“Murder on the Rockport Limited” (The Adventure Zone, Balance Arc, Story 2) by Griffin McElroy, Justin McElroy, Travis McElroy, Clint McElroy, Carey Pietsch

Dungeons & Dragons was once, as the McElroys so eloquently put it, “the last bastion of nerdom” — the one thing you could point out, no matter how dorky your interests, and say “well, at least I’m not into that!”.

But that isn’t the world we live in anymore!

Nowadays, we all seem to relish in our and each other’s unique “nerdiness”. Nerd culture has hit the mainstream, with superhero films topping charts left and right, swarms of fantasy novel fans all over the internet and, as it happens, Dungeons & Dragons has become one of the most popular games to play with friends and family! Not only that, though… in fact, entire careers have been predicated on the success and popularity of Dungeons & Dragons! One such story, funny enough, begins with three people who never wanted to play the game…

The McElroy brothers — Justin, Griffin, and Travis — are the collective sons of Clint McElroy, a famous radio entertainer from Huntington, West Virginia. Following in his footsteps, the three brothers themselves became podcasters, debuting the highly popular My Brother, My Brother, and Me. My Brother, My Brother, and Me (otherwise referred to as MBMBAM, Muh-bim-bam, and The Mamba) is an advice show where the brothers intentionally give comically bad advice to listeners who send in questions or day-to-day problems, or more harshly judge strangers on the internet who post insane queries on Yahoo! Answers. The podcast was wildly successful, becoming one of the most recognizable audio shows of all time and has, at the time of writing this, produced over 620 hour-long episodes.

When Justin McElroy goes on paternity leave, however, the brothers decided to fill that week’s episode vacancy with an “experimental” episode. They’d all three rope their dad into joining them for a session of Dungeons & Dragons in which Griffin occupies the role of “Dungeon Master”, while Travis plays a head-strong human Fighter named Magnus Burnsides, Justin plays a barbed-tongued elven Wizard named Taako, and Clint plays a devout dwarven Cleric named Merle Highchurh. Aside from Justin, who played it once, none of the family had played Dungeons & Dragons before. Although the episode was framed as reluctant and essentially them playing it as a joke to kill time, it was met with clamoring adoration by fans of My Brother, My Brother, and Me, who all but demanded more The Adventure Zone. Perhaps realizing they liked the game more than they thought they would, the McElroys were happy to acquiesce, going on to produce, at the time of writing this, 189 episodes across nine different campaigns called “Arcs”.

For those who are only tangentially aware of the game, Dungeons & Dragons is the most popular game in the now widely-replicated genre of tabletop RPGs. While all tabletop RPGs differ in one way or another, they’re all fundamentally the same in that they’re a combination of board game and improvisational collaborative storytelling.

Almost universally, one player occupies the role of “Dungeon Master” (or some other variation of “Game Master”), who is responsible for creating the game world, and laying down the framework of the plot, as well as controlling the obstacles the players overcome. In turn, the players create characters who occupy the world created by the Dungeon Master. Character creation is usually a very rule-heavy process, where players fill in a handful of boxes provided to them to determine exactly what their character is capable of, with the most basic and common elements being: “Classes”, such as Warrior or Wizard or Thief, which determine the character’s specializations and abilities; “Races”, such as Elf or Dwarf, which determine the physiology of the character; and “Stats”, like Strength or Intelligence, number values that are used to help the player characters perform better in certain tasks. Things like personalities and backstories are decided entirely by the player.

The basic structure of a tabletop RPG goes that the Dungeon Master narrates the story, presents the players with characters to interact with, a world to explore, or enemies to defeat, and the players respond by performing actions and interactions in their character’s respective personalities. Whenever there’s a conflict, or a particularly difficulty activity, the outcome is decided by rolling a die (in Dungeons & Dragons, it is most usually a 20-sided die), taking stats from the character to modify the roll, and attempting to beat a certain number value. Through this process of the Dungeon Master describing the scenario, the players responding, and outcomes being determined by dice, a tabletop RPG allows players to construct complex storylines (called campaigns) across multiple gaming sessions.

