The Short Stories of Edmund Crispin – Part 1: The Early Works

I have said this many times but I do believe that Edmund Crispin in a totally underrated writer of the golden age of detection. Crispin had some striking ideas in his work, marking many of his stories out as original. And there is no better way to see the most complex and nuanced of these ideas that in his short stories.

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This is going to be the first in a two parter where I look at Crispin’s collections of short stories, both at the start of his writing life and at the end. Originally published in 1953, almost 10 years into Crispin’s mystery writing career, Beware of the Trains catalogues a selection of 16 of the best of Crispin’s short works mostly containing his series detective, Oxford Don, Gervaise Fen. I love this 70’s yellow covered Gollancz copy I have, which I found tucked away on a old book stall that used to run from Spitalfields Market in central London.

For most of these stories, the mystery, plot and solution hangs on a single, intricate idea. It feels here as if Crispin here had so many of these deceptively simple, little ingenious gems that hadn’t found their way into a novel, so he gave them a short story in which to explore their possibilities. It’s this cleverness, and the pushing of one idea to the limit which makes his short works stand apart. They are not just detective works made short, but act as small essays or experiments on the structures and framing devices of detective fiction.

Every story in here I regard highly, so I have chosen my top 5 to wet your appetite. (But you know me by now and my renegade ways, I may even go past 5). Without further ado:

1 – Beware Of The Trains 
The opening story, and one of Crispin’s more famous shorts which concerns how the driver of the titular train impossibly disappears from the driver’s seat between stations. I have read this on a number of occasions, and this time round it really struck me how brilliant it is. There are some lovely tricks here, encased in lush, economic scene description and effortlessly comedic writing, showing off all of Crispin’s skills with flair.

2 – Express Delivery  
A case of who shot who, and why. Eve Crandall sits in the garden of her well to do big game shooting, aunt and uncle’s property. The aunt arrives home to find a gun missing from the cabinet and rushing round to the garden sees James, Eve’s nephew, poised hidden in the garden ready to shoot his cousin. He fires, catching Eve on the side of the head, but not killing her. The Aunt whipping a gun from her pocket, shoots the cousin. It all happens in a moment, but what was a set up, and what wasn’t, and what was the motive for any of it? A super original story idea, a beautiful resolution and the amount of false solutions in such a short time makes this story stand out a mile.

3 – A Pot Of Paint
I am tentative in saying this, but this short story is possibly my favourite short crime story ever written. For me it’s a perfect example of everything that the detective genre can be. In just over six pages Crispin weaves the tale of a jeweller who is knocked out and robbed by an unknown assailant outside the front of his country house while painting the fence. There are four characters, one location, and from the single clue of the titular pot of paint, Fen works out who the assailant was and what happened. I have read this so many times and every time I am blown away.

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The full contents 

4 – Black For A Funeral 
If I was placing a top three of this top five this story be in there, and amounts to a ingenious semi-impossible crime that I wasn’t aware that Crispin had written until finding this collection. The body of adventure story writer Mr Derringer is found beaten to death at the gates of his country home. A ladies man (and often married ladies), there is no shortage of suspects, but there is one problem. He took a train into London for a ‘posh dinner’ that day, and on the way back stopped at a station to talk to a porter friend. But according to the timings, it was impossible for him to have made it back from the station to his home in time to be bludgeoned to death, unless someone had driven him. But there is no sign of the car, and the one road that leads to his property has on it a level crossing, the gate-keeper of which claims that no vehicle or person of any kind had travelled that way all night.

5 – The Name On The Window 
Simply one of the best impossible crime shorts going, another flawless piece of mystery writing. An architect is found dead in an forgotten 18th century pavilion, and there are only the victims footprints in the thick dust. Again the workings are based around a single, ingenious idea, the name written in the dust on the window. This also has a modernist style reference to the ‘locked room lecture’ by John Dickson Carr, who was the writer that got Crispin into writing detective fiction.

