The locked-room mystery has teased the minds of the mystery-reading public for a century, and then another half. Those cases of crimes committed in impossibly locked-and-sealed rooms, or murders in the middle of a patch of snow where the killer left no footprint, represent one of the prevailing sub-genres of the detective story. And for those readers who love the impossible crimes and undoable deeds, names like John Dickson Carr, Clayton Rawson, Edward D. Hoch, and Paul Halter immediately come to mind as beloved practitioners of the form. Today, however, we’re not talking about these maestros of murder.
We’re talking about the bottom of the barrel.
Not, necessarily, the worst stories, but those locked-room mysteries hidden far in the depths of obscurity, known only to Robert Adey himself and few dedicated readers. In this review series we’ll be taking a look at all of the hard-to-find, out-of-print, unanthologized, uncollected, rare, obscure, unpopular, forgotten, or just straight-up random locked-room mystery short story we can get access to that’s been covered in Robert Adey and Brian Skupin’s Locked Room Murders bibliographies, two books which aim to chronicle every locked-room mystery short story in existence. For this project, we’ll be seeing what’s hiding far up Adey’s shorts.
In this review series, every post will focus on five qualifying stories that I’ve selected from Robert Adey’s Locked Room Murders. To rein in the scope of this review, I’ve laid out a few rules for what qualifies to be covered in one of these posts.
Firstly, anything from one of the most popular authors need not apply unless it’s some forgotten, unearthed, or just hard-to-find story from their oeuvre, which we can be reasonably sure I won’t accomplish often. Authors like Agatha Christie, John Dickson Carr, Ellery Queen, Paul Halter, are not only widely accessible and have well-collected short stories, but they’re also very popular, and obviously don’t qualify as “random” or “obscure”.
Any short story collected in the following need not apply:
- Whodunit? Houdini – Thirteen Tales of Magic, Murder, Mystery
- Sleight of Crime – Fifteen Classic Tales of Magic, Mayhem, and Murder
- The Black Lizard Big Book of Locked-Room Mysteries
- The Mammoth Book of Perfect Crimes and Impossible Mysteries
- The Mammoth Book of Locked-Room Mysteries and Impossible Crimes
- Art of the Impossible / Murder Impossible
- Miraculous Mysteries
- Realm of the Impossible
- All But Impossible! An Anthology of Locked Room & Impossible Crime Stories by Members of the Mystery Writers of America
- The Book of Extraordinary Impossible Crimes and Puzzling Deaths
- Locked Room Puzzles
- The Locked Room Reader and its two descendant anthologies
- Passport to Crime, Locked-Room Style: The Complete Stories of Locked-Room International in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine
- Tantalizing Locked Room Mysteries
- Ye Olde Book of Locked-Room Conundrums
- Foreign Bodies
- Locked Rooms and Open Spaces
- any easily-accessible non-locked-room-oriented anthology which happens to contain a locked-room mystery
Basically, nothing contained in any immediately accessible anthologies need apply, for the simple reason that they are readily-accessible and do not qualify as random, obscure, or hard-to-find.
Furthermore, stories collected in authorial short story collections may only apply if it’s true both that the author is sufficiently “random”, and that the locked-room mystery is not the specialization of the author. If the locked-room mystery is a specialty of the author or series, I’d rather review the whole book on its own than randomly isolate stories.
But, ultimately, the final decision comes down to me and if I personally feel like the story qualifies. I may include something that doesn’t seem like it should qualify, and I’m fine with that, as I hope you would be too. While it seems like I threw down a lot of restrictive rules, the goal is still ultimately to have fun and (hopefully) find some hidden gems in the rough.
With all of this out of the way, let’s see what’s up Adey’s shorts first!
We start our adventure up Adey’s shorts with D. L. Champion’s “The Day Nobody Died”, which can be found in the February 1944 issue of Dime Detective February. The story features Champion’s feature bloodhound Inspector Allhof, a persnickety man bitter at life thanks to losing his legs in the line of duty. Due to an ordinance preventing the occupation of police officers without legs, Allhof was fired, but is still paid a salary and privately consulted on murder cases, because the chief of police is damned if he’s going to lose his best man! However, despite this, Allhof is still bitter at his assistant, whom he frequently abuses for what Allhof perceives as him being responsible for him losing his legs.
In “The Day Nobody Died”, a beautiful but crass young woman who is addicted to pills visits Allhof. She tells him that she knows where a murder was committed, who was killed, who committed the crime, why he did it, and how the crime was carried out, but she can’t trust this information to a conventional police officer. She knows the culprit of that murder will soon be after her, so she offers this information to Allhof in exchange for the promise that he’ll protect her life.
