Mr Splitfoot: Helen McCloy (1968)

Psychologist, and consultant to the DA’S office Basil Willing, and his wife Gisela are travelling in New England for a skiing holiday when a vicious snow storm cut’s off their journey. Sliding along on perilously icy mountainside roads, there car breaks down and they take to their skis to find help at the nearest town. When Gisela slips in the snow storm and breaks her ankle, they are forced to seek help at the nearest house they can find in this remote landscape.

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I love this old edition I found in London. Paper back with red pages.

They receive a strange welcome at a place called Crow’s Flight, where a party of guests are having a not altogether peaceful family gathering. The snow coming down so hard there are all stuck together for the night, but the house being full there are apparently no spare rooms to offer the Willings. That is until one unthinking member of the party offers the room at the top of the stairs. But, of course, that room has been locked for years, as many moons ago it was the sight of three, horrific and demonic impossible deaths. Anyone who stayed in the room over night was subsequently found dead the next morning. With no marks to be found on the bodies, from the conditions of the corpses the doctors at the time could only say one thing, that these people had died from fright. The horror story has clearly had an effect on many of the family, particularly 15 year old Lucinda. A few suggest that the only way to break this curse is for someone to stay in the room overnight. Casting lots, one goes in, with a book to keep themselves awake, and bell to ring incase of trouble. The door is watched the entire time from the bottom of the stairwell. And no one can enter from any other side. But when that bell inevitably rings what the others find is scary to say the least.

The first thing that I’ll say about this book is that I am glad I had a break before writing about it. I actually read this book a few weeks back, and since then it has grown on me more and more. I am realising that McCloy has a subtlety of writing that in many ways only makes sense upon reflection, after it has a chance to settle. This writing style won’t be to everyones taste (what writing style would?) but this is certainly a book that has grown on me the more I reflect on it.

And when McCloy hits her stride in Mr Splitfoot, she hits it hard. The best parts show off what she was really good at: horror, atmosphere and character, alongside wonderful clewing and misdirection. The set up of the historical impossible murders and the subsequent present day one is pure terror. This is one of those books that you shouldn’t read late at night, or you’ll be seeing things in every shadow.

However, there are few times in this book where McCloy’s subtlety gives way to a dragging pace of writing. This is for a number of reasons. Firstly a large amount of the book is written from the perspective of the 15 year old girl Lucinda. This is surprisingly authentic and believable, Lucinda’s rambling thought processes really feel like a 15 year old brain. The problem is that these authentically meandering reflections make these sections terribly slow going. Pace and atmosphere is lost in the rambling thoughts of the teenage mind. McCloy ironically does herself a disservice in pacing by authentically observing a young character.

In this same context is the misplaced use of psychological reflection in the narrative. I don’t mean that a detective novel or impossible crime story should not have these kinds of psychological angles, but it’s that the novel that McCloy is giving us doesn’t seem to require them. Basil Willing is of course a psychologist and in Cue for Murder, which I read an reviewed last year, there are incredibly intelligent and understated discussions on psychology, and the mind of the killer. And why they acted the way that they did is worked in a totally natural way that forwards and develops the plot, and therefore the solution. With Mr Splitfoot however, this just isn’t a psychological murder case, McCloy just doesn’t give us that. Instead she gives us impossibility butting head to head with horror, within a classic manor house/who-dun-it frame work, and does it well. Therefore the psychological reflections, feels lost, and heavy-handed, slowing the book down again.

I think this book would have worked much better as a stand alone work, without a detective, or with a local officer on the case instead. And the claustrophobia she paints would have been more believable and impactful if we just had this small cast of characters without an outsider coming in.

The final thing that makes elements of this book drag is McCloy’s propensity to over explain clothes, rooms and furniture. She does set a scene very well, and has a deft way with descriptive verse. But, for example, there is a section in the centre of the book when things are hotting up and Willing finds himself in the house of a nearby neighbour. The difference in class from one house to other is explored through the description of the furniture, but oh man you just want to get moving forward! The subsequent scene then acted out is not exciting enough to balance out against the lengthy description.

However, the locked room, and the solution to the impossible death I really liked. In the ranks of ‘rooms that kill’ or ‘rooms where you always die’ this one is up there for me. What takes the solution to the next level, and again this shows McCloy at her best, is that not only is it brutal, and horrific, but the revelation fit’s in totally with the plot, with the atmosphere, and with the nature of the killer. A terrifying method to an equally terrifying book.