The Adventure Zone is a collection of campaigns, which themselves are collections of sub-stories called “Stories”. The first campaign the McElroys played is called “The Balance Arc”, and opens with “Here There Be Gerblins”. Initially regurgitated from an officially-produced storybook called The Lost Mines of Phandalin, “Here There Be Gerblins” has the three heroes Magnus, Taako, and Merle helping Merle’s cousin Gerndrun transport his goods to Phandalin. Diverging from the storybook, the heroes get caught up in a battle for a magical gauntlet which ends up destroying a whole town and killing countless innocents. Following this, the three are recruited by the Bureau of Balance to help them retrieve dangerous magical relics leftover from a magical war before they can cause more damage!

In “Murder on the Rockport Limited”, representative of the Bureau of Balance Leeman Kessler locates a relic and loads it onto a magically-propelled train before being murdered in the town of Rockport. In order to reclaim the relic, the heroes Merle, Magnus, and Taako must impersonate Kessler and his servants and infiltrate the train to reclaim the relic in his place.

Unfortunately, all of the passengers’ luggage is kept in a vault in the backmost car of the train under a magical crypt-lock, which can only be opened with a full hour of sustained contact from a member of the train’s crew, which the entire crew summarily refuses to unlock until the train’s arrival at its next stop. Only, it seems that the journey would be more than a test of patience… as Jenkins, the train’s chief attendant, who can use teleportation magic to trade two locations’ doorways to entertain passengers, is found burnt to death, with his head and hands cut clean off. After defeating a giant firecrab that destroys the crime scene, the heroes realize that the killer must be using Jenkins’s hands to open the vault in the back of the train, and they quickly rush to the rear car, only to find that nobody is in there, even though they’d have to be by that point if they planned to steal the luggage…

When a young boy detective named Angus McDonald, who is on the hunt for a serial killer and master thief from Rockport, identifies our three heroes as frauds in disguise, he keeps them in check as they all get to work stumbling their way through this murder mystery…

The Adventure Zone is my favorite podcast of all time. The first story, “Here There Be Gerblins”, almost turned me away, and it would’ve been a shame if I had to go the rest of my life without experiencing the rest of this fantastic tale. The story is weak, since it has to deal with the normal issues of getting new people into this foreign style of gaming, with lots of time spent on correcting rule misunderstandings, along with the transition from an officially-produced storyline to something more unique. What kept me listening was the McElroys’ sense of humor, which is as salient in The Adventure Zone as it was in My Brother, My Brother, and Me. Yes, it is often crass humor, but the McElroys are smart entertainers with an ear for timing and presentation, and a natural skill with improv. Even when they’re slumming it and grabbing the low-hanging fruit, they do it with such confident and chutzpah that it’s impossible not to get swept up in listening to the family banter and harass each other in and out of the game.

But then, the series does eventually progress well beyond just being a goofy game of Dungeons & Dragons. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still a goofy game of Dungeons & Dragons, but as the series’s style finally comes into form, the overarching story becomes more prominent, and the family get more involved and immersed in roleplaying their characters and interacting with the characters around them, the series is not only be silly, but it manages to be silly while still being a genuinely smartly-realized, very high-concept and imaginative fantasy tale with chilling shocks and emotional losses. From a town that’s been stuck repeating the day of its demise on a time loop for centuries, to a gameshow hosted by a lich designed to extract suffering from its contestants, to spelunking in a lab overtaken by crystal and rogue machinery, an angry dwarf and a murder on a train are the least of the lengths The Adventure Zone goes to dazzle you with creativity and adventure. The whole thing is spectacularly surreal, and even people with no interest in Dungeons & Dragons can listen along (as it’s played by people who also have no experience with it, and therefore don’t stringently respect rules or tradition of the game!), and a dozen times over I’d recommend it for people looking to laugh while crying while laughing while riding a bus to a more private place to laugh-cry.

