then I’ll have to shelve it. But that’s a consideration for another time.


      • I really think the only way to take care of the problem you mention is to say at the outset, “This post is only for people who have read all of Carr, as it alludes to similarities between various books… if you haven’t got to that point yet, come back when you have!”


        • Given the difficulty some people are finding locating Carr titles, that might make for a small reading group. I know I’m not ready yet, and I don’t want to worry that I may not have enough years left to get to your post, JJ!!


        • Perhaps; I’ll see if I can go the “you have hopefully read these two or three books” route first. Always mindful, me, that there’s so much out there to read, and that people aren’t living their lives based around what I review and recommend.

          I know, I know, I’m so humble. How do I do it? What’s my secret? Well, I wish I knew…


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