5 More Impossible ‘Thrillers’ to Try (Part 2)

In my last post I gave a list of 5 brilliant locked room mysteries from the golden age of crime fiction, or written in the golden age mould, that work as for runners to the ‘thriller’ genre. Page turning mysteries that never hold up on the pace.

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But as with all lists picking out just 5 was too difficult, and so many great books got missed out. So I thought why miss out, let’s do some more! So here are another 5 thrilling, high paced, page turning impossible crime works, to add to your list:

1 – Murder on the Way – Theodore Roscoe (1935)

Published originally as a serial under the title ‘The Grave Must Be Deep’ this is an absolutely rip-roaring mélange of impossible madness. Locked room shootings, lead to hovering guns, lead to impossible vanishings, lead to being buried alive, lead to a woman impossibly healed after being shot in the head, and that’s just a small selection of the book’s mysteries. Constant threat and a brilliant ticking-clock-set-up give this book it’s furious pace, and the maddening claustrophobia of being stuck in one house on one island (pre-Agatha Christie) make this into a perfect example of an early thriller. It is also a book of firsts: set in Haiti it must be one of the earliest golden age crime novels to have a totally mixed race cast, with most of the main characters being black, it is also one of the very first Zombie novels – not the kind of Zombie we know today, but in it’s original Haitian origins – and it opens with the phrase ‘funny queer not funny ha-ha’ which is original to Roscoe, and which thanks to him is now an everyday part of the English language. This book will be the subject matter of our next Men Who Explain Miracles podcast as my fellow podcaster and blogger JJ went on an amazing journey himself getting this book pack into publication.

2 – Captain Cut-Throat – John Dickson Carr

Set in 1805, during the assault by Napoleon on Britain, this is a stand alone Carr and is part impossible crime work, part spy novel and part historical thriller. A silent, invisible killer known as ‘Captain Cut-Throat’, with the ability to to kill without being seen is knifing sentries in the Napoleon’s vast battle-camp poised to sail on England.

Not being hugely drawn to historical works per-se I was totally surprised by this book. The natural flow of the narrative, and the tension built by Carr with every plot point meant that I couldn’t put it down. The impossible angle is played down but gives rise to everything that follows and creates terror among the sentries that makes for a brilliant sense of hysteria throughout. There are some of the best written scenes in any Carr book here, just for the their sheer pace and the depth of the contextual framework.

3 – The Judas Window – John Dickson Carr – as Carter Dickson (1938)

I am honestly trying not to have majority Carr works here, but he has so many good examples what can I say? He isn’t called the master of the locked room for nothing. The Judas Window is hailed as one of Carr’s best, and there is very good reason for that. I also think it’s another of his most thrilling. James Answell arranges to visit his future father-in-law, Avory Hume, at his London home. Hume pours drinks for the both of them in his strong room, fitted with metal shutters on the windows and a huge wooden door with sliding bolts. But after a few sips Answell begins to lose consciousness, finally passing out, his drink being drugged. When he wakes Hume is dead, stabbed with an trophy arrow taken from the back wall. Only Answell and Hume are in the room, and only Answell’s finger prints are on the arrow, all the windows and doors being locked from the inside. Answell says he is innocent and the only one who believes him is the magnanimous Sir Henry Merrivale.

The reason I add this one to the list is for the peril in which Answell finds himself, with the ticking clock of his arrest and impending trial in court, the closing chapters of which have to be one of the best and most fast paced court room drama’s there are. I was literally racing to the end to finish it on my first read.

