#624: Bob’s Yer Uncle – Locked Room Murders Supplement (2019) ed. Brian Skupin

Locked Room Murders Supplement

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…

people-happy-cheering

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.

crowd-of-laughing-people

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.

Happy people faces

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.

30 thoughts on “#624: Bob’s Yer Uncle – Locked Room Murders Supplement (2019) ed. Brian Skupin

  1. It’s in my Amazon cart, along with Knives Out, A Ken Ludwig mystery farce, the expensive cat food, and Mark Aldridge’s book about Poirot, which doesn’t even come out till October (and is probably another must-have reference . . . I don’t even know what it’s about!!) I’m just waiting to see how much the early bills for summer vacation bite my budget!

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  2. As a proud owner of the 1991 edition, I just reckon I might have to get this 😉 Great post JJ (and I agree with you about Jonathan Creek). The price is a little high for me right now, waiting for post Christmas finances to be replenished but I’ll get it soon!

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    • Good work securing a 1991 edition 🙂 It’s lovely to see that work continued here, and I’m sure this will be equally as sought after. Plenty of material to keep us busy…and the mention of Tipping My Fedora at the start of this one might even yet entice you back into our fold…

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  3. Impossible alibi stories can’t strictly be impossible – only your principal suspects have alibis – there are still “a million people in New York” who could have done it – although this is GAD so we know it wasn’t just that old favourite red herring of the wandering tramp and that it is one of the people who do have impeccable alibis.

    Although strictly none of these type of crimes are impossible as there is always an answer! You’d be annoyed if at the end it was concluded that “Mesdames et messieurs, Poirot he is so sad, c’est impossible”.

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    • Impossible alibi stories can’t strictly be impossible

      Semi-seriously: Hey, what if all the people with an iron-clad alibi are in a country house manor at winter with no footprints or any other tracks leading to or from the building?

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      • Yeah, I see, your point. But if the victim is also provably alone/isolated, then doesn’t that become an impossible crime of a different kind? The “no footprints of anyone approaching” is just the general rule of GAD — no outsiders, etc. All you’re doing is making the implicit tangible…

        But an interesting question, nonetheless.

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      • I don’t think I quite agree. The impossible alibi has never felt to me to be an impossible crime. There’s certainly a lot to be admired about an “impossibility in retrospect” (two Carr titles come to mind but I can’t mention them), but an impossibility must feel impossible prior to the solution being revealed.

        Carr’s The Gilded Man kind of matches the scenario you describe, although I don’t recall the alibis being that iron clad. Christopher Bush’s Dancing Death may actually be a better match – if I recall the alibis were all a bit tighter. Let me throw out a few more titles that seem to be in the neighborhood, although perhaps I’m wrong – Sad Cyprus, Scandal at High Chimneys, maybe And So to Murder. Those are all closed circle suspects where I recall there being some level of alibi for all suspects.

        Anyway, my argument is probably a bit weak, but I still stick with my gut reaction – no.

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        • Now I have an image of a version this book called Impossible Alibi Murders and, after painstakingly listing every case of an impossible alibi problem, the solution section is just:

          1. One of the suspects has a mocked-up alibi
          2. One of the suspects has a mocked up alibi
          3. One of the suspects…

          I’d…I’d probably still buy it.

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          • This seems unfair. Surely if we took locked rooms we could force them into explanations like, “The killer made it look impossible,” or “The victim made it look impossible.” Not to mention that “One of the suspects has a mocked-up alibi” isn’t sufficient. If the problem is, “The killer was 3,000 miles away under an active volcano in a sealed lab under observation from twenty highly-trained soldiers and had a collar strapped to his neck that would explode if he moved more than five feet away from said volcano,” I expect a bit more detail!

            I think I’m being picky about this because I have no issue with impossible alibi stories as an impossible crime sub-genre, and I’m now realizing that everyone disagrees with me! I would hold these kinds of problems to a slightly higher standard (otherwise you end up with every story where the killer says, “Oh, my best friend of twenty years with money troubles places me miles away.”), but they are a valid expression of the impossible crime.

