Some months ago, in our podcast The Men Who Explain Miracles, first myself and then Dan chose our fifteen favourite locked room novels of all time. In celebration of Locked Room International recently putting out their thirtieth fiction title, I have done essentially the same again, this time choosing solely from their catalogue: effectively, my personal picks for the ‘top half’ of their output to date.
Except, okay, not quite: I’m yet to read The Man Who Loved Clouds (1999) by Paul Halter, being that thirtieth title, and have excluded the multi-national short story collection The Realm of the Impossible (2017) since so many different hands in the same pot make it difficult to compare overall. Maybe I should wait until they’ve published 30 novels, you say? Hell, that would just make this even trickier than it already was.
Compiling that previous list, I cowarded out and failed to put a definitive order on my choices; well, not this time! This time you’ll have my fifteenth-favourite all the way up to my first, though any previous ratings should be disregarded as this is very much an in-the-moment undertaking, and so something previously in receipt of a four-star rating could well place higher than something I’ve rated five stars. I know, the scandal — good heavens, do I have no credibility? Er, no, it would appear not.
Okay, enough preamble — onwards!
15. The Decagon House Murders (1987) by Yukito Ayatsuji
An updating of Agatha Christie’s And The There Were None (1939), in which a group of university students — each bearing a sobriquet styled after famous detective fiction authors — visit a remote island where a series of mysterious and bloody deaths occurred the year before. What could possibly go wrong? I mean, you expect to be killed off one by one in that sort of situation, wouldn’t you? Contains some beautifully baroque touches, such as signs appearing on the doors of the rooms in the titular house after the person sleeping therein is killed, and has one of the best-hidden killers I think I’ve ever encountered.
Halter’s short fiction enables him to showcase his staggering imagination and economy of plotting and clewing over and over again. Contains some of my favourite short impossibilities ever, including prophetic dream masterpiece ‘The Cleaver’ and the title story which manages to be both a brilliant impossible werewolf murder and a commentary on the nature of myths and legends. Along the way, Halter casually provides proof of the existence of Santa Claus, sees someone murdered by a snowman, and explains how a man with everything to live for is lured to his death by a mythical siren call.
Not merely a collection of superb stories — including a kidnapper floating off into the sky, a missive disappearing from a watched letter-box, and a sea monster’s attack on a lighthouse — but also a compelling portrait of a culture on the brink of change. Osaka’s fiction is rooted in the transition to technological innovation from the ‘old ways’, and mixes the expectations of both to beautiful and insightful effect. Genre fiction as historical document, believe it or not, and a fascinating glimpse of the development of the honkaku plot that would come to be adopted so perfectly by Eastern culture a few decades later.
12. The Invisible Circle (1996) by Paul Halter
Halter at his most unabashedly playful, isolating a disparate group in an old castle, killing someone impossibly at the top of a tower, and standing back to see what develops. It sounds like I’m excusing unavoidable flaws if I say something like “try not to take it too seriously”, but, like, do you need reminding that such reading is meant to be fun? Reading this felt to me like rediscovering my enjoyment mojo after too long being too serious about the books I picked up; it was my third or fourth Halter, and the one that made me a fan for life.
For all the joy of locked room murders, vanishing murderers, or magically-appearing corpses, there’s a real excitement about an impossible crime novel that promises something more challenging. Here that promise is both made and fulfilled perfectly: a vanishing alleyway in fog-shrouded London, pulled off with such rare élan that despite having read the book I’m still not entirely sure how Halter manages to make it work so brilliantly. The motive is utterly barmy, and maybe not everyone will love the ‘prophetic visions’ solution, but the whole thing is a beautifully-wrangled game, as the final line proves. Gloriously entertaining.
Of the three Eastern ‘mansion murders’ translations thus far published by LRI, this is easily the most complex and yet also the most simple — utilising a trick that would be perfectly at home in any GAD impossibility, yet hiding it with a legerdemain that betokens a serious talent. A gloomy and oppressive atmosphere abounds, too, and there’s a real stab of darkness in the closing pages that shows how character can be just as important as plot and setting when trying to hide something in plain sight. Not an optimistic book by any means, but a staggeringly clever one.