However, after only providing him with the address of the crime scene, she dies. She was poisoned by cyanide hidden in one of her pills!
Now forced to investigate without this helpful lead, Allhof sends his two assistants to the crime scene. There they find the door unlocked but barred shut from the inside with a wooden bar that runs the width of the door, and once they manage to break in they find a room hot from the fireplace, a floor covered in candle wax from the hundreds of candles the victim kept, with every other entry locked from the inside, and “a midget”, shot through the head, lying on the ground… Naturally, this is a locked-room murder, so who committed the murder, how, and why?
This is the very first story I read, chosen entirely at random, and I was actually quite shocked to find that I really did enjoy this one. No, it’s not some unearthed gem of the locked-room mystery, but it’s definitely only just a step or two beneath that distinction.
This is a very cerebral mystery story, the sort of tale that crossed-wires between the contemporary pulp thriller and the fairly-clued Golden Age puzzle plot, the sort often successfully done by Roger Ormerod and Bill Pronzini, and it’s surprisingly multi-faceted, containing not only a locked-room murder, but also a killer with an airtight alibi.
The locked-room mystery itself has a mechanical solution that functionally resembles a very old trick to lock a door from the outside, but the dressing-up of this trick is actually incredibly novel, and informs new kind of clues to resolve this old mechanism. The alibi is less novel, but the clues hinting towards it, while obvious, are conceptually really cute. But the highlight of the story is the clue of a letter purported to have been written by George Washington himself, which Allhof enigmatically says was written on “the day nobody died…”. This aspect of the story is incredibly unfair, but the explanation for how Allhof deduces what he does about the letter is extremely smart and satisfying.
For all that, “The Day Nobody Died” isn’t a perfectly inspired locked-room mystery by any means, but it’s a surprisingly competent and fairly novel one, and a pretty decent start to this review series. It’s one I’m surprised hasn’t been anthologized (but for that, I’m sure we can blame the endlessly aggravating character of Allhof…).
I found around 200 qualifying short stories for this project, so from here on out, I like to play a fun little word-association game to decide the next story to read. This story involves a piece of Washingtonia, so what’s more natural than…
“George Washington, Detective” by Steven Peters, which was published in the August 1967 issue of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine. It is Christmas Eve of 1776, and the English soldiers are badly beating the Revolutionary soldiers of America. The American forces allowed a spy, committed to the gallows, to escape. The American troops were all but ready to sacrifice their dream of a free America, but General George Washington is soon to host a council-of-war at the home of General Greene to decide the next move against the British: the day after Christmas, while the British are recovering from holiday merriment, the American forces will march on Trenton and surprise their unprepared forces.
During the preparation for the council-of-war, a very snowy December night, a man claiming to be a booktaker arrives at Greene’s home and says he stabled his horses, and begs Washington for food and a bed. In exchange, he has sensitive information on the British he is willing to share, and naturally is accepted into the home.
This council of war, attended by Lieutenant Caldwell and Major Anderson, however, is interrupted, as Lieutenant Caldwell hears the booktaker spying at the door of the dining room. Caldwell chases the spy upstairs, and into the guestroom, where he is shot nonfatally in the shoulder. When Anderson and Washington arrive at the room, the door is locked shut from the inside and needs to be broken in. Upon doing so, the delirious Caldwell tells them the spy vanished from the room. And, lo and behold, the spy’s horses have vanished, ridden off back to the British, ruining the American army’s chances of a surprise onslaught…
As the title suggests, “George Washington, Detective” features George Washington… in the capacity of a detective. In addition to a locked-room mystery, it is also a historical mystery story focusing on a murder amidst spies and war during America’s Revolutionary War.
From the title alone, I was prepared to dislike this story. The idea of George Washington acting as a “detective” (a term that didn’t exist yet in 1776) felt like it could’ve easily devolved into corny nonsense, a caricature of a wigged president speaking in exaggerated Revolutionary English while solving an anachronistic crime. Surprisingly, though, the murder mystery fits snugly into its historical, wartime context, and George Washington’s role as a “detective” is incredibly natural in the story.
The detection (and, by extension, the clues) is actually incredibly thin. This is a short story, a little under 8 pages, and most of the crime is delegated to the backmost 4 pages. There really are no clues to speak of, as George Washington, in his role as General, merely makes decisions from common sense and “what has to be true”. As a consequence, it can be understood that the method by which this impossible vanishing was conducted isn’t very inspired or difficult to figure out, and you won’t be be bowled over by the reasoning.
