On A Defense of the Impossible Alibi Problem and “Doylist” Impossibilities

There’s been no end to the ingenuity of the impossible crime genre. When you see murders committed inside of perfectly sealed rooms, and stabbings in virgin snow where the killers leave no footprints, you’re only taking the daintiest of baby-steps down the iceberg of magic murders. Take a few steps further and you’ll find yourself barreling into the realms of animated murderous snowmen, disappearing hotel rooms, witchery, teleportation, telekinesis, premonitory dreams, apparitions, flying men, transmogrification, impossible golf shots, men dying from falls when there’s no elevated surfaces for miles, time travel, people running through solid brick walls, and even the apparently magical disintegration of a man in front of witnesses. All of which, mind you, must be explained through perfectly human means without reliance on far-fetched science-fiction technology or preternatural agency — or, if sci-fi tech and ghostly happenings are commonplace in your world, their rules must still be adhered (and are usually exploited to establish the impossibility…). A whole world of man-made miraculous murders that would have the skeptics of our world taken aback! When you imagine the impossible crime problem, you imagine a scenario which absolutely cannot be taken at face value, and which the characters in the story have to battle with the reality of, whether it’s through disproving the supernatural or an ostensible suicide. There’s an impossible crime tale for damn near every insane scenario under the sun a person could think of. However, there’s one situation which is so sedate in its presentation, and which, in our world, wouldn’t make anyone bat an eye, that has been something of a point of contention in the impossible crime world: the impossible alibi problem.

The “impossible alibi” puzzle comes is essentially this: we know that the killer has to be this specific person (or someone among a closed circle of suspects with proximity to the crime), usually by insistence of the book or narrator, but this specific person (or every person in aforementioned closed circle of suspects) has an apparently unassailable alibi. Usually, this alibi is vouched for and reaffirmed in some way by the narration — when the guilty party is definitely one specific person, the book also usually goes an extra step to assure the reader they aren’t being hoodwinked and that the crux of the puzzle turns decidedly on this person’s guilt. Consider if you will Columbo, where they always open an episode by revealing the killer and how they carried out the crime, and the puzzle is in figuring out how Columbo solves the mystery — the “howcatchem”. By then removing the actual knowledge of how the killer committed the crime from the formula and giving them an airtight alibi, the “impossible alibi” problem can straddle the howcatchem with the locked room mystery with ease.

What I would say makes it hard to see this problem as “an impossible crime”, per se, is that if the crime were to occur in our world we would simply not pursue it as such — and, save perhaps for the detective, nobody in the book is approaching it from that angle either. Someone who isn’t the suspect could have just as, if not even more easily, committed the crime and the “impossible” problem melts away. The problem is possible… but only so long as you take it as the events of the novel being experienced from the perspective of someone impartially involved with the affair, that is. The murder is only “impossible” to us as readers, and nobody else, and only as long as we wholesale accept a certain premise.

This is far from a fair criticism to levy against the “impossible alibi” plot. Consider if you will what I like to call “The Judas Window Problem”: a murder is committed in a locked and sealed room, only of course, inside of the room isn’t just the victim’s body, but also a living individual presumed to commit the crime; it is only when we accept that this person is innocent that the crime takes on its “impossible bend”. In many cases, there does end up being some physical evidence at least lightly suggesting that the person in the room is innocent, but there are also more than a few cases where there isn’t and the detective investigates more out of personal interest. Does it stop being an “impossible crime” story simply because you’re missing hard, physical proof the suspect is innocent? Does it become “a totally possible crime which only incidentally features a sealed room and the exact kind of trick that would be used to commit a locked-room murder elsewise” simply because the book expects us to accept some premise that wouldn’t necessarily be accepted within the confines of the story? If it feels like we’re suddenly splitting hairs here, why is it suddenly a different story when we’re expected to accept one person’s innocence, when the alibi problem is only the dichotomous opposite of accepting one person’s guilt?

Four years ago, on The Reader is Warned’s post on this very topic, Dan suggests that the “impossible alibi” problem doesn’t deserve to be called an “impossibility” because alibis don’t hold water under scrutiny and are “meant to be broken down” — and, specifically, because the suspects say “I wasn’t there”. There are two points here, “the alibi is meant to be broken” and “alibis are flimsy because they’re based on testimony”, which will be dealt with reversely.

The second point is markedly unfair; there is no novel out there claiming to feature an “impossible alibi” problem where the problem begins and ends with all of the principle suspects saying “I wasn’t at the crime scene, I was in my room!”. A crime where someone is murdered in an immediately accessible location, but everyone promises they were somewhere else with next to no corroborating information would never pass snuff as an “impossible alibi” problem. It’s when other people’s testimony and physical evidence starts to make it appear as if every alibi is assuredly true when the impossibility starts to take form.

Consider Roger Ormerod’s Time to Kill, wherein the detective all but assures us that an ex-convict he’s playing pool with is the culprit of a murder on another floor of the hotel in which they’re playing, which was proven by autopsy to have occurred during the ongoing pool game. Or, the locked-room mystery and impossible-crime story by popular Japanese author NiSiOiSiN, Zaregoto: The Kubikiri Cycle, where one of the crimes is the destruction of the narrator’s friend’s computer while every member of our classically-styled stranded island closed-circle cast testifies that every other person was in the same room at the same time at the critical moment, which is known to be the period of time when everyone was assembled together. Consider Agatha Christie’s “The Christmas Tragedy”, where we’re 100% guaranteed to the identity of the culprit but reliable testimony places him elsewhere at the time of death.

Now, of course, you could argue a lot of things that end up explaining the problem away, even though you seem to have physical evidence and other testimony supporting the alibis. Seemingly reliable testimony was actually fudged to provide the culprit with an alibi; perhaps, somehow, the time of death was obfuscated; perhaps the killer used some bizarre, unknown trick to make it look like he’s in one place when really he isn’t; perhaps the killer wore a disguise; perhaps a once-thought-dead individual in a closed-circle is actually alive, having faked their death; perhaps the crime was committed remotely through some unknown means.