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            • I’m fine with impossible alibis being included, but they have to be clearly defined and that’s going to be a headache. I tried to narrow them down to (inverted) detective stories in which the murderer appeared to have been physically unable to have committed the crime and not rely on tempering with clocks, manipulating witnesses or tossing around time-stamped tickets. A murderer must appear to have been physically unable to have committed the murder, because he’s wounded, imprisoned, operated on or even dead, but I’ve already come across stories that worked around my conditions to create an impossible alibi – such as the excellent Suspense radio-play “The Too-Perfect Alibi.” Arthur Porges “Coffee Break” used a freshly-lit cigarette to create an impossible alibi. So maybe we need a Locked Room Murders: Miscellaneous edition.

              …a collar strapped to his neck that would explode if he moved more than five feet away…

              Have you been reading Spiral: The Bonds of Reasoning?

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            • Personally, if a novel contains is a multi-alibi problem and I’ve been told up front it’s an impossible crime story…that’s gonna annoy me. I love alibi problems, and can’t help but feel that they’re on this sort of weird mezzanine level of being neither an impossible crime nor not an impossible crime.

              Hence, an Alibi Murders compendium, as I suggested before. That way, everything’s covered 🙂

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            • It seems that this chain has gone down far enough that I’m going to have to reply to both of you at once.

              TomCat: Oh sure, I agree with that. There has to be some level of standard for an “impossible alibi” to count as one, but figuring out a decent set of standards is hard (if just because there are always exceptions like you point out). I admit, I’m enough of a completionist to include edge cases, but that might not be feasible (since even what counts as an edge case can be debated). There’s also the problem of mysteries where the fact that there even is an alibi problem is a spoiler! Personally, I would include stories where it seems that all (or most of, if you want to be thorough) of the suspects have alibis.

              And no, I haven’t read Spiral yet. 🙂 It’s on my mental TBR list, which is like a TBR list only it’s mental and therefore can be as big and expansive as possible.

              JJ: Now see, “multi-alibi problems,” which to me are stories where all of the suspects have alibis, are obviously impossible crimes! I wonder how you’d even define what counts as an alibi problem compared to a “normal” impossible crime. Is Christian’s example of everyone being in an isolated, snow-bound manor an alibi problem or an impossible crime? Is mine? Clearly we should just count alibi problems and be done with it. 😛 (Although Locked Room Murders: Miscellaneous would be a good compromise.

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            • Christian’s example of the snowbound manor isn’t specific enough — all that does is isolate the suspects to those in the manor itself. As I think I said at the time, that’s just an explicit statement of the condition of most GAD novels anyway — you rarely get some outsider who has dunnit wandering in on page 273, so the settings and casts are surrounded by a sort of literary footprintless snow anyway.

              But, see, then the problem of tying down what an alibi problem is becomes difficult: if someone is shot by a mechanical device while alone in their locked study, surely that’s an alibi problem — it becomes a matter of who had the opportunity to set up the device, which they will most likely have done when everyone else was away or believe them to be incapable of carrying out such an action.

              So…anything with an obscured killer’s identity is an alibi problem — technically. And that’s where the difficulty comes in. I can differentiate “stabbing in a locked room” and “vanishing of diamonds from a watched room” easily, but at some point they can arguably be reduced to “who was where when?” and thus become about alibis.

              Which, I guess, is why we’re still splitting hairs after a hundred years of this kind of thing 🙂

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    • I’m sure I’ve said on here somewhere before, the genre would be both richer and poorer if we were legitimately kept in suspense about how impossible an impossible crime actually was — if 40% of them turned out to actually be ghosts it’d be infuriating, but imagine how much fun it’d be not knowing which way things were going to turn out. There’s so little suspense in the key elements of a genre once you grasp its core principles, this would be one — albeit gigantically faulty — way to address that. Harry Stephen Keeler could arguably have been playing around with this exact principle his entire career, and that’s also arguably why almost no-one reads Harry Stephen Keeler these days.

      Impossible alibi problems would typically incorporate the likes of The Hog’s Back Mystery by Freeman Wills Crofts, and I don’t think anyone would put that in the same bracket as Death from a Top Hat and its ilk. Maybe some rare examples do cross over, but it’d be a case-by-case thing, I feel.

