In the back of my mind when I started The Invisible Event was the idea that exactly half of what I’d post about would feature impossible crimes, locked room mysteries, and/or miracle problems — and although this proportion started an irreversible slide after the first 500 or so posts, the impossible crime remains my first love.
To mark one thousand posts — approximately 60 days solid of writing, assuming it takes me an average of 90 minutes to produce a single post, and that’s without the 6 to 8 hours of reading necessary to write in the first place (I am not a fast reader…) — I’ve taken inspiration from the Roland Lacourbe-curated Locked Room Library undertaking as well as the internet’s resident locked room expert TomCat’s frequent favourites lists and put together a list of my personal picks for one hundred locked room/impossible crime novels and short story collections that I would recommend. That list is included below, alphabetically by author and chronologically within a single author’s oeuvre, along with some brief thoughts about each title.
I have no desire to drag out these prefatory remarks longer than necessary, but to give you some idea of my process: figuring it would be a tough task to come up with 100 titles, I sat down and made a list of novels, single author short story collections, and one novella which turned out to be 103 titles long, so I took three off to feature on a possible future list…and that was it. No TV shows (I don’t watch enough to know what to recommend), no movies (ditto), no manga (ditto)…yes, that’s restrictive, but you need restrictions when making stuff up yourself. I can’t say I like all of the books featured, but all contain an impossible crime and if the book doesn’t compel itself to your attention then something about the impossibility does…and that was all I needed. Some titles are obvious, some exclusions may surprise you, and the one thing that occurred to me in putting this together is how much I still haven’t read in this subgenre…an exciting prospect!
Expect another list of 100 additional titles if I reach 2000 posts, but for now I give you…
100 Books for a Locked Room Library
Blood on His Hands (1937) by Max Afford — Two good impossible murders, enriched by detailed crime scene maps and a very entertaining amateur sleuth. Full of historical flourishes, too, which gives much entertainment as the plot unfurls…and a very good motive at the end of it all, if I remember correctly.
His Burial Too (1973) by Catherine Aird — A great murder scene (body in a church tower, the only door blocked by a fallen, smashed statue which would have trapped the killer inside) and one of the best methods of achieving this effect yet employed. All the more impressive when you consider how late this came.
The Moai Island Puzzle (1989) by Alice Arisugawa [trans. Ho-Ling Wong 2016] — Delightfully complex, a puzzle that keeps evolving and evolving…and with a locked room shooting that’s so casually obfuscated that it sort of takes your breath away when you realise how it was done.
The Mystery of the Vanishing Treasure (1966) by Robert Arthur — The Three Investigators at their most wildly creative, with a valuable artifact disappearing in only a brief moment of darkness…and things getting simply weirder and weirder as the book progresses. Arthur was a genius, it’s to be hoped we get a collection of his criminous short fiction before too long.
The Decagon House Murders (1987) by Yukito Ayatsuji [trans. Ho-Ling Wong 2015] — A staggering homage to And Then There Were None (1939), with a revelation of the culprit so surprising that I nearly dropped the book. The impossible poisoning is a minor element, but this has more than enough grotesque touches to commend it.
The Wintringham Mystery, a.k.a. Cicely Disappears (1927) by Anthony Berkeley — The genre’s gameplayer in chief playing the grandest game of all, pitching an impossible disappearance and then challenging the public to solve it ahead of time. Thankfully this is far more interesting than the footnote of Agatha Christie submitting a solution…fascinating though that is in principle.
The Three Tiers of Fantasy (1947) by Norman Berrow — Berrow excels at folding impossible and unlikely plots into normal life, and this three tiered puzzle of escalating conundrums is no exception. Sure, the first puzzle is a bit of a dud, but the second and third are delightful, and it’s all tied together with an effortlessness that more famous names would be rightly jealous of.
The Bishop’s Sword (1948) by Norman Berrow — Four impossibilities that don’t tax the brain too hard but show again how damn wonderful Berrow is at contriving a plot to allow such occurrences. I suspect that he’d be a bigger name if more of his output had revolved around impossible crimes, but at least we got what we did.
The Footprints of Satan (1950) by Norman Berrow — An impossible trail of cloven footprints in the snow, one of the most brilliantly sustained sequences of discovery the genre has seen, and a delightfully creepy tiny town puzzle for Berrow’s DI Lancelot Carolous Smith. Probably one of my ten favourite books in the subgenre.
The Mystery of the Disappearing Cat (1944) by Enid Blyton — One for younger readers, and yet such a clever puzzle, with a prized moggy vanishing when the only person in the vicinity is clearly innocent. Shows that it’s possible to write this sort of thing clearly and intelligently, with no excuses for bad scene setting when it comes to catering for older readers.