6 – Dead Lock
This story is the longest of the collection and is written from the perspective of a child, not something that always works (you can read my last post about when that device isn’t used well), but in this case it’s authentic without being overwhelming, and plays a key role in how the story fits together, subtly acting as a coming of age story. It concerns the murder of another ladies man, found beaten and drowned in the local lock of a small canal. This being a stand alone, non Gervaise Fen mystery, there is a lovely cockney accented and unassuming detective, whose affability pulls the rug out from under the suspects feet. There is some very clever use of bloodstains and body positioning to wrap the tendrils of the mystery together.

I implore you to find this collection if you can, it is well worth the money. Next post: the later works.

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Mr Splitfoot: Helen McCloy (1968)

Psychologist, and consultant to the DA’S office Basil Willing, and his wife Gisela are travelling in New England for a skiing holiday when a vicious snow storm cut’s off their journey. Sliding along on perilously icy mountainside roads, there car breaks down and they take to their skis to find help at the nearest town. When Gisela slips in the snow storm and breaks her ankle, they are forced to seek help at the nearest house they can find in this remote landscape.

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I love this old edition I found in London. Paper back with red pages.

They receive a strange welcome at a place called Crow’s Flight, where a party of guests are having a not altogether peaceful family gathering. The snow coming down so hard there are all stuck together for the night, but the house being full there are apparently no spare rooms to offer the Willings. That is until one unthinking member of the party offers the room at the top of the stairs. But, of course, that room has been locked for years, as many moons ago it was the sight of three, horrific and demonic impossible deaths. Anyone who stayed in the room over night was subsequently found dead the next morning. With no marks to be found on the bodies, from the conditions of the corpses the doctors at the time could only say one thing, that these people had died from fright. The horror story has clearly had an effect on many of the family, particularly 15 year old Lucinda. A few suggest that the only way to break this curse is for someone to stay in the room overnight. Casting lots, one goes in, with a book to keep themselves awake, and bell to ring incase of trouble. The door is watched the entire time from the bottom of the stairwell. And no one can enter from any other side. But when that bell inevitably rings what the others find is scary to say the least.

The first thing that I’ll say about this book is that I am glad I had a break before writing about it. I actually read this book a few weeks back, and since then it has grown on me more and more. I am realising that McCloy has a subtlety of writing that in many ways only makes sense upon reflection, after it has a chance to settle. This writing style won’t be to everyones taste (what writing style would?) but this is certainly a book that has grown on me the more I reflect on it.

And when McCloy hits her stride in Mr Splitfoot, she hits it hard. The best parts show off what she was really good at: horror, atmosphere and character, alongside wonderful clewing and misdirection. The set up of the historical impossible murders and the subsequent present day one is pure terror. This is one of those books that you shouldn’t read late at night, or you’ll be seeing things in every shadow.

However, there are few times in this book where McCloy’s subtlety gives way to a dragging pace of writing. This is for a number of reasons. Firstly a large amount of the book is written from the perspective of the 15 year old girl Lucinda. This is surprisingly authentic and believable, Lucinda’s rambling thought processes really feel like a 15 year old brain. The problem is that these authentically meandering reflections make these sections terribly slow going. Pace and atmosphere is lost in the rambling thoughts of the teenage mind. McCloy ironically does herself a disservice in pacing by authentically observing a young character.

In this same context is the misplaced use of psychological reflection in the narrative. I don’t mean that a detective novel or impossible crime story should not have these kinds of psychological angles, but it’s that the novel that McCloy is giving us doesn’t seem to require them. Basil Willing is of course a psychologist and in Cue for Murder, which I read an reviewed last year, there are incredibly intelligent and understated discussions on psychology, and the mind of the killer. And why they acted the way that they did is worked in a totally natural way that forwards and develops the plot, and therefore the solution. With Mr Splitfoot however, this just isn’t a psychological murder case, McCloy just doesn’t give us that. Instead she gives us impossibility butting head to head with horror, within a classic manor house/who-dun-it frame work, and does it well. Therefore the psychological reflections, feels lost, and heavy-handed, slowing the book down again.