The locked room murder of an expert in locked room murders, this is enriched by some curiously off-kilter details in the setup and a far richer vein of characterisation than Halter typically gets credit for. The solution to the impossibility might be the least original of those so far translated, but the story around it is constructed with real surety, and told at a blinding pace. Also has a lot of fun at an early stage of Halter’s career in teasing you with one of the oldest, most eye-rolling gambits in the genre…but does he succumb to it? Read and find out…
8. The Seventh Hypothesis (1991) by Paul Halter
Trading far less on the impossibilities with which Halter has made his name and more on a switchback plot of dazzling and dizzying complexity, the middle section of this is one of the most delightful times I’ve had reading a puzzle plot. Are an actor and a playwright engaged in a duel to the death? Who is the mysterious doctor who made a body appear out of nowhere? Is there plague in 1940s London? A gleeful, rip-snorting humdinger of a book, you can almost hear Halter’s maniacal laughter emanating from the pages with each jack-knife twist and revelation.
The latest Vindry translation, and easily the most complex we’ve yet seen: a man accused of a crime, then another crime elsewhere at exactly the same time, and then another at the same time again. Starts simply enough, and once that revelation hits you’re in for a wild ride as the plots spin you in several directions at once like a merry-go-round set to ‘Aaargh!’. And shows what a light touch Vindry had with character and place, as it contains not just fine comic writing but also a tangible sense of the provincial settings that bear witness to this brilliance. Mind-bendingly good.
6. The Tiger’s Head (1991) by Paul Halter
Dismembered bodies turning up in suitcases, a man bludgeoned to death by a genie while locked in a room with every exit watched from outside, and enough suspicious activity to leave anyone scratching their head in bewilderment. And yet, once Alan Twist draws it all together, what emerges makes sense, would work surprisingly well in the real world (the locked room trick is especially neat), and is full of the clever patterns and layering that make the best of these novels so much fun. For a long time, this was my favourite Halter translation, but then, well, you’ve probably already scrolled ahead and seen what happened.
5. Whistle Up the Devil (1953) by Derek Smith
The unavailability of this book was a source of great frustration for me for a long time, and although I obtained a copy before the LRI reprint there was always the risk that after so much anticipation it would prove disappointing. It didn’t. The ease with which you can buy this now means many people will get to take it for granted, but the two impossible murders in here are preternaturally brilliant and should not be overlooked. Smith was a wonderful talent, and the paucity of his available writings is a real shame; if I could, I’d go back in time and encourage him to write another fifteen of these.
As I have said before, anyone coming to this purely for the impossibility will have a wait on their hands as it transpires very late in the narrative. As I have also said before, the story on the way to that impossibility — and how the impossible situation evolves from everything that goes before — more than makes it worth the journey. For tone, for setting, for placing a small cast in a confined area and watching the madness unfold, and for the resulting fever-pitch of claustrophobia this is masterfully marshalled and arguably not too far off the pinnacle of the form.
3. Come to Paddington Fair (c. 1954) by Derek Smith
The insanity of this book remaining unpublished in Derek Smith’s lifetime baffles me; the puzzle is grander, the cast more finely-realised, and the bizarre shooting at a theatre that opens it is simply the jumping off point for a plot that twist and jags and pirouettes puckishly all the way up to its ingeniously-resolved impossibility. Has that lightness of touch that makes me dearly wish Smith had possessed the confidence to submit this to someone, and received the praise he was due and been heartened to go on to become one of the genre’s great puzzlers. The realised potential here is simultaneously amazing and so frustrating.
The brilliance of this book is how ridiculous it sounds — following each of a series of seemingly-unrelated events, a wet patch appears on the carpet in a particular room in a house — and how astonishingly tight the resulting puzzle turns out to be. Without a doubt, this is one of the most joyfully inventive books I will ever read, and if you don’t own a copy then I honestly don’t even care what your excuse is. More frolicsome than The Phantom Passage, more bonkers than The Seventh Hypothesis, hairy Aaron the idea that Halter may have written better books than this is very exciting.
Another island, two murders, a treasure hunt — this book is perfectly paced and gorgeously imagined. Gets fully-deserved plaudits for the expert piece of extended ratiocination that ties the threads at the end, but should also be commended for how well the events ‘away’ from the crimes never lag, never feel extraneous, and form a crystal-clear picture that will nevertheless thoroughly confound you until laid plain by the author. The treasure hunt, too, while beyond the intellect of any human being alive, is almost involved enough for a book of its own, highlighting th skill of its inclusion herein without crowding out the other events around it. A masterpiece.
Whew, that was tricky! And, yes, I’ve had to exclude at least one book I gave a five-star rating, more than a few four-starers, and one of my favourite impossibilities ever — testament, I think you’ll agree, to the quality in depth of LRI’s output to date.