Last week I sat this out because other business needed attending to. This week I’m going to try and convince you that the recent republication of Robert Adey’s Locked Room Murders from Locked Room International is the best reprint of this calendar year.
Look, the public reviewing of books is somewhat of an unusual hobby at the best of times. Subjectivity is at the heart of everything, and your “cliché-filled predictable nonsense” is someone else’s “I stayed up all night glued to the pages and will buy copies for everyone I know”. Blogging at least partly removes the element of randomness — after a while, you as a blogger get a reputation for the sort of thing you enjoy and so anyone looking for something to satisfy a Gladys Mitchell fan knows to check out the opinions of Jason Half and Nick Fuller before they come knocking on my door. This way, there’s at least an easy method of determining whether a particular reviewer in on your wavelength: scan through their reviews, find the books you’ve read, and see how your opinions match or diverge. Rinse, repeat, enjoy the recommendations that result.
Sure, it’s not foolproof — plot-fiends like myself who take great joy in the machinations of Freeman Wills Crofts, Paul Halter, Rupert Penny, and their like should rear like a startled racehorse at a loosely-structured character piece with virtually zero investigation and frighteningly flabby logical reasoning, and yet I adored The Voice of the Corpse (1948) by Max Murray even while I would shoo fellow Croftians away from it in the manner of a storybook farmer about to discover some sort of magic scarecrow. So while hanging around blogs whose opinions typically tally with your own can be a very good way of finding new books to love — or, in the case of John Norris, of feeling immensely jealous that he finds so many fabulous-sounding books which you’ll never get the chance to read — the chance of leaping two-footed into something you end up regretting is ever-present. Goddamn people and their ways of looking at things.
In this time of untold wealth where GAD reprints are involved (check it out: American Mystery Classics, Black Heath Books, British Library Crime Classics, Coachwhip, Collins Crime Club, Dean Street Press, Harper Collins’ Detective Club, Ipso Books, Locked Room International, The Mysterious Press, Orion’s Murder Room, and Ramble House are specialising in this kind of thing, and then you have the books from the likes of Harper, Vintage, and Orion’s ‘standard’ identities which have been available all this time anyway) you’re thankfully able to track down books which — Come to Paddington Fair (c.1954) by Derek Smith, say — would have set you back a small fortune. We live in fabulous times, with the availability of books in this genre seemingly on the up, and a list of reprints in 2018 alone which would make a GAD fan in 2000 froth at the gills. Express disappointment with one, despite your favourite blogger’s approbation of its merits, and, hyrda-esque, four more will spring in to take its place and gently massage away the memory.
I do not wish to give the impression that I elect the second edition of Robert Adey’s impossible crime reference bible as King of the 2018 Reprints because of the lack of subjectivity over the contents, however. It’s true that there will be no quibbles over last-page twists or unfairly-clewed killers, relying on an overburdening quantity of increasingly-esoteric knowledge and some intuitive leaps that Bambi himself would struggle to clear. I mean, sure, let’s not deny that this is one book you buy knowing exactly what you’re getting and so the element of surprise in terms of precise content is precluded, but that alone doesn’t qualify. We’ll get into my precise reasons for this selection in good time, but it occurs to me that I should probably go into those contents for the uninitiated…
Locked Room Murders (2nd edition, 1991) is structured in the following way: after an introduction that covers the development of the impossible crime in fiction there are two sections. The first contains a list of novels, novellas, and short stories which contain impossible crimes, grouped together by author with that writer’s novels listed first (alphabetically by title) and then their short stories afterwards (again, alphabetically by title). Alongside each title is the publication data (date, publisher, periodical, variant titles, etc.) and then underneath this a short rundown of the impossibility contained in said story.
Each entry is numbered and…that’s it. The first section is simply a listing of problems. The second section, then, is a listing of solutions in numerical order, so that you may find the solution without necessarily having another story spoiled for you, or may (I suppose) browse solutions to see the sheer range of possibilities the genre has presented over the years. This second edition — the first edition was published in 1979 — contains some 2018 entries and shows the diversity of solutions from hidden trapdoors and passageways, to “The victim committed suicide with a very light pistol, and afterward a pigeon flew away with it” (no, I’m not kidding), all the way up to masterpieces of the form. Besides the odd reference to the quality of said solution there’s very little in the way of review or comment, and the overwhelming majority is pure reference, there for those who wish to seek out problems or — for whatever reason — to know solutions.