But what makes “George Washington, Detective” work so surprisingly well is the historically-informed motive. The reason this crime was committed at all makes for a genuinely brilliant piece of historical plotting, and is a little more clever than the implied crime would let on. No, this isn’t some great, hidden impossible crime story, but the motive elevates “George Washington, Detective” to a surprisingly decent historical mystery, especially for being the author’s first story (published alongside his also-first story in the same issue…) This well-written wartime murder mystery is recommended to anyone with an interest in the Revolutionary period of American history!
And since this murder takes place on the cusp of Christmas Day, of course the next story we’ll be reading is none other than…
“The Santa Claus Killer” by Mel D. Ames, collected in the December 1981 issue of Mike Shayne’s Mystery Magazine. “The Santa Claus Killer” is one of Mel D. Ames’s many holiday-themed mysteries, starring his strong and womanly Detective-Lieutenant Cathy Carruthers. It is, yet again, Christmas Eve, but this is not a time for merriment, as Carruthers’s subordinate, Detective-Sergeant Mark Swanson, bursts through her door with a shocking declaration: “Lieutenant, someone just killed Santa Claus!”
…Or, it’s more accurate to say, someone killed the paraplegic Nathan P. Martindew, the manager of the famous Martindew’s department store where the annual Christmas tradition was “of legendary acclaim”. Nathan Martin was dressed-up as Santa in his arc-spinning wheel-chair, waving to dozens of people from the window of the empty section of the store labeled “Santa’s Workshop”, when he was strangled to death. Worse yet, although the crime was committed in front of countless witnesses, none of them can claim to have seen the killer! A murder seemingly committed by an invisible perpetrator on Christmas Eve..?
This is a very poorly-written story, one that feels too much like an author who knows nothing about pulp trying to capture the genre’s hard-boiled atmosphere without really understanding what makes it work. Every character’s dialogue reads like the same archetypical “uber-tough, posturing, self-important cop” plastered onto different names, with supposed “witty comebacks” that are so wordy anyone in the real world would be bored before they were offended. They actually read like a teenager who found his writer dad’s Thesaurus trying to put you into your place on Twitter.com (no, not in a good way). If you need to practice for the eye-rolling olympics, this might be a story for you.
There also just isn’t a lot of Christmas in this story. It’s obvious that the Santa’s Workshop setting was here to facilitate the murder method, and Mel D. Ames had no real interest (or ability) to write a spirited seasonal mystery. I was really disappointed to not read a story that actually involved the murder of the honest-to-God Santa, or just anything approaching a meaningful application of the Christmas set-piece outside of a cynical “well, I needed [redacted], and a Santa’s Workshop in a story would have [redacted], so let’s write a Christmas story”. It’s just dry. And I’m usually happy to read a dry mystery, but not when the dry story is also poorly-written and littered with exhausting characters, and not when the dry mystery uses as a set-piece a holiday that, frankly, deserved better.
As for the impossible murder itself… I mean, it’s not bad. I’ve seen variations on the concept before, and I think given the context of the murder anyone should be able to figure it out very easily, but as obvious as it is it’s not one of the age-old cheap-outs we all know and love to hate, and it shows some mild creativity as far as plotting is concerned. The murder method is mechanical, but it’s a mechanism organically informed by the environment of the crime scene as opposed to the killer building a “self-destroying commit-the-crime machine” from pieces they carted to the murder site, which earns the solution some points in my estimation. It’s not great or inspired, but it’s a natural, reasonable, and solid explanation for the impossibility, and I thought it worked well enough. Shame that the story isn’t great to read, though…
This story features a womanly sleuth, so for our next story I think it’s only natural we read…
“A Lesson for a Lady”, one of the many anonymously-written stories featuring Dixon Hawke, published in Dixon Hawke’s Casebook No. 20.
While attending a lecture on cinema’s place in modern culture at the Wellingtree Arts Club, a high-culture society interested in encouraging the enduring production and enjoyment of art in its many forms, Dixon Hawke bares witness to an audacious crime!
Lady Diana Dayton, who married the Lord Dayton for his money, loves to show off her exquisite jewelry she got as a wedding gift, despite her husband’s warnings that the frivolous presentation of her diamonds will only serve make her a target for unsavory thugs. She refused to relent, but soon learns what the Lord meant when, during the cinema lecture, the lights suddenly turn off, and the jewelry is snatched right off her neck! Fortunately, renowned private detective Dixon Hawke is on the scene to set right to wrongs.