The Mystery of the Invisible Thief (1950) by Enid Blyton — Another clever, patient investigation, and one that runs down so many false trails while trying to establish how a man could vanish from what is essentially a watched room with no discernible exit. The book which made me realise how much Blyton brought to her criminous fiction, and a great primer for adults and young ‘uns alike.
Nine Times Nine (1940) by Anthony Boucher — Perhaps an easy pick, but also a very clever puzzle that hides its vanishing murderer well, and ties into South Californian religious cults along the way. The sequel, Rocket to the Morgue (1942), gets a little too caught up in being clever, but this is pure detectival fun from first to last…you even get a locked room lecture along the way.
Suddenly at His Residence, a.k.a. The Crooked Wreath (1946) by Christianna Brand — Two no footprints puzzles here, one nestled inside the other, and a beautifully arch, bitchy family wrapped up in the complications of murder. Shows Brand’s gift for characterisation at full tilt, and had a wonderful last line reveal.
Death of Jezebel (1948) by Christianna Brand — Murder during a stage show, when all those who could have dunnit were in view of the audience at the key time; characterisation not as sharp here, but the unfurling of explanation after explanation shows the puzzle plot at its peak, with revelation after revelation reversing and upending expectations for seemingly hundreds of pages.
Tour de Force (1955) by Christianna Brand — I had the misfortune to see through the key misdirect here, but this might contain the most affecting of Brand’s casts and, at the moment you’re told what happened, manages to shock you and break your heart at the same time. Murder on holiday has never been so enticing.
Wilders Walk Away (1948) by Herbert Brean — The vanishing of a man walking along a beach might be a little disappointing, but Brean shows here how the traditional novel of puzzles and red herrings might be co-opted into the emerging crime thriller that would go on to dominate the next 15 years. A very clever book, deserves much wider reading, along with his masterpiece: the non-impossible Hardly a Man is Now Alive, a.k.a. Murder Now and Then (1950).
Case for Three Detectives (1936) by Leo Bruce — One impossible throat-slashing, three convenient genius detectives (parodies of Hercule Poirot, Lord Peter Wimsey, and Father Brown), four staggeringly diverse and witty solutions…one of the very best novels of the Golden Age, showing how the genre can wink it itself while also being in deadly earnest.
Death Leaves No Card (1944) by Miles Burton — Death by what can only be electrocution, no problem there…except that the house isn’t fitted with electricity. A clever use of some principles that are all the more interesting because of how they’ve sunk from consideration since this was written, a great example of the novel as a piece of historical record.
Goodnight Irene (2018) by James Scott Byrnside — An astonishingly assured debut, with flood waters rising at a house party from hell and a locked room murder and an impossible poisoning on the prowl. Restores your faith in the modern murder mystery, that someone is able to construct something this intelligent, except for the fact that traditional publishing seems to have no interest in such endeavours. What’s wrong with people? This kind of thing deserves to sell in droves.
The Opening Night Murders (2019) by James Scott Byrnside — Not only is this impossible murder-on-stage-with-no-one-near-the-victim adroitly constructed, allowing for multiple reversals and counter-reversals in the closing stages, but it also motivates one of the very best (and justifiably bloodiest!) secondary murders I’ve yet encountered.
The Strange Case of the Barrington Hills Vampire (2020) by James Scott Byrnside — Fast, creepy, packed with puzzles, this is probably Byrnside’s most accomplished achievement to date: racing around perhaps a little too energetically to allow some of its hits to land, but, man, the answers when they tumble out are magnificent to behold. A legitimate Challenge to the Reader, too. Not enough of that sort of thing these days.
The Clue of the Phantom Car (1953) by Bruce Campbell — Not just a rigorous, intelligent impossible vanishing of a car along an inescapable stretch of country road, but also a surprisingly hard-edged mystery plot that twists off in unexpected directions once the vanishing has been dealt with. Easily the best of the seven or eight books by this husband and wife team I’ve read; highly recommended.
The Hollow Man, a.k.a. The Three Coffins (1935) by John Dickson Carr — Over-praised down the years, no doubt, this nevertheless contains an excellent central scheme in which a man is shot while locked in his study and his assailant vanishes without leaving a footprint in the snow…only to repeat the act in an open street a few minutes later. Ingenious, yes, even if it’s not the pinnacle of the form that lazy list-compilers have been claiming for the last 40 years.
The Burning Court (1937) by John Dickson Carr — Divisive, no doubt, but if you can come to this one completely pure you’re in for a wild time. The trick Carr wants to pull off here requires the deft switching of tone, mood, and intent that he does so well, and while it would be an exaggeration to say he’s the only one who could make it work, it’s a very pleasing entry in his oeuvre.