4 – The Tokyo Zodiac Murders – Soji Shimada (1981)

Another master work from the land of the rising sun. A harrowing prologue sets the pace for a number of brilliant impossible crimes. Painter, serial womaniser and astrological obsessive Heikichi Umezawa is found dead in his studio, locked from the inside. Only his footprints are in the snow leading up to the door and he has a head wound inflicted by an object that is nowhere to be found. Upon his death his studio is searched and a manuscript is found containing an elaborate horrific plan for Umezawa to create the perfect woman, known to him as ‘Azoth’. He would create this woman by killing his daughters and step daughters, recomposing them. And you can see what’s coming next, even though he is now dead, his plan somehow begins to be carried out, and his daughters begin to go missing. Multiple modernist breakdowns and challenges to the reader are all the more maddening, but what makes me add this book to this list particularly is the use of horror to drive the plot. There are twisting moments that rely on some pretty chilling ideas to work, not used for the sake of making something horrific for shock value, but written as a natural development to all that has happened, and therefore all the more powerful.

5 – Big Bow Mystery – Israel Zangwill – (1892)

One of the first locked room mysteries proper, and a very early example of what are now considered both locked room and thriller staples. Mrs Drabdump, owner of a working class, east end boarding house pounds on the door of one of her lodgers, who unusually hasn’t risen from bed. The door locked on the inside she begins to be worried and calls in the expertise of her neighbour, the retired detective Mr George Grodman. Breaking down the door they find the young lodger dead in his bed, throat cut from ear to ear, all windows locked from the inside and no weapon to be found. This book is marvellously written and is a pitch perfect satire of class culture and the East End of London in the late 1800’s, from a man who lived and worked there, and was one of the first books to bring humour into a story of murder. This in many ways was born from the ‘sensation’ literature of the victorian era, but with fast paced, dark twists.

What makes this one a thriller in my opinion is the pitting of the old detective George Grodman against the young gun on the scene Edward Wimp, both of whom detest each other, battling it out with old and new methods of detection. The race to finish line becomes wild as the public outcry for justice builds, with crowds and riots in the street. The last few chapters, and indeed the last few lines are as thrilling as they come. The solution to the locked room was the first of it’s kind and has been imitated no end since.

Special Mention:

6 – Killer’s Wedge – Ed McBain (1959)

Well I couldn’t just do 5 could I? Killers Wedge sees Detective Steve Corella, out on the case of a creepy locked room murder. Back at the station Virginia Dodge walks into the 87th Precinct with a gun and a bottle of Nitroglycerin. One shot into the bottle, or one knock onto the floor is enough to blow the whole block sky high. Dodge plans to kill Corella, and stating that no one can come or go until he arrives she takes the entire station hostage. Taking a seat in the centre of the room, the bottle sits perilously on the edge of the table, and with no way of communicating with Corella or each other, the remaining officers must work out a way of getting to the bottle before Dodge can use it. The suspense is nail biting, and as the heat rises you are flying through the pages to see what happens. A number of perfectly timed phone calls and arrivals in the precinct up the ante all the more.

Why this is not in the main list is for the way the locked room plays into the plot. There was some discussion, between locked room aficionados JJ and TomCat in the comments of my last post, about how much it could be said that the locked room in Killer’s Wedge provides the thrilling element. In the rest of my list the impossible angle is the origin of the thriller narrative, where as here the locked room provides a reason for Corella not to be there but doesn’t necessarily play into the hold up back at the precinct. Having said that the complexity of the locked room, means that Corella doesn’t leave quickly (which you are desperate for him to do), although again this could be any complicated crime to keep him away.

However what I think does make the locked room a thrilling element in this book, is how it works on it’s own merit. What is revealed as the door is broken down stays with you for a long time. Also the solution is one of my favourites, and this book has pride of place in my locked room collection.

So there we have it, another 6 books to fill your shelves with. I do not apologise in anyway for burdening you with for books to add to your list.

Anymore recommendations from readers? Any more great thrillers from the golden age or in the golden age mould to try?

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Galileo: Intuition vs Logic in a Japanese Impossible Crime Series

What’s this you say? A Japanese impossible crime TV series based on the works of Keigo Higashino? Yes please!

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Galileo (ガリレオ) explores the relationship between rookie detective Kaoru Utsumi – first introduced to English readers in Higashino’s Salvation of a Saint – and University physics professor Manabu Yukawa, as they team up to solve complex cases. What’s not to love!

