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.
54 thoughts on “#527: Plotting the Perfect Crime – Potential and Pay-Off via The House of Haunts, a.k.a. The Lamp of God (1935) by Ellery Queen”
On the other hand, some of us rather liked this piece. Odd, that.
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Good heavens, John! You mean to say that people can have differing opinions about things? This bears further research… 🙂
I don’t remember how old I was when I read this, but clearly I wasn’t as smart as you. I didn’t get the solution. I didn’t even figure the whole “only two possible solutions” thing. I certainly wasn’t as well read as you in the impossible crime sub-genre. This sends me off on my own sort of pontification along the lines of “Is ignorance bliss?” Am I more likely to enjoy a piece because I don’t possess certain points of reference, or an analytical mind . . . or a taste for a certain type of prose?
What I remember not liking about this story was the clarity of identity of the evil party. (That, and the novella-length felt stretched to me.) It’s my own fault that I have always preferred the clear WHOdunnit to the “Yes-it-was-him-but-HOW-THE-HELL-dunnit!” This basically spoiled a perfectly wonderful show like Columbo for me, but what are you going to do? However, I do remember thinking that the solution to the disappearing house was rather clever, especially since the clue was staring us in the face all the time. I mean, REALLY – how do you not notice that little bit of information?!?!? And yet . . . I did not.
I won’t argue with you for slicing and dicing yet another Ellery Queen. I won’t even get on your case for disliking Cards on the Table, a perfectly wonderful Christie. I know some people do that to you just for disagreeing with their tastes. All these classic tales will withstand our opinions of them, so slice away, my friend, slice away!!
I remember there being a point where I started to feel a sort of tipping in my reading of classic detective fiction, as I started to wise up to the ploys and misdirection and so stopped being so surprised by what was revealed…and I had a month or so of genuinely wrangling over whether to simply read less so that a greater proportion of it would catch me off-guard.
Do I need to have read the work of Constance and Gwenyth Little in order to appreciate GAD? No. So why not just do Carr, Christie, Crofts, Penny, Wade, MacDonald, Crispin, Berrow, and a handful of others? I’ll get good coverage and also be caught out more. And yet this feels like a dissatisfying solution to the problem. I don’t know what the answer is, even all these years later, but it bears reflection, if only because it’s an interesting question.
And, much as you bristle slightly at the reputation of being a Paul Halter naysayer, I’m feeling a little piqued at this idea that I’m here only to kick the Queen cousins. It’s weird, innit? Where did we go wrong?
Oh, heavens…..not another Queen-bashing post? I recall enjoying this one a lot .
Look here, why don’t you just give up on Queen and put not only yourself out of the misery but also all the EQ fans who are tired of defending their work again and again and again?
Legitimately, I honestly don’t see what there is for anyone else to defend. I read a book, I write what I think — isn’t that how blogging works? People agree or disagree, we talk about it…who needs to defend anything? I never sought to make myself an oracle, you’re allowed to contradict me; hell, I encourage a bit of debate.
However, I’m sorry you’re “tired” of this, Neil, and I’m sorry that my persisting with an author I don’t automatically love purely because I’m interested in exploring their output and discussing the place of their work in the firmament of GAD is something that apparently frustrates you. I’m never going to be the sort of blogger who writes only positive posts, I’m too keen on raising the level of discourse on this subject for that — witness the entire second half of the above, thus far ignored by everyone in the comments. If, however, you dislike reading my opinions to such a degree that you’re inspired to leave such a world-weary criticism of them, well, I’d be sorry to lose any reader — I’m not here to isolate anyone, and put the time and effort I do into this blog so that I might encourage interesting discussion with others who have a perspective on this sort of thing — but maybe the sensible thing to do is to not read them.
Hey, don’t take it like that, JJ! I love reading this blog and I do agree with you on most things apart from Queen. (and your newfound love for lack of detection).
My sense of humor must be rotten as I’d intended the above comment to come as half-joking, half ‘not again’ and not criticizing or insulting in the least. Perhaps I should have added a emoji somewhere….. 😅
I did legitimately wonder why you keep giving Queen a try despite repeated failures to like their work but of course, you are entitled to your own opinions and own reading preferences.