I think this book would have worked much better as a stand alone work, without a detective, or with a local officer on the case instead. And the claustrophobia she paints would have been more believable and impactful if we just had this small cast of characters without an outsider coming in.

The final thing that makes elements of this book drag is McCloy’s propensity to over explain clothes, rooms and furniture. She does set a scene very well, and has a deft way with descriptive verse. But, for example, there is a section in the centre of the book when things are hotting up and Willing finds himself in the house of a nearby neighbour. The difference in class from one house to other is explored through the description of the furniture, but oh man you just want to get moving forward! The subsequent scene then acted out is not exciting enough to balance out against the lengthy description.

However, the locked room, and the solution to the impossible death I really liked. In the ranks of ‘rooms that kill’ or ‘rooms where you always die’ this one is up there for me. What takes the solution to the next level, and again this shows McCloy at her best, is that not only is it brutal, and horrific, but the revelation fit’s in totally with the plot, with the atmosphere, and with the nature of the killer. A terrifying method to an equally terrifying book.

So when all is said and done here, Mr Splitfoot has a huge amount going for it, and I would recommend putting in on your to-be-read pile. I look forward to reading more of her oeuvre to see what she was capable of. But there are certainly those dragging moments in this book. It may be to your taste, it may not, but the reader is warned!

 

The Men Who Explain Miracles – Episode 4 (part 3): The top 5 locked room mysteries of all time?

It is with great joy that I announce that the third podcast episode of myself and JJ’s deconstructed look at the so called top 15 locked room mysteries of all time, is online for your listening pleasure. You can listen to it right here.

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A little late to the game here as it has been online since Saturday 24th, but a bout of illness has kept me away from the blog, can you ever forgive me!?

The locked room novels in question for this episode are:

The Judas Window (1937) by Carter Dickson
The Crooked Hinge (1938) by John Dickson Carr
The Mystery of the Yellow Room (1907) by Gaston Leroux
Rim of the Pit (1944) by Hake Talbot
The Hollow Man, a.k.a. The Three Coffins (1935) by John Dickson Carr

There has been some wonderful and full hardy discussion over at JJ’s blog so do go and check it out.

Enjoy!

The Men Who Explain Miracles – Episode 4: The top 15 locked room mysteries of all time (part 1)

It is with pleasure that I announce that the forth and a very special episode of our locked room mysteries podcast The Men Who Explain Miracles is now online. Started by myself and JJ of The Invisible Event, the series explores locked room mysteries and impossible crime fiction.

You can listen to the episode over at JJ’s blog here

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This episode is the first in a three parter exploring the (so called) top 15 locked room mysteries of all time. This list, compiled by Ed Hoch in 1981, was created when Hoch asked 17 experts to give there suggestions for what would be the best of the best of impossible crimes.

Over the next three weeks we are going to look at all of them. 5 books per episode, all spoiler free, to see if they stand up to the test of time, and if these really are the top 15. You can see the full list here at Mystery File.

This episode we discuss:

Invisible Green (1977) by John Sladek
Too Many Magicians (1967) by Randal Garrett
He Wouldn’t Kill Patience (1944) by Carter Dickson
Through a Glass, Darkly (1950) by Helen McCloy
The King is Dead (1952) by Ellery Queen

To hear previous episodes of The Men Who Explain Miracles you can visit our sound cloud here (while we work to transfer everything over to WordPress). Enjoy, and join you over at JJ’s blog for debate and discussion galore!

 

 

 

The Death of ‘Death in Paradise’ – The BBC mystery series that has truly been murdered.

One of my most popular blog posts has been a piece I wrote in early 2017 about the award winning, view rating smasher, exotic-come-bumbling British crime drama Death in Paradise. In that piece I looked at how its diverse representation of mixed gender and strong well written BAME (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic) characters, alongside wonderful plotting and original crime ideas made the series a real hit, and one to watch for fans of crime fiction.

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The new team

But, this was at the end of season 5, and I am sad to say that since then and particularly with the most recent series, everything that I praised about this programme has been totally reversed. And it is unbelievably shocking.

