#546: The 10 Types of Impossible Crime – Categories and Titles from Our Talk at Bodies from the Library 2019

Bodies 2019 Header

After being on something of an enforced hiatus for a little while, The Men Who Explain Miracles, the occasional podcast run by Dan from The Reader is Warned and myself, returned yesterday for a live show at the Bodies from the Library Conference 2019 at the British Library.

In an action-packed 29 minutes we went through The 10 Types of Impossible Crime, giving examples of the decalogue that we reckon comprise this subgenre, and given the brevity with which we were able to address each title I’ve received a few requests to make the full list available.  Thus, for those of you who were present and those who weren’t, here are the categories and the stories mentioned…

10 Types 1

Sealed Room Murder

‘Death at 8.30’ (1935) by Christopher St. John Sprigg
The House That Kills (1932) by Noel Vindry
Case for Three Detectives (1936) by Leo Bruce
Murder on the Way! (1935) by Theodore Roscoe

Room That Kills

The Case of the Constant Suicides (1941) by John Dickson Carr
Mystery in Room 913 (1938) by Cornell Woolrich
Mr. Splitfoot (1968) by Helen McCloy
The Secret of the Blue Room (1933) [movie]

Physical Acts

Holy Disorders (1945) by Edmund Crispin
What a Body! (1949) by Alan Green
‘The Hammer of God’ (1910) by G.K. Chesterton
Death in the Dark (1930) by Stacey Bishop

Psychological

‘Solved by Inspection’ (1931) by Ronald Knox
Death Has Many Doors (1951) by Fredric Brown
‘The Mystery of the Green Room’ (1936) by Pierre Very
‘Hanged Him in the Mornin”, a.k.a. ‘His Heart Could Break’ (1943) by Craig Rice

Invisible Murderer

‘The Idol House of Astarte’ (1933) by Agatha Christie
Whistle up the Devil (1951) by Derek Smith
‘Death by Black Magic’ (1948) by Joseph Commings
Case in the Clinic (1941) by E.C.R. Lorac

10 Types 2

No Footprints

‘The Name on the Window’ (1953) by Edmund Crispin
The Crooked Wreath, a.k.a. Suddenly at His Residence (1947) by Christianna Brand
‘The Sands of Thyme’ (1954) by Michael Innes
‘Leaving No Evidence’ (1938) by Dudley Hoys

Vanishing

‘Off the Face of the Earth’ (1949) by Clayton Rawson
You’ll Die Laughing (1945) by Bruce Elliott
Black Magic (1944) [movie]
The Mystery of the Disappearing Cat (1944) by Enid Blyton

Materialising

Through a Glass, Darkly (1948/1950) by Helen McCloy
‘The Poisoned Dow ’08’ (1933) by Dorothy L. Sayers
The House of Haunts, a.k.a. The Lamp of God (1935) by Ellery Queen
Inspector French and the Cheyne Mystery (1926) by Freeman Wills Crofts

Prophecy

‘The Dream’ (1939) by Agatha Christie
Obelists Fly High (1935) by C. Daly King
‘The Eyes of Tiresias’ (1999) – Jonathan Creek series 3 ep. 2
‘The Cleaver’ (2000) by Paul Halter

Ghosts & Witches

The Sittaford Mystery (1931) by Agatha Christie
The Footprints of Satan (1950) by Norman Berrow
‘The Monster of the Lighthouse’ (1935) by Keikichi Osaka
The Hangman’s Handyman (1940) by Hake Talbot

[Incidentally, I wasn’t joking here: the title of this category really is taken from ‘On the Pleasure of Hating’ (1826) by William Hazlitt: “How loth were we to give up our pious belief in ghosts and witches, because we liked to persecute the one, and frighten ourselves to death with the other!” — see for yourself, it’s a great read]

10 Types 3

It was, as always, a wonderful day — superbly organised, with a uniformly brilliant standard of presentation on everything from Ernest Bramah to June Wright, and the 2020 conference can’t come soon enough.  If you have an interest in Golden Age detective fiction and can make it to London for the end of June, I honestly can’t recommend this day too highly.   But don’t just take my word for it, also take Kate’s, Puzzle Doctor’s, Martin Edwards’, and Moira’s.

Thanks to all involved, and see you next year!

26 thoughts on “#546: The 10 Types of Impossible Crime – Categories and Titles from Our Talk at Bodies from the Library 2019

  1. I highly approve of some of the examples you two picked. “The Miracle of Moon Crescent” is arguably Chesterton’s best locked room story, but it usually gets overlooked in favor of “The Invisible Man” or “The Oracle of the Dog.” So glad to see you two highlighted it. However, I do disapprove strongly that you includes Michael Innes’ “The Sands of Thyme,” but not one of the all-time greatest no-footprints story, Arthur Porges’ “No Killer Has Wings.”

    By the way, why wasn’t the impossible alibi discussed? Dan has even blogged about it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Neither of us is a fan of ‘The Sands of Thyme’ — worry not, it was more to exemplify how the impossible crime can be great in setup and poor in execution. The Porges was a serious consideration, believe me, but we wanted to stick to Golden Age authors as much as possible — sure, we push that a bit with Brand, McCloy, and others, but after much fierce debate we decreed Porges just a little too far out of the window.

