On the 15 (and a half) Types of Impossible Crimes

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.

…Or so I said in On a Defense of the Impossible Alibi Problem. A perfectly good introductory paragraph, wasted.

The impossible crime tale seems to be a favorite of people looking to create taxonomies. From solutions to situations, the impossible crime sub-genre more than any other seems to invite people to create lists trying to chronicle every little manner of plot, style, and form that exists. You might argue that this is a testament to the sheer formulaicity of the impossible crime story, or a testament to the magnetism of its versatility…

Just like I’ve done before in attempting to produce a list of 50 solutions to the 3 principle impossible crime genres, I will here be attempting to produce a list of all every conceivable manner of impossible crime situation — within reason. I will only be adding to this list if I feel like the entry is all of (a.) something that meaningfully alters the presentation of the impossible crime, (b.) something that meaningfully alters the potential explanations to the crime, and (c.) categorically non-specific so to be applicable to a suitable variety of stories. This is primarily because the minutiae distinguishing two locked-room mystery situations is a lot less significant than the minutiae distinguishing two solution types — this also means I can provide less “theoretical” entries than I could before.

Over at The Invisible Event, Jim Noy has actually covered a lot of our bases on his own post a few years back on the same topic. My intention here is not to contradict him, but rather to supplement his list with a few potential entries I feel worth pointing out. I will be covering a lot of re-tread ground here, so in the interest of keeping Jim’s contributions and my own separated I’ll simply be listing Jim’s entries first in one set and then mine at the end. I’ll be supplementing each category with a paragraph or two explaining the concept too — just so that this is my post, and nobody else’s!

Without further ado…


1.) The Locked-Room Mystery

The grandfather of mystery fiction and the perennial favorite of all impossible crime aficionados, locked-room mysteries scarce warrant an introduction. You have a murder committed within a room locked, sealed, and barred from the inside so that every entry is blocked-off. The only key to the room is inside of the victim’s pocket, so the killer must be still inside of the room… and yet they are not! The implication is that the killer has someone walked through the walls or vanished into thin-air…

This is the most popular form of impossible crime, and examples are a-plenty. Edgar Allan Poe’s “Murders in the Rue Morgue”, popularly (and debatably) considered the original detective story, Clayton Rawson’s Death from a Top Hat, and John Dickson Carr’s The Hollow Man (also known as The Three Coffins) all features killers who seem to vanish into mid-air within a locked room…

1.5.) The Judas Window Locked-Room

Not, perhaps, a separate situation altogether, but a prominent enough sub-sub-subgenre to warrant mention, this is one of those “Doylist Impossibilities” I invoke in On a Defense of the Impossible Alibi Problem. The situation is entirely the same as a traditional locked-room mystery, with one caveat: there is a single suspect locked inside of the room with the victim, so that it appears entirely impossible for them to be innocent of the murder! The situation is only impossible if you, as the reader accept the condition that this person is innocent and the murder must’ve been committed by an external agency.

I’ve named this one after the most prominent example, John Dickson Carr’s The Judas Window. This situation is a favorite of many cases of the Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney video game series in which you defend clients falsely accused of murder — more often than not, this accusation comes as a direct consequence of the defendant being locked in the same room or sealed in the same general location as the victim. Edward D. Hoch, the “Master of Short Stories”, also produced more than a handful of these, such as “A Shower of Daggers”.

2.) Footprints in the Snow

…or sand, or dust. These crimes involve a man found murdered in a vast expanse of snow! The killer definitely murdered the man from close-quarters, and the man was murdered after the snow had finished falling… so how could the killer have committed this murder without leaving his footprints in the snow!? A killer who can somehow float over the snow…

John Dickson Carr dealt with the problem most notably in The White Priory Murders, and his French-speaking disciple Paul Halter also wrote these in, among others, The Lord of Misrule and The Gold Watch. Christianna Brand produced one of these in Suddenly at his Residence using dust, and Arthur Porges’s “No Killer has Wings” and Hal White’s “Murder at an Island Mansion” are two examples of this problem on sandy beaches.

3.) Psychological Impossibility

We’re starting to get into the abstract. A man’s death is caused not by direct murder, but instead by a behavior that is so absurdly unbelievable it defies every known principle of human psychology! The most famous example of this is Father Ronald Knox’s “Solved by Inspection”, which involves a man who starves to death in a room surrounded entirely by safe-to-eat food that he could’ve eaten at any moment.

