5 Impossible Crime ‘Thrillers’ to try

I got wondering recently – after writing on a new Spanish locked room cinematic piece and asking if thrillers and locked rooms can work together – what where my favourite examples of ‘thrilling’ detective fiction?

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What I mean here is the kind of golden age pieces that read like modern thrillers or that set the path for modern thrillers. Not so much in that they deal with the psychology of the killer or are as brutal and depraved as can be (although there are plenty of examples of that in the golden age, I’m looking at you Endless Night), but that they run at lightning pace as real page turners that hit the ground running and never stop.

The difficulty that comes up in blending both the thriller and the locked room seems to be that in trying to combine them, one usually gets left behind in the wake of the other. The necessary high level of pace and the need for twist after twist of a thriller can negate the intricate, methodical nature of a locked room, and (as with Contratiempo) can mean that the ultimate solution to the locked room is underwhelming or not well thought out. In the reverse, the necessarily fair, open and highly composed nature of the solid locked room can – in the hands of some writers – lesser the constant threat needed to create a ‘thriller’ proper.

Both of these genres, Locked Room and Thriller, have their own rules and needs that  allow them to operate fully in they context that they have built over these many fine years. But genres can be broken, played with and can be misleading as well.

So, with this in mind, here are 5 locked room mysteries that for me combine something of both elements with flair. Locked rooms that operate within the fair play golden age genre or mould, but that crank up the thrilling elements. We could say they are possibly more ‘thrilling’ than ‘thriller’, but I want to give you a few examples of pieces that I think show the capacity for pure pace and twist in a locked room format, many of which predate the thriller genre itself:

1 – Till Death Do us Part – John Dickson Carr (1944) 

I mean this is obvious isn’t it? If you have never read this book, and especially if you are new to Carr, this is one to go to. For me it is one of the most thrilling works of GAD fiction, and is proved by the fact that I simply cannot tell you anything about it. I can’t spoil anything, everything has to be experienced fresh. What I can say is that this is fired from the gun and never slows for breath. This left me wondering around for a few days bewildered and gobsmacked (and not many books in any genre do that for me), and is possibly the only book of detective fiction that on finishing I could have immediately picked up and started again. What I can say is that the level of twist, and the maddening psychology of the book, read like an early thriller, and it’s the context in which Carr builds the locked room, which is still intricate, fair and methodical, which allows the locked room itself to be a central giver of pace and psychology within the story. I wrote a little more on this work here.

2 – She Died A Lady – John Dickson Carr (1943) 

No it’s not going to be a whole list of just Carr’s work (although it probably could be!), but this is another fine example of plot and impossibility creating pace. Again I wont say too much here as this is another to experience fresh, but what I will say is that just when you think you know what is happening Carr knocks you side ways, takes you somewhere totally different, but then reveals that it all makes sense with what has come before. This leads, through a lovely and unexpected character interaction, to one of the most page turning, high paced endings of Carr’s work, and of the Golden Age cannon. There, I’ve said enough! If you do want a little more context you can read more of my thoughts here.

3 – Through A Glass Darkly – Helen McCloy (1951) 

A classic impossible work, and a book that really straddles the genres of early thriller and horror with the hook and mystery of an impossibility. Faustina Coyle starts a new job at an exclusive girls school, but after a few days all the girls seem to be afraid of her, teachers hurry away, a culture of fear is building up around her. When she finds out that she is being seen in two places at once, and that when the second version of her appears she drops into a slowed trance like state, she is totally at odds to explain it. But this only the start of the horror. Again I think what makes this work is that the central mystery is so entwined with the elements of horror that one gives rise to the other rather than negating the other. And the final solution, although giving a rational and plausible ending, rather than stripping away horror makes it all the more horrific. That my friends, is not easy to do, and McCloy makes it look easy.