I may strongly disagree with you on EQ but that doesn’t make me respect what you do any lesser. Rest assured, I’ll keep reading this blog even if you trash every Queen! 🙂
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Ah, then my sincere apologies for my own sense of humour failure — we did this badly, hey? 😬
My repeated attempts at Queen are, simply, a desire to enjoy them. They’ve done some good work — the first ‘Adventures of…’ collection has some belters — and I don’t feel like I can just write them off without giving them a good go. My lack of enjoyment of the majority of what I’ve read recently — and, in fairness, I didn’t hate Chinese Orange or Door Between, and really rather enjoyed Halfway House — honestly just spurs me onto discuss them because they’re so beloved and so important in the genre and I’m curious to what extent those two things can be taken independently of each other. If I don’t adore their output, what are others getting that I’m missing? Maybe I’ll turn out to be a Julian Symons fan after all…!
Apologies again; I’m extremely honoured that anyone reads and comments on this stuff, and I clearly got some wires crossed before. Let’s never speak of this again 🙂
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To each their own. Like everybody else apparently, I thought this was a rather clever and enjoyable tale. Also, how many times have you knocked out Ellery Queen by now? Surely, this must be some sort of a record?
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Yup, going for a record, that’s me. I’m here to do two things: drink coffee, and occasionally attempt to engage more positively with the work of Emanuel Leopofsky and Daniel Nathan and be seen as a grouch because I want to talk about their legacy rather than fawn over everything unquestioningly. Hoping to be in Guinness by 2023.
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I was a big EQ fan growing up (I say was only because not read much of theirs in the last 20 years). At the time I found this novella fun but a bit underwhelming after hearing such good things (and I agtee completely about CARDS) but unlike you I did love most of their first period novels and short stories. Ah well, glad you got something positive from this even if a bit indirectly!
Careful, Sergio, you’re sailing in dangerous waters… 🙂
What? I like a good “diverge” …
—–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;—–
I think here is the crux of the ‘solution’ to this problem. The presentation isn’t just the impossibility itself, but also the struggle of working it out along with the baffling situations that come naturally from the hidden method. Do you think a short story or novella depends much more on the great idea? The lack of “running time” would naturally make it more difficult to include those kinds of narrative detours and dead ends in a satisfying manner. I imagine a full-length vanishing house story could lead the reader down a wonderful web of pleasurable obfuscation.
On a side note, you should get your vanishing house idea into (at least) a treatment. It could very well lead to something.
Maybe “running time” can be a issue in some cases, but the lack of space to develop it is hardy a problem here — it’s 15,000 (probably more) words long! Certainly for me — and no doubt others have a different perspective — the impossible crime works best when put in a milieu that supports and works off that impossibility. If the idea doesn’t need support because it’s great on its own –cf. Carr’s ‘The Silver Curtain’, Halter’s ‘The Night of the Wolf’, Sayers’ ‘The Haunted Policeman’ — then a;;’s fine, and an increased word count is only going to detract from the fun of the puzzle (this is one of the things I especially enjoys about Rb Innes’ self-published novellas: he writes for as long as the story needs to be told and then stops — he’s not trying to fulfil any obligations beside his own desire to write something). If the impossibility takes as long to tell as the above but ties into a bigger scheme that supports it — let’s say, I dunno, Halter’s The Madman’s Room, surely one of the best-plotted detective novels of the last 30 years — then those extra words aren’t going to detract.
So, roughly, yes, I’d say it’s about the clarity of the idea, but it’s also about what that idea encourages the reader to think. As I say, if someone tells me the problem in THoH, the first thing I think is the actual solution…there’s simply nothing in the way of that thought process; if they then go “Aha, but then there’s this complication…” which throws that solution into doubt, superb, and f that complication requires another 10,000 words, great. The difficulty is, neither of these things is the case in the foregoing.
That’s sort of what the second half of this post is about. You tell me someone’s dead in a bolted room, I’m immediately going to think “Ah, crap, don’t let it be string wrapped around the bolt and pulled from outside…”. If you then go “Oh, and there’s no gap between the door and the jamb, and there’s no keyhole to pull string through either” — great. If it then turns out that the hinges were loosened to give the impression of the door resting against the jamb too tightly for the string to be passed through, and in fact by simply wedging it at the bottom the door is lifted away from teh jamb enough to pull the string as I initially thought…well, sure, you got me. I don’t adore it, but I like that wrinkle on the way to the obvious solution a darn sight more than the obvious solution itself with no adornment; it shows awareness of the easy solutions we should be beyond at this stage of things.