…Which brings us to the first of the earlier two points. Yes, these are all possible explanations to the “impossible alibi” problem… but they’re also all possible solutions to any other number of impossible crimes! Any trick you use to commit a murder under these conditions will, like it or not, play under the same rules, with the same train of thought as the resolutions to any impossible crime, whether it’s a locked-room mystery, guarded rooms, or an invisible killer. I’d go so far as to suggest that a guarded-room mystery is fundamentally exactly the same as some styles of the impossible alibi problem in terms of how the impossibility is established and how it can be resolved. The possibility of faking alibis doesn’t preclude these sorts of problem from impossibility status, because the very heart of impossible crimes is “an entirely possible series of events fraudulently established as apparently ‘impossible'”. All impossible crimes are built on the conceit of the situation being faked in some way; there’s no reason to discriminate against the airtight alibi on these grounds, when there’s sufficient supporting information making every alibi apparently airtight and credible. Is the killer never committing murder despite being in front of the detective’s face at the key moment not impossible enough?

The “impossible alibi” differs in no way from any other impossible problem.

Does it require the onus of special care in setting up the alibis to truly and properly make them appear reliable and airtight? Yes, but in very much the same way guarded rooms demand the onus of special care in establishing the faithfulness of the guards, the way that the Judas Window problem demands special care in establishing the innocence of the person locked inside of the room, or the same way that locked-room murders demand special care in establishing when, where and how the door was locked, the same way that snowprint murders demand special care in establishing when the footprints were created and when the snow stopped…

Can the information that establishes the alibis as credible be forged? Yes. The same way the details the establishes the lockedness of a locked-room, or the nature of a snowprints mystery can be faked and forged. Faking the details and making them appear reliable is quite literally the heart of misdirection and deception. All details can be faked, forged, and tricked, not much more more difficultly than an alibi could be — and all deceptions which are considered true and proper solutions to each and every single one!

Does it demand extra conditions to function as an impossibility for the reader? Yes; in fact, it’s the perfect polar opposite to the Judas Window problem. One demands you accept the guilt of a person known to be inside of the room; the other demands you accept the innocence of a person known to never be at the crime scene.

At this point, I propose establishing categories of impossible crimes dubbed “Doylist” and “Watsonian”. A “Watsonian” impossible crime is an impossible crime for the benefit of the characters in the story. Your locked-room murders, your snowprint murders. Murders which, should they occur in our own world, would demand acceptance of no conditions beyond the existence of the crime itself to be considered “impossible”. The “Doylist” impossible crime is an impossible crime for the benefit of the readers. Murders which demand acceptance of some additional premise which nobody in the story is obligated to accept but which we, as readers, must note when considering the problem. Naturally, the impossible alibi falls under this category, but it is not alone; the “Judas Window Problem” falls under this category. I’d also argue defensible coincidences, like “rooms inciting heart attacks”, more than fit here, for demanding the reader accept the condition that there is foul play, and that it involves the “killer” room. Guarded rooms also demand to some degree our acceptance that the “guards” are reliable and faithful for the impossibility to function, and many versions of the “invisible killer” problem demand our good faith that the crimes aren’t suicides or that witnesses aren’t lying.

The “impossible alibi” is more than deserving of being considered an impossible crime problem, true and proper, even if it does demand the special “Doylist” distinction — something which it wouldn’t even be the first to do. Any mystery where the problem relies on the assurance that the killer is one specific individual, or one among a static group… and where sufficient evidence is provided to allow that the killer could never have even approached the crime scene… is as worthy of its impossible status as any other. In solidarity with the “impossible alibi” problem, I will use it as a category for “impossible crimes” in this blog from this point going further, as long as I feel comfortable asserting that the novel does in fact create an impossible situation from the alibi problem, or as long as someone doesn’t convince me that I’m wrong.

So, what do you say? Do you believe that the “impossible alibi” problem is a fair classification of impossible crime, or should it stay firmly out of the realm of the impossible for good…?

On 50 Locked Room Solutions of Our Own

Late last year, I saw the Van Dine and Ronald Knox commandments for writing mystery fiction and, with no credentials, qualifications, published history or authority in the genre, decided to take a stab at proposing my own set of rules in On A Decalogue of Our Own. With even less in the way of credibility behind me, just two months before that I made a post to the Golden Age Detection Facebook group where I challenge the locked room taxonomies of Locked Room King John Dickson Carr and the late, but still highly-regarded, widely-read and deeply-esteemed locked room mystery historian Robert Adey. Where Carr suggested eight, and then Adey twenty, I set out with the conceit of naming no less than fifty unique prospective solutions to the three major schools of impossible crime.

I can safely say, and would like to say early, that I absolutely do not believe that my knowledge of the impossible problem comes close to Robert Adey’s, nor do I think that I ever will have the opportunity to even humor the idea of rivaling him. Robert Adey was clearly no less than a hundred times as dedicated to the craft as anyone I’ve known. This “challenge” of his taxonomy was more in good-humor than anything. The Adey taxonomy was broad but inexhaustive, likely for the purpose of just capturing the quintessential 20 solutions; it was efficient for the right reasons. I wanted to take the idea to its (absurd) logical extreme and try my hand at a more exhaustive list of the conceivable possibilities, whether or not they’re frequent or whether or not there’s even a single novel out there to employ them. Rather than Adey’s task of efficiently, economically and academically conveying a clear idea about the genre, this is more like On A Decalogue of Our Own where I claim no authority and simply wanted to engage in a fun thinking/creativity exercise. For purposes of discussing the genre in its historical sense, I will always defer to Adey’s taxonomy before my own.

Below is a direct 1:1 copy-paste of the post as it appeared in the Facebook group, with changes to the taxonomy made to reflect some very helpful feedback from Scott Ratner. These changes include removing one of the original Adey 20, and consolidating a few groups of similar solutions into more broad but inclusive language. Furthermore, a solution proposed by Jack Hamm is incorporated.