4.) Impossible Physical Feats

Humans are constantly displaying their infinite capacity for improvement. Records are always being broken, and the human condition forever expanding. But in these stories, these feats of athleticism swerve from the superhuman straight into the supernatural. A man cannot run from California to New York in a matter of hours, neither can a man leap from the top of the Eifel Tower and land with not a single scratch on his body…

The Stingaree Murders by W. Shepard Pleasants features a knife that’s hammered into the wooden boards of a boat so tightly that not even Mike Tyson himself could remove it without causing significant damage and creating noise that would assuredly not go unnoticed — naturally, the knife is removed. Death in the Dark by Stacey Bishop tells of a baffling murder in which a killer is somehow able to make an eagle-eyed shot at his victim in pitch-black darkness! Impossible Bliss by Lee Sheldon involves a nearly-impossible perfect golf shot from a nearly-impossible angle that not even the most seasoned of pros could achieve!

5.) Killer Rooms

Without fail, every single time a man sleeps in the bed in room 405 of the Dickson Inn, he never wakes up… and is found the next morning, having died of heart failure at precisely midnight… The killer room involves spaces that seem to have the uncanny ability to indiscriminately cause death without human intervention. Even more baffling, these situations may have bizarre, hyper-specific conditions under which these deaths occur…

Impossible-crime-oriented BBC drama Jonathan Creek has an episode episode titled “Mother Redcap” involving an inn where bizarre deaths seem to constantly occur within the same room, at the same time… Max Afford’s “The Vanishing Trick” involves a “kinda haunted” room that constantly swallows up servants and sends them to God-knows-where…

6.) Invisible Murderer

A murder who is mysterious able to pass under your nose without detection, strangle a woman in plain view of a crowd of hundreds without being seen, and murder in rooms guarded on all sides. This impossible problem involves the situation of a murderer who is able to defy detection even when the situation dictates that they would be seen.

Such an impossible crime makes up the principle murder of Christianna Brand’s Death of Jezebel, in which a murder is committed in front of a crowd of hundreds of spectators to a medieval pageant at top of a tower, the only viable entrance to which was also in view of the audience. Derek Smith’s Whistle up the Devil features a murder in a jail cell whose sole door was observed by the narrator and a reliable witness at all times the murderer must’ve walked through the door, and yet neither of them saw any such killer…

7.) Vanishing

Whether person or object, the problem of an impossible vanishing involves something disappear when there’s no reasonable way for this to occur. While it can often overlap with locked-room mysteries, footprint mysteries, or invisible criminals, this class of impossible crime also accounts for people vanishing in front of witnesses like a magician, or thefts of objects while in another character’s hands…

Roger Ormerod’s More Dead than Alive features a world-renowned magician who seems to disappear impossibly from his locked-and-sealed laboratory. Edward D. Hoch wrote multiple stories featuring a Great Thief-cum-Detective Nick Velvet, including the impossible caper “The Theft of the White Queen’s Menu” in which three impossible thefts occur: the theft of a roomful of furniture in a matter of just a few minutes, the theft of a roulette wheel from a crowded casino and yet nobody saw it leave, and the theft of rival thief The White Queen’s menu while it is held in her hands! Quite spectacularly, Paul Halter’s story “The Celestial Thief” involves the disappearance of all of the stars in the night sky as an astronomer is watching them from his telescope!

8.) Materialization

Diametrically opposite the previous category, impossible materializations involve the production of an object or person where it very well could never have been! A man manifesting within a sealed room, a plane appearing in the sky when it had nowhere from which it could’ve come, and poison appearing within a test-tasted dish…

James Yaffe’s “The Case of the Emperor’s Mushrooms” involves the murder of Emperor Claudius of Rome, who dies to a plate of poisoned mushrooms — quite mysteriously however, the royal food-tester had eaten a portion of the food without dying, and so the poison must have appeared while in the emperor’s hands…

9.) Prophecy, Clairvoyance, and Predictions

The fortune-teller tells you that you will die on June 4th, 2022 at 5:25 PM… and, lo and behold, you find yourself dead at the appointed time! People coming into possession of knowledge which they should never have been able to learn makes up this class of impossible problem.

There are, in fact, two real-world examples. “The Greenbrier Ghost” of West Virginia is a story about a woman who divines knowledge of the cause of her daughter’s death when the young women’s death was named natural. “The Horse Room” involves a group of women named the Blondie Gang who were robbing casinos blind in the 1940s, and the way they managed to cheat at horse-race betting in a room where no information could travel in or out… John Dickson Carr’s The Reader is Warned also involves a psychic predicting a murder, down to the very minute it’ll occur.

10.) Ghost, Witches, and Miscellaneous Supernatural Jiggerypokery

This, ultimately, is a “miscellaneous” category for all impossible crimes that appear to be ghosts, magic, or the supernatural at work but don’t fit into the other categories for being too specific. The appearance of a floating ghost in a room, a woman casting a spell that appears to come true, or the commission of a seance all fall into this category.