The Problem of the Green Capsule, a.k.a. The Black Spectacles (1939) by John Dickson Carr — Three people watch a man get murdered in the next room, with the added difficulty that one of them must be the killer…but no-one left the room and there’s video tape evidence to support their stories. A joy at every turn, easily the pinnacle of the form, my favourite GAD novel of all time.
The Case of the Constant Suicides (1940) by John Dickson Carr — How can a man be made to throw himself from the window of a locked tower in which he is alone? How can two men? Not only a deftly, efficiently constructed plot, but also one of the funniest books Carr wrote, showing again his mastery of chills and giggles.
Till Death Do Us Part (1944) by John Dickson Carr — A minor impossibility, involving a murder in a locked room, is simply the icing on perhaps Carr’s most ingeniously constructed plot. Virtually flawless, incredible that a human mind can conceive of something this neatly imbricated and then write it so seamlessly.
He Who Whispers (1946) by John Dickson Carr — I find the impossible stabbing at the top of a tower no-one else climbed a little hokey, but if anyone tells you that classic era detective fiction is only disposable fluff that doesn’t linger in the brain you need only give them this heart-rending story of Faye Seaton and then ask them how often they think about it in the years afterwards.
Fire, Burn! (1957) by John Dickson Carr — An early historical mystery that veritably ripples with glee, as Carr sends his protagonist back in time to the instigation of the Metropolitan Police and then impossibly shoots a woman in the back just for added value. Shows Carr getting a real second (or third…) wind as his focus shifted to these historical mysteries, and makes me excited to read more from this phase of his career.
The Island of Coffins [rp] (2020) by John Dickson Carr — An exceptionally high quality set of radio plays from the genre’s Golden Age, showing Carr repurposing some of his ideas to sharper effect. I’ve really come to appreciate the radio mystery of late, helped in no small part by publications like this, and I find the nature of the storytelling here fascinating. Man, I wish we had more of this sort of thing available to listen to today.
The Scandal of Father Brown [ss] by G.K. Chesterton (1935) — Accepted wisdom says you go for one of the earlier Chesterton collections, but I think ‘The Blast of the Book’ deserves more kudos for how brilliantly it misdirects, and ‘The Pursuit of Mr. Blue’, concerning a man vanishing from a guarded space, sets the archetype for a solution that’s always been less enjoyable to me elsewhere. Plus, you get here the joy of (the non-impossible) ‘The Vampire of the Village’…and then you’ll go back and read the earlier, more famous stories anyway, so everyone wins.
Murder in Mesopotamia (1936) by Agatha Christie — Perhaps my very first locked room murder, before I really knew that the subgenre existed and this sort of “but no-one was anywhere near the room when she died…” puzzle was, like, a common thing. Sure, you might think bits of the plot don’t hold up, but I’ll always retain a huge fondness for this one. And it’s my list!
Appointment with Death (1938) by Agatha Christie — By my reckoning, this counts even if you don’t realise it until later than one ordinarily could with this sort of puzzle. Christie really excelled at these “everyone stuck in a place together” mysteries, and if this is a little borderline then I don’t mind because it’s a bunch of fun and really enjoys playing around with some of the genre’s expectations.
And Then There Were None (1939) by Agatha Christie — By my reckoning, this counts even if you don’t realise it until later than one ordinarily could with this sort of puzzle. Christie really excelled at these “everyone stuck in a place together” mysteries, and if this is a little borderline then I don’t mind because it’s a bunch of fun and really enjoys playing around with some of the genre’s expectations. Hang on…
Jack-in-the-Box (1944) by J.J. Connington — People and animals are turning up dead without a mark on them and no way to determine how they died. Well, a mystic claims to have harnessed a psychic power called New Force and instituted their deaths that way, but we know that such smoke and mirrors won’t wash with Clinton Driffield. Loads of fun, see The Reader is Warned (1939) by Carter Dickson for a similar principle played out very differently.
Swan Song (1947) by Edmund Crispin — The locked room shooting of Crispin’s debut The Case of the Gilded Fly (1944) or the impossible suffocation of The Moving Toyshop (1946) might seem like more obvious choices, but this hanging of an unpopular opera singer in his dressing room has a pleasingly technical side to it and Crispin is less facetious here than he can be elsewhere.
Sudden Death (1932) by Freeman Wills Crofts — Two locked room murders, one very technical, the other less so, contribute to the enjoyment of Crofts’ first country house murder, with additional interest coming from telling portions of his story from the perspective of a servant in the house. Only goes to strengthen my thesis that Crofts clearly had ingenuity to spare; thank heavens he didn’t write too much and sprinkle his ideas too thinly.