So when all is said and done here, Mr Splitfoot has a huge amount going for it, and I would recommend putting in on your to-be-read pile. I look forward to reading more of her oeuvre to see what she was capable of. But there are certainly those dragging moments in this book. It may be to your taste, it may not, but the reader is warned!

 

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The Men Who Explain Miracles – Episode 4: The top 15 locked room mysteries of all time (part 1)

It is with pleasure that I announce that the forth and a very special episode of our locked room mysteries podcast The Men Who Explain Miracles is now online. Started by myself and JJ of The Invisible Event, the series explores locked room mysteries and impossible crime fiction.

You can listen to the episode over at JJ’s blog here

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This episode is the first in a three parter exploring the (so called) top 15 locked room mysteries of all time. This list, compiled by Ed Hoch in 1981, was created when Hoch asked 17 experts to give there suggestions for what would be the best of the best of impossible crimes.

Over the next three weeks we are going to look at all of them. 5 books per episode, all spoiler free, to see if they stand up to the test of time, and if these really are the top 15. You can see the full list here at Mystery File.

This episode we discuss:

Invisible Green (1977) by John Sladek
Too Many Magicians (1967) by Randal Garrett
He Wouldn’t Kill Patience (1944) by Carter Dickson
Through a Glass, Darkly (1950) by Helen McCloy
The King is Dead (1952) by Ellery Queen

To hear previous episodes of The Men Who Explain Miracles you can visit our sound cloud here (while we work to transfer everything over to WordPress). Enjoy, and join you over at JJ’s blog for debate and discussion galore!

 

 

 

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?

 

 

 

 

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?

5 Impossible Crime ‘Thrillers’ to try

I got wondering recently – after writing on a new Spanish locked room cinematic piece and asking if thrillers and locked rooms can work together – what where my favourite examples of ‘thrilling’ detective fiction?

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What I mean here is the kind of golden age pieces that read like modern thrillers or that set the path for modern thrillers. Not so much in that they deal with the psychology of the killer or are as brutal and depraved as can be (although there are plenty of examples of that in the golden age, I’m looking at you Endless Night), but that they run at lightning pace as real page turners that hit the ground running and never stop.

The difficulty that comes up in blending both the thriller and the locked room seems to be that in trying to combine them, one usually gets left behind in the wake of the other. The necessary high level of pace and the need for twist after twist of a thriller can negate the intricate, methodical nature of a locked room, and (as with Contratiempo) can mean that the ultimate solution to the locked room is underwhelming or not well thought out. In the reverse, the necessarily fair, open and highly composed nature of the solid locked room can – in the hands of some writers – lesser the constant threat needed to create a ‘thriller’ proper.

Both of these genres, Locked Room and Thriller, have their own rules and needs that  allow them to operate fully in they context that they have built over these many fine years. But genres can be broken, played with and can be misleading as well.

So, with this in mind, here are 5 locked room mysteries that for me combine something of both elements with flair. Locked rooms that operate within the fair play golden age genre or mould, but that crank up the thrilling elements. We could say they are possibly more ‘thrilling’ than ‘thriller’, but I want to give you a few examples of pieces that I think show the capacity for pure pace and twist in a locked room format, many of which predate the thriller genre itself:

1 – Till Death Do us Part – John Dickson Carr (1944) 

I mean this is obvious isn’t it? If you have never read this book, and especially if you are new to Carr, this is one to go to. For me it is one of the most thrilling works of GAD fiction, and is proved by the fact that I simply cannot tell you anything about it. I can’t spoil anything, everything has to be experienced fresh. What I can say is that this is fired from the gun and never slows for breath. This left me wondering around for a few days bewildered and gobsmacked (and not many books in any genre do that for me), and is possibly the only book of detective fiction that on finishing I could have immediately picked up and started again. What I can say is that the level of twist, and the maddening psychology of the book, read like an early thriller, and it’s the context in which Carr builds the locked room, which is still intricate, fair and methodical, which allows the locked room itself to be a central giver of pace and psychology within the story. I wrote a little more on this work here.

2 – She Died A Lady – John Dickson Carr (1943) 

No it’s not going to be a whole list of just Carr’s work (although it probably could be!), but this is another fine example of plot and impossibility creating pace. Again I wont say too much here as this is another to experience fresh, but what I will say is that just when you think you know what is happening Carr knocks you side ways, takes you somewhere totally different, but then reveals that it all makes sense with what has come before. This leads, through a lovely and unexpected character interaction, to one of the most page turning, high paced endings of Carr’s work, and of the Golden Age cannon. There, I’ve said enough! If you do want a little more context you can read more of my thoughts here.