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When Dr. Fell, as the voice of John Dickson Carr, gave a lecture on the nature of the locked room problem in The Hollow Man, he theorized that the locked room mystery had only 8 basic solution types separated between rooms that are and are not hermetically sealed. Lectures by fictional detectives along a similar line appeared in Anthony Boucher’s Nine Times Nine and Clayton Rawson’s Death from a Top Hat, but analysis of the genre didn’t reach its opus until the release of Locked Room Murders. Locked Room Murders a (thoroughly informative) bibliography on over 2000 locked room mysteries and their solutions wherein the author and late disciple of the locked room mystery Robert Adey provides a consolidated list of 20 solutions to the impossible problem of escaping from a perfectly sealed room.
In my infinite hubris, I decided to take the genre by the horns and top Adey’s own list with my own contribution of no less than 50 locked room mystery solutions, not only expanding upon the possibilities with the traditionally sealed room, but also exploring solutions unique to the “footprints in the sand” locked room and “guarded room” problems. The solutions are suitably categorized

UNIVERSAL SOLUTIONS

Included here are solutions which are applicable to at least two of the three locked room solutions dealt with. Traditional “fully sealed” rooms are marked with an “A”, guarded rooms “B” and snowprint locked rooms a “C”.

1: An accident or a series of accidents within the room led to the victim’s death. (ABC)
2: The victim committed suicide; he or a third person may later go on to stage it as a homicide. (ABC)
3: A secret passageway exists that permits entrance into and out of the room. (AB)
4: Victim accomplice. The victim didn’t commit suicide, but instead aided his killer, unwitting or otherwise. After he was wounded or otherwise prepared to die, the victim would create the impossible scenario. (ABC)
5: Some mechanical device or trap was set-up before the room was sealed which would kill the victim. (ABC)
6: The killer utilized imprecise and indirect methods that impact the whole or a large portion of the room through doors and windows, i.e. mass electrocution, oxygen vacuum, incredible extremes of temperature, poisonous gas etc. (AB) (Snowprint mysteries usually rely on the victim being murdered in close quarters, making this not viable as a means to establish the impossible scenario. Furthermore, while it can also be used in guarded rooms, it is not discrete and would likely notify the “guards” as well, but is still partially viable)
7: The victim was murdered before the locked room was created, but falsely made to look alive later. (ABC)
8: The victim was murdered after the locked room was opened, but falsely made to look dead earlier. (ABC)
9: The killer hid in the room and evaded discovery during initial searches of the crime scene. (ABC)
10: The killer murdered the victim from outside of the room by shooting, stabbing or launching the weapon into the room, or otherwise directly targeting them from outside; the murder was made to appear as if it happened from inside of the room. (ABC)
11: An animal which is capable of things a human is not committed the crime and escaped the room, or otherwise acted as an accomplice to the crime. The room is only considered “locked” because it is impossible for a human to escape. (ABC)
12: An acrobatic maneuver was used to escape the room in a way impossible for the typical human. (ABC)
13: When a locked room isn’t observed by the sleuth before re-entrance, the belief that a locked room mystery occurs is a lie imparted by key witnesses, the culprit and/or the victim, including but not limited to faked death. In other words, the case is a lie with varying degrees of fictionality. (ABC)
14: The room was destroyed or otherwise deconstructed from the inside and reconstructed from the outside. (AB)
15: The victim was convinced, coerced or forced to partially exit the room or take an unusual position so that an attack that would otherwise be/seem impossible could be made. (ABC)
16: The room is not stationary. The movement of the room permitted the killer to leave the room. (AB)
17: The room is not mundane. Some strange quality of the room was used to kill the victim. In other words, the room is the murder weapon. (ABC)
18: An identical room is employed to confuse witnesses. (AB)
19: The killer is in the room, and in plain sight; however, the killer is falsely exonerated due to a fundamental misunderstanding of the crime including, but not limited to, the gender/appearance of the killer, the motive of the criminal, or the killer victimizing themselves so that they are incapacitated or otherwise appear incapable of committing the murder, (ABC)
20: The room was constructed around the victim after the murder. (may demand a more metaphorical definition of “room”). (ABC)


A-TYPE SOLUTIONS

These are solutions which are only applicable to the traditional problem of a room locked perfectly room the inside.
21: Key is turned from other side of the door, by pliers or similar, picking of the lock, or other means of gimmicking a door, including the “credit card trick”.
22: The door was locked from the outside; the key was replaced inside of the room after the room is opened, so that upon discovery it looked as if the door was locked from within.
23: The door was locked from the outside; the key was replaced inside of the room before the room is opened, so that upon discovery it looked as if the door was locked from within.
24: The culprit, who is the only person who can lock the door from the outside, is provided with a false alibi at the time of the murder.
25: The killer pretended to break an already broken lock or chain to make an unsealed room appear sealed. Elsewise, the “fake keyturn” trick.
26: The room was “untraditionally locked” in a way that can be either performed from outside of the room without a key, including powerful adhesives or moving furniture; witnesses are misled to believe the door was locked.
27: The key inside the room, or another object, is believed to be the key to the room; it is not.
28: The murder happened while the door was open, but in such a way where the death resulted in the door being shut.


B-TYPE SOLUTIONS


Represented here are solutions that only apply to locked rooms that are created by the room being watched and guarded by witnesses.
29: The killer is exonerated by not having something the killer is assumed to have (i.e., stolen goods in a locked room robbery, or an impossible-to-dispose-of weapon); the item is disposed of from inside of the room, cleverly smuggled, or disguised.
30: A distraction allows the killer to leave unnoticed.
31: Witnesses don’t take note of the killer due to classist divides and/or psychological principles of incongruity (the bellboy would certainly enter a hotel room, so the bellboy is not noticed).
32: The killer leaves by a route observed solely by accomplices.
33: The killer leaves because their route is temporarily obscured from sight.
34: The killer leaves by an opaque container that is removed from the room.
35: The killer is one of the people guarding the room, left unattended due to trust or status.
36: Disguises, gimmicked voices and other impersonation stunts allow the killer to escape the room.
37: The killer used sleight of hand to commit the murder in front of people without being seen.
38: The killer used a tool in order to commit the murder in front of people without being seen (i.e. fake hand).
39: Mirrors were employed to confuse witnesses as to the location of the killer, victim, or the room itself.


