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?

 

 

 

 

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Japanese Golden Dozen: Ellery Queen, Intruiging Mysteries from Japan

A magical find from my last London second hand bookshop walk.

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This collection from Ellery Queen catalogues the best detective story writers from Japan at the time of publication. Ellery Queen was the moniker of detective fiction writers and anthologists Frederic Dannay and Manfred Bennington Lee. Published in 1978, Lee had passed away by this time and the back cover shows an image of Dannay. This must have been one of the last big collections Dannay produced as he would also pass away only 4 years later. This copy to my surprise was actually printed in Tokyo by the Charles E. Tuttle company, who are still publishing asian fiction, mystery and poetry. As the title suggests there are 12 short stories in this collection and a lot of hits (and some misses), here are my top 5 in order of appearance in the book:

1 – Too Much About Too Many – Eitaro Ishizawa

This semi-impossible short story reads like a forerunner to Keigo Higashino, and concerns the poisoning of a glass at an end of year office party. 13 suspects on Friday the 13th, but all the suspects speak highly of the victim who was loved by one and all. The chilling denouement makes one think of Agatha Christie’s Endless night.

2 – A Letter From the Dead – Tohru Miyoshi

A columnist for a small town newspaper receives a letter to his office from an anonymous author writing from ‘The River Styx’, saying that they were murdered but no one knew it except them and the murderer. There is a return address and postmark which show upon investigation that the letter was sent after the author had died in an apparent suicide. The columnist tracks down the address and visits the widow, and I thought there was going to be a brilliant locked room set up when she would only speak to him through the letterbox. He passed the letter through the letter box and after a moment she started groaning in pain. But alas she wasn’t dying in impossible circumstances (we can’t have everything) but groaning as she recognised the handwriting as her husband’s, although it seemed impossible. The ending is convincing and satisfying.

3 – Cry from the Cliff – Shizuki Natsuki

This was the absolute crown of the collection. A gorgeously written story which perfectly uses a small cast of characters and beautifully described locations to explore a semi impossible stabbing on a beach cliff. The prose are deceptively spare and have inspired me to seek out more of Natsuki’s books. Only a few of her novels have been printed in English, and I would value hearing from others if you have read any of them. Natsuki has often been called the Agatha Christie of Japan, which she begrudges, and this fascinating interview from 1987 shows how she defied gender traditions to become an author, and that she also wrote all her books out by hand!

4 – The Kindly Blackmailer – Kyotaro Nishimura

An absolutely killer opening where a barber has a strange new customer turn up at his shop, who tells him “I’ll be dropping in here, often”. The mysterious man reveal the barbers name and says that he has knows a lot about him. Then drops the bomb shell: “for instance, I know that three months ago, when you were driving a light truck, you ran into a little kindergarten girl.” Holding out his shaving razor blade, a million thoughts run through the barber’s head, and from here develops a twisty blackmail plot with a bag full of mixed motivations.

5 – No Proof – Yoh Sano

This must be one of the most intriguing ideas for a crime short I have ever read. A team of Japanese business men and women head to the roof of their office block for a celebratory new year group photo. The photographer, a co-worker, pretends to be focusing the camera under a piece of cloth, but is secretly putting on a rubber monkey mask. As he shouts cheese, he jumps from behind the camera, scaring one and all, snapping the photo of their terrified faces. They realise they have been party to a practical joke and are laughing away when one member keels over, dying of a heart attack. His last moment immortalised on photographic film. The question… did the photographer knowingly cause his death, and if so, how on earth can it be proved with any credibility? Over three meetings a cast of police officers and detectives named only officer A,B,C and onwards, wrestle out the many moral and legal twists of the case, the motives of which turn out to be much more complex than they think. Really enjoyed this one, highly original.

How this collection came around is another mystery in itself. Queen in his foreword says that he was asked by the Suedit Cooperation to put this collection together. However I can’t find any information about this company anywhere, and the company name looks strangely un-Japanese. At the end of each story is also a gorgeous hand drawn miniature Illustration, but I couldn’t see any accreditation to the artist.

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Illustrations for: Too Much About Too Many, No Proof, and Cry From The Cliff.

The book explores a lot of uniquely Japanese themes, and it’s slow and social pace are really satisfying once you get into the mysteries, but at the same time some of the stories are too slow paced to hold you. Of the last four pieces, the first three go down the erotic route, and The Vampire by Masako Togawa is definitely not safe for work, or for reading on the train as I was at the time! Although these three stories do speak to the history of erotic literature in Japan and are not badly written. The final story of the collection was just a shade too dark in its comedy for my tastes, but a nice concept.

If you see this on your journeys, grab it, it’s a real Japanese gem.

 

Twain, Hemmingway, Dickens: Crime Writers?

Sometimes I come across a book so curious I have to pick it up. Ellery Queen’s Book of Mystery Stories is just that book. Its very existence is so fascinating I had to write about it.

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Most followers of this blog will know who Ellery Queen is, but if not let me introduce you. Ellery Queen was the moniker of crime fiction writers, editors and anthologists Frederic Dannay and Manfred Bennington Lee. They wrote some 30 novels and short story collections featuring their main character, also named Ellery Queen, a writer and amateur detective who helps his police inspector father solve complex cases. They also had a huge impact on editing and anthologising crime.

This anthology originally published in 1952 under the title ‘The Literature of Crime’ seeks to show, in Queen’s words, that ‘few people realise – few critics, too – that nearly every world-famous author, throughout the entire history of literature has tried his hand at writing the detective or crime story’.

And the list of names in this book is extraordinary. Queen brings together short crime stories from none other than Mark Twain, Ernest Hemingway, Rudyard Kipling, Aldous Huxley, Pearl S. Buck, Walter de la Mare, Charles Dickens, John Steinbeck and Fannie Hurst to name but a few.

What made me pick it up, was the foreword by Queen, in which there are some fascinating facts. For example in discussing Mark Twain Queen says ‘Twain’s writings in the detective-crime field are almost wholly unappreciated’ explaining that Twain wrote over 6 detective stories through his career, and that he was ‘the first writer in history to see the plot possibilities of fingerprints… Yes, both in the short story and the novel… as a means of criminal identification.’ And in Huckleberry Finn, often ranked as one of the top 100 books of all time, Twain wrote in the lady detective Mrs Judith Loftus, who uses the gender norms of the time as to uncovering Finn’s disguise. 

And most fascinatingly: ‘did you know what was book Mark Twain was writing at the time of his death? A mystery novel, entitled Jim Wheeler, Detective.’ Truly wonderful stuff. The unfinished Jim Wheeler manuscript is housed in the New York Public library having never been published, but I guess it would be a frustrating read having no ending.
What I find interesting about this collection is that it shows the complexities of the crime form were not snubbed by some of the world’s most famous authors.