3 – Through A Glass Darkly – Helen McCloy (1951) 

A classic impossible work, and a book that really straddles the genres of early thriller and horror with the hook and mystery of an impossibility. Faustina Coyle starts a new job at an exclusive girls school, but after a few days all the girls seem to be afraid of her, teachers hurry away, a culture of fear is building up around her. When she finds out that she is being seen in two places at once, and that when the second version of her appears she drops into a slowed trance like state, she is totally at odds to explain it. But this only the start of the horror. Again I think what makes this work is that the central mystery is so entwined with the elements of horror that one gives rise to the other rather than negating the other. And the final solution, although giving a rational and plausible ending, rather than stripping away horror makes it all the more horrific. That my friends, is not easy to do, and McCloy makes it look easy.

4 – The Perfect Insider – Hiroshi Mori (1996) 

I refer here to the Japanese TV series, created from the book Subete ga F ni Naru (すべてがFになる) literally ‘When Everything Becomes F’. There are some lovely locked room ideas here across this series, and I encourage you to check it out. It does have some knock-about classic Japanese drama moments, but over all you won’t be disappointed. There are disappearing bodies from locked rooms, impossible stabbings in sealed laboratories and each resolution is strong, with some original solutions being thrown at you. I refer for this post to episodes 5 and 6 in the series, titled together Everything Becomes F (although the whole series links together so don’t just watch these two, watch it from the start). I have never been as genuinely scared by a locked room mystery as I was with these two episodes, and the claustrophobic atmosphere and ticking timer keep you on the edge of your seat. An impossible murder in a room which has sealed it’s only occupant for 15 years. The ‘reveal’ of the body is just terrifying, but I’ll leave you to find that out. I’ll be reviewing the whole series soon. You can catch it here, legally streamed, at Crunchy Roll.

5 – The London Eye Mystery – Siobhan Dowd (2008) 

A YA novel no less, and one of the best modern golden age works out there. A boy steps on to the London Eye, his pod is watched the whole time, but when it arrives at the base he has vanished. Why I include this as part of this list is that it simply never stops, there is no dropped line, no superfluous idea, every single element feeds into the building of tension and mystery, and the solution is a cracker. I reviewed this book here and my self and JJ from the Invisible Event interviewed author Robin Stevens, as part of our locked room podcast series, on creating the next in the seres The Guggenheim Mystery. 

6 – Rim Of The Pit – Hake Talbot (1944)

Okay I couldn’t resist giving you one more (in fact as I write I realise this list could keep going and going), the impossibility fest that is Rim Of The Pit. For all it’s faults this book just moves with huge action, which is facilitated by the sheer number of problems that Talbot presents. Impossibility follows impossibility reveals absurdity reveals impossibility and so on, with some of the best cliff hanger chapter endings I have read in a long time. A motley crew of family members are closed into a Canadian log cabin by a fierce snow storm. During their stay they aim to contact the spirit of a dead family member, to ask him a question, but this has terrible results, leading to locked room murders, multiple impossible footprints in the snow, appearing messages and a plethora of side mysteries. It’s the way that Talbot knocks down impossibilities one after the other, while preserving the overarching mystery that gives it its pace. This points forward to claustrophobic thrillers, and backwards to the Sherlockian style of presenting you with fast paced deductions and solutions as you go. We also discussed this with and without spoilers in our locked room podcast which you can listen to here. 

There is of course one glaring omission in this list which I will mention now so that readers don’t start thinking I’ve lost my mind, and that is of course And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie. But we all know this is the fore runner to basically every good thriller ever written, so I wanted to give you a few you might not have devoured yet on your journey. But suffice to say if you haven’t read And Then There Were None, go and do it today, right now.

What are you suggestions for thrilling locked room mysteries and high paced classic detective fiction?

Tour de Force: Christianna Brand (1955)

Inspector Cockrill finds himself, very unwittingly, on an package holiday of Italian islands. During a sleepy afternoon in the sun, a small number of the tour guests have stayed behind at their hotel to soak in the sun. But things turn sour when one of the group is found murdered in their hotel room, their body arranged in a cryptically ritualistic fashion. A ticking timer provided by the local police force, and the growing madness of the group means Cockrill has to work fast to solve the crime. The only problem? Every suspect was in his sight on the beach at the time of the murder.

