The reprinting of Robert Adey’s Locked Room Murders (2nd ed., 1991) at the end of 2018 was a delightful turn-up for those of us who had been dreaming of owning that reference bible. And once the excitement settled, I’m sure more than a few people started thinking “Hey, they should really do another one of these…”.
Robert Adey was a true expert of the impossible crime in fiction, and kept copious notes on locked room mysteries and their solutions both published and discovered after 1991, but sadly died in 2015 before any follow up seemed on the cards. Into the breach have stepped both Mystery Scene editor Brian Skupin and impossible crime specialist and publisher John Pugmire to guide this project home — and, when you consider the multiplicity of stories that must have been written in the intervening years, quite some guiding it must have taken. In addition to the expected novels, short stories, and radio plays, we also now have listings for TV shows, movies, manga, anime, and graphic novels, and I’m delighted to see, too, that Skupin shares my interest in self-published impossible crime fiction and more than a few of them have found their way in.
Adey contains 2,019 numbered entries, with the solutions contained at the back against the corresponding number, and Skupin sticks to that format here, adding a further 1,157 and smartly starting his numbering at 2,020 “so that entry numbers are unique across both volumes”. Even allowing for a few repeats — #1,647 and #2,963, say — this makes these two books a priceless and peerless reference work for over 3,000 impossible crime stories (and some that purport to be impossible crimes but fail to deliver — which, as is pointed out in the introduction, is worth knowing up front so that you don’t spend years tracking something down only to discover that it wasn’t actually presented as impossible at all). Skupin also sets out his stall on impossible alibi problems, too, by excluding those cases for which every suspect appear to have an alibi…which, given that I’m still not entirely sure how I feel about that sort of story being labelled “impossible” I have to say I’m currently in favour of him doing. After all, if a quorum is achieved deciding they do count, they can always be included in a later supplement to this supplement…
There you go; now you get it.
Essentially, then, this is a continuation of the great work done by Adey in providing a reference work for nerds and fans of The Grandest Game in the World. I can’t deny being a little flattered to see The Invisible Event mentioned in the opening pages, and Ye Olde Book of Locked Room Conundrums among the anthologies listed towards the end. Incidentally, that distinguished tome shall probably never receive a sequel, since I lack the means, the funds, the time, the access, the insight, and the patience to track down the set of stories I would like to include — as Skupin says, in order to keep myself free of copyright issues I’m pretty much just recycling things which are freely available online anyway, with the sole exception be ‘The Round Room Horror’ (1911) by A. Demain Grange…and having to repeat that experience twelve times is what makes me blench at the thought of producing a 2 Olde 2 Locked Rooms.
This isn’t simply a repeat of Adey’s formula, however — and let’s not entertain the impression that it would have been an easy task even if it were. Skupin’s key divergence from Adey comes in including some editorial comments on problems after their statement in the front section. Adey, for the most part, confined any such comments to the solutions, and again I agree with the reasoning here that you want to know up front if something that sounds amazing is actually a complete stinker, or vice versa. There are, however, two difficulties with this approach. The first is that the comments are so occasional as to not really give any overall sense of Skupin’s tastes — critical appraisal is always interesting, if only to get a sense of whether you agree with someone when they tell you a book is great or otherwise. In Bloody Murder (1972), Julian Symons asserts that Freeman Wills Crofts can be encountered “at his best” in Inspector French’s Greatest Case (1924) and Inspector French and the Cheyne Mystery (1926) which leads me to suspect that Symons and I are not going to see eye-to-eye on Crofts or his ilk, and so I know to take his opinions on other such writers with a pinch of salt. To get a sense of Skupin’s tastes and so reactions, a higher density of these comments would really be necessary, but that would also be insanely difficult to sustain (and it’d also add about 90 pages to the book…).
