Slowly, slowly I work my way through the Otto Penzler-edited Woo Whatta Lotta Locked Room Mysteries (2014) — it’s not really a convenient size to dip into — and, since my chronological reading of Ellery Queen is going so well, it seemed time to take on this impossible disappearance story. Or so I thought…
See, because The House of Haunts, a.k.a. The Lamp of God (1935) — I don’t really get that second title, it seems weirdly forced — isn’t very good at all. It sees twenty-something orphan Alice Mayhew return to America from England where she’s lived with her mother for years, having no memory of her father, her mother having divorced him shortly after Alice’s birth. Upon her mother dying, Alice contacts the lawyer Richard Thorne (I think it’s Richard, but I’m not going back in to check — apologies if that’s incorrect) for news of her father and, following his tracing of said patriarch, she returns to America on the first steamer going. Alas, Sylvester Mayhew dies before she reaches the US, and so she is met at the port by Thorne, Dr. Herbert Reinach — Mayhew’s half-brother and Alice’s uncle — and Ellery Queen, whom Thorne drafts in with little to no explanation and simply warns to be on his guard.
The foursome head to Reinach’s isolated house, which stands next to the Big, Spooky Mansion in which the miserly Sylvester lived out his days — Mayhew’s house given the nickname of ‘The Black House’ on account of the dark stone from which it is built, in contrast to Reinach’s ‘White House’ standing opposite it.
Dr. Reinach ran the car up the driveway and brought it to rest a little before, and between, two houses. These structure flanked the drive, standing side by side, separated only by the width of the drive which led straight ahead to a ramshackle garage. … The three buildings huddled in a ragged clearing, surrounded by the tangle of woods, like three desert islands in an empty sea.
After examining the old Mayhew house, and with much suspicion ladled on Reinach and his meek, timid wife who has about her “the fascinated obedience of a whipped bitch”, everyone has dinner, goes to bed in the White House, and wakes up in the morning to find that the Black House has vanished into the ether. Better than that, the entire area surrounding the house(s) is blanketed with virgin snow, the cars suddenly don’t work, and there’s no neighbour for about fifteen miles to provide aid or sanity. For twenty-four hours the house remains invisible or gone, and then suddenly it’s back the following morning, providing yet more bafflement. We all know who to suspect, of that there’s no doubt, but what in the hell is going on?
It should be brilliant. It isn’t.
The difficulty is that something on this scale has really only two possible solutions. The good one was used by Will Scott in ‘The Vanishing House’ (1924) and the setup here doesn’t allow for the same stratagem, and so it’s with the bad one we’re left unless Dannay and Lee have something brilliantly clever up their sleeves — though let me save you the wondering and simply say that there’s nothing even close to that smart here. The solution is banal at best, and hilariously self-defeating at worst (I mean, given that the motive for this is given as “they needed to buy time”…holy hell it must have taken fucking ages to do what they do). You’d be better off leaving the locks on the doors and simply locking everyone in their room; if you’re going to undertake a scheme this transparent in purpose, why go to all this effort?
At the very least, you’d hope Dannay and Lee — especially as Dannay edited down Carr’s ‘The Third Bullet’ (1937) — would be quick in their telling and get this out of the way…but no. It’s probably around 15,000 words long, and that’s easily 5,000 too many — yes, some wonderful atmosphere is established at the beginning, and there’s a piquant observation of little moments like the cold water Ellery is required to wash in “nipp[ing] his fingers like the mouths of little fishes” to round it out, but for all the scheme and intent here it’s far too prolix for its own good. Ellery is on magnificently dull form in failing to spot the trick immediately (though I suppose there’s the argument that it’s being used to obscure something else, too, and I’m not sure that excuses his dullness), and the wonderful situation it posits wastes away as mucilaginous prose and increasingly odd narrative choices draw the whole thing out well past the point of my ability to go on caring.
