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!

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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.

My first year in blogging: The best and what’s next!

It’s December 2017 and with that comes the anniversary of my first year of blogging! I started The Reader Is Warned with the sole purpose of getting things out of my head. Excitements, thoughts, ideas and theories about locked room mysteries and impossible crimes that had to come out somewhere, and I really didn’t think much more would come of it. But something totally surprised me, and that was all of you! I have found a group of bloggers and readers who share these passions and a desire to express them, discuss them and read about them together.

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I have been recommended books and TV shows I never would have read or seen otherwise. I have a deeper insight into this whole crime genre and it’s joys and treasures. I have discussed and debated with so many people in this digital world, and I have met fellow bloggers JJ, Kate and Puzzle Doctor in person! Myself and JJ started our podcast together on impossible crime fiction, and through that I have met and interviewed authors I love, and we have had some great laughs making the series. What a year it has been! Thanks to all of you for making this what it is, and here’s to another year!

Well, before I get carried away and start tearing up, I thought I would take an opportunity to look back over this year and try and pick my favourites. With so many great books it has proved an almost impossible task (pun intended). But with you folks behind me I know I can achieve anything! (Yeah! High five! Okay I’ll stop this now). Here is my run down of some of my favourite reads of 2017, and what I’m reading next:

The Chinese Gold Murders – Robert Van Gulik: 1952
My second book review on this blog, and still a stand out work for me. Multiple impossible crimes set in 7th century China written by Dutchman, whats not to love!? I think Van Gulik really had something special with this series, and the historical context, written from experience, is compelling and makes for original forms of detective fiction. As an anniversary special, I am next up reading and reviewing another impossible Judge Dee novel by Van Gulik, The Red Pavilion, which contains three locked room murders! So watch this space.

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Ronald Knox – The Short Stories: 1931 – 1947
Hunting out these three shorts from Knox was a real highlight of 2017. I find Knox is totally underrated, and possibly because he was really a master of the short story form rather than the novel, and these three shorts prove it. Solved By Inspection is still one of my top 10 locked room short stories, if you haven’t read it, go and do it now! Expect to see some Ronald Knox novels discussed on this blog this coming year.

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Christiana Brand – Suddenly At His Residence: 1944
This year was my first time reading Brand and what a writer she was! Her sheer volume of ideas is staggering clever, and it was difficult to choose a favourite. But I went for Suddenly at His Residence because it has the best of all her skills (that I have read so far) all rolled into one book: solid impossible set up, so many top level false solutions, great clewing, great comic/tragic characterisation and a kicker ending. I have her first novel Death In High Heels on the TBR ready to be read and reviewed this year, and London Particular is also burning a whole in my bookshelves.

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Cue For Murder – Helen McCloy: 1942 

Having read McCloy’s impossible classic Through a Glass Darkly before starting this blog, I really wanted to get my hands on some of her other work. Cue For Murder was a great way to continue with her oeuvre and wins the award for best motive for murder out of everything I have read this year. It also has one of my favourite opening little maddening mysteries/clues that spirals outwards into the book’s murders. Next up for McCloy on this blog will be another of her locked room classics Mr Splitfoot. 

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It Walks By Night – John Dickson Carr: 1930 

I have read so much good Carr this year; Till Death Do Us Part and She Died a Lady absolutely blew my mind (obviously), and Nine – And Death Makes Ten surpassed all my expectations and was one of my top shock killers of the year. The reason I pick It Walks By Night for this list is, as Carr’s first book, it’s amazing how it acts as a perfect map for where Carr would take his career. And how the book is a clear homage to Poe was wonderful to see.

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Siobhan Dowd – The London Eye Mystery: 2007

A solid, perfectly executed, contemporary locked room mystery from the late and great Siobhan Dowd was a total favourite this year. A young boy steps into a pod on the London eye and when it comes back round he has vanished! I mean come on! This also put me on the path to the work of the brilliant Robin Stevens, who published a sequel to the book this year (2017), who myself and JJ of The Invisible Event interviewed for the second episode of our podcast.

