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?

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Siobhan Dowd: The London Eye Mystery (2007) – Modern impossibilities and original forms of detection

London, 24th May, 11.32 am. A young boy steps into a pod on the London eye. His two cousins watch him enter with excitement. They follow and time his entire journey. But when the pod lands and the doors open, the boy is nowhere to be seen. He has vanished into thin air.

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In Young Adult fiction the is a current boom for detective fiction, impossible crimes and mysteries that call to, and draw from, the Golden Age mould, and with titles as good as The London Eye Mystery it’s no wonder.

The book follows the exploits of young Ted Spark and his big sister Kat as they try to work out what happened to their cousin Salim after vanishing from his sealed capsule on The London Eye. Dowd deftly explores family tensions, divorce, racism and death, all held in an enthralling mystery which leads Ted and Kat in a race all over London to find the solution. There are cyphers, mysterious photographs, and GAD references all over the place. What more could you ask for!

We see the story unfold from the first person perspective of Ted, whose brain, he tells us runs on ‘it’s own unique operating system’. This is a lovely way of describing Ted’s Aspergers syndrome, which gives him a different way of seeing the world, bringing him both unique insights and unique struggles as the mystery develops.

The story explores the Spark family’s loves and struggles, with a focus on Kat and Ted’s growing understanding of one another. Kat learns more and more that Ted is able to observe and understand things in a unique and critical way, able to store vast amounts of information and piece together the mechanisms of the puzzle piece by piece. But when it comes to reading body language, understanding the correct thing to say in social situations, and critically, when and how to lie to your parents, this is where the gung-ho Kat takes control of proceedings. This makes for a balanced sleuthing duo, which brings it’s fair share of ups and downs.

Ted’s ‘unique operating system’ has also given him a deep passion for a particular subject: the weather. This knowledge and memorised information about all things meteorological becomes a context for Ted to understand everything around him. A really simple tool that is used with flair by Dowd; is there a storm brewing, clouds covering his judgement or is it all a quiet front?

So what about the mystery itself? In a recent review of John Dickson Carr’s last book The Hungry Goblin, Ben over at The Green Capsule quoted and discussed a view of detective fiction construction that Carr placed into the mouth of his main character:

“Be fair with your readers; tell ‘em everything.  But don’t tell ‘em everything in a simple minded way.  First decide what the average reader will suspect – anticipate it, and fool him.  Then decide what the clever reader will suspect – anticipate it, and fool him.  Thus, all openly, you prepare your thunderbolt for the end.”

This is a great mantra for detective fiction, and one on which Dowd delivers. I had an idea of how the vanishing occurred before I read the book, which I thought was pretty high up there in terms of possible solutions, but when that was knocked down a third of the way through, along with a brilliant chapter when Ted gives us a list of 8 possible solutions to the mystery, I realised Dowd was taking the level up. And the solution is just brilliant, and a lovely twist on proceedings. I thought I was there with it by the end, but one element caught me off guard, which clue wise is fairly slapping you in the face the whole time. Dowd does not hold back in the clueing, the plotting and the solution, which would be the envy of many locked rooms writers from the Golden Age.

To refer to the title of this post, one aspect that impressed me was the actual ‘detection’ that Dowd gives us. Ted very often struggles to understand what the world is all about, especially when things don’t seem logical. He spends lot’s of time (perhaps a little too much time) telling us how he find all sorts of strange phrases and emotions difficult:

‘Mum told me it is wrong to eavesdrop on people. (Eavesdropping is a strange word. Eaves are the part of roofs that project over the wall. The only thing that drops from them is rainwater and rainwater cannot hear.)’  

Therefore when it comes to ratiocination, with regard to logical stepping stones, Ted is in his element, but when it comes to understanding how to apply those thought processes, the right moment to act, and how to tell if someone is sad, happy, confused or lying, he is at a loss. Therefore to grip onto those situations he tells us what someone else has told him is the best way to read someone, and to read a situation; a smile, teeth showing, lips bent down, hands clenched. Mr Shepherd, who we never meet, but Ted talks about as his teacher from school and one of only three friends at the start of the novel (including his Mum and Dad), comes up as a recurring figure through what he has told Ted to do in different situations and how to read other’s behaviour.

These memorised observations, as we hear Ted think through them, sound like a classic detective trying to emotionally break down his cast of suspects. Therefore there is the interesting combination between Ted’s logical mind, plus what I want to call the ‘received detection’ of those around him. I think this is an striking way of creating a ‘detective’ lead, who deduces through received wisdom. Added to this is Kat, who with her fiery, full hearted, teenage character is the one who kicks things into action each time, chasing down the lead whatever the cost.

Tragically Siobhan Dowd died of cancer in 2007, the same year this book was published, and is a huge loss to us. The Siobhan Dowd Trust was set up in her memory to give more young readers the opportunity to get their hands on books.

I was very sad to think that this would be the end of Ted and Kat’s adventures. But a wonderful light in all of this is that Robin Stevens, another brilliant YA detective fiction writer and author of the hugely popular Murder Most Unladylike series, has been given the opportunity to take on the mantle of the London Eye Mystery, and has written The Guggenheim Mystery which is released this month!

Myself and JJ at The Invisible Event will be interviewing Robin for our Men Who Explain Miracles locked room mystery podcast, so watch this space!