Let’s start with Race. Each episode has the main cast of the Saint Marie police force, and then the selection of characters who will be involved in the murder investigation. In this cast of suspects is where the series used to take BAME representation and gender balance very seriously, most importantly portraying BAME characters as normal people, and not making them stereotypes of their race or giving them stories that were only about race and nothing else. It was bold and exciting writing, bringing a diverse cast into millions of people’s homes each week. Even winning them awards for diversity. But things have changed horribly.

As I write this we are midway through season 7, and (get ready for this) in the first 3 episodes, nearly half the series, that entire cast of characters are totally white. How is it possible that a series that is set in the Caribbean can have no black characters for its first 3 episodes? What on earth are they thinking? The crimes explored have mainly become about the problems of a white elite that can afford to holiday, own multiple hotels, or lead poker tournaments on the island.

Now I may hear you say that the programme still has its diverse main cast. 3 out of the 4 are black and all non-British. However, the issue is now that the rich character development, tensions and cultural explorations that were dealt with through the main cast in the early series have all been gutted out. The main cast are as cardboard as possible, the black characters being now of mainly fairly low intelligence, only able to do desk work, and seemingly unsure of anything until the white detective amazingly explains it to them, and they are slowly becoming parodies.

We get to episode 4 of this series 7, and we do get to a black cast of characters. However, the major problem here, is that they are given stereotypical ‘black roles’. They are crazy Christian faith healers, and American pentecostal preachers. This is a major issue, as we go again towards the terrible idea that holds so much of our televisual output in this country: that only things about ‘race’ or about ‘black culture’ happen to people of colour, and everything else happens to white people.

The gender balance still remains high, with a mixture represented on screen, but a similar problem occurs here as with racial representation, let me give you an example.  Florence Cassell, right hand woman to both D.I Goodman (of series 3-6) and D.I Mooney of the current series, has become so thin a character as to seemingly have no thoughts of her own. She is written to stand around, asking what is going on, and watching D.I Mooney do everything for her. Then in a recent episode she had the role of chasing a suspect and grabbing them, both of them falling into the water. This caused a spate of write ups calling patronisingly calling her an ‘action woman’. The co-detective before her, Camille Bordey, was a fully rounded, complex and fiery character, who actually did detection. Having a full character, Camille was never called out and lifted up for one specific thing that she did in an episode, but Florence is written so vaguely that when she does one thing (running once in an episode) she gets the patronising name of ‘action woman’, seemingly because she has done nothing else before that or since.

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The classic duo – D.I Poole and D.S Camille Borday

All of this is down to bad writing. This show used to have a gorgeous set of character relationships, with the simple but brilliant premise of an Englishman forced to solve crimes in the sun, and everything that built from that culturally and racially was genius. But now any tension is totally lost. Those who take up the detective role at this point just enjoy being there. They don’t seem to suffer from any tensions apart from some food being too spicy, or a drink being odd, and everyone gets along. And if they don’t it’s because of some extremely base misunderstandings of each others cultures. Like for example in episode three of series 7 where poor Florence can’t possibly understand the idea of the ‘Desert Island Discs’ radio show: “Why would you be thinking about what music you are listening to, you need to survive if you are stuck on an island alone”– I mean please.

And the most tragic of all, for a detective series is the mysteries themselves. What used to be a wonderfully written show, with clear links to the great books of the past, without over stating, and using the best aspects of the genre in a new context were what made series 1 and 2 so wonderful to watch. Now the whole programme has the level of detective writing that you would expect to find in a do-it-yourself murder mystery box that you order for a birthday party.

The crimes used to link so well to the context built, and evolve naturally out of a situation (take the series masterpiece ‘Predicting Murder’, from series 1 as a perfect example), but now it seems that a writer has had a cool idea they want to get out and have then written a ridiculously convoluted and weak set up in which to show that idea off. Take for example, episode 2 of the current series 7 The Stakes are High, where there is seemingly no reason for the killer to create a highly complex and risky murder when they could have bumped off the victim at anytime they liked elsewhere. The ideas, context, motives and clues just don’t stack up, and nothing gels, leaving you covering your eyes in despair.