Killed on the Rocks (1990) by William L. DeAndrea — A surprisingly good, late example of the impossible crime, with a body surrounded by unmarked snow and a house full of potential murderers. DeAndrea has been a little hit and miss in my reading of him to date, but the clues are good here and the intrigue kept fresh by the various factors in play. Clever method, too, discovered with impressive rigour.
The Bowstring Murders (1933) by Carter Dickson — You have to accept a conveniently inattentive man at one point, but the details of the crime scene and how they play into the solution of this impossible murder are fascinating. Also contains one of the author’s most elaborately baroque settings, with the rambling Bowstring Castle as much a character as any of its denizens. Great second murder, too.
The White Priory Murders (1934) by Carter Dickson — A man walks through the snow to the guest annexe of the house he’s staying at and discovers there a woman murdered after the snow fell…but only the discoverer’s footprints lead to the building. The book is perhaps a little too fond of its knife chord developments, but some wonderful clewing (the matches!) make the journey to the solution more than worthwhile.
The Red Widow Murders (1935) by Carter Dickson — Room That Kills puzzles are always fun, and this one is no exception, but the most striking aspect of the whole thing is when you realise that the victim, sitting within the room and calling out that he’s still alive every fifteen minutes, has been shouting out that he’s fine despite having been dead for an hour. And the “everyone eats the same food but only one man dies” puzzle is one of the very best ever put down.
The Judas Window (1938) by Carter Dickson — The locked room murder’s locked room murder, with a man drugged in a locked room and waking up to find his only companion stabbed to death and all the doors and windows sealed shut on the inside. There’s a mid-book revelation which I like even more than the answer to this conundrum, but there’s too much to enjoy about this one to include in one brief paragraph.
The Reader is Warned (1939) by Carter Dickson — Not just predictions of death, but a man threatening to use his own mind and his control of ‘Teleforce’ to kill people in one of Dickson’s very best books. Our ‘murderer’ might be one of the Dickson’s best villains, the revelations of the final chapter struck me as a genuine surprise, and every element of this hangs together with perfectly balanced poise and execution.
Nine — and Death Makes Ten, a.k.a. Murder in the Atlantic, a.k.a. Murder in the Submarine Zone (1940) by Carter Dickson — A crime scene on a boat, a fingerprint collected and compared with everyone on board…and no match found. Lesser authors would simply have a stowaway hiding out of sight, but Dickson was one of the greats and his solution is as inspired as you’d hope. Great atmosphere, too, in a passenger ship sailing munitions from the US to the UK through submarine territory in WW2.
The Department of Queer Complaints [ss] (1940) by Carter Dickson — Shorter, brilliantly confounding puzzles for the bland-eyed Colonel March to pick through. ‘The Silver Curtain’, ‘Error at Daybreak’, ‘The Footprint in the Sky’…not just great titles, but also signs of Dickson’s creativity at full tilt.
She Died a Lady (1943) by Carter Dickson — Two pairs of footprints leading over the edge of a cliff where two lovers committed suicide together…only Dickson could take this simple an image and expand it up into a case of such complexity and heart. Sure, the killer is a little too obfuscated, but the explanation for that in the text is actually pretty smart…even if it is the authorly equivalent of eating cake and having it, too.
He Wouldn’t Kill Patience (1944) by Carter Dickson — If a man has sealed himself in a room by taping around the edges of the door and gassed himself to death, how can it be murder? A great piece of explicit clewing holds the answer, and the final confrontation between H.M. and the killer ripples with menace and undercurrents of steel.
You’ll Die Laughing (1945) by Bruce Elliott — The vanishing of a man from a room he was just seen to enter…and the vanishing of the room’s contents along with him. Elliott is going for a grand sensation and perhaps overreaches himself in doing so, but you could add perhaps three lines to this and make it one of the most enjoyable minor classics the subgenre ever produced. Deserves to be far, far better known.
Thy Arm Alone (1947) by John Russell Fearn — Too slow and too thin to qualify as an unconditional recommendation, the manner of the delivery of death here is at least very, very novel — perhaps unique — and so the book compels itself to those of you who have read everything else on here and were hoping for something new. Its not good, but Fearn deserves credit for coming up with this and just about making it work.
Too Many Magicians (1966) by Randall Garrett — I wonder the extent to which this has become like The Hollow Man: recommended without being read, put on lists purely because it has a reputation from having been on other lists. Garrett’s masterstroke was to turn magic into a codified science (not that we know what the rules are…) and to then throw in a clever locked room stabbing without resorting to magic trickery to explain it. Yes, it’s a variation on tricks seen elsewhere, but most of the subgenre is. Taken as genre-straddling adventure on its own terms, this is pretty great stuff.