C-TYPE SOLUTIONS

Included below are solutions which are exclusively applicable to the problem of “the victim is killed in close quarters in snow/sand/dust/powder but there’s no footprints”. For purposes of brevity, the snow/sand/dust/powder will herein be referred to as “the substance” (roughly equivalent to “the room” in universal solutions).
40: The killer wore their victim’s shoes.
41: The killer had some means of crossing the substance without leaving marks.
42: Aerial movement; the killer used an elevated surface or machine to move above the substance.
43: The killer walked backwards so that it looked like the footprints were caused only when discovering the body.
44: The killer did leave marks, but hid them until after discovery of the body so that it looked like they were created then.
45: The victim was murdered elsewhere and was slung, launched, swung, dropped or thrown into the substance without otherwise marking it.
46: The killer used cleverly crafted shoes or stilts to disguise their footprints as other markings (like animal prints).
47: The killer was at the crime scene before the substance was placed down and left after the crime using a route that doesn’t disturb the substance and would be inaccessible without doing so if the killer hadn’t already been present.
48: The killer erased their footprints.
49: The victim was murdered remotely, made to appear as if it happened in close proximity. The wound that appears to prove the crime happened up close was inflicted posthumously, after the body is discovered. Elsewise, a fatal projectile (such as an arrow) was removed upon discovery of the body to make the wound appear direct (like a stabbing), or a remote gunshot was doctored to appear as if shot from close-quarters, perhaps through false ballistic burns, or other means of gimmicking/forging the wound. (remarkably similar in 10, distinct in that 10 deals with the nature/location of the weapon itself, whereas 49 deals in the nature of the fatal wound. Furthermore, 10 assumes the presence of the weapon, whereas 49 typically assumes the disappearance of the weapon)
50: The killer walked over the same footprints so much that their footprints would be falsely identified as the victim’s; especially reliable if the victim is seen stumbling over themselves.

On My Hiatus and Return (& Future Projects)

It’s been a little over three months since I last posted anything, and since I’ve also been a bit quieter than I liked on the Facebook group I figured a quick update on my situation would be a good segue back into regular updates. This isn’t a strictly mystery-related post, but I DO discuss some of my upcoming mystery-related projects, such as a novel, later down on the post. This post mostly exists as a form to explain my disappearance, and my plans to recover.

The Hiatus

Like many people, my mental health has significantly dipped going into and through the COVID-19 pandemic, but I already wasn’t doing great to begin with. A lot of depression and anxiety has built up over the years, and COVID-19 coming about right as I entered university with much already on my chest really put a crimp into my productivity. I was already struggling to keep up with my course work, and unfortunately the added academic pressure made it extremely hard for me to engage with pastimes I typically would use to relax myself. That means that since I last uploaded a blog post, I haven’t even had the time to sit down and read so much as a lone mystery short story, and since I haven’t been reading or even thinking about mysteries that also meant I had no material for the blog that anyone would be interested in reading.

As of yesterday, my coursework for the semester is finished and I won’t be back in university for a little over three months, so you can at least expect regular updates every Sunday until then. I’m also attending therapy now, so that set-backs don’t totally unravel my wellbeing like they have been doing until now. So, hopefully, come next semester of university I’ll still be able to be productive in both my coursework and my blog.

Upcoming Blog Posts

The next blog post, signaling the return of my scheduled updates, should come out either very late today (which would be early in the morning, Monday, for European readers, I believe) if everything works out as it should, but the worst-case scenario is that it comes out Sunday, next week. Since I don’t have anything substantial or unique to talk about, the post will just be a polished version of the locked room solution taxonomy I posted to the Facebook group many years back, where I try my hands at naming 50 unique impossible crime solutions between the problems of locked rooms, guarded rooms, and footprints in the sand.

Beyond that, I have a substantial reading list to make my way through. The Locked Room International library hasn’t run dry for me, yet, nor has the Vertigo translations. I still also fully intend on reading Norman Berrow’s The Bishop’s Sword for review. Plans exist for me to review individual stories within anthologies, with special interest in tackling the Otto Penzler Black Lizard Big Book of Locked Room Mysteries anthology. I also intend to write a review of vaguely Golden Age mystery video game series Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney.

Outside of reviews and moving more towards my discussion posts, I don’t have as much to talk about. As something of a follow-up to On Magic in Murder, I want to discuss the GURPS Mysteries tabletop RPG rulebook, which was written more with the conceit of being a handbook on how to plot and style mysteries (with partial focus on, as it calls them, “Golden Age cozies” and locked-room mysteries, which the book refers to as specifically “puzzle mysteries”) more than a roleplaying gamebook. Much to my surprise, the book feels a little more educated on the genre than I expected, though there are some lapses in understanding I want to address. I thought that continuing to explore “mystery-writing guides where I didn’t expect them” would be a fun and unique idea for the blog. I was originally writing a post called On Locked Room Mysteries and their Unique Diminishing Returns, where I discuss the ways that, more than any other type of Golden Age puzzle plot, the impossible crime can become harder to generally enjoy, faster. However, I was writing that on the heels of multiple disappointing reads, including Clayton Rawson’s Death from a Top Hat, and a few sub-par episodes of locked room mystery television, and looking back at my draft of the post it feels more like a petty rant than anything meaningful. I may feel compelled to return to this topic later, but at the moment I don’t. Perhaps something worth talking about will come to me while lurking in the Golden Age Detection Facebook group, or while I do my reading for the blog.

Non-Blog Mystery Projects

This doesn’t strictly concern the blog-goers, but I wanted to talk more about some of my own upcoming projects in the mystery-genre that I think might be of interest to anyone looking for more modern Golden Age-styled crime fiction.