4 – The Perfect Insider – Hiroshi Mori (1996) 

I refer here to the Japanese TV series, created from the book Subete ga F ni Naru (すべてがFになる) literally ‘When Everything Becomes F’. There are some lovely locked room ideas here across this series, and I encourage you to check it out. It does have some knock-about classic Japanese drama moments, but over all you won’t be disappointed. There are disappearing bodies from locked rooms, impossible stabbings in sealed laboratories and each resolution is strong, with some original solutions being thrown at you. I refer for this post to episodes 5 and 6 in the series, titled together Everything Becomes F (although the whole series links together so don’t just watch these two, watch it from the start). I have never been as genuinely scared by a locked room mystery as I was with these two episodes, and the claustrophobic atmosphere and ticking timer keep you on the edge of your seat. An impossible murder in a room which has sealed it’s only occupant for 15 years. The ‘reveal’ of the body is just terrifying, but I’ll leave you to find that out. I’ll be reviewing the whole series soon. You can catch it here, legally streamed, at Crunchy Roll.

5 – The London Eye Mystery – Siobhan Dowd (2008) 

A YA novel no less, and one of the best modern golden age works out there. A boy steps on to the London Eye, his pod is watched the whole time, but when it arrives at the base he has vanished. Why I include this as part of this list is that it simply never stops, there is no dropped line, no superfluous idea, every single element feeds into the building of tension and mystery, and the solution is a cracker. I reviewed this book here and my self and JJ from the Invisible Event interviewed author Robin Stevens, as part of our locked room podcast series, on creating the next in the seres The Guggenheim Mystery. 

6 – Rim Of The Pit – Hake Talbot (1944)

Okay I couldn’t resist giving you one more (in fact as I write I realise this list could keep going and going), the impossibility fest that is Rim Of The Pit. For all it’s faults this book just moves with huge action, which is facilitated by the sheer number of problems that Talbot presents. Impossibility follows impossibility reveals absurdity reveals impossibility and so on, with some of the best cliff hanger chapter endings I have read in a long time. A motley crew of family members are closed into a Canadian log cabin by a fierce snow storm. During their stay they aim to contact the spirit of a dead family member, to ask him a question, but this has terrible results, leading to locked room murders, multiple impossible footprints in the snow, appearing messages and a plethora of side mysteries. It’s the way that Talbot knocks down impossibilities one after the other, while preserving the overarching mystery that gives it its pace. This points forward to claustrophobic thrillers, and backwards to the Sherlockian style of presenting you with fast paced deductions and solutions as you go. We also discussed this with and without spoilers in our locked room podcast which you can listen to here. 

There is of course one glaring omission in this list which I will mention now so that readers don’t start thinking I’ve lost my mind, and that is of course And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie. But we all know this is the fore runner to basically every good thriller ever written, so I wanted to give you a few you might not have devoured yet on your journey. But suffice to say if you haven’t read And Then There Were None, go and do it today, right now.

What are you suggestions for thrilling locked room mysteries and high paced classic detective fiction?

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19 thoughts on “5 Impossible Crime ‘Thrillers’ to try”

  1. Oh dear I’ve only managed to read one from your list, but hey at least it was a Carr lol
    Can’t really think of any other thrilling impossible crime novels, but then I can find some impossibility/locked room murder focused mysteries not as thrilling due to the emphasis on logistics and figuring out dry logical details. Awful thought I know, probably get drummed out of the Bodies from the Library conference now! But I think the ending of Suddenly at his Residence is pretty darn thrilling.

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    1. Which one?! I don’t think you are wrong to point out the dryness of some locked rooms. Some writers get so bogged down with it that they forget to contextualise it in the narrative or as part of the narrative. Again this what Carr, Chesterton and Christie were so good at with their impossibilities is that they developed naturally from the context, or they WERE the context and everything developed from them, so that it feels totally thrilling and encapsulating, even if the set up is totally mad (take The Green Capsule as a perfect example of that.) Therefore they create both slow and fast paced locked rooms that don’t fall into utter dryness as some can.

