You’re doubtless aware of the superbly wide-ranging Golden Age-focussed Shedunnit podcast run by Caroline Crampton, and I was delighted to be asked to contribute to an episode about locked room mysteries and impossible crimes. The results are now online for your listening pleasure.
Thanks to the beneficence of Dan at The Reader is Warned, I have been loaned a copy of Maps (2002), an anthology of short fiction and other reflections by John Sladek which were previously not anthologised elsewhere. Sladek wrote two impossible crime novels — the excellent Black Aura (1974) and the exemplary Invisible Green (1977) — and Maps contains the two short-form tales to feature the same American dandy sleuth, Thackeray Phin. Both could be discussed at length, but TomCat’s already done that very well indeed and I’m more interested in looking at small moments within them that don’t actually contribute to the plot. I know, right, what am I like?
John Sladek is better known these days as a furiously inventive author of decidedly loopy SF — and I mean that as a compliment — but he did publish two detectives novels in the 1970s that each contained several impossibilities. The first, Black Aura (1974), has two disappearances and a man flying outside a third-storey window (without anything so amateur as wires holding him up, you cynic), and two-thirds of these are explained away superbly — the second disappearance in particular. It is a very good book, if perhaps a little slow in places, and boded well for the next time Sladek opted to dip his toe in our waters. Invisible Green, then, is very much the realisation of this potential, being superior in every single respect, and therefore something of a bittersweet read as we know now that nothing else followed it in the realm of the unachievable provably done.
Declaring that the detective novel was the only form of literature that put the reader to work, [S.S. van Dine] argued that “a deduction game emphasising fair play within a limited setting” would be the story structure with the best potential to result in masterpiece mystery stories […] But when the elements of the game are too severely limited and the building materials are all the same, only the first few builders will get all the glory and there will be an over-abundance of similar novels…
I was recently reading a book on the promise of it providing a locked room murder, to which I am rather partial. When said murder arrived, it took on this approximate form: a large indoor hall with a free-standing stone chapel inside it which has one door and no windows or other points of ingress, a crowd witnesses a lady entering said chapel – which is deserted – alone and the doors are shut, only for them to be opened some time later and said lady found beaten, bruised and devoid of life. It’s moderately classic in its setup and should therefore provide some interest, but once I read the details of the crime I gave up on the book and will not return to it (in fact, it’s already down the charity shop).
This is not due to any squeamishness on my part, or a particular problem I had with the writing or the characters – both were fine, if unexceptional – but rather just because it just wasn’t interesting. It is hard to put this in words, which is why I imagine this post may run rather longer than usual, but there were simply no features of intrigue to me in that supposedly impossible murder. And so I got to thinking…forget plot or prose or atmosphere, take away all the context of an impossible crime, particularly forget about the solutions: what makes an interesting fictional impossibility? Continue reading →