Death Out of Nowhere (1945) by Alexis Gensoul & Charles Grenier [trans. John Pugmire 2019] — A series of impossible shootings expained away with such bravura chutzpah and so much entertaining invention that you’ll happily forgive the fact that it would be almost impossible to make any of this into an actual fair play mystery. Sure, the final shooting is a bit limp, but the main event (“And the Emperor of China be damned!”) is a delirious joy. Only a Frenchman could have written this, and I mean that as a compliment.
Poached (2014) by Stuart Gibbs — Another one for younger readers, this time concerning a vanishing koala that only one (innocent) person could have stolen. Leans into the, er, natural world side of things very cleverly to explain its misdirection, and is a lot of fun along the way to a solution which I missed and really should not have. Always a plus as far as I’m concerned; highly recommended to all ages.
Hawk & Fisher (1990) by Simon R. Green — A terrible book, getting its genre-straddling all wrong where Randall Garrett did everything so smoothly, and contains some of the best unintentional jokes probably ever written. But for all its flaws — and they are legion — the impossible poisoning at its core is actually quite clever. Worth reading if only because it must be seen to be believed, with the benefit of a nifty murder scheme? What’s not to love?!
The Madman’s Room (1990) by Paul Halter [trans. John Pugmire 2017] — A masterpiece of ingenious plotting and overlapping threads, in no way to be dismissed because its impossible aspect, involving a man making predictions about the future, is a minor facet. Should you suffer from a sickness that makes you willing to read only one Paul Halter novel, you poor soul, make it this one.
The Tiger’s Head (1991) by Paul Halter [trans. John Pugmire 2013] — A serial killer leaving dismembered corpses in suitcases, a genie materialising in a sealed room and beating a man to death…so much to enjoy here, and another great example of why we can be so thankful that Halter was carried over the language barrier for our enjoyment.
The Seventh Hypothesis (1991) by Paul Halter [trans. John Pugmire 2012] — A magically-appearing dead body and a vanishing man are only the tip of the iceberg as we explore a deadly rivalry between two men…each keen to see the other accused of murder. Contains one of the great sustained pieces of repeated “Aha!” reversals in the genre; again just so, so much fun, a rollicking good time.
The Demon of Dartmoor (1993) by Paul Halter [trans. John Pugmire 2012] — An impossible defenestration that might be the most brilliantly conceived bit of homicide in Halter’s glittering career. Perhaps a little overstuffed, as the headless horseman (yes, you read that correctly) adds nothing, but you can’t fault the man for his ambition. More authors should enjoy themselves this much, because the reader then has a wonderful time, too.
The Lord of Misrule (1994) by Paul Halter [trans. John Pugmire 2006] — A man being followed by two others through a snowy landscape is lost from view behind a rise in the ground, only to have been stabbed with no other footprints nearby when his followers catch up to him. An homage to Carr’s The Hollow Man (1935), and delightful in its own right.
The Invisible Circle (1996) by Paul Halter [trans. John Pugmire 2014] — Leaning heavily into a playful King Arthur motif, this finds a man stabbed by Excalibur while sealed in an inaccessible room at the top of a castle’s towers. Absolutely bonkers, perhaps Halter’s most wild flight of fancy, and yet so breathtakingly entertaining that I laughed along to every insane development. More of this, please.
The Man Who Loved Clouds (1999) by Paul Halter [trans. John Pugmire 2018] — More impossible being shoved around by invisible forces, and a far cleverer book than I gave it credit for on first reading. Limns a small village living in fear of the inexplicable very neatly, and explains away its various conundrums with some engagingly practical solutions. Hopefully I’ve made up for my initial harsh judgement of this by including it here!
The Night of the Wolf [ss] (2000) by Paul Halter [trans. John Pugmire and Robert Adey 2004] — Halter’s short stories are delightful, from ‘The Cleaver’, which sees a man dreaming the future, to the existence of Santa Claus, to the no footprints baffler of the title story, with so much creative endeavour in between. Some of these plots are strong enough to support a novel on their own, but seeing them distilled to their purest essence is remarkable.
The Phantom Passage (2005) by Paul Halter [trans. John Pugmire 2015] — More predictions of the future, this time from a ghostly passageway that disappears at will. Far too complex to be believable, but then that’s part of the joy of the impossible crime, as we’re often pushing what is achievable in order to confound the reader in ways they’ve not been before. On that front, this can’t be faulted.
The Gold Watch (2019) by Paul Halter [trans. John Pugmire 2019] — The best no footprints puzzle of the 21st century, and more than able to stand against the best that the Golden Age had to offer. A confounding book in many regards, the plot not as tight in Anglophone terms as Halter’s other translated works, but as an exponent of the French novel of bafflement and innovation it’s surely about as good as it gets.