The second arc, “Murder on the Rockport Limited”, is as good a fantasy story as the rest of the podcast! It’s the beginning of The Adventure Zone’s evolution from silly to high-concept surrealism, and showcases more creative gameplay and roleplaying from the boys. But how does it fair as a murder mystery?

To the best of my knowledge, the McElroys have no formal connection or history with the mystery genre, so to hear that they’re trying to run a mystery in Dungeons & Dragons was scary! It’s one thing for a person with no history with mystery to try to write a normal mystery, but a hybrid mystery with fantasy elements is something else entirely.

Those unfamiliar with Dungeons & Dragons might not quite understand, but those who do play the game will quickly see the issue with trying to run a fairplay mystery story inside of this game: magic. Strictly speaking, magic in Dungeons & Dragons does fit the criteria for being “fair” in the context of a mystery story. Magic is further divided into spells, and there is a limited number of spells in the base game, each of which is rigidly defined by rules dictating how they may be used. However, the normal game of Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition has four-hundred and ninety-five individual spells contained within! And functionally anything and anyone can be magical, and there’s absolutely zero way to determine what spells a person is capable of casting. In other words, magic is an infinite well of potential in all of the worst ways, allowing a Dungeon Master to write their way out of any mystery corner with a wave of the hand (or a wand)!

It is therefore a pleasant surprise to see that despite his lack of experience with the genre, Griffin McElroy smartly understood what it is that makes a good mystery story fair and fun, even inadvertently following Knox’s rules. If magic is ever utilized in the commission of the murder, it is only ever magic which the narration has explicitly shown you a character is capable of using. In fact, a pleasantly clever piece of misdirection is played using magic which isn’t at all hidden from the listener/players! While it isn’t perfect, because the story never actually establishes that this magic is the only magic which can be used in this setting, thereby leaving room for magical contrivance, the fact that the murder actually only utilizes magic which the listener already knows is part of the story and of which the listener already knows the precise limitations is a surprisingly smart piece of mystery-writing intuition from Griffin McElroy.

Unfortunately, though, even if the rest of the plan is a clever hybrid of magic and murder, the identity of the killer is incredibly obvious. From reading this review, I’m sure no less than seventy percent of you have already guessed whodunnit. It relies on an age-old dodge that screams the killer’s identity out the second it occurs, and disappointingly is a pretty straight application of the trick that doesn’t even rely on magic. It’s almost maddening to listen to the McElroys stumble around the crime scene and act the fool over one of the oldest mystery tricks of all time. It’s possible, in fact, that by figuring out the killer this easily, you can end up spoiling the rest of the plot for yourself by following the revolution to its natural conclusion…

So, perfect it is obviously not, fairly simple and short on surprises, but “Murder on the Rockport Limited” is a fairly smartly-realized hybrid mystery that makes for a good detour on an otherwise wild ride of surreal fantasy fun. Griffin’s keen intuition on mystery stories lets him concoct a pretty suitable answer to the problem of magic when writing a mystery in Dungeons & Dragons, complete with a solid although not totally awe-inspiring trick surrounding the attempted theft of the luggage. “Murder on the Rockport Limited” is not an absolute must-read for fans of mysteries — even of hybrid mysteries — but what it might be is a fun and charming way for someone to introduce themselves to the surreal, absurd gem of The Adventure Zone through mystery and murder…


The cover I used is actually from the graphic novel adaptation of “Murder on the Rockport Limited”. The graphic novels have fantastic, charming art by Carey Pietsch, and are extremely faithful to the podcast, so anything I say in the review about the mystery applies just as well to the graphic novel. However, I don’t think the graphic novels are the best ways to experience The Adventure Zone. My main gripe with them is that they often try to regurgitate popular jokes from the podcast, but in scripted form. A lot of the jokes do lose a lot of the charm in this repackaging, as they lose the context, timing, and presentation that give them all of their magic. Many of the jokes aren’t so clever that they’ll have you bust a gut laughing when they’re divorced from the natural showmanship of the McElroys.