John Sladek’s Black Aura has a man suspended in mid-air and walking without any support in front of witnesses, and Hake Talbot’s Rim of the Pit features floating men, ghosts, seances, and nearly every supernatural occurrence you could hope to dream of. “Miracle on Christmas Eve” by Szu-Yen Lin involves the impossible delivery of gifts by a man who could only be Santa Claus himself… Also, suffice it to say, Scooby-Doo anyone?

11.) Impossible Technology

Mind-reading devices, hover-boards, and teleportation machines don’t exist… or do they? The impossible technology problem involves story where a piece of technology is presented as entirely genuine, but there is no scientific way for such a machine to exist. How could this bizarre feat be faked and manufactured?

In The Great Ace Attorney 2: Resolve of Ryuunosuke Naruhodou‘s third case, Twisted Karma and his Last Bow, defense attorney Ryuunosuke Naruhodou is commissioned to defend a scientist of murder. This scientist constructed a teleportation machine that’s capable of de-materializing a man in one place, and rematerializing him in another spontaneously. He was demonstrating the machine at a science exhibition when the device malfunctioned, causing the man to appear above a glass tower, suspended freely in the middle of the air! The man would then crash through the roof of the tower where it would be impossible to approach him… and yet, when the police arrive, the man was stabbed to death. Because of the location of the body, it’s only possible for your defendant to have stabbed the man before his teleportation! And so, in order to prove his innocence, you also have to prove how the entirely impossible feat of teleportation could’ve been faked in front of a massive audience…

12.) The Inverted Howdunit

One of two Impossible Alibi problems I described, this Doylist impossibility tiptoes the line between the inverted mystery (mysteries in which we know of the killer and their plot ahead of time) and the impossible crime. In the Inverted Howdunit, we are privy to the identity of the killer very early — however, unlike most such stories, in the Inverted Howdunit we only know the killer’s identity, but we do not know how they committed the crime… or how they managed to construct an airtight alibi! This impossibility hinges on knowing the identity of the killer, but it appearing nonetheless impossible for them to be guilty.

Roger Ormerod’s Time to Kill features a murder by an ex-convict — however, the ex-convict never once left the narrator’s sight during the period during which the murder must’ve taken place! In Detective Conan Volume 2, the case “Mysterious Shadow Murder Case” involves a man who committed murder while unmistakably in another country at the time… Agatha Christie’s “A Christmas Tragedy” has Miss Jane Marple describe a murder she once solved in which she knew the killer’s identity… and yet the killer had an impenetrable alibi!

13.) Suspect X

Nine people are trapped together on an island. One person wanders off, leaving the remaining eight people together in the dining room. The ninth person is soon heard screaming, and when the eight people arrive…. they find him dead! And yet, this is impossible… he hadn’t committed suicide, everybody was watching each other at all times..! Is it possible that an Xth suspect was on the island, killing them from the shadows?

Suspect X is the second “impossible alibi” problem I described in my post on the topic. This impossibility essentially dictates that, in a closed-circle mystery, the crime is only possible if you assume the presence of one extra person whose existence in the closed-circle is itself also impossible. The solution could involve explaining the presence of this extra person, or ways for the killer, who is among the original cast, to commit murder despite being under constant surveillance.

Such problems appear in Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, in which the entirety of the cast is dead, and all apparently murdered, while isolated together on an island; NisioisiN’s Zaregoto – The Kubikiri Cycle, in which the narrator’s friend’s computer is destroyed while every living member of the cast is together in the dining room; Derek Smith’s Come to Paddington Fair, in which the victim is shot by a bullet from a prop gun which was at one moment loaded with blanks but later loaded with live ammunition, even though every member of the cast is incapable (by alibi and testimony) of tampering with the gun.

14.) Biological Impossibilities and Illogical Causes of Death

Biological impossibilities are any mysteries in which the victim faces a death which utterly defies human physiology and logic. Initially, I was going to have a separate category for “impossible falls”, those stories in which the victim falls to their death despite the lack of an elevated surface within any reasonable distance, but I decided to consolidate those two categories hear under the blanket of “Illogical Death” since I felt like they were conceptually similar enough.