The Forbidden House (1932) by Michel Herbert & Eugene Wyl [trans. John Pugmire 2021] — An almost forensically tiny impossible vanishing, all the more impressive once you get to the end and realise how small the problem was an how rigorously the authors have exploited it for maximum entertainment. Feels like a book that couldn’t be written today, all the more reason to be extremely grateful for this sort of thought experiment from the Golden Age.
Inherit the Stars (1977) by James P. Hogan — The decayed body of an astronaut discovered on the Moon might not seem much of a mystery, but when that body turns out to be 10,000 years old there’s clearly something more at play. Dense, fascinating stuff here from Hogan, with one of the most brilliantly conceived resolutions on this list. Deserves to be better known, even if it is slightly hard going at times.
Death Among the Undead (2017) by Masahiro Imamura [trans. Ho-Ling Wong 2021] — Smashing genre conventions together with a gleeful creativity, this shows how cleverly tropes can be appropriated when they’re as well-established as those governing detective fiction are. For my liking this needs a little more rigour on the horror side of things, but the invention on display is both magnificent and extremely exciting.
Prague Fatale (2011) by Philip Kerr — In and of itself, another fairly familiar setup in which a dead body is found shot in a locked bedroom at a gathering in a wartime country house. But Kerr’s structure is far from conventional (most of the investigating is done in a single, 120-page chapter), his sleuth is an abrasive delight, and his suspects are high-ranking Nazi officials who one does not accuse of murder lightly. The solution is far from original, but the historical novel and the puzzle plot have rarely meshed so effectively.
Obelists Fly High (1935) by C. Daly King — A deeply flawed book: tediously slow, devoid of interest most of the time, and with no idea how prologues and epilogues work…but the manner in which its impossible-to-enforce promised poisoning at a given date and time is achieved is a work of pure genius. Deeply, deeply annoying; such a magnificent scheme deserves to be in a far, far better story.
Murder on the Safari Star (2021) by M.G. Leonard and Sam Sedgman — Another one for younger readers, and another superbly clever mystery with a great method that fits perfectly inside the brief the authors have set themselves. This is one of my favourite modern series for any age group, and the series as a whole — now on hiatus — is a pure delight.
The Mystery of the Yellow Room (1907) by Gaston Leroux [trans. ??? 1909] — Over-reliant on coincidence to provide so many developments, and somewhat slapdash in its interpretation of some evidence…and yet it’s a classic for a reason, giving us a good locked room murder and a completely superb vanishing. Set the pattern of so much that was to follow, and deserves respect — and reading — as a result.
Death in the House of Rain (2006) by Szu-Yen Lin [trans. ibid 2017] — Dark, disturbing, and highly inventive, one of a handful of Carr homages that would have worked perfectly in Carr’s own oeuvre. A series of locked room deaths in an abandoned mansion that are explained away with the sort of bravura brinksmanship that makes you want another 15 books by the author immediately to hand.
The Wrong Letter (1926) by Walter S. Masterman — Masterman seems to get less conventional as his career progresses, as this debut is a remarkably readable and entertaining entry in the world’s greatest subgenre. And when you get to the closing stages and discover the reason for the title you’ll delight afresh.
Leonardo’s Law (1978) by Warren B. Murphy — While it’s more fashionable to lament the lost years of Christianna’s Brand’s hiatus, or to wonder whatever happened to that lost Hake Talbot manuscript, I’ll be over here raging that Warren B. Murphy wasn’t given sufficient encouragement to write a 20 book series about David Leonardo. He’s a character with great potential, and his only case — this locked room shooting — deserves to be far better known.
The Red Death Murders (2022) by Jim Noy — It may seem sheer hubris to include my own book on this list, but, c’mon, a) Fred Dannay put himself on the Cornerstones list and b) I devised two completely original impossible murders 180 years into the subgenre and wrapped them up in a plot of quite devilish complexity. Plus, this is a book I’d recommend since if I sell enough of them to be financially viable I’ll eventually get round to writing the sequel.
The Ginza Ghost [ss] (2017) by Keikichi Ōsaka [trans. Ho-Ling Wong 2017] — A wonderful collection of stories from pre- and post-WW2 Japan, showing a country at odds with the change it was forced to embrace and the creeping broadening of cultural themes. ‘The Cold Night’s Clearing’, ‘The Monster of the Lighthouse’, ‘The Hungry Letterbox’, ‘The Guardian of the Lighthouse’, and the title story are all utterly sublime.