And, yeah, the vanishing house is noted, and I’m going to work it (along with the impossible poisoning and impossible disappearance I’ve worked out) into my impossible crime novel that I’ll never write. Don’t watch this space…
You’re a hard man to please, JJ! Firstly, I liked this one well enough when I read it but I’m probably due a revisit. Mind you, I generally like Queen anyway, regardless of the period involved.
On generally being disappointed or underwhelmed by detective/mystery plots, I don’t find this happening too much. Actually that’s not quite true. Some plots/stories do disappoint for a variety of reasons but not usually because I’ve got ahead of the writer and thus feel frustrated – as a rule, when I find myself doing this I end up wrong!
Some stuff just bores or irritates me, but that’s more likely to be down to writing style, characterization/lack of characterization more than problems with the plotting.
I suppose I’ve read a reasonable amount of detective/mystery fiction over the years and so, theoretically, I ought to be clued in (ho ho) to all the tricks, dodges and misdirection. The fact is though that I’m often not – I’m either too scatterbrained or too easily absorbed in the narrative to notice. This may well make me sound like a fool. I don’t care. 😀
Colin, I envy you — goddamn, do I ever try to get lost in the narrative so that I can be sideswiped. But damn my finicky brain, it just loves picking up things and fitting them into different combinations and permutations when I’m not looking, and often I’ll realise I’ve solved something while not even dwelling on it (indeed, often the harder I look the more i miss…).
Maybe this is where my growing interest in more transitional works comes from — it’s not so much based on those puzzle elements, and I’m not yet fully wise to how they’ll turn out, so I get some aspect of delight in finding a new wrinkle added to the box of tricks. Perhaps I should read works from the 1950s for about three years, and then come back to pure puzzle potting once I’ve grown weary of them…
Good plan. Switch things around a little. But don’t binge, that just makes you sick of whatever it is. Variety, that’s the key to much in life.
Moderation, schmoderation. I shall now embark on the Complete Works of Barbara Cartland. Alphabetically.
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That might work! Or not.
Hey, you can’t just claim you have “a couple” of alternative ways and not show us them! Or at least promise you’ll use them in something!
Well, your comments about the solutions not having to be totally original… I’m sure I’ve seen here, or perhaps on Tomcat’s blog, criticising an impossible crime due to having seen the solution before – without the caveats you put in this piece. I would say that I found reading the Big Ol’ Book of Impossible Crimes and Such a little disheartening, because many of the solutions were very similar to each other. In general I tended towards the stories that offered something else in addition to the solution. I got attracted to impossible crimes because of Carr, but it turns out it’s Carr’s writing I like and not the impossible crimes so much.
Well, that wasn’t a super on topic response… but I’ll post it anyway.
The more I started reading impossibilities away from Carr, the more I appreciated how lucky the subgenre was to have him: he plots, he characters (er, generally), he moods, he misdirects, and he baffles — yes, others managed it, too, but Carr at his top three or four levels of these aspects has nothing even close to a consistent rival.
Originality in the impossible crime is hard, and I hope I’ve never come down too hard against an unoriginal solution — as I say, there’s so much repetition among the classics anyway, it seems churlish. If the setup and the solution feel like a straight lift from somewhere else, or if a distinct lack of care or consideration go into either, I feel a bit more justified being cheesed off. But originality is to be delighted in when found, and not too harshly judged when not, in my opinion.
And, yeah, there’s a fair amount of repetition in this collection, no doubt. I sorta feel a bit more originality in the answers would have helped, as was managed by LRI in The Realm of the Impossible…
Hey, maybe I can use the well-known fallacy argument from authority to convince you? Because there’s a critic who called this one of the 10 best detective stories of all time – his name was John Dickson Carr. Must be true then. 🙂
Like Brad, I probably profited from reading this in my early mystery reading career, because again like him, I did not at all reason out the explanation beforehand. In fact, I was nowhere near getting a solution. It is certainly quite possible that if I’d read it now, with my impossible mystery experienced brain, I’d immediately shout out the solution to this piece. Also, someone has to be first with any impossible problem – just because it is now easily solved doesn’t mean that it wasn’t a good problem at the time.