Robert Randisi’s (awful) “The Hook” involves the serial killings of women who have had all their organs removed quite impossibly, despite the presence of only a very small incision through which removing the organs so cleanly would be impossible. Both Paul Halter’s “Jacob’s Ladder” and Mack Reynolds’s The Case of the Little Green Men involve a man falling to his death despite there being no elevated surfaces nearby. John Dickson Carr’s Gur Erq Jvqbj Zheqref and the first case of The Great Ace Attorney both involve a death by curare when ingested — curare can only cause death when it enters the bloodstream, and is harmless when imbibed. Paul Halter also wrote “The Robber’s Grave” in which a patch of grass is unusually unable to grow no matter what… Soji Shimada’s “The Executive Who Lost His Mind” involves someone who was murdered only minutes ago, but their corpse suggests that they’ve been dead for years…

15.) The Lonely Boat

A boat floats in the middle of a lake with a lone fisherman in it. The fisherman suddenly keels over and dies, and when the boat is recovered he’s found stabbed to death! Such a death is impossible — it would’ve been impossible for anyone to approach the boat without attracting attention or getting wet, so how much a man wind up murdered while isolated in the middle of a body of water?

I was initially unsure about whether or not to include this one, as most variations on this problem strongly overlap with the “invisible murderer”. However, I believe this problem meets all three of my criteria in theoretically creating a significant distinction in how the crime is presented and resolved…

Such a problem occurs in Joseph Commings’s “The Spectre of the Lake”, in which two men are shot from close-range in the middle of a lake, and both of John Dickson Carr’s “The Wrong Problem” and W. Shepard Pleasants’s The Stingaree Murders, in which a man is stabbed in an isolated boat.

On The Greenbrier Ghost in a Murder Trial, A “True” Impossibility From my Home (Part 1/2 – The Situation)

A woman who wasn’t pregnant was named dead due to complications during childbirth. A whole month after the young woman’s death, her ghost appears to her mother and tells her the true cause of her death: her husband shattered her neck after a dispute over that night’s dinner. When the authorities are informed, they dig up the girl’s body and indeed they find new evidence of foul-play… from a corpse which the woman was never there to see… so how did she know about the cause of death?

This story is a genuine part of West Virginia folklore: our state is the only in all of America to officially claim to have settled a murder trial on the testimony provided by a ghost! Many might be to quick to question, from the telling, the validity of this tale. However I was struck, while reading it, that this story has been kicking around in my head as a bit of a Talbot/Halter-esque impossible crime, and I immediately conceived of a very simple explanation that makes all of the odd details fit into place — showing me that here is still a very human explanation at the heart of this problem even if you take the story at 100% face value.

I invite you to test your wits against the tale of the Greenbrier Ghost, relayed here in as clinical and unembellished terms as is humanly possible.


In 1987 Elva Zona Heaster Shue of Greenbrier County, West Virginia, was found dead in her home. Her body was discovered on January 23 at the foot of the main staircase of her and her husband’s home. She was discovered by a young boy sent to the house by her husband Mr. Shue to perform some errands. The boy went to tell his mother, who subsequently summoned the local doctor and coroner George W. Knapp, who didn’t arrive for nearly an hour.

When Dr. Knapp had arrived, Shue had already taken his wife’s body upstairs, cleaned her and dressed her (this was noted as odd behavior, as it was frequently considered the task of the woman of the community). He had made her up in a high-necked dress. Dr. Knapp attempted to perform an examination, but, noting the widow’s grief, made his examination very brief. However, when the doctor attempted to investigate under the collar of the high-necked dress, Mr. Shue grew angry and vehemently refused to allow the doctor to continue. The doctor gave his professional opinion that the cause of death was complications during childbirth. He, however, offhandedly noted bruising about the neck…….

Childbirth was accepted as the official cause of death, however nobody seemed to recall whether Zona was pregnant or not, and the child could not be located… Zona’s mother, Mary Jane Heaster, was informed of the death, and the body was subsequently buried the very next day. During the burial, Shue had refused to allow anyone to approach the open coffin until he had left Zona with her “favorite scarf” tied about her neck and placing a pillow into the casket to “help her rest better”.

A full month later, according to Mary Jane Heaster, the spirit of her daughter Zona manifested before her, and claimed that her husband Shue was abusive, and broke her neck when he was unhappy with dinner. To emphasize this point, the ghost “turned its head 180 degrees”. Mary Jane Heaster reported to the police that her daughter was strangled and her neck broken by Shue. The police (already suitably suspicious of Shue) humored the ghost story and dug up the body of Zona and performed an immediate exhumation, finding the true cause of death to be strangulation. The discovery was made that the neck was broken and the windpipe mashed. On the throat were the marks of fingers indicating that she had been choked. The neck was dislocated between the first and second vertebrae. The ligaments were torn and ruptured. The windpipe had been crushed at a point in front of the neck.

In other words… the story Mary Jane supposedly heard from the ghost of her daughter was entirely true. Something which nobody knew came to become Mary Jane’s knowledge, something she could’ve never seen: her daughter had been strangled to death.

