Right. Let’s get back to the inimitable Brooks U. Banner and his impossible escapades. Part one kicked us off with the first half of Commings selected short impossible works, and in this post, I’ll wrap up the collection and drop in a little reflection on the closing piece from another master of the impossible crime, Ed Hoch.
You can read my intro to Commings, his writing practice and the creation of Banner in part one, so, for now, we’ll get straight into it. (And it’s worth noting that the dates given here are taken from the collection and represent the date of publication not the date of writing. I imagine it’s difficult to find out when some of these were written vs the time they were actually able to be printed. So, just to be clear Commings wasn’t writing from beyond the grave in 2004:
Murderers’ Progress (1960) – ★★1/2
A doozy (yes I said doozy) of a setup, in which Banner is tasked by five friends from his secret magic club to solve five impossible ‘murders’ given to him in five envelopes. All in good fun, of course, that is until the murders turn real and Banner needs to pull the strands together quick. A rich tapestry is woven here at the early stages, and Commings makes what should be a ludicrous set up seem totally natural. And the idea of one of the five taking the chance to actually kill others through the game is brilliant and would have made a wonderful novel if Commings has decided to go for it. The problem is that as soon as the murder is there, we don’t see or hear any more of these five crimes and it all falls a bit flat. The impossible set up is great, but in the end very see-through. It relies on an annoying moment which stretches fair play (which was drawn to my attention on Christian’s review), and the solution itself stretches things and will divide rooms I’m sure. In fact this story deserves a bigger discussion about how ludicrous a locked room solution can be, and how context needs to frame extremely well to make something ludicrous seems reasonable, but I digress.
Castanets, Canaries and Murder (1962) – ★★★★
A man is stabbed in the back in a TV studio. He is shooting a scene for an up and coming famous film and the entire event is caught on camera, with the whole stage set in shot. But when the footage is examined no one is seen to come near the man. This story has mixed opinions but I found myself drawn into it (although this has some of the more troubling views of the time). There is a funny thing here that I possibly enjoyed this story more for the fact that I could see what the solution would before it came. There is a technical aspect to the method which I was aware of (aware of it generally, not in regards to this book), which meant that I found it all rather clever.
The X Street Murders (1962) – ★★★
A package is delivered to an office building in –. When the receptionist takes the package into the office of her boss two gunshots ring out. The man is killed, and when the package is opened it contains the still smoking gun that fired the bullets. The package, however, had not been punctured, and the woman was witnessed speaking to her boss by two others. This is Commings most famous story, and you can see why what a cracking set up! I read this one early on in my locked room endeavors – as it’s pretty much the only one that gets a re-print – and in my memory, it shone very brightly. On second read I wasn’t as enamored. It’s pretty convoluted, and some aspects are not as clean as they could be (certain requirements here and there to make things work), and it does leave you asking why anyone would go to all the trouble. But still a classic, and with some of Commings’ most memorable characters.
Hangmans House (1962) – ★★
Banner is stranded in a freak rainstorm and ends up boarding a little bus carrying a few others caught in the rain. The bus fails and they have to pull into an old worn down mansion house, which happens to be owned by one of the other passengers. Madness ensues and that man is soon found dead, hung from the chandelier in the middle of a vast ballroom. A ballroom completely covered in dust with no footprints anywhere to be found. This one is… how to I describe it? Pretty mad? Ridiculous? I can hear Gervase Fen cursing me for damning the use of ‘coincidence’, but it’s too liberal here. And then the solution, I’m battling with it. I read another short not long ago by a Japanese author who used a similar idea, but it worked better because it was an accident. Whereas here, again, there just isn’t a point to the level of work needed to pull this off. This is a story that struggles simply because the impossibility is not contextualised.