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Well there you have it, some of my tops reads from this year. I hope they are inspiring to you, particularly if you haven’t read them before. And thanks once again to all my readers and fellow bloggers out there writing about all this stuff, it’s been a joy to share this all with you. Happy Christmas and Happy 2018!

 

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?

John Dickson Carr: The Men Who Explained Miracles (1963) Part 2

The Men Who Explained Miracles, is a collection of shorter stories and uncollected works from the master of the impossible crime John Dickson Carr. In my last post I focussed on the last piece in the book, a twisty novella entitled All In A Maze. For this one I will move to the eclectic range of tales that make up the first part of this collection.

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There are 6 shorts in total, divided into three sections: Department of Queer Complaints contains two uncollected Colonel March stories. The blustering ex-service man tasked with explaining the more troubling crimes of Scotland Yard. Under the heading Dr Fell Stories we are presented with two shorts from the infamous hat and caped detective of some of Carr’s most famous novels. And Secret Service Stories presents us with two stand alone, non-series pieces, the first set in France and the second an historical thriller.

This all makes for a diverse range of works, spanning a number of years and containing almost every detective or type of story Carr dealt with in his career. In order of appearance:

1- William Wilson’s Racket – Colonel March

The first story in the collection considers a curious problem that the socially distinguished Lady Patricia Mortlake presents to the Department of Queer Complaints. For the past month her husband, the Right Hon. Francis Hale, has started to display strange behaviour. Every time he sees a certain advert in a news paper, he seems to go ‘off his head’. The advert only appears in the best papers and simply reads ‘William and Wilhelmina Wilson, 25Oa, Piccadilly’, nothing more. The company and the names are not listed anywhere. Lady Patricia takes in upon herself to visit the address and upon bursting into the office she finds her husband sitting in a swivel chair, a young red head on his lap, arms around his neck. After shouting and slamming the door, she waits by the main door, expecting him to come and apologise, but he doesn’t come out. When she goes back to the room to investigate, the red head and her husband have gone, leaving no trace. There are no other exits, so Frances Mortlake seems to have escaped from a watched room, and stranger still, he seems to have left all his clothes behind.

It’s just a brilliant set up! Unique to the March stories are where the impossibility itself is totally left field and also funny. The solution is a as unique as the set up, and although audacious, and not groundbreaking, all the clues are there. The story also ends with a nice little twist, leaving you wondering if all was what it seemed.

2 – The Empty Flat – Colonel March

The chilling set-up for the second Colonel March short is one of the best from the collection. Douglas Chase cannot concentrate on his late night studies as someone seems to be blaring a radio a full volume in the flat below. He heads down to speak to the owner, a Miss Kathleen Mills, also studying late night, who presumes Douglas is the one blaring the radio. They both realise that it is coming from the locked and empty flat next to Kathleen’s. No one has taken the flat on, as it is said to cause strange things to happen to it’s tenants. Douglas manages to find a way into the empty flat through the service hatch. Standing in pitch darkness he finds the radio blaring in a dark and empty flat in the room beyond. Entering the room turns it off, leaving the flat in silence. Douglas leaves thinking that it is empty, but the next morning, some building workers find the body of barrister Mr Arnot Wilson, crumpled up in the bedroom. The doctor in attendance declares that Wilson has died of cardiac and nervous shock, caused by fright.

There are two interested things to note from this tale. Firstly there is very similar opening character relationship to the start of The Case of the Constant Suicides (you’ll see what I mean when you read it). And secondly the solution to the frightening to death of Wilson, is the exact same solution, but to a different type of crime (not a frightening to death), from one of Carr’s novels. This novel was printed before this short story, but only picked up by penguin after the short story was published, which makes me wonder if Carr only re-used the solution it because the book wasn’t as popular until penguin took it up so he felt he could? (Thought on a postcard please).