[As a complete — and I do mean complete — side note, I have a feeling there’s an editorial mistake in my copy, too, since in one line Reinach, Thorne, and Queen are discussing having breakfast and in the next Thorne is awaking in bed “sluggishly, like a drowsing old hound dimly aware of danger” before Ellery comes in and tells him that Reinach has vanished…only for them to then continue in their breakfasting with Reinach. I know there are 68 stories in here, guys, but c’mon…]
“Not impressed, lads.”
So, to the surprise of everyone who has seen me fawn over the work of GAD darlings Ellery Queen on this blog, I found this story wanting in just about every regard. The setup is wasted, the impossibility is tedious, there’s no ingenuity, the motive seems self-defeating…honestly, it’s a mess. I spent a while thinking this over and — Emperor’s Mushrooms style — came up with a couple of alternative ways to explain away the vanishment and reappearance (well, one method would not allow for the reappearance…) but, in all honesty, they’re not quite good enough to waste your time with (or maybe they’re too good to waste your time with, eh? Eh?)…and I think that’s in part because the problem itself is so damn stark. Vanishing a house is an amazing idea…but once you try to put it into practice you realise that there’s so much to deal within that: it’s great because it’s so difficult, but then you realise that, wow, it’s so difficult.
And, naturally, I got to pontificating — I haven’t had a pontificate on here for ages — about what sorts of problems do make good impossibilities and, as a consequence of that, the ways in which a problem should be presented (to my tastes) in order to remain a difficult problem that still has a stroke of genuine insight or brilliance in its solution. I can’t deny that this has been on my mind for a while — and has been stirred up ever since the republication of Robert Adey’s Locked Room Murders (1992) made so many solutions available to my roving eye (not, naturally, that I’m just sat reading solutions from that wonderful book…) — largely because time and again authors have complete free reign to create precisely whatever problem they wish, and it seems that again and again what’s reached for is either frustratingly minor or massively long on promise and short on delivery.
“Supposing that four people sit down to play bridge and one, the odd man out, sits in a chair by the fire. At the end of the evening the man by the fire is found dead. One of the four, while he us dummy, has gone over and killed him, and intent on the play of the hand the other three have not noticed. Ah, there would be a crime for you! Which of the four was it?“
Thus spake M. Hercule Poirot in chapter three of The A.B.C. Murders (1936), describing to the more romantically-minded but unimaginative Arthur Hastings the sort of crime that he, Poirot, would consider ideal for the purposes of detection. Later that same year, he was to get his wish granted with the publication of that exact plot in Cards on the Table (1936) — a novel which, while it may have delighted Poirot, I rank as among the most disappointing of Christie’s output. The potential for legitimate psychological detection is what entices Poirot, and therefore Christie, to this setup, but — er, spoilers a bit I suppose — in the end there are simply a lot of repetitive conversations and then they pretend there was a witness to force a confession out of someone. Promise yes, delivery…not on your life.
“Oh, Jim, people aren’t going to like that…”
And the same is frequently true in the impossible crime, largely, I can’t help but feel, because writing a worthwhile impossibility is bloody difficult and so typically it seems authors don’t bother to try. It’s 2019, and authors are still looping string around the handle of a bolt and shutting the door and pulling the string on the outside of the door to lock it — we’ve taken a photo of a black hole, and this is the best someone who chooses to write these kinds of stories can do? Equally, I’ve read three versions published in the last twelve months of “the victim was stabbed outside the room, and locked the door in order to keep the murderer at bay” explanations for “victim killed with no sign of a weapon”. I appreciate we can’t all have the bravado and ingenuity of ‘Persons or Things Unknown’ (1938) by Carter Dickson when it comes to vanished weapons — and sure, as was recently said to me, expecting everyone to write impossibilities like Carr is akin to expecting everyone to behave like Gandhi — but can’t we at least try even a little bit?