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Making my way through Brand’s work for the first time has been an absolute joy. I am coming to see (as with many many writers in this ol’ golden age crime genre) how underrated she is, and Tour de Force doesn’t disappoint. I had heard much about this book on locked room lists and the like, and was super happy to find a lovely first edition (pictured above) in my regular second hand book shop trawl a few months back.

The whole piece is set on the fictional island of San Juan el Pirata off the coast of Tuscany, where the group have found themselves held after the murder. The mixture of both corrupt and straight laced local police have their own ideas and methods of how they will deal with the crime, which bring some pretty high stakes for getting the murder solved. The characters are instantly memorable, often tragic figures, who are a great selection of 1950’s British society to be stuck together on a ‘foreign land’. As they are pushed to the limits, their psychological flaws are revealed and the book becoming a clever satire of positive and negative British attitudes of the time. It’s reads like an precursor to Death in Paradise. 

And it’s pretty damn funny as well. Take this passage for example from the first chapter, as Cockrill arrives into Italy on the plane:

…his money being paid and withdrawal now impossible, he had received the assurance of the travel agency that he would find delightful friends among his fellow tourists, he had been contemplating their coming association with ever increasing gloom. ‘She and all the rest,’ he thought. ‘They’re Them.’ 

The clewing is spot on, with seeds being sown at every possible point in the plot, leading to forehead slapping moments by the end. But, what was really impressive about this book – and I made the same point in my review of Brand’s 3rd Inspector Cockrill mystery Suddenly at His Residencewere the false solutions and pieces of ratiocination by the characters. They come thick and fast, punctuating much of the plot, giving you that satisfaction of continuing revelation that drives so much of the best GAD work along.

This seems to be the case for everything of Brand that I have read so far. She continues to pull ideas out of the hat as the plot goes, and I confess to not even having thought of half of them, even though they are just the throw away revelations. So many of the ideas, clues and false solutions that are batted aside would make up the final solutions of other (maybe lesser well thought through) novels without a problem.

There was one false solution in particular which totally blew me away with its elegance and simplicity, and I actually thought it would have made a better solution over all. Which brings me to the criticisms for this work, which has light spoilers so finish here if you want this book fresh. 

SPOILER START:

Fellow blogger JJ of The Invisible Event described this book to me as very clever, but that it’s possibly a little to easy to cotton on to what is happening, and that once you do it becomes obvious what is happening and takes away it’s impact. Unfortunately, he is right on this account, and my experience of this title was totally inline. However in saying that she uses the device well that and it doesn’t make it any less of a joy to read.

Alongside this – and this is up for debate please readers – I am not so sure that the whole thing is really an impossible crime, in how the solution works itself out. I don’t think it’s as watertight as it could be, and I wonder if it should really be called a impossible crime piece at all? (Dodging bullets here possibly!) This goes back to questions of what constitutes an impossible crime in the first place, which myself and JJ have discussed both here and here. 

END SPOILERS 

Coming in at 271 pages in my edition it is a fair old length for a GAD novel, and does suffer on that account. ‘Dragging the Marsh’ has been the phrase used elsewhere in the bloggersphere for this. As with a GAD novelist like McCloy, Brand is clearly enjoying herself here, and is packing the book with ideas therefore. But she could have held back, as with so many ideas going on, some of the revelations and clues loose there impact simply because they are swamped by the overall length, and by the strength of other plot points.

Over all, another great piece by Brand, and with recently finding a good copy of London Particular (Fog of Doubt), and a new book edited by GAD aficionado Tony Medawar including as of yet unpublished works from Brand, you will see much more of Brand on this blog!

Helen McCloy: Cue for Murder (1942) – Meta-narratives and scripts for death

‘The murder mystery at the Royalty Theatre was solved through the agency of a house fly and a canary. The fly discovered the chemical evidence that so impressed the jury at the trial, but the canary provided a psychological clue to the murderer’s identity before the murder was committed. Basil Willing is still troubled by the the thought that it might have been prevented if he had read the riddle of the canary sooner.’

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So opens Cue For Murder by Helen McCloy, her 5th Doctor Basil Willing mystery, and in my opinion an unsung treasure from the Golden Age of detection. As always I will be talking about elements of plot, character and set up, there will be no solution spoilers, but if you aim to read this book fresh then come back after reading!