3 – The Incautious Burglar – Dr Fell 

A particularly beautifully written Fell story, this short considers the problem of three super valuable paintings, two Rembrants and a Van Dyck, owned by successful businessman Marcus Hunt. There are some curious questions surrounding the paintings. Why has Hunt just moved them out of secure storage to a poorly locked room? And why has he left them in blaring sun light, which might bleach out. It is suggested that he want’s them ‘stolen’ so he can claim the insurance money.  The only problem with that suggestion, he hasn’t insured any of them for a single penny.

That night, the worst happens. A break-in wakes one of Hunt’s house guests who rushes down to find a masked burglar in a pool of blood and glass, stabbed in the chest. When the body is examined, it turns out to be Marcus Hunt, the owner of the paintings himself. The question then, why would the owner stage a break in to steal his own paintings, even though they are not insured, and who would kill him in the act?

A really nice clue about the scratches on a tea set and the width of the blade leads Dr Fell to the solution, which has a lovely misdirection. Each element is perfectly placed.

4 – Invisible Hands – Dr Fell

A lonely cliff top beach house in North Cornwall (which feels very much like the house of She Died A Ladyis the setting for the second of the Fell shorts. Society beauty Brenda Lestrange is found strangled on ‘King Arthurs Chair’, a natural rock formation in the shape of a throne, surrounded by untouched sand. And of course, there are no footprints leading up to the body or away part from her own. The solution to this one is mad, but could work, (although I think I had a better one in mind). But to Carr’s credit he makes a secondary piece of misdirection work well to solidify how the killer could get away with it.

5 – Strictly Diplomatic – Monsieur Lespinasse 

Over-worked businessman Andrew Dermot is forcibly signed off by his doctor to a spa in the south of France. Telling the Doc that he hasn’t got time to fall in love, the ironic and inevitable happens, he meets Betty Weatherill. All is going like a dream, when Betty suddenly declares she has to leave the spa that very night, and won’t explain why. Getting up from her chair she walks to the ‘arbour’ at the back of the hotel, an arched tunnel of thick flowers and vines that leads to the main building. Dermot watches her go in, but reliable witnesses on the other side say that she never came out the other end.

Again, as with All In A Maze this is a tale where Carr manages to work in the threat of spies, international espionage, double clues, secret identities, the question of reliable witnesses and an impossible situation all into about 15 pages. The solution isn’t mind blowing, but a solid entry, and again a unique location and plot.

6 – The Black Cabinet – Stand Alone Historical Psychological/Thriller

This one is a total surprise in the collection, a tale which travels through the moral and emotional struggle of revolutionary Nina Bennet, as she works out a plan to assassinate Napoleon Bonaparte. There is a brilliantly written opening scene where we see things through the eyes of a young Nina, and how her hatred of the Emperor seeded itself. We are then brought up to the present day as the clock ticks down to the assassination. Nina and her Aunt Maria, whose radical leanings have slipped away over years, battle out Nina’s decision in fraught discussion, until another strange and unexpected historical character enters the scene. Not a mystery here, or impossibility, but this one is reflective of Carr’s historical style of work, where fast paced writing explores one persons relationship to another in power.

What I found most impressive about this short, which again shows of Carr’s early feminist/pro-women out look, is that the whole story is about and told from the perspective of three strong women characters. All of whom are complex, wildly different and not parodied. There is even an interesting discussion in this story about love and beauty verses hate and revenge.

So overall, a wildly different set of stories, with some solid entries that will be loved by Carr fans for sure. This isn’t Carr’s strongest material by far, but you can see these are stories where he was stretching and expanding the form, trying things that he might not have done else where. And from that perspective, seeing a master of plot and form experiment is a fun and insightful experience.

My question in part one was why and how this collection was pulled together. My thought is that as this was published the year Carr had his stroke, and was then limited to the use of one arm, that publishers still wanted to publish something. So they brought together this mixed collection of works that weren’t as of yet on the market, so that they could still put something out? That’s my guess anyhow, but if you have anymore historically accurate knowledge than that do let me know!