The case brought to court and, indeed, under the weight of the story, Mr. Shue confessed and ended up receiving an unambiguous conviction from the jury — resting entirely, solely, on the testimony provided by the ghost of the victim.


I welcome any and all theories to explain the seemingly supernatural acquisition of Mary Jane’s knowledge of her daughter’s death. I happen to know a theory many people will likely jump to, but which I actually disagree with on a fundamental level (thanks to evidence provided in the story). Nonetheless, I’d love to hear the variety of solutions our impossible crime-loving community can conceive of to this problem — before too long, I think I’ll post my own theory to the problem which, in my eyes, perfectly explains away every little contradiction of facts…

On the Launching of a New Short Story Blog

This is going to be a short personal update. I’ve finally launched a sister blog called A Study in Daggers which will, for the foreseeable future, be my dumping grounds for short stories I write in the crime and mystery genres. Ironically, however, the only story currently on the blog, Life and Death Aboard the M.S. Evermore, is not a crime story, but rather a short parabolic tale inspired by my frustration with ethical hypotheticals and how easy it is to moralize in situations that have nothing to do with you.

Life and Death Aboard the M.S. Evermore was written for an online story contest where every contestant wrote under the theme “Observer”, and it had a 2700 word limit. My initial concept was way too high-faring to fit into so small a story, and what came of it was, unfortunately, a pretty neutered and cramped version of the story I dreamed of when I set out to write. Nonetheless, I’m fairly proud of it, and would love to share it.

Going forward, if I write a story that I don’t feel comfortable selling or publishing formally, it’ll go right onto A Study in Daggers. I can’t promise how often I’ll update the blog, but I hope when I do write I can draft something my readers on this blog can enjoy. The blog is also very open to constructive criticism! I only want to get better as a writer, not have my ego stroked.

Happy reading, both here and there!

On Some of the Best Mysteries Ever Written and the Puzzle of Why You’ve Never Read Them (+Detective Conan review series)

If I’m being entirely honest, there are certain things I don’t talk about much with the Golden Age mystery-reading side of my social sphere. Heck, I don’t even really talk the way with them the way I talk with anyone else I know. The problem is that I am painfully aware I am a 20 year old university student punching a bit above my belt by involving myself in a community whose youngest members are probably around twice my age at least. If past posts delving into my personal thoughts have proven anything, it’s that I have the world’s greatest inferiority complex, and the way I talk is usually colored by me trying to mask myself as an intellectual equal among people who nearly universally have more experience and education than myself. This also manifests in the form of me being pretty reserved with a lot of my other non-mystery hobbies that might be derided as “kiddish” or “immature” or outright “stupid”. Unfortunately, before delving into an upcoming long-running series/project I’ve undertaken, it’s going to require breaking the ice on some of that, and preparing a lot of you for it. So, what’s about to follow is somewhat of a biographical post, but I beg you to stay with me for a bit — this is a fun one, I promise.

I absolutely adore video games (yes, even the new ones you probably hate), cartoons (yes, even the new ones you probably hate), and sitcoms (yes, even the new ones you probably hate).

I’ve mentioned on this blog more than once that I do some of my own hobbyist writing of Golden Age-styled mysteries, but when I’m not writing I’m also probably drawing. My whole life, I’ve been deeply fascinated with animation and always wanted to become an artist, but my guardian wouldn’t let me, yelling at me that I’m “wasting my time on something I’ll obviously never be good at”. It wasn’t until just last year, in fact, now that I’m living in university housing, that I tried to foster my childhood dream of becoming an cartoon character artist, though all of that is really beside the point.

The point is why this matters. Well, as luck would have it, it was my fascination with cartoons that ended up turning me into a devotee of Golden Age mystery fiction. When I was young, one of my favorite cartoons was the Alvin and the Chipmunks show — the one that came out before the live-action/CGI movies. A favorite, yes, in spite of the fact that I only owned one DVD with four episodes from what many consider the worst season of the show. It was the show’s last season, which was comprised of about a dozen and a half pop culture/movie parodies. The episode I watched the most often was “Elementary, My Dear Simon”.

No points if you’ve guessed it, but this episode is a parody of Sherlock Holmes in which the lead character Alvin takes on the role of Sherlock Holmes, and his younger brother Simon takes on the role of Dr. John Watson. The two, together, traverse Victorian London, investigating a series of mysterious thefts in which every item stolen is trifling, worth nearly nothing. Now, this is an interesting set-up, but any mystery fans reading this… don’t bother watching the episode, it is not good, and the ending will frustrate you. But that did not matter to six year old me. I was a lonely kid who loved puzzles and riddles, and all that mattered was that feeling of seeing something like a puzzle play out in the form of a story. I had no sense of whether or not it was a good puzzle, just that it existing and was there.