Yes, it is staggeringly niche. Robert Adey, who died in 2015, was by all accounts not merely a student of the impossible crime story but rather a whole faculty all on his own (you can read more about him in Martin Edwards’ piece here), and this book is clearly the result of a lifetime’s reading, put together out of sheer fascination for the scope and breadth of the subgenre and all its alleyways and cul-de-sacs. Question its precise intent all you like — yes, it seems a bit weird that you can simply spoil yourself on a bunch of books all in one go, but the same could equally be achieved with a afternoon’s browsing through negative reviews online — but as a labour of adoration for the Grandest Game it is unparalleled. And for people such as myself who dabble in the reading of this sort of things it’s invaluable in how it will direct you to the works of an author which feature an impossible crime (or, in some cases, which appear to feature an impossible crime but actually don’t…). No, it’s not exhaustive, and no it’s not perfect (Adey’s definition of “impossible is perhaps a mite wider than mine would be), but it’s a simple conceit, explored simply, fulfilled simply, and a pleasure to pick through.
Best of all, as a research reference it’s simply unmatched. I appreciate that very few people would look at this book and think “Hmm, maybe I’ll use this to put together a collection of out-of-copyright short stories”, but TomCat and I are only a very few people and that’s exactly what we did when Ye Olde Book of Locked Room Conundrums was conceived, bringing (back?) to public consciousness some very good stories that would otherwise have lain unresuscitated — like, I know I’m the one who did most of the work and so I have to be positive about it, but I think there are some fabulous stories in that collection, fascinating from the perspective of how the impossible crime developed, and they wouldn’t be there but for Adey. I also appreciate that very few people would think “Hmm, what the internets need is a series of reviews of near-impossible to find short stories that virtually no-one will get the chance to read — brilliant!” but, yup, that’s me again, picking through intriguing-sounding tales from authors whose oeuvres interest me (you can find them at this link, and it’s a set of posts that I intend to grow over the years) and getting the chance to explore more of what this subgenre has done.
So, is it the King of the Reprints 2018 purely because I’ve gotten a lot of use out of it? It’s certainly a book that will give a huge amount back to me over the years to come, since it provides an accessible and dauntingly-catholic overview of the genre — not for nothing does Edwards list it as his second-favourite book about crime fiction, calling it “Masterly research, superbly and economically presented” — that makes me itch to dive in a track down even more of the delights it promises. Will they all be great? No, but, as discussed up top, that’s a game you play with anything you pick up to read for pleasure. It’s in the exploration rather than the destination that the joy lays and for all the potential it offers Locked Room Murders has a lifetime’s exploration as the payoff for Adey’s own lifetime of love for these stories.
And yet all of that is very personal — fine, since the reading of books is a personal experience, and ten people will get ten different things out of the arrangement of the same words on a page — and if I’m going to convince you to vote for this (and, if I’m honest, I’d only just remembered that there was going to be a vote, so much fun has this been to write) I need to offer you a little bit more. So consider. The chance that this book would ever be so readily available was vanishingly unlikely. I turn 40 in fewer years than I usually realise, and had already made plans to suggest anyone who wished to help me commemorate the occasion chip into a pot that I could put towards buying a decent secondhand edition — I’ve seen them going for £400 or so. For Locked Room International’s one-man band John Pugmire to have found his way to republishing it some 26 years after it saw the light of day not only saves me some money (god, I hope no-one buys me a watch…) but also speaks volumes about the current appetite for mystery fiction in today’s market.
As an elbow in the water for 2018 you can look at that list of publishers above and marvel at how many people are committing themselves to great efforts in order to get these books back in print. Equally, one could look at the ease with which it is now possible to bring a book to market through self-publishing and intuit from there the explosion we’re probably going to see in a few years as copyrights finally fall on several key authors and their works. We’re in a sort of suspended animation between the demand rising and the supply being able to flood that demand, and so the works being put out by those publishers take on a certain significance. And the existence of something as niche as Locked Room International, now having published 32 books in its short existence with (one hopes) a damn sight more to come, is the apotheosis of this: putting out selected works in a particular niche because they deserve to find an audience, because they challenge what has been done before, or because they offer some new insight into the history of the genre and fill out a picture that gets bigger, richer and more complicated as each new title is added.
And within that niche, Locked Room Murders must surely be the most niche book going, and its ready availability — £15 now, a 96.25% price drop — is only going to grow that picture more, to give more people the chance to read more, to uncover more, and to share more in an enthusiasm that hasn’t always been able to rely on easy access to the tools required to explore it. Other books suggested by my fellow, exceptionally well-read and perceptive, bloggers will provide you with several hours of entertainment, and may open up the works of a new author or two, at least of the works that have enjoyed similar republishment, but this is the only one in this vote that comes from and passes on literally thousands and thousands of hours of potential, and offers a gentle nudge into a world that would otherwise remain hidden from view and surely deserves your time and attention for all the effort and skill deployed on its behalf.
I mean, it’s a no-brainer, innit?
UPDATE: We won!