Now, yes, just because something is decrepit, outdated, and hoary doesn’t mean that someone won’t be able to put it to use — Jeremy Clarkson’s continued popularity shows that — but surely these two gambits are well and truly past the point of being any use to even the most basic wrangler of impossibilities. Equally the unreliable witness. Goddamn, I’ve had enough of “No, guv, no-one got past me” only for it to turn out that, yup, they let someone past, especially if it’s — spoilers for ‘The Invisible Man’ (1910) by G.K. Chesterton — done in ignorance as in ‘The Invisible Man’ (1910) by G.K. Chesterton. And, yes, you’re going to wave The Mystery of the Yellow Room (1907) at me with its assailant vanishing on the top corridor when literally in the hands of three other people but, c’mon, let us behave like civilised men and admit that such an example is in no way the sort of lazy writing I’m talking about.
And it’s not that I feel these things shouldn’t be used at all, so much as I feel that they should now be relegated to their place. If your murder in a bolted room is discovered on page 8 and the reveal of string wrapped around the handle of the bolt comes on page 342, you’re doing it wrong — such a minor trick only deserves a minor amount of time to baffle. I’m rereading some crime/thriller novels from the 1990s this month and one of them presents us with a body in a locked bathroom that to all appearance has been murdered, yet the room was locked from the inside…and then literally five lines after this discovery the detective goes “Oh, no, wait, seems you can turn the lock from the outside using a screwdriver; problem solved” — that’s the way to do it. If an author wants to string it out for longer, they need to embellish, to mix up the nature of the crime scene or to add wrinkles that at least make things interesting. Indeed, two bathroom-set murders do this with opposite degrees of success: The Tattoo Murder Case (1948) by Akimitsu Takagi is drawn out but at least provides a different crime scene to what we expect, but The Boat Race Murder (1933) by R.E. Swartwout simply breaks down the door, finds the key on the floor, and expects us to be amazed when it turns out several chapters later that one of the breaker-inners dropped the key having actually locked the door from the outside (er, spoilers). No, no more, this sort of thing will not stand.
It’s to be commended, then, when an author attempts something out of the usual, but the setup alone — surely we all know this — doesn’t suffice. You need a payoff, typically a worthwhile one. It doesn’t need to be completely original, most of the best classic impossibilities are stealing from each other in one way or another, but it also shouldn’t be immediately obvious at first glance. The first thing a reader of moderate intelligence will think when they’re told the problem should not be the solution. That’s the difficulty with The House of Haunts. The “impossible” disappearance of the house is so grand, so stark a show that there’s only one thing you can think and — unlike with the Takagi — nothing to misdirect you away from it. Hell, fine, have that obvious solution if you must, but at least do something to make that solution seem unlikely along the way; the Least Likely Suspect is always a good ploy because they are, at some point, a suspect, and all solutions that intend to surprise should surely work on this principle. Acknowledge it could be possible, make it appear if it couldn’t be possible, then explain how it was actually done like that all along. And, c’mon, this is an option available to writers because, once again, they choose what they’re writing about in every single particular.
“The boy’s onto something…”
Okay, I’ve veered wildly off-topic — I’d intended to talk about choosing setups based on their potential — and run the risk of ranting at the choir, but honestly this is simply the result of such a huge degree of disappointment in this story. To see heads as capable as Dannay and Lee — and, no, I’m far from their biggest fan, but I’m not going to deny the good work they have done — blunder around so artlessly in the service of very little worthwhile frustrates and irritates me, especially as we know they’re better than coming up with this quick, easily-spotted, and largely pointless way out of such a fascinating proposition. Did they actually come up with an impossibility that cannot be resolved in a satisfactory way? The vanishing of something that can’t be moved has been applied successfully elsewhere — Paul Halter did it, Norman Berrow did it — so we know this can be done (and, of course, I’m fully prepared for a slew of you to have thoroughly enjoyed this Queen story — and my very best to you all).
Is there something about this that precludes a satisfactory conclusion? I’d attempt to analyse it further, but, honestly, I just feel a little jaded by it all.