I agree with you in some of your criticism, because there are parts of EQ’s writing that I find dull and ponderous and overlong (many of their openings to the early novels and short stories, to take but one example). As for your specific example of an editing error, I don’t think you are completely correct, but perhaps not too far off either.
The thing that throws me is Reinach’s call for breakfast, because I sort of interpreted it as taking place later in the day. And then as I read it, when Thorne wakes up dazed one whole night has passed. Ellery tells us some of the things that have happened during the time from when we last left them, and it’s obvious that at least one night has passed during that time.
And I can also sympathize with your struggles because I too have my own special bugaboos about parts of our beloved genre – you all probably know my animus towards inverted mysteries and psychological suspense and my let’s call it uncharitable attitude towards the Victorian/Edwardian melodrama in mysteries. Sometimes we just have our preferences and sometimes it’s almost impossible to sort out WHY we have them.
Ha, sure, but Carr later rescinded that selection, right? And replaced The Lamp of God/House of Haunts with, I believe, Chinese Orange. So even he wasn’t willing to stand by its dubious merits… 🙂
just because it is now easily solved doesn’t mean that it wasn’t a good problem at the time.
Sure, but my issue is that it must surely have always been easy to solve, especially as written by two grown men for (presumably) an adult audience. The argument that a willing suspension of possible alternatives was more attainable in 1935 than now — when the puzzle novel was in full pomp and, some people feel, close to achieving its peak — won’t wash, I’m afraid. Sure, when one is newer to the impossible crime and has little exposure to what’s possible there’s more of a chance to overlook the solution, I don’t deny that, but your puzzle-wise reader, and your EQ fan, has no excuses.
I have a Further Adventures of Ellery Queen somewhere, which contains this under the Lamp of God title, and at some point I’ll compare the texts to see if that perceived error is in there. I’ve read it back a couple of times and it just doesn’t make sense to my brain, but maybe there’s meant to be a line break or something that went missing…
I remember thinking I’d solved this but then turning out to be wrong – unfortunately I can’t remember what my solution (or broad sketch thereof) was. And considering I’d seen the same solution (albeit to a different problem) in Jonathan Creek you’d think I’d have actually figured this out…
Which is to say I’d love to know your alternate solutions to this, if only to see if they spark my memory and see if we were thinking along the same lines.
Oh! I’d entirely forgotten that Jonathan Creek-alike. Of course!
My solution…well, I’m side-lining it for my own impossible crime novel, and will have to do a lot more reading first to see how original it is. Gotta do something to drive up interest in that possibly-never-going-to-exist book; expect a post on here in about 27 years going “Hey, if you wanna know how I solved The house of Haunts…pay £15 to find out!”
Pssst. I have a third solution. £50
I checked, and your solution is just mine, but with a different colour aeroplane. Sorry, not worth paying out for.
Ah man, spoiler.
I first read this in the same place as you – The Black Lizard Book. At the time I was just getting into the genre and there was no name recognition of the Ellery Queen brand. I was just reading another story by another author in a rather lengthy compilation. It was only some time later – perhaps around me reading The Dutch Shoe Mystery – that I realized that I had read The Lamp of God under another name.
As to the title The Lamp of God – when I read this I obviously knew it under the name of The House of Haunts. Several years have gone by, and so I can’t for the life of me think of why this would have been titled “The Lamp of God”. Perhaps it’s lifted from a minor passage in the novelette? When I first learned that The Lamp of God was in The Black Lizard book, I assumed it was a story by a different author that features a man found dead in his locked private library with the faint smell of smoke in the air.
The format of The Black Lizard Book meant that I didn’t realize I was reading a novelette. You’re flipping through these massive pages in this lengthy book, and although some stories do seem oddly longer than others, it kind of kills your sense of space.
As to the story – I do recall enjoying it at the time, although I enjoyed most of the stories with the exception of The Sands of Thyme and The Invisible Man (I still have maybe a third of the stories to go). I was exploring the genre and range of story telling, and so it was all new enough to enjoy. Perhaps it shows that early Ellery Queen truncated down to the level of a short story is actually readable.