Each episode features an impossible mystery: young boys astrally project themselves to give alibi’s to accused murderers, people die in locked rooms with the only clue being that fireballs are seen leaping across the room from the building opposite, secret messages float on water then disappear when grabbed at, and much more. Each crime has some route within a scientific hypothesis, and Yukawa, known lovingly by the police force as ‘Galileo’ for being a ‘weird’ scientist, arrives at the solution through some kind of testable method, after furiously scribing an equation wherever he may find himself, which can then be demonstrated in his university laboratory.

The series is exactly what you would expect from a prime time Asian drama. Melodramatic performances, knock-about and groan worthy humour, parodied characters and crazy music choices. But within that is some really sophisticated writing and some high level plotting, clueing and original impossible set ups.

The characters Utsumi and Yukawa are based on two series detectives from contemporary, Japanese mystery writer Keigo Higashino. However, apart from their job titles, the complex crimes, and the fact Yukawa drinks instant coffee, that’s pretty much where the resemblance to the books ends. But it doesn’t make the series un-enjoyable, and the writers are consistent with what they have created, and after the first two episodes (it seems like they needed to warm the general viewer into the series) the writing and the crimes get much more serious, chilling and eerie. Each episode can be seen as a short morality tale with a theme explored through each paranormal or impossible situation: is it right to sympathise with a serial killer? Is it right to commit suicide if it benefits others? Is it right to allow people to keep false beliefs if it comforts them? And the overarching theme of the whole series: logic against intuition and emotion. It was a tough choice, but to warm you into watching this series, here are my top 5 episodes from the 10 in this first series, in order of appearance:

‘Moeru’ (Burns) – Ep 1

The opening episode of the series begins with a group of young social layabouts causing havoc in a quiet area of town. A man looking at them out of his window lifts his phone, types in a few digits, and the groups leader freezes on the spot, his head bursting into flames. Great visual clues throughout and the witness of a little child to a strange occurrence during a lantern festival bring Yukawa and Utsumi to the incredibly complex solution. But just when you feel like things are tying up too neatly, and the crime seems outlandish, there is a sudden twist which changes your perspective on the entire event, and makes the solution totally believable.

‘Sawagu’ (Poltergeist) – Ep 3

Utsumi gets a call from Yukawa, asking her to help find the missing brother-in-law of one of his students. The man, missing for over a week, was known to enter the house of a recently deceased old woman. The house now seems to be occupied by a cast of suspicious characters. When Utsumi breaks in to investigate the walls are covered with handwritten protective signs against spirits, and a few moments later the entire house shakes violently throwing objects everywhere. Is it the spirit of the old woman, or a message from the missing man? The solution to the poltergeist activity is super simple, but it’s the why it happened at the exact time of the death and disappearance which makes it so clever.

‘Shiru’ (Foresight) – Ep 6

A cracker of an opening scene leads into the only semi-inverted mystery of the series, the premise and setup of which could have been lifted straight from a Higashino story. (Who knows maybe it is, we don’t have a huge amount of translations here!). A newlywed is drinking with his beautiful wife and best friend when he receives a strange call. After looking at the number, he pretends to answer a business call and slips into another room. An affair is revealed and the woman on the phone says that he had promised to marry her. He says it’s impossible, and with that she tells him to look out of his window. Pulling the curtain aside he looks to the flats opposite, and there is the woman, stood on a chair, her head through a noose. She says he has five seconds to decide or she will hang herself and begins to count down. The man in desperation pleads, but she reaches one, and kicks the chair away. Utsumi is called to her flat to see the body and clear the scene, but a few passing strange objects show that things might not be what they seem. This was definitely my favourite episode from the series, the clueing, pace and plot are just perfect.