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  4. Great review, JJ! I’ve been mining this volume and tracking down titles ever since it was published, but, as you said, there are some difficulties and problems.

    One of them is the ambiguous “don’t read this solely for the locked room mystery” comment and the sheer amount of omissions. Pugmire told me he had found over a 100 unlisted locked room mysteries on my blog, but was only asked to provide the entries for Case Closed and Skupin removed Harley Hartwell as co-detective from the list, which I can understand, because entries for the series already took up a lot space. I gladly would have provided more entries, but thought the unlisted titles on my blog had already been taken care off. As, you know JJ, I’m still finding new impossible crime stories!

    “…given that the summary for that novel ignores that its impossible poisoning and misstates the solution to its locked room beheading

    Supplement only gives part of the solution of Margot Bennett’s Away Went the Little Fish and ignored the actual locked room-trick, but one mistake that amused me is that the descriptions of the solutions for Janwillem van de Wetering’s Death of a Hawker and Anna van Doorn’s “The Poet Who Locked Himself In” were flipped around. What were you trying to say here, Skupin? All Dutch people look the same? 😀

    But regardless of these imperfections, I have been enjoying myself in playing detective and (trying) to track down some of the “anomalous” entries. Such as entry that apparently didn’t exist and it took a little detective work to find it. Another entry that caused me some headache was Maisie Birmingham’s 1997 novel The Mountain by Night, spotlighted by Skupin as a locked room novel worthy of note, but copies were apparently non-existent and that was surprisingly considering how recently it was published – digging around uncovered that the The Mountain by Night was privately published. So I hope LRI will consider reprinting it because it would be a perfect companion piece to Derek Smith’s 1997 Come to Paddington Fair!

    Anyway, you’ll all be able to see the damage Locked Room Murders: Supplement has wrought on my to-be-read pile and wishlist in the weeks ahead.

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    • And, hey, I reckon the omission of certain titles is simply a ploy to get us ravening for yet another Supplement — and that’s a ploy I’m firmly in favour of. I’ve already started a list of books I’ve read since the submission deadline for this which aren’t included (titles published in late 2019, self-published titles, etc) in the hope that it’ll be of use to someone at some point. Here’s hoping!

      What were you trying to say here, Skupin? All Dutch people look the same?

      Wait, you’re Dutch? To be honest, I find you and Christian Henriksson indistinguishable from each other…

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    • Like you (not because I AM you), I’ve collected a couple of errors that I’ve found in the supplement. We need to collate them and get them sent on to Brian Skupin. 🙂

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      • Serious question: is that a thing? I suppose it makes sense to get updates and corrections into later editions of a book — see Skupin’s own revision of Adey — but would there be any interest in getting this updated already, given that it’s only just come out? I have no experience of this sort of undertaking, so honestly don’t know how serious you’re being.

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        • I’m serious insofar as the information should be conveyed to Brian Skupin somehow. I don’t mean that I want him to publish a new supplement or update right this minute (or even year). I just want him to have the information available if/when he’s going to publish the next update.

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          • Oh, sure, I wasn’t suggesting that a new edtion was imminently on the cards, I just don’t know the protocols around going “Er, here are some things you got wrong in this gigantic undertaking”.

            It would be nice to have any errors corrected, I agree.

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  5. 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… and, yup, that sounds pretty awful.

    You can’t judge how truly awful Dead Box just by reading the solution to the impossible crime. It’s not just a badly done locked room-trick (there are so many of those), but everything around it. When it comes to truly awful detective novels without merit or a single redeeming quality, the only book that can probably stand toe-to-toe with Dead Box is Elsie Wright’s Strange Murders at Greystones. I’ve not read that one myself, but the comments and reviews speak volumes.

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    • For me, the acme of the bad modern impossible crime is ‘Murder in Monkeyland’ by Lois Gresh and Robert Weinberg, and the presentation of the solution here makes it sound just as SF-y and ridiculous as it seemed when I read it. Possibly like with Dead Box, I can see someone reading that story and being put of impossible crimes for life.

      Still, at least its inclusion means that Inherit the Stars by James P. Hogan wasn’t excluded for being too SF-like…

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