Take also episode 1 of series 7 Murder From Above, (penned by Robert Thorogood, the series creator, writer of some of the best episodes of the programme, and an actual authority on detective fiction and who therefore should know better.) This episode sees a woman commit suicide by jumping from the balcony of her room locked from the inside. But DI Moony thinks it’s murder. Why? Because the victim left the lid slightly off of her nail varnish and had only painted her thumb nail. How does he convince us as the audience that this small clue means murder? Well he just tells us that’s what it means of course! DI.Mooney (and I paraphrase here) points to the victims bed where there are some shirts folded up neatly and says “no, she would never have left the lid off of her nail varnish, look she is an extremely neat person, this doesn’t make sense.” This represents the worst kind of writing in detective fiction, where the writer simply tells us what things mean, and that they could have no possible other meaning or function – aside from the fact that a folded shirt on one occasion doesn’t make you a neat person, or a hotel maid could have folded them, or someone else etc etc etc.

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But only her thumb nail had been painted!

I could go on and on but you get the point. It’s this kind of poor writing that was satirised in books like The Poisoned Chocolates Case by Anthony Berkely back in 1929!

“Don’t waste time on unessentials. Just tell the reader very loudly what he’s to think, and he’ll think it all right. You’ve got the technique perfectly, Why don’t you try your hand at it? It’s quite a paying game, you know.”  (Poisoned Chocolates Case, Anthony Berkley, 1929) 

Other than these murderous writing problems, the general dialogue and delivery is so wooden, full of ‘telling’ rather than ‘showing’, with endless stretching out of the most simple concepts that it is actually cringe inducing. I had to take breaks in watching the 3rd and 4th episode in particular because the writing was so poor. The actors (and there are some great ones in the series) fed this terrible dialogue, sound like they are reading their lines from cards next to the camera.

Why does this all frustrate me so much? Well I am of course a fan of detective fiction. When I see a chance that the form may get solid representation, with possible new takes on the genre, not to mention all the other great points about inclusion that this show can bring up, then it’s super exciting. But Death In Paradise now represents why many people think detective fiction is so poor, unintelligent, weak, unliterary and not worth their time. And for a programme that pulls in more viewers than ever (8.79 million for episode 1 of series 7), it’s a tragedy that this is what most people will believe detective fiction is.

It’s so sad to see something that once had such credibility in every area, become the most empty and conservative parody of itself. I implore any readers to go back and watch an episode from series 1 or 2 against this series, it’s like watching two entirely different shows. I want to say there is still a chance that it could pick up again. But unfortunately, I already know that it’s too late. At least I can go back to the days of D.I Pool and Camille Borday, but I know that we cannot have them back again.

 

Reflections on Impossibilities Through Foreign Bodies (British Library 2017) – Ideas Towards a ‘Locked Room Decalogue’

There has been some great stuff in the bloggersphere the past few weeks. After reading the incisive review by JJ of one Ellery Queen’s problematic locked rooms The Chinese Orange Mystery and the brilliant deconstruction of SS Van Dine’s Twenty Rules for Writing Detective Stories by Noah, they got me thinking: do locked room mysteries need  a different set of ‘rules’ than the average golden age detective story? Are there narrative tools that need to be applied to make a locked room mystery story really work?

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This has set me on the slightly gargantuan task of beginning to create a my own ‘decalogue’ for locked room mysteries. The decalogue I of course reference here is that created by Ronald Knox in 1929. Father Ronald Knox, writer of some wonderful mystery novels and short stories of the Golden age, came up with a set of 10 rules (or a decalogue) for writing detective stories. This famed list was very much tongue in cheek, but was a challenge to the writers of his generation to write better, and has lasted the test of time. You can see the list here at Thrilling Detective. But rather than diving straight in to try and create a possible ‘ten rules for writing locked room mysteries’ (a rather presumptuous task in many ways), I want to begin wrestling with some ideas, with suggestions from you lot, and this post aims to start that.