What the graphic novels do do well, I think, is further refine the characters of the players as separate entities from the McElroy family! By making it scripted and being able to retcon elements from earlier, rougher, episodes, the graphic novels are able to tell the story in a neater, tidier way. To this end, I think The Adventue Zone‘s graphic novels make for fun recaps for established fans of the series who want to see what it’d be more like as a fantasy story, instead of as a game of Dungeons & Dragons. But if you’re interested at all, listen to the podcast! And be patient with the first story too!

The Red Death Murders (2022) by Jim Noy

Jim Noy has been a major part of the Golden Age mystery community for years now. He made a name for himself first by starting his excellent blog over at The Invisible Event where he reviews and discusses detective fiction — he was, in fact, the second blogger I ever discovered in the genre and influenced a lot of my early reading. Later, Jim started a talk show podcast called In GAD We Trust, in which he invited other prominent bloggers and writers to discuss specialized topics on the genre.

It was clear from his blog and podcast that he had an especial interest in impossible crimes and locked-room mysteries. That’s why it might have come as a surprise to very few that Jim finished marking his territory in the world of detective fiction with the publication of a locked-room mystery novel, The Red Death Murders.

The Red Death Murders takes the world of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death” and transforms it into a fully-fledged, authentically plotted puzzle mystery “leaving clues openly in the tradition of Agatha Christie”.

In a world ravaged by the Red Death, a plague that touches even the sanest men and serenest animals with a rabid insanity, Prince Prospero has in the absence of his father opened his castle walls to all of the rich and influential in the lands. Many men and women came hoping that Prince Prospero had a plan for surviving the Red Death, and left in disgust when they realized that the Prince was merely interested in throwing extravagant and debaucherous parties for the pompous and pandered. Over time, the revelries began to die down. Servants, dissatisfied at their work, would sneak out of the castle at the night and brave the wild world touched by the Red Death, and their masters would leave behind them with nobody to tend after them.

After two-hundred-or-so days, only nine people remained — the prince, his bodyguard, six guests, and a single servant — so that when a seemingly impossible but fortunately failed attempt was made on Prince Prospero’s life by a man dressed in a mask representing the Red Death itself, the entire castle is shook. But none more so than when they find one of their guests, with his wrists slashed, evidently murdered, in a primitive bathroom sealed from the inside by a piece of twine wrapped around two nails in the door and doorframe.

Spurred into action by the realization that there’s more to worry about than the Red Death, the thirteen year old Thomas aids respected Sir William and his brother Sir Marcus on their investigation into the true nature of the murders committed and assure everyone else can leave the castle safely…

The Red Death Murders is a tightly-plotted impossible crime novel, but it’d be doing the novel a disservice to say that the impossibilities are the core focus of this book. There are two-and-two-halves more impossibilities throughout the book — another locked-room murder, a man dead by poison even though he drank from the same cup everyone else partook of safely, a man stabbed semi-impossibly when everyone’s locations were accounted for and nobody was near the victim (except for two people who are not reliably accounted for), and the semi-impossible penetration of the Red Death into the castle to infect someone — and these impossibilities are far from handled casually. However, by the end of the book, when you’re given the Challenge to the Reader that assures you you have all of the same clues used by the detective, whomsoever it may be, to solve the crime, half of the actual impossibilities are already neatly resolved.

No, the impossibilities are not all that make up The Red Death Murders. The book is also packed full of delicious drama, world-building, history, politics, characters, routines, and habits — details compounded upon details that not only fill out the world and the people occupying it, ingratiating you to the fully-realized characters within and keeping you invested with their comings and goings, but also form a complex mural of crime and punishment in which no detail is uninteresting or wasted, even if the payoff only comes in the form of a false solution. A lesson in paying attention and accounting for absolutely everything, The Red Death Murders transcends Chekhov’s Gun — it’s a veritable Armory of Chekhov, with barrels of guns and tips of blades tapering together and downwards to a fine point.