Well, after falling in love with this show, I went on to other forms of mystery media geared towards kids. I owned every DVD of every movie and series of Scooby-Doo that existed when I was still into it. I watched them dozens of times each, some of them more than that.

I was hooked, but at the time I had no real awareness of the fact that this sort of thing I loved really, you know, existed in genre form. When I watched “grown-up” mysteries on television, they were always legal dramas like Law & Order, or true crime like Investigation Discovery, and none of them really appealed to me in the same slow-burn puzzle-piecing way that “Elementary, My Dear Watson” or Scooby-Doo had.

Well, fortunately for me, I didn’t just enjoy western cartoons, I also loved video games and Japanese anime.

When I was about 12 years old, my friends roped me into playing this silly-looking anime-styled game series called Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney. At first, I really didn’t want to play it — it’s a lawyer game, so it had to be boring, like Law & Order. But my friends are annoying persistent, and convinced me to give the game a shot. Immediately, I fell in love with the series. It is a dramatic, engaging tale of detection and logic in which, through very simple button prompts, the game invites you to make Ellery Queen-esque series of deductions to protect the lives of innocent people falsely accused of complex murders. You collect evidence, listen to witness testimony, expose lies through clues, and then through a series of question prompts you will solve the mystery by explaining why every lie was told and every mistake made. It was only after playing the game series through to the end that I immediately made a realization — these sorts of stories I want exist, en masse, and I can just go out and read them. It was Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney that inspired me to go out and buy my first detective novels, A Study in Scarlet, And Then There Were None, and The Mysterious Affair of Styles. And all of these stories were exactly like the mysteries in Ace Attorney! Finally, I said, I’m home.

Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney‘s first entry is actually reviewed on my blog already, only for nobody to actually read it, dashing any intentions I had to review the others in this 10+ game series. That post’s lack of attention is, in fact, why I’m writing this post now. After all, some of you might’ve spotted a troubling detail: “Isaac, if you played this game nearly 9 years ago, why did you suddenly review it so recently?”. The answer, of course, being that I adore this franchise, and to this day the third game in the franchise (among others) boasts a few cases that I still consider some of the best mystery-writing and mystery-plotting in the whole genre. I was actually hoping that by writing a review, I could get the 600-odd people WordPress says visits my blog monthly to try this mystery series I love so much out.

The post has been read 33 times in the 12 months since I’ve written it.

Compare On 50 Locked Room Solutions of Our Own, which, despite its lack of comments, gets on average 150 views every single month, or my clearly-labelled April Fools post (which isn’t even that funny) which has gotten 350 views, over 1000% the Ace Attorney post’s yearly reads, in a week.

The point of this post isn’t to bitterly whine about that post not getting a lot of attention, though, so don’t worry about all of that. More, I want to air my thoughts a bit on why it didn’t.

In the “Golden Age Detection” Facebook group, I’ve seen a few pop culture mystery series that’ll presently remain unnamed get brought up. And people were angry. People had never even read these stories and they were angry, because people would dare compare Golden Age greats to this modern usurper, for no better reason than the modern work was animated. To quote nobody in particular, they said “I don’t need to read it to know there’s no way a cartoon could ever compare to the original”. Another time, when asked to name some of my aesthetically favorite surreal mysteries, I named a surreal case from a mystery game series that I really enjoyed, only to be met with “Laugh” reacts and mild derision for posting a video game. These are just two of a number of instances that I will not direct anyone to in the interest of not seeming like I’m trying to flame some stranger on the internet who has no bearing on me or my life.

Now, I for one have always believed that making rash judgments on things you’ve never experienced (within reason) is a fault. I’m sure many of you in theory agree with me, but might in practice still have this kneejerk, conservative aversion to the “less respectable” mediums. I believe the lack of attention video-game related posts and these attitudes I’ve seen openly expressed in the group are evidence enough to speculate on.

My theory has been that I will post about a mystery video game, earnestly enjoying it, and trying to spread the word and people might see that it is, in fact, a video game, and assume that it probably isn’t worth playing — they may even assume I didn’t like it — and merely pass the post by. Well, I’m beginning a bit of a large project soon, and in the interests of that going well, I felt it was important to make this post and the following shocking declaration:

Some of the most brilliant and emotionally-touching classically-/Golden Age-styled mystery plots ever conceived exist within the confines of video games and Japanese comic books (manga), and I believe turning your nose up at them will be doing yourself a disservice as a mystery-reader.