‘Miru’ (Spiritual Sight) – Ep 8

A famous chef is stabbed to death (over 270 times) in her cooking school kitchen, but at the exact time of her murder she is seen by her sister, standing outside the window of her apartment seemingly warning her of her murder. The apartment is over 30 kilometres away, and impossible to reach in the time frame. This isn’t the strongest mystery in the series, but some lovely clues – including why a button on a cd player would make music go fuzzy – and again the reason why things happened in the way they did, make it convincing and memorable.

‘Utsuru’ + ‘Hazeru’ (Transcription and Explosion) Ep 9-10

Utsumi is forced to do a police talk at a local secondary school during their school festival. Afterward she is looking around the school art exhibition when she encounters an unbelievably life-like (or should I say death-like) sculpture. A plaster cast face suspended in a gilt frame titled ‘Death Mask of a Zombie’. There is a commotion in the crowd looking at the work, and a woman claims that the cast is the face of her son, registered missing for the last month. The boy who made the piece is called forward and says he made the piece from a metal cast he found near the local nature pond, which he grabs from the shelf. The metal cast has the shape of the man’s face perfectly moulded, including evidence of a bullet wound in the centre of his head. This brilliant start sets up a twisty plot which pits Yukawa’s intellect against an evil relation from his past life.

You can watch the whole series online here on Viki, a site much like Netflix but for asian drama. If you are happy with adverts every 15 minutes you can watch it for free, or if you pay a small fee you can watch without. Unfortunately one episode (Ep 4 – Kusaru) seems to be missing and I’m not sure why, but hopefully they’ll resolve it.

And let me implore you to read Higashino’s books. They are very much worth your time, and are subtle, social and enigmatic reads. Detective Utsumi is also one of my favourite detectives I have read, and how she is set off against the other members of her team is brilliant. You can read more about that here in my review of the impossible crime novel Salvation of a Saint.

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.

 

Haunted Objects, Gender and Impossible Poisonings: Salvation of A Saint by Keigo Higashino

In recent weeks I have begun making my way through the books of Japanese author Keigo Higashino. Having teared through the brilliantly tense, inverted thriller The Devotion of Suspect X (2011), made way for me to read the second in the Detective Galileo series Salvation of A Saint (2012). I prioritised it as it is also a locked room mystery!

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Yoshitaka Mashiba, a big time CEO, runs his marriage much like his business. Yoshitaka has forced an agreement with his wife, famous tapestry and patchwork artist Ayane Mashiba, that if they can’t have children within the first year of their marriage, that they should separate. The book opens with Yoshitaka telling Ayane that time is up. He makes it quite clear that he is ready to move on, and that she should be too. Ayane, zoned out it a seemingly psychological defense mechanism, stares at a selection of white pansies ‘Not particularly showy flowers, but they’re tough’, she speaks in her head. It’s a subtle but weighty premonition of the book’s tensions to come.

Needing to get away, Ayane decides to leave Tokyo and spend the upcoming three day weekend with her parents in Sapporo, Northern Japan. She leaves the keys to her house with her young, committed studio assistant Hiromi. But when Hiromi enters the house on the second day of the weekend to find Yoshitaka lying dead in the living room, a poisoned coffee cup by his side, with all the doors and windows locked from the inside, save for one small opening in the upstairs bathroom not big enough for anyone to enter, the puzzle really begins.

Having just been thwarted by her pragmatically cold husband, suspicion immediately falls on Ayane. But how could she have poisoned her husband when she was thousands of miles away in Sapporo at the exact time Yoshitaka died? Enter Manabu Yukawa, a university physics professor, known lovingly as Detective Galileo, alongside police detectives Kusanagi and Utsumi, to explain how not to just to solve but to prove the perfect crime.

An interesting sub plotting tool, is Higashino’s take on the themes of ‘female intuition’ and the classic idea of poison being a woman’s weapon. This is an interesting angle to work with, and represents a lot of contemporary questions about gender, and gender roles. There are arguments throughout the story between old a new school ways of looking at a women’s involvement in a crime and discussions about whether the young and brilliant female detective Kaoru Utsumi (one of my absolute favourite detective characters in recent years) can detect more easily the motives of the suspects because she is a woman or because she is brilliantly observant. All this discussion is then further muddied by the fact that the lead detective on the case, Kusunagi seems to have fallen for their main suspect Ayane, and keeps trying to defend her in his wearied mind.