The Giants Sword (1963) – ★★★★
This is just solid stuff. Simple, effective, while keeping firmly in the camp of original and fun. An art dealer found to be selling fake works is found dead in his office, with a sword plunged deep into his chest. The only issue is that the sword is so heavy and so large that no one barely had the strength to pick the thing up let alone drive it so deeply into the victim. There are echoes of Chesterton’s The Hammer of God here, but the solution veers in a different direction and is pretty satisfying. Enjoy
Stairway to Nowhere (1979) – ★★
This one is unique in the collection as it’s a collaborative piece written by Commings and another locked room master Ed Hoch. I had high hopes for this one with having both these writers behind the wheel, and Commings and Hoch being such good friends. A woman walks into an apartment to get away from the man who has been pestering her all night. The man outside hears her go up the steps inside, but then her footsteps abruptly stop. He runs in after and she is not to found anywhere, and there is a reliable witness at the top of the winding case that says no one came up. Unfortunately, I thought this story was really awful. Funnily enough, the writing style was so much different with Hoch in, but not for the better, and I felt the solution to the impossibility, although very clean and simple in the idea wasn’t fairly clued, and therefore lost its impact for me. In essence one of those great ideas, not followed through. Christian thinks a little differently about this one, so for a more balanced opinion check out his write up as well.
The Vampire in the Iron Mask (1984) – ★★1/2
It probably speaks volumes to the type of story this is that I can hardly remember what happened. One too many ideas here that everything is a bit muddled. This one should have been a novel really, and you can see Carr doing wonders with it. The general set up, however, is enticing. A masked vampire strangles a young boy in a cemetery covered in untouched snow. The only footprints are leading to the body and back from a mausoleum that has been locked for 100’s of years. When the door is broken down written in the dust of the coffin is the word vampire, even though the dust all around is unbroken (and that’s just two of the many problems presented in this one!) I wish the letters on the coffin had a better solution as I love that as a unique problem.
The Whispering Gallery (2004) ★★★★★
And then Commings brings the heat for the final story of the collection with a tale of multiple impossible shootings, in that each time the bullet whole is examined it is shown that the gunman must have been upside down floating in midair while firing the shot. The slow, creeping setup, the macabre setting, and cast (complete with fortune teller) and the absolute audacity if the solution is another room divider but I enjoyed it. The solution is also very nicely and interestingly clued, and visual device of which is used in one of my favorite Jonathan Creek episodes.
The collection ends with a sweet and poignant memoir written by Commings close friend and locked room master Ed Hoch. It reveals post-war how Commings was developing a locked room mystery collection and Hoch submitted a story to it and this would have been Hoch’s first ever sale. Unfortunately, the collection was rejected and this seemed to become a theme for Commings, not because of bad writing but for some reason a few key publishers had taken a disliking to the Banner character. Commings could never get into Ellery Queen’s mystery magazine, and very interestingly in Hoch’s landmark anthology All But Impossible, which contains the famous locked room top 15 list of which myself and JJ concentrated three podcast episodes on, originally had a Commings short story, but it was the only one rejected by the publisher. Hoch states that Commings was very ill by this point and so never told him that it had been dropped.
To everyone’s surprise, Commings then went on to produce a series of soft-core sex novels in the ’60s and ’70s (one of which had a bank robbery but which Hoch tells us ‘wasn’t primarily a crime novel’… I bet it wasn’t!). If there were tensions around printing the Banner stories my guess is that they may have been around Banner’s old-time sexist chatter, which may be revealing itself further in these erotic novels? But sexism and eroticism in literature don’t necessarily go hand in hand, and the rest of the stuff getting printed by these magazines wasn’t really any better, so who knows?
A stroke in 1971 meant that his writing days were done, and at this point, Hoch managed to sell their collaborative effort Stairway to Heaven to Mike Shaine’s Mystery Magazine, who then ironically asked for more unpublished Banner works and they continued to print them. In 1992 Commings passed away.
This is a precious little collection and a great piece of work from Crippen and Landru. There is so much to love here and to simply enjoy. If you have the same luck I had and find a copy, grab it as quick as you can.