And I want to talk you into it. We’ve all probably read some shin-honkaku novels, right? Those modern, brilliant detective novels from Japan that beautifully represent Japan’s fascination with the form? To name a few, The Decagon House Murders by Yukito Ayatsuji, or The Moai Island Puzzle by Alice Arisugawa or Death Among the Undead by Masahiro Imamura. This shin-honkaku movement was majorly observed from the late 1980s to the early 2000s, and if you’ve loved any of those books from Locked Room International then I have some good news for you: many, many detective video games, cartoons, and comic book series from Japan are specifically inspired by or part of this very same shin-honkaku movement, as many of the biggest names in video game mysteries and comic mysteries popped up around the 90s and early 2000s.

This was so major, in fact, that some famous shin-honkaku writers in Japan openly credit these video games as direct inspirations. Westerners probably haven’t heard of him, but in Japan Takekuni Kitayama is not a small name. He is, in fact, a respected author of locked-room mysteries and impossible crimes, famous for his highly technical, mechanical trickery. One of his earliest novels, The “Clock Castle” Murder Case, was an award winner in Japan, earning the 24th Mephisto Prize. Kitayama has openly declared his fascination for another Japanese Golden Age-inspired video game series called Danganronpa.

Danganronpa is a series entirely about 15 talented high-school students who are trapped in Hope’s Peak Academy and instructed that in order to escape, one student must murder a classmate and successfully evade detection in the ensuing “Class Trial”. In spite of the teeny-bop dialogue, crass juvenile humor, and the jazz-punk aesthetic, every single one of the 18 murder mysteries written throughout the series’ three-game run are plotted wholly, entirely, and authentically like Golden Age/Honkaku classics, and similarly to Ace Attorney, the game has players solving the murders by collecting evidence, exposing lies, and then explaining lies through a varieties of quizzes/prompts. Kitayama was so enamored with the series, in fact, that he approached the developers and asked them if he would be allowed to write novels taking place inside of the Danganronpa fictional universe. What spawned from this agreement was a seven-novel-long prequel series following a major character from the first game named Kyoko Kirigiri, solving locked-room mysteries as part of a Detective Competition. So successful were these novels that when the third game in the series, Danganronpa V3, was developed, the creators commissioned novelist Kitayama as a co-writer who was majorly responsible for the game’s mystery plots.

The worlds of shin-honkaku mystery novel writing and video game/manga mystery writing were so inextricably bound that respected novelists were writing for video game series.

There are many more examples I could get into to make this point, such as the cross-contamination of ideas to and from popular Japanese mysteries series and Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney, or the fact that one of the most famous mystery novelists ever, Soji Shimada, author of The Tokyo Zodiac Murders, sued comic series Kindaichi Case Files for wholesale plagiarizing his novel for one of their mysteries, forcing them to put a spoiler warning for his novel in all Japanese publications of the chapters where this plagiarism occurred. To get into all of the gems and warts of the shared world of video games and novels in Japanese detective fiction, however, would simply be diluting the point: this overlap exists, period, and that’s what matters.

Even in the most kiddish-seeming of Japanese mysteries series in video game and comic book form, writers share the same level of complexity, brilliance, and ingenuity as their novel counterparts for the very simply reason that they are cut from the same cloth. I believe that if you’ve read shin-honkaku novels, and you are clamoring for more translations while simultaneously turning your head away from any mention of video game mysteries or comic mysteries, I can’t find much sympathy for your desire to read more while you turn your nose up at the cornucopia of brilliant mysteries that are quite literally everything you’re asking for, and all for no better reason than you think their packaging is “too childish”.

Yes, a cartoon can compare to the original.

This whole post was not merely an idle exercise in writing a minor dissertation on the brilliance of Japanese mystery writing, though I will say that if I’ve at least convinced those among you to be a little more lax I can refer you to some fantastic Japanese mystery video games and manga and even help you get into them if you’d like. What’s more important is that cartoon I mentioned before. The one that earned ire from people who’ve never watched it.

Detective Conan.

Detective Conan is the quintessential Japanese detective comic series. I can’t speak from first-hand experience, but I feel comfortable saying that there probably isn’t a single mystery story produced in Japan since 1994 that doesn’t owe a little bit to Detective Conan‘s existence, as it is simply massive and the archetype of all things Golden Age mystery plotting.

Conceived by Gosho Aoyama, Detective Conan is a fantastical story about a teenager detective named Jimmy (Shinichi) Kudo who gets shrunken down into the body of an elementary schooler by an experimental chemical manufactured by a mysterious gang known simply as “The Organization”. On the protracted hunt for the group in order to return to his adult size, Jimmy is forced to adopt the alias of Conan Edogawa (taken from writers Arthur Conan Doyle and Edogawa Ranpo), and struggle to get his theories heard in hundreds of murder cases that he solves in spite of his small stature.