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Japanese Edition

Higashino gives us a strong introduction to junior detective Utsumi. We observe her first through Kusunagi’s eyes, where she happens to not be in the house observing the crime scene, but standing on the front lawn looking up at the flowers on the first floor balcony. When she finally makes her way to the body she wanders off during the chief commissioner’s explanation of the death, only to be found later staring at a cupboard where she notices that 4 champagne glasses are missing from the shelf. What looks to Kusunagi like absent mindedness, and a rejection of authority, sews wonderfully plotted seeds in our minds, and Utsumi’s incredibly detailed observances turn out to be crux points in solving the riddle of the poised coffee cup. Detective Galileo of course sees Utsumi’s brilliance, presenting her with many a challenge to draw out the young detective’s abilities. Interestingly, the Japanese TV series Galileo (ガリレオ) based on the books of Higashino, have Galileo and Utsumi as the lead characters, solving complicated crimes as a double act. 

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Masaharu Fukuyama and Kou Shibasaki as Galileo and Utsumi.

Another thing that Higashino does so well in Salvation is to draw out a foreboding and haunted sense of setting. Higashino does this through the use of a minimal cast of characters (hot housed together page after page), through a minimal amount of locations (which we constantly re-enter) and through his repeated use of objects as a site of haunted and imbued meaning.

The central crime, is an impossible poisoning, a lethal dose of arsenous acid, a brutal and convulsive poison, somehow present in a cup of coffee. This event and its memory then become the haunting elements as Higashino has his characters constantly drinking coffee, visiting tea shops and passing cups to each other throughout the rest of the book. There is even one moment where Detective Kusanagi, having spent time jumping from tea shop to tea shop decides to opt for a tomato juice, the taste of which burns his tongue due to all the tea he has drunk.

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The theologian and novelist G.K.Chesteron, author of the legendary Father Brown series of crime stories written in the early 1900’s, wrote a short essay titled ‘In Defense of the Detective Novel’. The centre of the essay takes up this idea of how the axiomatic structure of the crime story has a particular ability to imbue things with resonant meaning, the ‘romantic possibilities’ of objects and cities. The Detective novel he states:

‘…declines to regard the present as prosaic or the common as commonplace… The lights of the city begin to glow like innumerable goblin eyes, since they are guardians of some secret, however crude, which the writer knows and the reader does not. Every twist of the road is like a finger pointing to it; every fantastic skyline of chimney-pots seems wildly and derisively signalling the meaning of the mystery…’

The use of the word ‘derisive’ (mocking) here is poignant in describing how detective stories, and maybe even more so impossible crime stories, carry so much of their power. Higashino’s characters constantly drinking and tasting these fluids don’t just haunt the book, but are a kind of mocking play with the reader, a continual reminder of what is not known (the solution) against what is known (the clues). It’s as if everyone is being poisoned over and over. Poisoned not just by fluids, but by ideas, doubts, and misplaced affections which affect the characters judgement and reason, something which they try to grasp onto, as they work to solve a crime which is at it’s heart a logical puzzle of deeply in need of solid reason. These fluids and liquids of ideas, teas and coffees, seep through the book, much like the poison seeps through the cup and into its victim. It’s a constant dark and playful reminder of what is consuming the characters.

As usual with Higashino, and with any good locked room mystery, the solution (and in this case the title) only make sense in the last few pages. The solution itself is incredibly cheeky, and I’m not sure how other impossible crime fans would feel about it, but over time it has grown on me. All the clues are indeed there for the observant reader!

I recommend Salvation of A Saint and the first book The Devotion of Suspect X to anyone wanting a taste of thriller with enigmatically puzzling elements.