I have been drafting up plans for a little over two years now for a GAD-styled mystery series featuring none other than Signor Rinaldo Allegri, a lanky Italian whose olive complexion perfectly complements his olive-shaped head. He’s something of an affectionate turn on the typical “quirky foreigner” super-detective trope that was originally occupied by Belgian Hercule Poirot, and later lovingly parodied by German Atticus Pundt in The Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz. The character is actually a former car-salesman, and his “quirky foreigner” front is an intentional caricature of himself he puts on for the sole purpose of marketing himself as a detective in the vein of the aforementioned Poirot. The character exists at a time when detective fiction’s fame is in full swing, and he believes that the most marketable thing in the world would be the existence of a real-world superdetective. Allegri believes he’s the one to not only market that detective, but to be the detective. This was all specially designed to allow some meta-textual genre awareness, since “GAD, but not in the way the GAD would have” is, while abstract, broadly a theme in many aspects of my writing.

However, the character has unfortunately been shelved, as my focus has somewhat shifted. A thought that occurred to me a while ago is that I am not a person from the 20th century, and while I am exposed to a lot of writing from that time, I will never be able to emulate the language of someone who lived during the 19th, 20th centuries. I began to worry that there’d be an air of almost inauthenticity to my writing. A 20 year old university student in the 21st century trying to write something like a 40, 50 year old who spent their whole live in the Golden Age would never work — at least, I certainly don’t believe I, personally, have the skillset for it. And writing something that takes place in the 1900’s but with the (adjusted) vernacular of a late millennial also felt odd to me. What’s more, is that most of my earliest mystery influences used more fictionalized, almost toon-ish takes on the real world. Ace Attorney and other modern young-adult Japanese mystery series like Detective Conan or Danganronpa, which were many of my earliest exposures to GAD fiction before I even considered reading these 100 year old novels, are undeniably weird and take place in a world that’s unabashedly a caricature of our own. Set-ups, solutions, scenarios, characters, and even sometimes technology, events, or straight-up anachronistic weirdness that simply wouldn’t abide in a realistic take on our world and CERTAINLY would’ve have flown in the 1930s abound. And I found that in a lot of my writing, I end up veering towards the less strictly accurate or authentic, and more in the direction of the aforementioned Japanese YA mysteries where everything is essentially a creative (even if inaccurate) interpretation of the world. Trying to write authentic GAD mysteries with the GAD aesthetic, given my inspirations in the genre and my inherent writing voice, simply wasn’t working for me.

This all also tied with a thought I’ve been having, where a lot of Golden Age puzzle mysteries are “fantasy, but as close as you’ll get while keeping it in the real world and following real world laws”. The crimes we read about are generally fantastical in the extreme, and oftentimes seem almost unrealistic or implausible. The idea that GAD mysteries are like fantasy, accompanied by my observations of young adult Japanese detective fiction (especially more anime-inspired ones) finally settled with me. And, so, taking the idea of a “caricature of our world” from my influences, I have totally changed gears to writing mysteries that are undeniably GAD-induced — I follow the same conventions, and rules, and laws of mystery writing where they apply, and I make a good faith effort to make the mysteries fairplay — but the setting of my writing is a fictional world. It’s a world that strongly resembles 1930-1960s England, but which is entirely fictional, and where the real world need not apply, it will not. This, I feel, gives me more freedom in culture, technology, and setting in a way that really lets me explore my more fringe ideas like I couldn’t before. This, of course, means that Italy no longer exists, and the character of Rinaldo Allegri can no longer exist within my writing. So while I feel like this revelation about how I want to treat my mystery writing is progress, in a lot of ways it’s also set me back significantly in planning, as I now need to reconceptualize who my detective is, on top of building the world my mysteries are set in.

As for my individual mysteries, I’ve plenty of ideas I can discuss vaguely, but I don’t want to talk too much about them, as a lot of the ideas are simply notebook fillers and are likely to change by the time they’re formally written. In the realms of the “fringe” ideas that my setting specifically exists to allow, I have… a murder by gassing in a hermetically sealed room at an animation studio, with the studio’s mascot sketched in different colors on both sides of the door… a seemingly impossible murder by supposed “firebolt” during a game of Caverns & Crawlers, a fantasy boardgame, where the death also appears to parallel the victim’s in-game defeat… and a murder that nobody saw happen, despite it occurring on camera during the filming of the season finale of The Royal Blunders, a television sitcom where a poor family accidentally inherits the royal title, with the main issue being that the victim was supposed to be feigning death the entire episode, creating a “Schrodinger’s corpse” where over the course of 30 minutes, whenever anyone saw the victim he could’ve been either alive or dead and nobody knows which.

As for my more traditional ideas, I also have… the impossible theft of an executioner’s sword from behind a totally guarded auction-stage, the repurposing of that sword to commit murder inside of a perfectly guarded study, and the subsequent theft of dozens of large items back out of the guarded study without being seen… a woman with a perfect alibi and whom never spoke to anyone of her precognitive dreams perfectly predicting the murder of her friend in his perfectly locked library… and a murder set against a social deduction game a la Werewolf/Mafia.

However, there are three significant projects that I want to discuss in more detail. These are The Sacrifice of Agnes Stanhope, The Mute Speaks Loudly, and Who Killed Annie Hallewelle? Below I’ll include quick, two-paragraph synopses of the projects. These are the three whose notes I’ve developed and explored most intently, and they’re the three I want to talk about as I write them.

The Sacrifice of Agnes Stanhope

A mountain village once lived in fear of Ze’el, an evil spirit in their faith who once walked among them and preyed on the fearful. Only those who locked their doors and windows and showed Ze’el fear, and not respect, would be slaughtered in their homes. It has been years since a young woman placed herself on an altar as a sacrifice to Ze’el, and the cullings have ceased. The fear of Ze’el subsided, and many people in the village have abandoned the idea of an evil spirit altogether. What was once a villain locked in religious terror was on the verge of becoming a secular society…

Until the day it seemed like Ze’el returned. More deaths in locked houses, committed by what seemed like the claws of a horrible beast. Unable to tolerate the raising body count, Agnes Stanhope, famous detractor of the Ze’el faith, swallows her pride and says that on the night of the full moon she’ll go to the decommissioned church that overlooks the village, where the sacrifice of old gave up her life. She’ll lock herself in, and give herself up to Ze’el, and end the killings once and for all…

