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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 Residenceand Tour de Forcebeing 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.
I am excited to announce that the third 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. In this episode I had the great privilege of interviewing JJ himself about his work in bringing back to print the forgotten, locked room master piece Murder On The Way! by Theodore Roscoe.
We talk Roscoe, Haitian voodoo, multiple locked rooms and why its so hard to bring back Golden Age detective works that have slipped into obscurity (spoiler free!). Just press play below to enjoy! The episode can also be downloaded by clicking the download button on the top right. You can listen to all our episodes here.
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?
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 allowsthelocked 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?
In this interview we talk writing locked room mysteries for a modern audience, Robin’s MA in classic crime fiction, female agency in detective fiction and much more. We also discuss Robin’s new book The Guggenheim Mystery which was written as the sequel to Siobhan Dowd’s wonderful impossible crime novel The London Eye Mystery, which I reviewed here.
We hope you get as much insight, intrigue and laughter as we did recording it. Enjoy, and do let me know what you think! (The Podcast can also be downloaded for listening on your devices by clicking the download button on the top right)