And what a fine fine point it is, too! An utterly complex, compelling scheme that makes entire sense the entire way through, and yet also manages to baffle you with false explanations, red herrings, and expert misdirection, and Agatha Christie-esque dodges galore! This is also one of the few locked-room mysteries where I was genuinely impressed by the why as well as the how. Greatly clever in every single respect.

As for the resolutions to the impossibilities themselves, the problems are numerous, so no, not every single explanation for every single crime is an utter genre-bending classic. Plus, honestly, there are a few instances in which I found the false solutions more compelling than the actual, absolute truth. But where these crimes succeed, they succeed! The murder in the privy comes up with what is to my knowledge a wholly original explanation to the problem of a murder in a locked-and-sealed room, and the cup poisoning is also entirely original — I will confess that while they stop barely shy of having that forehead-slapping, book-dropping, world-shaking effect me, I can still be awe of the utter ingenuity here that actually shakes me in my typical resistance to very physical tricks like these. The impossible disappearance is a very simple but satisfying alibi-adjacent trick employed to create a neat impossible effect, and I do love it when alibi tricks are employed in impossible crimes so I particularly liked the impossible disappearance.

Are there any hang-ups with the novel? Yeah, the descriptions are beautifully written and the landscape richly and clearly developed, but I had trouble keeping the castle spatially clear in my head, and I feel like I would’ve benefited from a map or floorplan.

This is also a personal gripe, but there are two elements I feel could’ve been further utilized in the murder plot. The multi-colored rooms in the dungeons could’ve absolutely been utilized further in the creation of an impossible disappearance and I was a little disappointed by the lack of tricks involving light and color — a somewhat under-explored area of trickery.

The Red Death itself in particular I also would’ve loved to see play a more central role in a murder. While reading The Red Death Murders, I was struck with comparisons to Masahiro Imamura’s Death Among the Undead, which utilizes zombies to construct impossible crimes. Given that the Red Death itself is a plague that turns people into mindless, shambling, rabid monsters intent on spreading itself to new hosts through blood-contact, it wasn’t hard to make the connection between that and zombies. In a lot of ways, The Red Death Murders is incredibly shin-honkaku in other respects, too, with its heavy focus on complex, unconventional architecture, so I was expecting there to be some intimate involvement of the plague in the mechanical commission of the murders. I was a little sad that the rules the plague abided by didn’t play too much into the murder plot, but then again there’s already so much happening so I can’t expect everything and anything to be used to commit a locked-room murder!

The Red Death Murders is a tour de force that hardly feels like a first-time writer making his debut. Expertly and tightly plotted, The Red Death Murders is not only a compelling locked-room mystery novel, but a compelling dark fantasy/horror novel that uses all of its worldbuilding to the fullest to inform and enhance a brilliant murder plot. If there are any smudges, they’re very minor and only caused by my getting carried away with impossible expectations. Combined with two very unique explanations to two different impossible crimes, that makes Jim Noy’s The Read Death Murders a necessary read for any locked-room mystery fan.

Top 15 Favorite Impossible Crimes – Revision 0

I’ve never liked making “top favorite” lists in genres where I am so painfully aware of how little I’ve experienced in contrast to how much of it still exists waiting for me. Making a list of my favorite impossible crime novels specifically felt impossible because I’m just so, so, so aware of how many likely very good locked-room mysteries are sitting in my to-be-read pile right now. It’s worse, in fact, since I’ve started studying Japanese and have become more aware of a whole new world of obviously brilliant mystery novels. My personal horizon is so narrow, but the potential is so broad and it makes me feel like any list I make will come off as pedestrian. That’s why I’ve labeled this “revision 0”; I’m confident that by this time in 2023 the list will look immensely different. Maybe 33% of the entire list will be traded out by that time, I’m sure, and there will be at least one revision