And morning comes. Her promise has come to fruition. Agnes Stanhope is found inside of the church on the hill, in sacrificial garments, inside of a perfectly locked and sealed room, murdered by horrible lacerations. The only key to the room lay beneath her, shattered in two. And locked inside of the room with her is Agnes Stanhope’s romantic partner, Lincoln, covered in blood who has been branded a worshipper of Ze’el and awaits his cleansing immolation. Granted one letter, he reaches out to a famous detective he’s read about in the papers and begs him to clear his name…

The Mute Speaks Loudly

In a mansion buried in the forests on the fringe of society, the Gladstone family meets for a birthday party. A woman who can’t speak, and dressed only in a tattered cloak showed up at their front door. Feeling the generous spirit, the family invites her in, expecting to let the poor woman in on a delightful celebration, a change of clothes, and a warm bed. Only, in place of revelry, Ellian, the 50 year old man-of-the-hour makes a chilling declaration: “I’ve feared for my life at the hands of my children”.

The Gladstone home houses an unimaginable cache of golden treasure. In the will of every Gladstone family head, he is obligated to put down a hint that’s been passed through the family for generations, and relate it to his children. Ellian himself decided to do this, because he believes in tradition more than anything, but fearing for his life he hade an unsettling impetus to his children. Only half the hint will be contained in the will, and the other half will be revealed on his 50th birthday. If he dies before then, the family will be forever doomed without knowledge of where their true inheritance is. Believing this was sufficient to earn himself a long life, he reveals the first half of the hint… and proceeds to stab himself to death in his locked bedroom that very night, to be found in the morning, damning his children out of their life insurance.

When the executor of his will, his favorite daughter Grace, goes to retrieve the will, she finds it totally missing from the home. A full search is organized… whereupon it’s discovered that Ellian Gladstone is not the only one to have died that night. The mute woman, whom nobody knew, was brutally murdered inside of the Gladstone family’s locked cellar, beat to death over the back of the head by nearly a dozen different glass wine bottles. Unsure of what to make of the situation, a detective is called in to investigate the mystery of the missing will, the multiple deaths, and the question of why the woman whom nobody knew was murdered in so barbaric a fashion.

Who Killed Annie Hallewelle?

It’s been a month since Annie Hallewelle drowned herself, and her body has never been found. Plans for her funeral at the Hallewelle mansion are now underway. However, the plans for her peaceful service are disrupted when Thomas and Serena Sterling get a distressing death threat that Serena swears on their life has been written by Annie Hallewelle, the deceased girl! In the letter, Annie, claims to wish to share her funeral with her closest friends. Thomas thinks someone is playing a cruel-spirited prank on mourners, and he wants a detective to come along to discourage anymore funny business and disprove this whole ghost nonsense to put his sister’s mind at ease. And, on the off-chance someone is planning something more malicious, a famous detective would be the perfect deterrent.

The detective agrees, and attends the funeral where naught suspicious happens. But as soon as the mourners begin to separate, Serena goes upstairs to get proof that Annie wrote the death threat. Minutes pass, and a gunshot rings out, and the detective rushes up to the room the gunshot came from to find a woman who was never on the island or in the house until that moment — a woman who by all accounts simply shouldn’t be able to exist — brandishing a revolver and standing over Ms. Sterling’s corpse, before proceeding to be witnessed running through a solid brick wall by two people on both sides of the wall. When a second murder occurs in a locked room with the victim leaning out of the window, and the trajectory of the bullet suggests that the killer had to have been floating in the air, the mourners begin to accept the story of the vengeful story of the ghost of Annie Hallewelle… only the detective insists upon a human killer.


These three are the projects I’m sinking most of my time into, and I intend to start posting updates, excerpts and teasers on the blog as progress is made. While I’m not sure if it’s conveyed well in these… very rough synopses, all three of them have ideas buried in the investigations and solutions that I’m very proud of, and which I always considered clever personally. I hope that as they’re written and published, followers of the blog enjoy reading my mysteries as much as I’ve enjoyed plotting them out.

That’s all there is to update everyone on regarding my hiatus, my projects, and my plans for the blog. Thank you all for your continued patience, and please look forward to On GURPS Mysteries either tonight or next week.

On Magic in Murder (and why a Magician’s Handbook is the best impossible crime lecture)

Forcing spectators to interpret what they see and hear in ways which they know are false comes as close to genuine magic as we are likely to get.

Henning Nelms (Hake Talbot) in Magic and Showmanship: A Handbook for Conjurers

The very first person to open the discussion on the relation of stage magic to the art of murder was, to the best of my understanding, Clayton Rawson, who was, suitably, as much stage magician as crime writer. Published in 1938, his first novel Death from a Tophat featured the impossible strangulation of a cultist in his perfectly sealed apartment, and was notable for the cast being fully populated by illusionists and magicians, down to the detective The Great Merlini. Merlini would go on to frequently use stage magic as an analog for how one can commit murder in a locked room.

Clayton Rawson would go on to write three more locked room mystery novels and twelve short stories. Six years later, in 1944, another American stage magician by the name of Henning Nelms would publish a locked room mystery under the pseudonym of Hake Talbot, possibly inspired by Rawson’s success. A much more cinematic take on the impossible crime, Rim of the Pit almost convinces the reader that what he’s witnessing is honest-to-god horrors unfurling in the pages! A man appearing to fly after a possession, a locked room murder, and footprints that appear to mysteriously begin and end in otherwise virgin snow, the book takes you along for a ride and you bear witness to spectacles until the curtain calls, the illusion drops, and you’re reminded that it was all just a show. A very similar feat of conviction occurred in his second novel, The Hangman’s Handyman, wherein a man appears to spontaneously decompose! As Talbot himself said in Magic and Showmanship: A Handbook for Conjurers, “forcing spectators to interpret what they see and hear in ways which they know are false comes as close to genuine magic as we are likely to get,” and if that’s the case then it is impossible to deny the magic in this novel. Truly, Talbot took pages from his own magician’s handbook in the writing of Rim of the Pit.