The other thing that got me thinking about all this was recently completing Foreign Bodies, an anthology of international detective stories, brought together by golden age aficionado Martin Edwards, and published as part of the British Library Crime Classics collection. Foreign Bodies contains a number of locked room shorts, which touch on different aspects of what makes a locked room mystery work (or not work as the case may be). I’ll use these selected impossible crimes from Foreign Bodies to draw out some ideas about what I think makes a great locked room mystery, on the way towards creating some kind of decalogue of my own in the near future.

Wow!! With that massive introduction/caveat over lets dive into it.

1 –  A Locked Room scenario should flow naturally out of the world created by the author
(Venom of the Tarantula by Sharadindu Bandyopadhyay)

I have been talking about this a lot lately and mainly because I have been disappointed by the lack of this in so many modern and golden age locked room mysteries. Too often I have seen impossible crimes used as a crude tack on; or that the author seems to have created a nice idea for a problem, but then created a terrible story around it just to facilitate the idea. Ellery Queen’s The King Is Dead (which I have just dragged myself through) is a perfect example of that. I think this rule goes for the solution as well. When an author creates a world in which the impossible crime can naturally emerge, or fit in with the narrative, it’s a wonderful moment, which drives the power of the impossibility. And although you are providing a rational ending to your impossibility, if it can relate to the context at hand, and fit in with world created then it’s a total winner

In Venom of the Tarantula, a sweetly composed Indian impossible crime short, the aged, sickly and foul-mouthed Nandadulalbabu, bed bound and surrounded by a constant stream of witnesses, now dedicated t the process of writing poor erotic fiction, is some how able to ingest ‘spider juice’, a deadly poison that in small amounts gives the addict a rush of nervous energy. His doctor doesn’t know how he gets his hands on it, as everything and everyone that goes in and out of the room are watched. Nandadulalbabu challenges the doctor and his family to find out how he does it. This situation could sound absolutely ridiculous, but here is where my point comes in: Bandyopadhyay sets up the scene and characters in a way that means that it feels like this is exactly the kind of thing that would happen, and it’s also exactly the kind of way those people would act, therefore naturally creating this impossible scenario.

2 – Be creative with the set up, clewing and denouement, especially if the locked room is technical.    
(The Stage Box Murder by Paul Rosenhayn)

As many locked room mysteries can be (sometimes necessarily) complex, and in particular need of a strong mental image (and a map in some cases), if one can use unique and exciting methods of delivering the information this strengthens an impossibility no end. In The Stage Box Murder, both the set up and denouement are pretty involved – a man is stabbed in a locked and watched theatre box – but the whole narrative is delivered as two people writing letters to one another. This style allows Rosenhayn to deliver what could be clunky exposition with a natural edge as (again with point one) it’s flowing as it would, naturally, in that type of letter writing and in that context.

These kind of clever and creative tools don’t have to just be used with the overall format  (and can be used very badly – I’m looking at you again The King is Dead) but can be used in plotting, clewing, character and motive also. For example clues can be laced within scene description and the atmosphere of the mystery (as Carr does so beautifully) which then has the amazing meta-effect of both charging and developing the world of the book, while also pointing at the solution and the motivation for the impossibility.

3 – Taking clues and making them maddening, by making them oblique.
(The Cold Nights Clearing by Keikichi Osaka)

Maddening clues, like why someone took 30 minutes to complete there routine journey home rather than 15 (just to pluck an example from Foreign Bodies at random) are of course vital to all types of golden age detective fiction. But the maddening clue in a locked room is super important to the building of atmosphere and mystery because it’s a how-done-it. We are not just trying to decode a clue to work out who the killer is or their motive, but also to find out how on earth they achieved it. So then, when the clue is made heavily oblique, and by that I mean so seemingly left field and unrelated to the problem at hand (a low wattage lightbulb in the wrong packet, why a £5 note is ripped in a certain place, and why someone would fire a blank gun into a wall – just to again pick a few favourites at random from some of the best locked rooms mysteries ever), it adds to the maddening world that is already being created by the impossible crime. If used well, and linked both to the impossibility and the character of the killer (a real challenge), it makes the solution all the more delicious.