Dr Basil Willing is a psychiatrist working for the DA’s office, but is more than helpful on the crime scene when things get complicated. McCloy uses Willing as a vehicle to explore the psychology of the criminal at work, asking why they would behave in a certain way, and looking at what the crime says about the kind of person who could have perpetrated it. And in Cue For Murder, Willing is presented with a psychological mine field.

A re-staging of the infamous nihilistic play Fedora by Victorien Sardou is taking place at the Royalty Theatre in New York. Willing knows the costume designer for the play, Pauline, and receives a ticket for the opening night. But during the first act tragedy strikes. At the back of the stage set there are a set of double doors opening onto a little alcove. When these doors a flung open during the play they reveal a corpse, lying prostrate and still, staring with dead eyes out to the crowd. This corpse however, is the actors role, and part of the corpse is usually played by a friend of the cast, made up with corpse paint to look as dead as possible. But when the curtain drops for the end of the first act the actor doesn’t move, and when the bed sheets are pulled back, the man has been stabbed in the chest with a surgical blade.

There were only four actors on stage, and only three of them approached the alcove. But when examined, none of them know the man, assuming each other had invited him to play the part. The problem then becomes how a murderer managed to stab the unidentified corpse in front of a full audience, but also why they went to such lengths.

What I love about this set up, and how McCloy uses it, is the growing layers of meta-writing she pulls off. Shortly before the play begins, Willing finds himself backstage, seeing everything from the other side. The back of the luxurious room as appearing from the audience, revealed to be chip board and stage paint. Willing then comes through a door into the audience which McCloy calls ‘the frontier between reality and illusion’. This frontier becomes the meta-narrative of the whole book.

This is further emphasised when the script is analysed, and acts as a literal script for the murderers actions, revealing the multiple moments when each of them could have done it (literally their ‘cue for murder’), a constant blurring between the fake and the real. This then leaks into every aspect of the case, with chief inspector Foyle reflecting in chapter four: ‘Its a world of make-believe–false names and false faces! How can I tell which one of these is playing a part?’ And this ‘playing a part’ is what Willing tries to untangle and decode, leading to wonderful observations about character, motive and identity. We see the struggles of fame and money, actors on the way up or the way down, and the hidden desires for appreciation.

And on top of all of all of this is the maddening clue of the canary, which Willing is certain relates to the whole case. A burglar broke into a knife-grinding shop, just next to the theatre, but didn’t steel anything, but only freed the owners canary from it’s cage:

 ‘Why risk incurring the severe penalties for burglary by breaking into a shop without stealing anything? Why prolong the risk by lingering on the premises to free a canary from it’s cage?’ 

The canary becomes a touch stone throughout the whole book, and it’s presence haunts the crime, revealing more each chapter.

The thing that most impressed me most over all about this book was why the killer went to such lengths to murder someone on stage, and what is says about their psychology. And with that the motive is an absolute punch in the stomach when all is revealed.

Criticisms? I could say that the book gets off to a slow start (but that might just have been me) and the whole thing clocks in at longer than your usual GAD novel, so could have been cut down in places, but I’m not going to fault McCloy for that really. Because, as with my thought in my last review on Christianna Brand, McCloy is another writer who seems simply to love the process of writing, and loves filling the pages with deft observation after deft observation.

There were some thoughts from a panel discussion at the Bodies From the Library conference at the British Library earlier this year, in response to a question about why so many women flourished in the detective writing genre. The panelist said that so many women became writers of detective fiction because in some ways ‘it wasn’t taken seriously’, therefore that women were ‘allowed’ to write this sort of thing. This now deeply outdated world view, in a wonderful subversion of itself, of course gave women the agency of writing which they used to excel, express and subvert that very claim, and you can see and feel McCloy using that to it’s absolute maximum. Giving us a deeply intelligent, rich novel, with quotes from classical literature, psychological and philosophical study and historical references at every turn, with a few satirical comments about ‘novel’s written by men’ thrown in too.

The ever knowledgeable Mike Grost on his writing about McCloy said that this was her most famous book for a time, and that McCloy’s works from this point only got better and better. So I’m excited for the next McCloy and exploring her oeuvre post 1942. This post 1942 list contains of course Through a Glass Darkly, which is one of the best and most creepy impossible crime novels ever, and if you haven’t read it yet go and read right now.