You’re right that the specific puzzle of The Lamp of God only has so many solutions, but I’d take this one over The Moving Toyshop any day. I recall there being enough interesting bits in the setup to misdirect me from the obvious solution
The LoG title is lifted from a minor passage, yes. If I remember correctly, it’s when Ellery heads into the woods to investigate; just before he’s attacked he’s mulling over how difficult a problem it is and thinks something along the lines of “it would take the lamp of god to throw light upon this” or something. Not entirely convincing. The House of Haunts is a slightly terrible title too — implies haunting, not vanishing — but maybe that Will Scott title got there first and the cousins thought it was too soon to reuse it…
The Moving Toyshop is one I’m very much looking forward to revisiting for July’s Spoiler Warning post. It, as people are saying here about this Queen story, was one of the first GAD novels I read and even back then it seemed rather transparent — but there’s so much wild invention elsewhere I’m curious how much Crispin intended that element to be too baffling. He, at least, around an obvious solution, provided something distracting and different that played with the tropes and creativity on hand in the genre. As a comparison piece to The Lamp of God, The Moving Toyshop wins every time.
“The good one was used by Will Scott in ‘The Vanishing House’ (1924)”.
I literally cannot find this work in Google. Is this just a spectacularly rare item?
It’s a story in his collection Giglamps, about a crime-solving wandering tramp. Yes, it is pretty damn rare — I read the copy in the British Library, and don’t think I’ve ever seen it for sale secondhand. Very well written, though — a great collection with some superb ideas.
Given I may never get a chance to read it, any clue about what the “good one” is?
The solution is also included within Robert Adey’s “Locked Room Murders”, and the solution is (under a ROT13 cipher for reasons of public convenience) gur ubhfr vf na byq-snfuvba pnenina..
Wonderful, thank-you! I’d been about to suggest that I’d get the solution as Adey states it this evening, but you’ve saved me a job.
It’s still a good story, and warrants examination if anyone gets the chance. Scott writes very well indeed, and the character of Gigalamps is an intriguing one.
I just got Locked Room Murders literally yesterday, so it is very close to my laptop, just teasing me with solutions to thousands of locked room mysteries…
Regarding the solution, I cannot see how it can be done well in a story without relying on incredible contrivances. But all I know is Adey’s very brief description, so I defer to your expertise.
It’s worth remembering that the explanations in Adey are obviously pure reference, so rob the stories of a lot of their context. I’ve just read a great Christianna Brand story for this slot next week which the Adey entry makes sound like the most dully unimaginative thing ever, but with all the other superbness going on around it such a solution isn’t actually the disappointment it might otherwise sound. That, I’ll admit, can take a bit of getting used to…!
How exciting to have this book available again, though, hey?! A great many hours of excited browsing for problems awaits you…
It is indeed great! I learn of it from this blog, but stupid old me mistook ‘reprint’ to mean an ‘updated version’ and was surprised to see that there are no new entries according to the preface. Would be nice to hear about the Supplemental Edition coming out this year before I bought it, but eh, it’s still a treasure trove. Now I have The Resource, I’m just [mumble] years from writing my own locked room mystery.
Well, the good news is that now you’ll have both the Adey 2nd edition and the LRI supplemental one — so there’s nothing to complain about 🙂
“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?”
That you’re wrong about Ellery Queen and “The Lamp of God” goes without saying, but you’re right about (modern) authors still toying with the shopworn strings-and rope trick. And usually without much variation.
This is why I love Japanese mystery writers and anime/manga detective series so much, because they tend to be incredibly innovative and original when it comes to locked room-tricks and cast-iron alibis – even their string-and-wire tricks are creative and refreshing. I remember an impossible crime story from Detective Conan (a.k.a. Case Closed) using the recording tape of an answering machine as a mechanical pulley to reintroduce the key into a locked room.
You should share your alternative solutions for the vanishing house with us! I want to know what you came up with.
If anyone is interested, in the comments of this 2012 review from Puzzle Doc, I gave two possible solutions for the impossible disappearance of a castle tower. And on my own blog, I offered another two solutions to a reportedly real-life locked room mystery.
Sorry for the late response. Only just got around to reading it.
I should get back to Conan soon — man, him and everyone else I’ve enjoyed in the last x years — because the ingenuity there when Aoyama is on form (as he frequently is) is something to behold, And, of course, plenty of modern Japanese and Chinese takes on the impossible crime have shown fabulous insights and smarts (Arisugawa, Ayatsuji, Abiko, Lin, Shimada).
The vanishing house…yeah, I’m keeping that back for my novel. Y’know the novel I’m definitely going to write. The novel I, like every impossible crime fan, have in my head and will, like every impossible crime fan, definitely finish and publish at some point. Definitely.