In The Cold Nights Clearing the wonderfully obscure clue of why a the lid from a cardboard box is wet (in an otherwise dry and warm room), is one key to a vanishing killer.

4 – Totally subverting the idea of a locked room itself as a way to create an original problem.  
(The Mystery of the Green Room by Pierre Véry)

Sometimes you come across a story with such a clever and brilliantly executed idea it makes you laugh. Véry here takes the whole idea of a classic locked room, as provided by The Mystery of the Yellow Room by Gaston Leroux, and turns it on its head. In The Green Room, a thief has every opportunity to go into a room and steal priceless items, that they knew about in advance, but they don’t take it. There were no doors watched, locked or otherwise, and no blocks to the room, but the burglar didn’t go in. Why? The detective of Véry’s story then calls the whole thing an ‘open-room mystery’, and the whole story runs in total parallel, right down to the villain, to the The Mystery of the Yellow Room. If you haven’t read Yellow Room, don’t read this first! It totally spoils everything! But this story is a little masterpiece so read Yellow Room so you can get to this, and vice-versa.

5 – The reason for why the crime is impossible, must be as satisfying as the solution to how it was done. 

I don’t have a story to reference for this one, but I couldn’t leave it at 4, not rounded up, I’m not some kind of mad man. This rule I think can be the making or breaking of an great locked room mystery. Many times have I come to a great impossible problem that in the end is so flimsy on the reason to why it exists that it serves to totally negate the power of the impossibility.

The recent episodes of Death In Paradise series 7 (oh how the mighty fallen!) are perfect examples of this going terribly wrong. Impossible problems are used to create a ‘hook’ at the outset, but then by the denouement are deemed to be totally unnecessary. By that I mean, that the killer is going to incredible lengths to pull of an impossible poisoning or a faked suicide attempt (to choose the first two episodes of DIP as an example) when they could have just shot or stabbed them on the beach, or poisoned their drink or food at anytime. With this rule ignored the impossibilities become the equivalent of click bait, used to create an interesting starting point, but actually have no bearing on the motive, and the reason why it all happened. We are then just expected to believe as the audience that someone would go to ludicrous lengths for absolutely no reason apart from the writer trying to show off some clever idea they came up with.

So where would you start with your rules for the perfect locked room mystery? Do you agree with these ones?

 

 

 

 

The Red Pavilion – Robert van Gulik: (1964) 

The Mysteries of the hard hitting Chinese magistrate Judge Dee were penned by Dutchman Robert van Gulik from 1950 through to 1968. Placed as Dutch ambassador to the Chinese government during the second world van Gulik stumbled across a copy of the anonymous Chinese detective work Di Goong An. This book fictionalised the exploits of the real Chinese magistrate Judge De Renjie who lived from 630-700 AD in Tang Dynasty China, and who was considered a great detective. So taken was van Gulik with this book that he translated it into English and then began his own set of fictional mysteries based in part on the real life cases of Judge Dee.

My first encounter with Judge Dee and van Gulik was almost exactly a year ago at the beginning of my blogging life when I read The Chinese Gold Murders, a locked room poisoning that I very much enjoyed. Now having read a second van Gulik work I am getting more excited to explore the whole series. There is something very lucid, striking and believable about van Gulik’s writing. The scene setting, plotting and characterisation allow you to rest into the narrative, and it feels like if this were a TV series it would be very easy to joyfully binge watch.

The Red Pavilion is another of van Gulik’s locked room works, containing not just one but three locked room problems, albeit in the same room. Judge Dee is travelling back to his home province when he must make a stop off at the fictional walled city of Paradise Island. A heaving, tourist metropolis, filled to the brim with gambling halls, brothels and sordid activity. However, when he meets the local magistrate – a clearly quite incompetent and ever so slightly corrupt official – he is forced into helping close up a ‘routine’ case. A simple suicide of a young academic in the bedroom of a high end boarding house known as The Red Pavilion. A sliced throat, barred window and a thick door with large metal key on the inside seems to make it a open and shut suicide. But when a famous courtesan dies in the same room the next day locked from the inside, with only strange markings on her body, and another suicide in the locked room from 30 years prior comes to light, Judge Dee has the task of solving three murders, all with a vanishing assailant.