The conversation would hit an awkward pause until many, many years later, when Jonathan Creek hit British television. The show, which in many ways endears itself to the Golden Age classics, features the titular Jonathan Creek, a magician’s assistant who winds up getting himself unfortunately tangled up in many seemingly impossible murders, usually brought to him by his mystery writer friend who uses the cases for inspiration for her work. Just like in the original works of Clayton Rawson, Jonathan Creek uses stage magic as an analog for the illusions involved in committing supposedly supernatural slayings.

Whether you love every of these works, or you hate them all, or you feel they’re a mixed bag, they’re perhaps the most inf an important takeaway here: the only difference between a locked room murder and stage magic is that at the end of one a body appears, truly sawed in half.

What made Hake Talbot’s Rim of the Pit and the subsequent The Hangman’s Handyman such impactful works of impossible crime is the illusion. Where John Dickson Carr presents the impression of the supernatural — a dollop, a taste — Talbot may very well have succeeded in providing a reader with impossible scenarios where he’s truly not sure he’s reading a detective novel or a gothic horror tale. It takes some effort to remember that there are physical, human forces at work and not some puppeteering supernatural foe. This is something Talbot touched upon in Magic and Showmanship, where he posits that a trick makes the observer wonder how it was done, but an illusion convinces the observer that there is no need to wonder: it was simply magic!

To note, Talbot’s mystery writing was well-supplemented by his own technique in creating illusions on the stage. The topic manifests very objectively in Jonathan Creek and The Great Merlini, but in Talbot’s writing it is much more intuitive. To take a look at Magic and Showmanship, the writer of Golden Age-styled mysteries may be entertained to find that the advice is not totally inapplicable to their craft. In fact, to date no novel has been written on the nature of the craft of producing an effective locked room puzzle plot, but if any should there be, Magic and Showmanship is the act to follow!

In Chapter 1 of Magic and Showmanship, Talbot discusses why meaning and context are the greatest parts of engaging people with your illusion. His own example, if you were to approach a man and tell him to check his pocket, and he were to find a ham sandwich, he’d be amazed, but then think “what of it?” Whereas, if a man were to say he was hungry, and you could conjure a ham sandwich for him out of thin air, he’d be amazed and the miracle would have practical meaning! In the world of impossible crimes, very much the same is true.

Say, for example, you have a stunt artist who is tied up to a stake and burnt, and the performer is able to vanish from her bindings without a single burn on her body. The detective may take an interest in it as an intellectual exercise, but why, fundamentally, does this matter to us as readers of impossible crimes? The stakes are nil — it’s simply a passing fancy and interest. Now, let’s say, for example, that the stunt happens near a museum, and she appears to steal a valuable gem! Or, when she vanishes from her bindings, the corpse of a man reappears in her place, burnt to death! Now we’re involved — not only is the illusion spectacular, there’s meaning and stakes to give it authenticity! We no longer feel as if the talent that goes into the impossible is wasted.

For a modern example, Tom Mead wrote for Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine a locked room short story called “The Indian Rope Trick” wherein a magician claims to have perfected an old trick where a rope sticks straight up into the air, an assistant climbs up, and then vanishes! This alone is a spectacular magic trick, but not in itself impetus for investigation when the assistant simply shows back up. However, when the magic trick appears to have coincided with a murder, there’s finally extra meaning to the illusion!

Two chapters down the line, he deconstructs what gives an illusion meaning. The phenomena itself needs to be engaging, naturally. And, prior to performing it, the magician needs a suitable cause to be presenting this trick. He is no longer a magician, but a man claiming to have evidence of the supernatural! And, finally, physical evidence that can be misconstrued as true evidence of the supernatural at play.

While in a locked room mystery, the motive is revealed near the end and not at the beginning, it’s very much true that priming for the phenomena is something that gives it more impact. In the book he mentions that a man can either pretend to be a fanatic wanting to prove astrology true or a disparager attempting to prove it is absolutely silly. In both cases, the performer will introduce an illusion which appears to vindicate astrology. In a locked room mystery, to be presented with a supposed curse, or stories of a vampire, or the bold claims of a man that he can summon demons gives the locked room much more impact than just a supposedly impossible crime that seems to just happen. And, I don’t think I need to explain this, but the whole section wherein he discusses misleading evidence is such a clear analog for red herrings in mystery writing that it’s insane.

Every chapter of Magic and Showmanship is ripe with similar such advise that is designed for the illusionist and show magician, but can easily be repurposed into advice for writing your locked room murder. There are twenty-two chapters and every one of them has given me a little something to consider. I obviously will not explain the conversion for every chapter, as this post has gone on long enough, but I would like to note another book I purchased on the subject.

Mark Anthony Wilson wrote a book called The Complete Course in Magic wherein he gives the reader a cornucopia of tricks and illusions to employ, not the least of which include summoning people from a box proven to be empty and have no secret holes on it, inexplicably trading places with another person in front of a audience and vanishing a person who sat in a chair far away from any possible obstructions!

In a work-in-progress project of mine tentatively called The Final Execution, I write of a solicitor who is called to purchase an artifact claiming to be the last executioner’s sword ever used in Europe from a historical antiquities auction. The item was stored in a windowless, single-doored room behind a stage and was in plain sight of nearly a hundred auction-goers, and yet it is somehow stolen! The sword itself reappears inside of the solicitor’s client’s study where it subsequently was used to behead the victim! The study was also perfectly guarded by the victim’s family and who swear nobody entered the room that could be a killer.

Both tricks, involving witnesses instead of impossible scenarios happening when nobody is around, were inspired by illusions and lectures provided in The Complete Course in Magic and Magic and Showmanship. It is for this reason that I think that the latter of these two may be the best lecture on the impossible crime ever written, and it didn’t even mean to be! The former, an accidental taxonomy of impossible crime solutions.

A loving message to any budding writer of locked rooms and impossible crimes: buy these books and become a magician. It’ll do you some good.