The second difficulty is the comments themselves. While I applaud his desire to be brief, when the comment “Don’t read this solely for the locked room mystery” is made frequently, it’s not entirely clear how the reader is to interpret it. It could mean “This is so good that it shouldn’t be read solely because of the locked room, since many other factors compel and recommend it”, but equally it could mean “If your sole interest in this book is the locked room, it is not worth reading”. Given that one of the places that comment crops up is attached to a book I love — Goodnight Irene (2018) by James Scott Byrnside — I obviously hope it’s the former, but given that the summary for that novel ignores that its impossible poisoning and misstates the solution to its locked room beheading (and given the same comment is also included after The Murder at Redmire Hall (2018) by J.R. Ellis, a book I’d find difficult to recommend on almost any grounds) I fear the latter. The reader is…curious. It’s a minor point, but worth considering. A subjective opinion is all well and good — I, a fiction blogger, am hardly going to dispute that — so long as it is comprehensible.
I wonder what these people are doing right now…
Let’s not pretend for a second, though, that such considerations in any way spoil the experience of this. Neither volume is exactly intended to be a gripping read, but it’s bucketloads of fun looking through this to see the variety of creative, baffling, and downright outlandish interpretations put on the impossible crime over the decades. It’s a vicarious pleasure in its own right simply being made aware of the possibilities — and, sure, you know that some of them are going to be disappointing or minor or atrociously predictable…but, c’mon, for the avowed fanatic will happily take the rough with the smooth, and the exciting thing here is the potential.
Also, as nerds, we take great pleasure in disputing among ourselves, as Skupin anticipates, whether The Slayer and the Slain (1957) by Helen McCloy should be included (it 100% should not, fight me) while also scoring cheap points of the fact that ‘The Seer of the Sands’ (2004) from series 4 of Jonathan Creek does in fact feature and impossibility (the “answers from beyond the grave” hidden in a bottle buried in the sand before the woman even knew she was going to ask any questions) despite the contrary claim being made herein. This is what nerd fandom is — others would call it pomposity, and might not be far off the mark — and any opportunity to revel in it to this degree is wonderful. Given the list of people involved in compiling this, it’as lovely to have a reminder that there are a lot of others out there relishing in this corner of detective and crime fiction. It can be a lonely obsession, but there are others who understand, who delight in the same things.
The case has been made in several places over the years that a fun time could also be have scanning the solution sections of these books independent of the problems, and I suppose there is deliberate removal of significant context (The Hand of Mary Constable (1964) by Paul Gallico, for instance, is necessarily divested of the supernatural dread the book cooks up) so it might not be too spoilerful if you’re forgetful. My only problem with this idea, wonderful as it sounds, is that I only remember the sorts of things I want to forget, and so would never be able to get the solutions out of my head. For me, though, there’s a joy in knowing that I don’t have to fend off further suggestions from TomCat to read Dead Box (2004) by David L. Marsh (which TC calls “dried up brain barf scraped and held together with a folded soft cover”) to see how awful it is, because I’ve been able to look up the solution (this is one case where Skupin’s commentary makes it only too clear how little he thinks of this book) and, yup, that sounds pretty awful. If only in convincing me that the work of some people I’ve had doubts about isn’t going to be worth the time and money that’d be required, I’m thankful to all involved in this Supplement for saving me from being annoyed by it first hand. Scratching those itches is, it must be said, extremely satisfying.
Ha ha ha. Classic Jim.
And so the Locked Room Murders Supplement is the delight we always knew it would be, and it’s to be hoped that, with a certain amount of the spade-work done, we now just get a new supplemental Supplement every five years to keep us forever on our toes about some obscure gem we’d’ve otherwise overlooked. Much like the similarly-niche and equally-delightful The Hooded Gunman (2019), this is one of those glorious occasions when fans of a thing have produced something wonderful for other fans, and those shared sympathies have nurtured a bonhomie and empathy for the importance of the undertaking that other are free to question. The man in the street might look at it askance and wonder just what the hell the purpose of this is, but who cares for the man in the street? As we all know, he’d be much better off inside reading impossible crime fiction…
Also, my apologies to anyone anticipating the advertised Spoiler Warning posts on The Box Office Murders (1929) by Freeman Wills Crofts. It’s coming, but currently on hold. And for anyone thinking they’d missed out because they hadn’t read the book by now — a reprieve!
More updates when we get them.