A creepy introduction kicks off this book nicely and we are rapidly presented with a memorable cast. As we go through the complex ties of the plush and silicious city, van Gulik gives us an insight into the more sordid entertainment of Tang Dynasty China. The three locked rooms are then satisfyingly weaved into the plot; one necessitates, motivates or complicates the other. The murders work in both an immediate and historical timeline, with the 30 year gap from the first locked room to the second and third providing depth and richness to the plot with past grievances relating to the present ones.

The impossibilities are also, importantly, born out of the historical Chinese context that is so well set by van Gulik. This is something I bang on about a lot but I believe is so important: it really works when the impossibility naturally arises from the context the writer has created or is exploring, rather than used as a gimmicky tack on, or something seemingly unrelated to what’s going on elsewhere in the narrative. And van Gulik handles this with flair.

There is a strong respect and love for the culture at hand in and the historical knowledge is clear. You get a well crafted sense of the context without it feeling overbearing or over explained. There are also a number of well placed comical moments through the book, the double act of ‘The Shrimp’ and ‘The Crab ‘being particularly memorable characters.

Some lovely clues set early on come back to haunt you by the reveal, and the whole plot has a solid disclosure. As with The Chinese Gold Murders, van Gulik packs this mystery to the brim with events, giving you a huge amount of information in a very short space of time (170 pages) without it ever feeling like you are loosing your way. And with this book, more than Chinese Gold, there is a Carrian style level up on clewing going on, in that clues are not only set in the dialogue or within the instances that take place between characters, but also in the atmosphere and scene description. Some subtle scenic pointers come to bear on the final solution in a satisfying way.

By the end we are not presented with one solution to the locked rooms, but three. One was an absolute classic that I should have seen coming a mile off but the way it was presented still got me and had me kicking myself. The other two were unique twists fitting solidly into the context of the room itself that I think were very satisfying.

My criticisms? I do love the character of Judge Dee, but there is more than one occasion where a scene runs something like: “I wish I could see the pattern”, he paced the room and suddenly the pattern came to him. You know the kind of thing I mean, you wish you were partaking in the deduction rather than being told its happening in a characters head. Dee’s reasoning does come to the fore at the end, but its usually post-rationalisation (if I can use that term); he’s already worked it out and you are presented with the links. This book is still fair play for sure, but sometimes I wish I could walk alongside Dee rather than watch him from a distance.

In saying that I do realise that not every GAD writer wants a detective who reveals there process. I have seen that for example in the Inspector Cockrill mysteries of Christianna Brand – Suddenly at His Residence and Tour de Force being good examples – where Cockrill is very much in the background, along with his deductions, and therefore the reasonings of the rest of the cast are what makes up the ‘detection’ of the novel. Brand cleverly uses emotional responses and ‘lay’ deductions from characters as a way of clewing and building plot (man she is good!) But that isn’t really seen here with van Gulik. It does make me wonder, as van Gulik was so committed to the Gong’an writing style that this could be a stylistic choice note redolent of those early Chinese works? I need more expert input here (I’m looking at you Ho Ling and Tom Cat).

When it comes to the women in the book I wish it could sometimes be a little less historically accurate. The buying, selling and sexualisation of women is potent (it is a brothel town after all), but there are some good female characters, and over all the book exists as a critique on the fickle world of gambling and prostitution, particularly through Judge Dee whose fixed morality hits out against these practices. There is a reflection on the fleeting nature of beauty, and on how one may find love within these moral complexities.

If you see a van Gulik on your travels whip it up, particularly his locked room works. He has a lovely handle in these complex mysteries which is very satisfying to watch unfold.