      And I agree 100% about Suddenly At His Residence, in fact many of brands works you could add to this list just for their endings. But, saying that, as it soften only the endings where the thriller type of pace really gets going I didn’t add her in.

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  2. Till Death Do Us Part has an excellent pace – practically every chapter left me hanging. It’s probably Carr’s best paced book. Several of his other stories contain endings that probably meet the thriller criteria (The Lost Gallows, The Burning Court, The Ten Teacups), but don’t carry that feeling in the earlier parts.

    Hake Talbot’s Rim of The Pit is a sprint from start to finish and is practically exhausting with thrills that never let up.

    I’m tempted to throw Green For Danger out there – although it feels relatively calm for much of the story, a second read shows just how much danger lurks behind each page. Plus, this is near horror territory by the time the second murder occurs, and the double twist of the final showdown is as thrilling as it gets.

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  3. I have to agree with JJ about Theodore Roscoe’s Murder on the Way, which may very well be one of the best examples of the thriller combined with a formal detective story and locked room mystery. You could also mention W. Shepard Pleasants’ The Stingaree Murders, but don’t exactly remember the pace of that book. But it has all the necessary elements and three highly original miracle problems.
    A personal favorite of mine is Michael Gilbert’s Death in Captivity, also known as The Danger Within, in which the action takes place within POW camp during the Second World War. Gilbert drew on his personal experiences as a prisoner of war and has an original impossible situation when a body turns up in a collapsed escape tunnel. Highly recommended.
    John Dickson Carr’s Captain Cut-Throat throws everything into the mix: impossible murders, spies, adventure and one of the most memorable action scenes in all of detective-fiction. Some would argue that all of the elements water each other down a little bit, but that doesn’t make this any less of a great read.
    Ed McBain wrote a classic impossible crime novel, titled Killer’s Wedge, which has one of his policemen investigate an apparent suicide in a locked room, but while he’s away a woman holds his colleagues hostage at the police station with a glass bottle of nitroglycerine.
    Jonathan Latimer was a good, old hardboiled writer who often incorporated impossible problems in his work (e.g. Headed for a Hearse), while Paul Doherty’s books often included a locked room mystery set against the backdrop of historical events, battles and upheavals. For example, A Murder in Thebes is set against the sacking of Thebes and has a clever murder of a man thrown from an open window of a locked tower room that was guarded by a loyal guard dog.
    Hopefully, I added some of the unusual and overlooked suspects to this list.

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    1. Ah, yes, I second the Gilbert and especially the McBain. True, in Killer’s Wedge the thriller element doesn’t come from the locked room at all, but it definitely has a very thrillerish aspect in the other part of the story.

      Noel Vindry’s The Howling Beast has definite gothic thriller overtones, and builds to an insane pitch come the end. That qualifies as well, surely…

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      1. True, in Killer’s Wedge the thriller element doesn’t come from the locked room at all…

        You know, in a way the thriller elements do spring from the locked room, because the hostage situation would not have happened had Carella not been away from the police station to look into that dodgy suicide. Carella was the intended target and the hostage situation was a long, tense wait for him to return from his assignment. So the thriller and locked room elements are linked in that one, but are told as separate stories.

        The Howling Beast absolutely qualifies for this list. You can even add Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles to the list, if you accept the spectral dog as an impossiblity, but, personally, I could never go along with that. Still a great read.

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      2. Killers Wedge is fantastic, and definitely would be great for this list. One of my favourite locked room concepts and solutions. I think the set up for the locked room is pretty chilling, alongside the tension and heat (literally) mounting in the hold up. Definitely doing a part 2, have a few more in my head as well. Always to hard to stick to 5 (6).

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      3. Oh, sure, but you could replace the locked room element with anything else that keeps Carella out of the office and it still works. There’s nothing integral about it being a locked room, which I think it what Dan’s after.

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