…This one’s bad, and only debatably an impossible crime, regardless of what Adey says. The impression I get from the story is that the impossibility is supposed to be the disappearance of gems from a well-guarded room, and the Locked Room Murders bibliography confirms this, but the impossibility is never officially established. Dixon Hawke solves the crime just as the official police officer is about to conduct a search of everyone’s person (so before it can be confirmed nobody is hiding it in their pockets). The detective also openly admits to having no way to ascertain whether or not someone left the room before the doors were guarded, and that he’ll just “work under that assumption” because… he wants to. It’s not really an impossible crime, but more “a crime which contains a solution which just so happens to resemble what could’ve been a solution to an impossible crime that may have been made out of the set-up of this story”…
Speaking of the solution, it is disappointing, almost inevitably. I’d go so far as to call it insultingly banal. There are two clues total established in this very short tale, neither of which stand-up as conclusive, interesting, or creative, and neither of which are actually given to the audience, making this a pure pulp detective story with none of the pleasures of puzzle-solving.
Worse yet, the title of the story — “A Lesson for a Lady” — made me chuckle, because there was a very obvious motive for the crime that I considered as a possibility, and I had thought the title unceremoniously spoiled this part of the mystery’s solution. …Instead, once you reach the denouement, you learn that not only is that implied solution not true, but the title is actually incredibly silly and makes no sense contextualized to the resolution. Not even a little bit.
Anyway, “A Lesson for a Lady” is the worst one of these stories, and it’s not even close.
The crime involved the theft of jewelry, Lady Diana Dayton’s favorite accessory, so of course our final story for today is…
“Accessory After the Fact” by Samuel Hopkins Adams, published in the October 1949 issue of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine.
A man and his uncle feud every time he visits his uncle’s apartment, so it’s to nobody’s surprise when the man one day gives up the peace and stabs his uncle to death in his living room. The stairs to the apartment complex were guarded by the narrator’s wife, who was selling stickers to coming-and-goers, so nobody else could’ve committed the murder, leaving the nephew as the natural suspect. However, although he’s the sole person capable of committing this crime, there’s one hang-up stopping anyone from making an arrest: the murder weapon is gone, and a search around the grounds of the apartment complex find nowhere it could’ve been hidden, stashed, or thrown… So, of course, either someone else somehow impossibly committed the crime, or the knife was impossibly disposed of by the known guilty party, but either way you cut it, the crime is an enigma.
This is the shortest of the five stories we’ve read, coming in at under four pages long, so there really isn’t much to say about it.
I had low expectations for the story, purely from the fact that less-than-four pages isn’t enough to allow a decent locked-room mystery puzzle to marinate, but this story was surprisingly solid. A very cute solution to the impossible disappearance of the knife is established by an impressively efficient set of clues. It isn’t groundbreaking or majorly innovative in any way, mind you, but it’s a cute and novel variation I’ve never seen before on this particular trick, making this a short-but-sweet locked-room mystery short story.
In all honesty, when I started this little series, I expected that, on average, I would be reading a lot of bad, and that the great, good, or even decent stories would be few and far between. Pleasantly, though, I’m really enjoying the stories so far. So far, only one or two of the stories have yet relied on the basic, cheap, cop-out solutions we’ve come to expect from the worst of the genre, and aside from “A Lesson for a Lady” I walked away from each of these tales finding at least a small kernel of goodness and creativity. I really should give our lesser-known authors more credit in the future!
Inversely, though, I didn’t find anything I’d consider a “hidden gem”. Nothing here represents the kind of ingenuity we expect from the genre, instead mostly being comfortable in the realms of mildly amusing variations on typical concepts we’re all familiar with, and I wouldn’t recommend any of these stories unambiguously to anyone as yet not initiated into impossible crimes. What I can say, though, is that if I were to edit a locked-room mystery anthology, compiling only stories I’ve read in my “Up Adey’s Shorts” reviews, so far I would seriously consider “An Accessory After The Fact”, “The Day Nobody Died”, and “George Washington, Detective” potential and likely candidates!
If you think of any qualifying stories you’d like for me to read, let me know below and I’ll certainly try to check them out as soon as possible. With nearly 200 stories to select from, it’s hard to decide where to start! Keep my above rules in mind, and perhaps try to keep stories restricted to those published in magazines rather than authorial collections.
Anyway, without further stalling, I’ll now cover my organized ranking of the covered stories. I look forward to seeing what ghastly murders and impossible crimes come our way in the future. Happy reading, and happy sleuthing!
- “The Day Nobody Died” by D. L. Champion
- “Accessory After the Fact” by Samuel Hopkins Adams
- “George Washington, Detective” by Steven Peters
- “The Santa Klaus Killer” by Mel D. Ames
- “A Lesson for a Lady” by Anonymous (Dixon Hawke)