Late response nuthin’. This pot is two days old. I welcome discussion on anything here — it’s lovely when a new comment appears on some 4 year old post…people come across things at their own speed, that’s the joy of having this record readily available online.
I read this a couple of years ago, and felt rather as you did, with slightly different reasons, and I did enjoy it as a good short read with good atmosphere, while feeling the plot was ridiculous. And I said this:
I’m intrigued that it was novella-length. The disappearing house is a short-story kind of idea (it reminded me of a GK Chesterton Father Brown story) and it might have been better not to weigh it down with so much extra. But all the ‘extra’ is crazy, and might have made more sense distributed along a full-length novel. Once the plot is resolved, and the explanation and accusations are done, there is still a four-page Addendum trying to explain what was going on – an 80-page story should not need that.
So now, when I did the blogpost an anonymous person took issue (very pleasantly!) with my take on the book, and we had some discussion of it all, and then he (I feel sure it was a he) was going to continue our chat elsewhere (because spoilers) but we never did. I never knew who it was, but now can be pretty certain it wasn’t you!
And I very much enjoyed your takedown of the wrong kind of impossible crime – hard agree with much of what you said. ‘No-one one went past’. two days later ‘Oh I was mistaken/left my post/ was lying’ really doesn’t cut it, drives me mad when writers do that. You lay it out very well.
Chesterton, I feel, would have made a far better fist of this — you’re absolutely right, there’s some key core absurdity that he would lean into heavily in order to make it work. A Chestertonian Lamp of God is a story I’d be very interested to read, and I say that as someone who isn’t that much of a fan of a Chestertonian anything.
Thank-you for the kind word about my ramblings. “Lay out” is perhaps a little generous, it;s more sort of “frantically tap out while ignoring typing errors”. I severely wish for the retirement of The Invisible Man Gimmick, or the Lying Witness Gimmick, or — especially — the Purloined Letter Gimmick; gah, the next impossible disappearance I read that hinges on:
“We looked everywhere!”
“But did you look here?”
“Oh, er no, we didn’t”
is going to…something something. Okay, I dunno what I’ll do, but I’ll be moderately agitated when I do it.
Well here then is an idea for a blog post. What is the worst clue? My choice is the Guilty Knowledge Tipoff: how could you know that …
That is just about the only clue used in any book, TV show, or movie since about 1960.
The worst one I seem to remember from TV shows is that But I Was Attacked, Too, And Therefore Can’t Be Guilty misdirect. Good heavens, that got an airing in seemingly every season of every show going for a while…
I speculated a year ago you were going off GAD …
A small publisher Birlinn is reprinting some Carrs— good ones, in paperback and ebook.
She Died A Lady, Constant Suicides, Hag’s Nook
It’s exciting, right? The Carrs, I mean. Maybe, maybe — whisper it — this is the beginning of something: Suicides, Died a Lady, Hag’s Nook, Walks by Night, Mad Hatter, Crooked Hinge…sure, all but two of them have been in print in the last 10 years and so it would appear these are the ones with the least complicated rights, but at least there’s something happening at last…
As for me and detection; I’m not going off it, I’m just requiring a bit more rigour from it. No bad thing 🙂
I read this 40 years ago, so maybe my memory is awry.
Vfa’g gur fhayvtug n pyhr sbe Ryyrel? Naq gur fha vf gur ynzc bs tbq?
Yup, that is correct; it’s a great idea, it’s just a shame they couldn’t find a better story to use it in.
Fb, qbrfa’g gung rkcynva gur gvgyr fngvfsnpgbevyl? Rira gb n Pebsgf sna … 😉
Oh, I see — sorry, I misunderstood the purpose of your original comment.
Yes, it does. I missed it completely, and that was very silly of me, though I have a feeling the phrase is used in another way in the text itself and so it’s possible you’re devising a meaning not intended by Queen when writing it. However, if that is the case, I’d happily use your explanation for it over theirs, because it covers all the necessary bases.
Thank you for posting the side note about the editorial mistake. English is not my first language and I was so confused about the abrupt scene change. I re-read the section, re-read the page, then re-read the story from the beginning to see if I missed something. (I actually stumbled upon your blog when I googled the story name to find out if I was going crazy or if there was a genuine error).
Very happy to have helped. Welcome to The Invisible Event!