On A Decalogue of Our Own

Back in 1929, priest, crime writer, Detective Club member Father Ronald Knox penned ten so-called commandments for the drafting of proper crime fiction, often remembered in their incredibly abridged forms. Martin Edwards’s own book The Golden Age of Murder implies that the jury is out on whether Father Knox was being entirely serious with these rules, but that didn’t stop other crime writers from taking up the mantle and putting forth their own opinions on what makes the ideal detective story, as evidenced by American writer S. S. Van Dine’s far less playful ruleset.

Serious or not, there’s a little something to be said about rules as a guideline, if not as hard-set laws, especially for a genre seen as “sporting” as the Golden Age detective novel often was. What is a game (even a metaphorical one) without some mutual understanding between the players? And if nothing else, take it as advice from experts, and with all tips of the trade you are free to take them, or not. I don’t think rules should be touted as absolute, nor do I think that works should be criticized for breaking them, but to admonish them as elitist or pointless is a bit narrow-minded.

As a part of a mental exercise a few years ago, I took up the task of writing my own “Decalogue” — a set of ten rules which would define my own crime writing, which just so happens to be entrenched in the conventions of the Golden Age and its focus on games of detection. As it so happens, J.J. over at The Invisible Event just published his latest in a long series of posts analyzing and dissecting the Knox Decalogue, and I felt inspired to share my own Decalogue in the spirit of discussing rules of the genre.

As with all things on this blog, keep in mind that what I am writing here is not meant to be any sort of rules I’m trying to impose on you. While I do write, I am an amateur, unpublished author who just has opinions and wants to share them. These are simply guidelines I set down for myself and my own mystery writing. Also, unlike Van Dine, I tried to stay away from elements of setting, theme, character and politics, and I made my focus squarely set on the nature and matter of clues and reasoning. Without further ado, let’s get into The Stump Dialogue.

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Withhold nothing from the reader.

Withholding, in this context, will simply be to omit any allusion, direct or indirect, to any piece of information or evidence central to the mystery of which the detective is aware. A puzzle ought be a challenge, not an impossibility; the writer should show good faith in trying to allow their reader to fairly figure the solution to the mystery on their own. If information cannot be told, permit it to be figured.

Place no prerequisite of knowledge on the reader beyond that of the language in which the book is written.

Even if you give the reader all of the information they need to solve the crime, if the cinching detail knowing that aluminum only becomes malleable at 600 degrees Fahrenheit, the mystery is not fair play. The master of the craft can hide integral clues in plain sight amidst the more useless of details; so, in cases where scientific knowledge plays into the mystery, there is no reason not to consider knowledge of the scientific mechanics at hand a clue and to present it in very much the same way. Should discovering this expertly-placed knowledge in no way serve the puzzle and only lends itself to frustrating your literary sleuths, or is something which the narrator and/or investigator may immediately be aware of, it is most often best to proclaim this information as early as would better serve your puzzle.

This equally goes for domestic knowledge, cultural notes, or insider knowledge of institutions like the police.

The victim and the culprit may not be the same person, excepting in cases of multiple problems, multiple culprits or multiple victims.

With a death in the locked room, the solution may not begin and end at the victim driving the knife through their own chest. Should the plot of a mystery turn exclusively on the abduction of an affluent child, followed by ransom, the solution should not begin and end at the child faking his own capture.

Suicide or a faked death may never be the absolute solution. It is, simply, “too easy” on the culprit and the writer. However, a culprit may use any means of making themselves a victim in order to deflect or obfuscate guilt, including harming, killing or faking an attack unto themselves before or after committing their true murder — in other words, suicide may be a misdirection.

Excepting explicit collusion, no more than three individual criminal plots may be hatched at the same time, in the same location, all a part of the very same overarching incident, by unrelated peoples.

Bogging down the focus of apprehending the perpetrator of the book’s primary crime-at-hand with multiple individual but conveniently interweaving criminal plots only lends itself to unnecessarily convoluting the suspect pool; the incidentiality that leads to these plans’ intersections in the end can only ever border on the contrived if it is not an act of deliberation and collusion between the multiple perpetrators.

The solution may never rely entirely on a feat of acrobatics or physical ability.

While a suspect’s physical ability or inability to perform a specific, noted task may become a clue in and of itself, the solution must be majorly as much a test of the culprit’s mental acuity as it is the investigator’s and the reader’s. Any trick that is simply and only possible by some superhuman feat of athletics is disallowed.

Gender or racial psychology is not permitted as a clue.

A woman may select poison as her murder weapon because it is practical, for reasons interpersonal to her and her victim, or for the sake of any trick she may have in mind. A woman may not select poison because she is a woman.

In any case where there are two or more viable suspects, the final clue needed to distinguish the culprit from among them may not be that it is a more feminine or more Anglo-Saxon means of murder. If the hard evidence isn’t enough to sufficiently nail one of your suspects as the criminal, rework your mystery.

Any distinctive feature to the setting or set-up of the mystery should play into the criminal plot.

That is to say, the murder plot should ideally not feel as if it could have happened anywhere. The killer’s choice for when and where they committed the crime should be justified by their methods for committing it and avoiding detection. Otherwise, how do you explain the killer choosing to kill at a theme park, or in a restaurant, or at the theater, in front of witnesses!

Red herrings should feature meaningful alternative explanations.

A misleading clue that promotes interesting reasoning that helps lead the detective and the audience to the true solution of the mystery is great; but if the truth is that the clue truly meant nothing, that’s almost inherently an anticlimax.

The killer’s methods and motive should have no disconnect.

The way the killer commits the crime is as much a clue as any other. If, say, a loving daughter is coerced into murdering her father by an outside force, she would not choose heinous or cruel methods — to have her do so is misleading in the greatest way. And if, for example, the killer wishes to frame another character for a murder, it makes no sense to have them arbitrarily commit another murder that the chosen scapegoat would never be able to commit. These sorts of mistakes confuse complexity with interest.

Separate the characters’ motivations and your own.

So many authors have characters behave in ways only because it promotes the puzzle. Artificiality comes with the territory, but unreality should be avoided as best as one can. To have characters behave in odd ways only because it works for the puzzle at best can tip the author’s hand, and at worst ruin the reader’s faith in you. Mysteries where the character behavior is organic and realistic make puzzles that better play on the natural thoughts of the audience.