The silly premise is a byproduct of a bygone age during which Gosho Aoyama wanted to write child’s fiction, a period which can probably be singularly blamed for many “serious-minded” mystery readings passing the series up. It was at the behest of his editor (by the way, Japan has editors who specialize in classical mystery plotting) that Gosho Aoyama shift gears towards producing more mature, complex, adult-sized mystery stories (only, of course, still solved by a first grader…). And, naturally, nearly every case is some manner of plotting familiar to the Golden Age of Detection, both the English and Japanese ones.

And, I won’t pussyfoot around this. For what begins feeling like the world’s corniest kidtective story ever, Detective Conan goes on to produce dozens of what I can confidently say are the most devilishly clever mystery plots ever conceived in the entire history of the genre from any continent. Dozens of hidden classics of alibi problems, locked-room mysteries, and inverted mysteries are buried within the covers of this children’s series, and you’re not reading them!

The series is massive. Not just culturally, but I mean it is a quantifiably massive franchise in terms of just how much of it exists. Detective Conan spans comic book series, a Japanese animated television show, musicals, stage dramas, movies, novels, video games — probably ancient cave-writing, if you look hard enough. In the manga/comic alone, there are over 300 unique mystery stories. The anime television series has adapted nearly all of these, and produced over 300 more unique stories not present in the comic. Without even scratching the surface of this series you have nearly 700 mystery short stories already.

Now, if I’ve interested you with all of my comparisons to shin-honkaku novels, and then immediately scared you off again by throwing triple-digit figures at you… don’t worry! Editors and English professors beware, for after exactly 2834 words (by the end of this sentence) we’ve finally arrived at my thesis statement!

I am, for your benefit, re-reading/re-watching every single mystery story in the Detective Conan canon. All 700 and change. In the course of reading these, I will be keeping notes, and producing a comprehensive ranking of all of the stories read, that way you can know, based on my opinion, roughly how good each of the 700 mysteries are from the very worst one all the way to the very best one. I will also be, for convenience, telling you exactly which book in the series you need to hunt down to read any one of the stories you want. And, furthermore, if that weren’t enough for you, I will be reviewing all 90 volumes of the manga on this blog, one volume at a time, as I’m reading them. As it’s been years since I’ve touched the series, I will be writing all of the posts from the perspective of someone who is going in blind, for people going in blind, assuming that your understanding of the series evolves with mine as we going along. It will be an exhaustive, chronological resource on Detective Conan.

This tiny little project of mine, I imagine, will take anywhere from four to six months. This isn’t quite the same as me slamming out a single review of a single game in a few hours. I am dedicating a not-negligible chunk of my life and time to doing this. Hence, this post. This is not for my health. I genuinely believe that everyone in our group from 18 to 80 can find something to love in the mysteries of Japanese animation, video games, and comic books, and my end-goal is to convince a not-small portion of you to read at least 10 chapters of a Japanese mystery manga by the time I die.

Cartoons and video games have been a huge part of my life and my mystery-reading career. It’s thanks to them that this blog even exists, in fact. As “childish” as many of you might see them, they are a credible part of the Golden Age mystery experience. I was lucky enough to be Christened from a young age, and I hope I can be lucky enough to help a few of you find the same enjoyment I have in these brilliant “children’s” mysteries.

With that being said, my posts on the the first four volumes of Detective Conan can be expected soon. I’ve also not neglected by literature — look out for Jim Noy’s Red Death Murders, which I will also be reading and reviewing… at some point. If a review for a novel comes out, it’ll be this one, I guarantee it. I look forward to making converts of you all. Arrividerci, and happy reading.

(April Fools) My Top 10 Favorite Locked Room Mystery Novels

I’ve been teasing this for a long time, but finally I think I feel confident enough to name what I consider the top ten best locked-room mystery novels ever written. I will be taking no notes, thank you.

  1. Le Tigre Borgne (The One-Eyed Tiger) by Paul Halter
  2. The Double Alibi by Noël Vindry
  3. The Three Coffins by John Dickson Carr
  4. The Fourth Door by Paul Halter
  5. Death in Five Boxes by John Dickson Carr
  6. Six Were to Die by James Ronald
  7. The Seventh Guest by Gaston Boca
  8. The Eight Mansion Murders by Takemaru Abiko
  9. Nine Times Nine by Anthony Bouncer
  10. The Ten Teacups by John Dickson Carr

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.