Policeman in Armour (1937) by Rupert Penny — A meticulously-plotted chess game of a novel, in which a man is stabbed in the back when no-one could possibly have been in the room with him to commit the act, an obvious suspect being magnificently proved innocent at the halfway stage and a painstakingly clever reframing of events thereafter. Penny should be more famous, y’know?
Policeman’s Evidence (1938) by Rupert Penny — I can fault this locked room ‘suicide’ only in that the scheme is so good there’s no reason for anyone to suspect murder…but then where would we be? Certainly we’d miss out on one of Penny’s neatest bits of misdirection, and any time spent with Tony Purdon and Superintendent Edward Beale is to be cherished.
Sealed Room Murder (1941) by Rupert Penny — My first Penny title, and as savage a portrait of an old family mouldering in a dusty pile as you’re likely to encounter…before a series of obscure thefts and pointless act of vandalism result in surely one of the most superbly technical and outrageous tricks of the genre’s heyday. And it’s not even his best book…!
The Curious Cases of Cyriack Skinner Grey [ss] (2009) by Arthur Porges — A series of stories written between 1965 and 1975 which rely on clever scientific principles. Not all impossible, but when they are (c.f. ‘The Scientist and the Vanished Weapon’, ‘The Scientist and the Multiple Murder’, etc.) they show how much invention can be brought to bear in this subgenre. Porges also wrote some wonderful Sherlock Holmes pastiches that I’m hoping we’ll see republished someday.
The Footprints on the Ceiling (1939) by Clayton Rawson — The eponymous footprints are a minor aspect of this, and the only sniff of an impossibility in the whole thing, but the book is brisk, energetic, and entertaining in a way that much of Rawson’s longer work has not proved to be for me. Up there with the best “We’re stuck on an island and what the hell is happening?” mysteries ever written.
The Great Merlini [ss] (1979) by Clayton Rawson — I find Rawson’s shorter works far more successful, and the diversity of intelligent ideas here is wonderful to see. ‘Off the Face of the Earth’ is one of the all-time great impossible crime short stories, but there’s much here to marvel at, not least aliens and the world’s smallest locked room.
The Real-Town Murders (2017) by Adam Roberts — A dead body in an automated car plant where no human has cause to go, nor could enter unobserved. Earns huge props from me for how it takes so many familiar principles and speculates intelligently about where these may lead in a futuristic society, and the detective’s tragic personal life is, for once, genuinely affecting. Great word-play throughout, too.
They Can’t Hang Me (1938) by James Ronald — A madman escapes form an asylum and seeks vengeance on those who put him there…with the complexity of his undertakings hinting that there might in fact be some glint of sanity beneath the veneer. Pure pulp, but Ronald was class all the way through and really sells you on the terror, the bafflement, and the intelligence behind the design. And the impossible gassing is as good a ploy as any Carr dreamed up, to boot.
Murder on the Way! (1935) by Theodore Roscoe — Roscoe really is one of the great prose wranglers of the Golden Age, with event following event in a colourful tumble that barely stops for breath. Here we’re on Haiti and the dead are coming back to life, with a revolution stirring, a man impossibly shot in the head while alone in a room, and just about every flavour of craziness you can imagine thrown in. Wild stuff.
I’ll Grind Their Bones (1937) by Theodore Roscoe — Anti-war propaganda that’s by turns thrilling, sobering, and maddeningly brilliant in its series of locked room shootings with no killer present. Roscoe’s pulp roots show through at times, but few authors would be brave enough to tackle such a huge theme under the guise of a mystery thriller, and few would wrangle the grand embellishments of its OTT finale so successfully.
Murder Among the Angells (1932) by Roger Scarlett — As perfect a setup as has ever been committed to the page in a detective novel, it’s perhaps inevitable that the ensuing chapters can’t quite match the opening quarter or so. Nevertheless, this stabbing while alone in a lift in the mansion house of the stuffy Angell family is well-structured, well investigated, and provides an answer that’s pleasingly baroque-yet-workable into the bargain. Good diagrams, too, and lots of ’em…always a bonus.
Black Aura (1974) by John Sladek — With a terrible vanishing trick (from the toilet), a superb one (from the funeral parlour) and an excellent impossible levitation, this very much runs the gamut. It’s a good little puzzle, too, and weirdly out of print…perhaps because Sladek is better known these days for his (much more prolific) SF writings. Shame, because while a new generation deserves to discover this, the generation before could do with reading it, too.
Invisible Green (1977) by John Sladek — My preference of Sladek’s two criminous novels, with some lovely puzzles — a murder in a room with unmarked powder on the floor outside, a man failing to recognise someone he’s just been introduced to — as a book group are killed off one-by-one. Someone needs to reprint these two.