John Dickson Carr: The Men Who Explained Miracles (1963) – Part 1

After finishing Carr’s short story collection The Department of Queer Complaints I was devastated. Not because it was bad, but because it was brilliant, audacious and ridiculous, and contains some of the most original impossible crime set ups going.

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I wish Carr had kept producing Colonel March stories in his spare time (which I doubt he had any of, sometimes writing 7-8 novels a year, plus radio plays), and that there were another 10 collections of Queer Complaints where he could have let loose on his most mad locked room ideas. Ideas that he couldn’t try anywhere else.

With this in mind, and with my recent Carr kick going on, I was super excited to find on my last London second hand bookshop walk the collection The Men Who Explained Miracles, which contains another two Colonel March stories, alongside 4 more shorts and a novella.

As there is so much content here the short stories will have to wait till the next post, and today I will go to the end of the collection for some thoughts on the novella, a Henry Merrivale story titled All in A Maze. To have a Merrivale story alongside Colonel March, may seem odd, but in fact the collection contains his detectives March, Merrivale, Dr Fell, French detective Monsieur Lespinasse – written much in the same way as Carr’s first detective Henri Bencolin – alongside a stand alone historical short thriller. Why and how this mix-and-match collection came together, and quite late in Carr’s career, is unknown to me and if any of you have more info out there it would be great to hear it, as I imagine many of these stories were not written as late as the 60’s?

All in a Maze is a gorgeous little piece, with Carr flexing his plotting and impossible muscles to try a few more original ideas out. The story begins with Jenny Holden running out of St Paul’s cathedral, so terrified that she is flying down the main steps at unnatural speed. Journalist Tom Lockwood, seeing her impending fall, manages to catch her. They both run to the safety of a local cafe where Holden tells Lockwood that she believes someone is trying to kill her. For a story of just under 60 pages Carr manages to weave in international spies, switches of identity, double clues and a great dose of humour all round.

All in a Maze also presents us with two impossible problems. Firstly, how could Jenny, in the whispering gallery of St Paul’s cathedral, hear a voice tell her that she will die, when there is no one that could have spoken it? And secondly, later that evening, how did someone enter her locked room, turn on the gas from her fireplace to gas her to death and then escape while the room was securely locked and bolted from the inside?

I would love to know more about how Carr reached his impossible crime ideas, as it often feels he must have been inspired by a location or a generally interesting domestic occurrence to create an impossible puzzle. You can imagine him on a day out with his wife and kids, or at a friends house and seeing the cogs suddenly turning as an new idea comes to mind when someone tops up the electric meter or shuts a window in a funny way. It’s those relationships to a particular setting, atmosphere or everyday situation that gives much of Carr’s work it’s original feel, and the puzzles their unique quality.

The whispering gallery solution is basically the only one there could be, but I won’t fault Carr for that, and the locked room solution is super tidy, and could have been a sub mystery to a larger novel if Carr had wanted. The proofs for the locked room are also really tight, and I appreciate the dedication to plot and solution that Carr strives for even in a short story. It’s not going to blow your mind, but it will leave you feeling satisfied for sure.

But a really memorable part of this novella, is a brilliant and super clever connection between the first impossible problem and the second, with the misunderstanding of a single word uttered by Merrivale. It’s a genius move by Carr as it could throw you off the scent in a clever way, and feels like it could be a part of a central mystery in a Jonathan Creek episode. I’ll leave you to find that one out. The final few pages are a high-speed finish, from which the story gets the nice double meaning of it’s title.

Part two, the short stories, to follow soon.

UPDATE: You can now read part two of my review here.

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P.s – I am also aware of the Merrivale, March and Murder collection, which I hope to get at some point, although it doesn’t contain any other new Colonel March stories that are not in this collection or Department of Queer Complaints. Although the other pieces in there look great.