      The impossible alibi is a difficult one to discuss, because as soon as you establish that it is an impossible alibi you’re spoiling who the guilty party is (like that locked room mystery by Ellery Queen that isn’t a locked room problem except for one character…). But that would fit under materialisation, like Through a Glass Darkly (which is, I suppose, an impossible alibi in its own way): someone materialising somewhere they can’t possibly be…

      Liked by 1 person

  2. This sounds wonderful! Hopefully I’ll be able to make it across the Atlantic like Brad for one of the future conferences!

    Was this talk recorded by any chance? Could we have it as an episode of TMWEM?

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    • No, sorry, Neil, we didn’t record it — it will forever remain a “you had to be there” show!

      We are, however, finally able to recommence with TMWEM — there’s been a pause while Life Admin interrupted — and will try and get something out before too long.

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  3. Thanks for uploading the details of your brilliant presentation. My feeble notes could not do it justice.
    A couple of comments: a good example of the prophecy plot is Cornell Woolrich’s Night has a Thousand Eyes.
    Anthony Shaffer’s Sleuth has some amusing references to ridiculous solutions in Impossible crime fiction.

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    • Extremely kind of you to call the presentation brilliant, Richard. I’m delighted that people enjoyed it and that we were able to contribute to the day in a meaningful manner.

      Thanks for the recommendation of the Woolrich. Having just enjoyed Mystery in Room 913 I’m eager to make his acquaintance again soon, and that sounds like an ideal place to begin. He brought some good beats to the Room That Kills, so the Prophecy will hopefully provide equally fertile hunting ground.

      Sleuth is something I need to check out, I’ve heard so much about it. Mind you, the Shaffers seem to be mines of wonderful impossible crime fiction — if only Withered Murder, How Doth the Little Crocodile, and The Woman in the Wardrobe were more readily available…they sound amazing, but languish frustratingly OOP.

      Like

    • I am, like, 40% tempted, I’ll be honest. I certainly intend to return to the concept at some point, it’s just a matter of what that looks like.

      Like

      • I’m really curious to see the categories fleshed out a bit more. For example, isn’t a room that kills kind of a variation of a locked room (I suppose the killer room doesn’t have to be locked, but they tend to be). Perhaps it’s more the unexplainable crime that stretches across decades or centuries – Hag’s Nook, The Red Widow Murder, Dark of the Moon, The Madman’s Room – in which the impossibility is amplified by the question of how multiple people over such a distance of time are able to pull off the same unexplainable trick.

        I’m also curious about what constitutes a “physical” or “psychological” impossibility, as I haven’t read any of the titles that you listed. I could of course click on the links that you helpfully provided and piece things together, but I’d be interested to hear what you have in mind.

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        • In essence, a physical impossibility is one where the immediate problem seems to rely on someone doing something that’s physically impossible: the strength required to deliver the blow in ‘The Hammer of God’ being far greater than any person could manage, the slab pushed onto the victim in Holy Disorders needing about 20 people to do so since it’s so damn heavy, the killer needing to be able to walk on water to fire the fatal shot in What a Body, etc.

          Psychological is then, in contrast, where the behaviour exhibited makes no sense: a man starving to death in a room full of food in ‘Solved by Inspection’, or a man in jail for a crime he’s been repeatedly telling everyone he didn’t commit securing a retrial that’s virtually guaranteed to clear his name…and then hanging himself in his cell when he gets the news.

          Hope that helps!

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  4. It was a fantastic presentation – massive bouquets and kudos to you both! Brilliant. I decided not to take notes, just to enjoy, so very glad to have all the titles listed here.
    And of course – lovely to meet you!

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  5. There is often a connection between the genre of impossible crimes and the field of conjuring. Carr’s The Hollow Man has a direct reference to a famous magic dynasty ie Maskelyne. And it is highly relevant to the plot.
    ‘Hake Talbot’ was really Hennings Nelms who wrote Magic and Showmanship (1969), which is well regarded as a contribution to magic literature.
    David Britland has written some interesting articles for conjuring magazines about the link between crime fiction and magic.
    As a historian of magic, I’ve also explored the ‘impossible’ feats attributed to Jasper Maskelyne and questioned their veracity.
    Even our culture’s religious yearnings seem to be based on a corpse that vanishes from a sealed tomb and miraculously comes to life again.

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    • Thanks for the name David Britland, I shall see what I can find of his writings — sounds like my kind of thing.

      With your magic historian hat on, do you know much about Bruce Elliott? I know he wrote You’ll Die Laughing and a short story entitled ‘Death Paces the Widow’s Walk’ but is there much else known about either his fiction (if there is any…) or his magic?

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  6. I mentioned Bruce Elliott’s novel in the Genii forum – and, like me, they haven’t heard of it.
    I owned second-hand copies of his Classic Secrets of Magic and Magic as a Hobby.
    David Britland’s writings might be hard to track down, but I’ll see if I can find them in my archive. I’ll then send you scanned copies with David’s permission.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Pingback: AND WAS IT ALL WORTH IT IN THE END? | ahsweetmysteryblog

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