Whistle Up the Devil (1953) by Derek Smith — One of those impossible-to-find titles (though not any more, thanks to its recent reprinting) that lived up to its reputation: a stabbing in a room with watched exits and a strangling under similar circumstances. A little naive in the writing, perhaps, but gorgeous in construction.
Come to Paddington Fair (c. 1954) by Derek Smith — Smith’s second novel is more mature in tone and handling, with the impossibility behind its on-stage shooting developing slowly as the book progresses. He shows increased assuredness with a larger cast, too, and layers a few more events into proceedings with genuine skill and acuity. Makes you sort of want to cry that he never published anything else, dunnit?
The Hangman’s Handyman (1942) by Hake Talbot — Delightfully creepy stuff for the first half, with the lights out on an isolated island, a weird curse causing bodies to rot at an advanced rate, people being attacked by strange creatures, and a murder in a locked room. Shows Talbot — a pen name for magician Henning Nelms — unpacking his toybox to great effect.
Rim of the Pit (1944) by Hake Talbot — A wild, wild time, with a group of people heading into the snowy wilderness to conduct a seance for bizarre reasons only for events even more bizarre to unfold around them: a killer flying through the air and passing through locked doors and windows, demonic possession, a wendigo spirit on the prowl…too insane for words, resolved magnificently. Makes you sort of want to cry that he never published anything else, dunnit?
Murder in the Crooked House (1982) by Shimada Soji [trans. Louise Heal Kawai 2019] — Utterly, utterly, utterly, utterly, utterly bonkers, and not believable for a second, but it’s difficult not to be impressed by the size and ambition of what Shimada pulls off here. It’s undertakings like this, almost existing within its own form of logic, which show why this subgenre holds such a fascination for so many of us, because how on earth do you even begin to go about thinking this sort of thing up…?
The Killing of Polly Carter (2015) by Robert Thorogood — If Thorogood had started out as a novelist rather than a TV writer he might have an output to rival Paul Halter’s for ingenuity. His second novel is hamstrung by too much fidelity to the TV show which spawned it, but the core impossible murder is undeniably very clever indeed. Rare to see someone suffer from too much success, but this is one of those instances.
The House that Kills (1932) by Noel Vindry [trans. John Pugmire 2015] — A fascinating experiment: one impossible murder solved by the halfway stage, only for the sleuth to fall victim to an impossible attempt on his life. Wants for actual detection, but Vindry certainly found a new way to structure a mystery, and the second crime is well resolved. Anticipate lots of classic radio knife chords for best effect.
The Howling Beast (1934) by Noel Vindry [trans. John Pugmire 2016] — A superbly claustrophobic, atmospheric story, essentially a three-hander in an isolated castle with mysterious beastly noises heard at night while everyone tries to fit events into some meaningful pattern. The impossible element, involving the disappearance of a gun used in a shooting, comes in late and is resolved quickly, but there’s so much more going on here. My favourite of the four Vindrys so far translated.
The Crimson Circle (1922) by Edgar Wallace — The impossibility here, involving the poisoning of a man in a locked room, is a very minor aspect of this novel, but the invention behind the method used is quite something. I need to read more Wallace, because he evidently had ideas to spare; fingers crossed he has other schemes as brilliant as this to entertain us with.
Mystery in Room 913, a.k.a. The Room with Something Wrong (1938) by Cornell Woolrich — Over a period of months, even years, people check into Room 913 of the St. Anselm Hotel and throw themselves out of the window. What’s the link? Why that room? All right, it’s not technically impossible, but not only is the answer brilliantly Golden Age in its invention, the setting really stamps itself on the memory.
The Honjin Murders (1946) by Seishi Yokomizo [trans Louise Heal Kawai 2019] — A couple slain on their wedding night in the sealed annexe to the groom’s family home, the sword which killed them plunged into the surrounding snow and nary a footprint in evidence to show how the killer entered or left. Short, sharp, ingenious, and full of cultural richness. Western audiences are only just beginning to discover Yokomizo, and he’s been delightful so far. More!
The Big Bow Mystery (1892) by Israel Zangwill — A man found with his throat cut in his locked room, this mystery gets props not only for innovating a key principle of the Golden Age (I’ll not say which one, but you’ll know if you’re read it) but also for how damn funny so much of it is. 130 years old and still as readable as ever, this is one of those classics whose reputation is thoroughly deserved.
My thanks to all you wonderful readers — commenter, lurker, or otherwise — who continue to find some interest in these ramblings of mine. The Invisible Event is only worth doing if anyone’s reading and engaging with it, and I consider myself very fortunate to have found people willing to hang about in this niche with me. Onwards to the next thousand…!