This list is media non-specific. Television, movies, video games, comics may all apply. This is also why I’ve also settled on 15, rather than 10, because in the making of this list I realized that it was hyper-dominated by locked-room mysteries from Japanese novels and non-novel media, and I wanted to make some room for good, accessible, western media too. I’ll also only include one full entry from an author, including honorable mentions if necessary. Having qualified my list and the title of the post, my top 15 favorite impossible crimes, in no particular order, are…

Death of Jezebel – Christianna Brand (1949)

Anyone who has ever spoken to me will not be surprised by this being my immediate first inclusion on a list of favorite impossible crimes. Not only is Death of Jezebel my favorite Christianna Brand novel, not only is it my favorite impossible crime novel, it’s simply my favorite Golden Age mystery novel ever written. Christianna Brand is in top-form at demonstrating her ability to build up entire false narratives and hoodwink you into them, to bait the audience into believing things without ever really saying or doing anything. A masterclass in misdirection, the murder of a woman in a locked-and-guarded tower during a play also features multiple grand mechanical and technical tricks that are clever, novel, and macabre. One of four Brand masterpieces that I think even people with no interest in impossible crimes should give a chance.

The Moai Island Puzzle – Arisu Arisugawa (1989), trans. Ho-Ling Wong (2016)

The impossible shooting that occurs in this novel is a very strong alibi trick, but as good as it is this element of the story is only a small part of what makes The Moai Island Puzzle so strong a contender for fans of mysteries-as-a-puzzle. Puzzles buried within ciphers wrapped within riddles and tied-up with lateral thinking problems are the name of the game with this novel that celebrates puzzles as almost like an artform. A brilliantly intriguing and cerebral mystery novel.

Whistle Up the Devil – Derek Smith (1953)

Cringe-inducing romance and overly-convoluted climax aside, this is a homerun of an impossible crime novel. The principle murder of a man conducting a ceremony within a supposedly haunted room is just a good offering, with a complex arrangement of what still amounts to a quick series of little tricks we’ve all seen before, obvious bits and pieces and sleights of hand, but nonetheless enjoyably convoluted. What elevates this novel from good to fantastic is the knee-slapping devious and blastedly simple alibi trick employed in the secondary murder in a police station that nobody ever walked into or out of, aside from two men who were in each other’s view for every point of time that mattered. This short story-length masterpiece hiding in an otherwise just-above-average impossible crime makes this well-worth reading.

Here I want to give a quick honorable mention to Derek Smith’s other novel, Come to Paddington Fair, which if you were to ask me probably has a more brilliantly-plotted and conceived central murder, and a much more unique trick. I neglect to mention it as a proper entry on the list, because I felt like when you realized that coincidence doesn’t exist in a deliberately-plotted world the beginning of the story spoils the resolution in such a way that it makes much of the ensuing investigation feel redundant. Come to Paddington Fair is a fantastic idea, but unfortunately relies so majorly on an early Christie-esque dodge that, if you’re not hoodwinked by it, ends up toppling the whole story and every misdirection that comes after it. I noticed the initial dodge immediately, and pieced together the rest of the plot before the story had even hit its stride, and that did dock a few points for me. I still heavily recommend it, because while I feel like it spoils itself by being too clever by half, I think I’d always prefer a too-clever-for-itself story to its dull counterpart any day — it’s novel, unique, and a very intelligently plotted crime novel with a very innovative take on how to establish an impossible crime.

Murder in the Crooked HouseSōji Shimada (1982), trans. Louise Heal Kawai (2019)

Sōji Shimada is the Japanese locked-room murder, well known for his output of well over 50 novels featuring locked-rooms and other various impossible murders. His other major impossible crime offering, The Tokyo Zodiac Murders, which is also available in English is much more well-known and equally deserving of praise for its brilliance and grandiosity of mechanical scale, but I just adore Murder in the Crooked House. Sōji Shimada, I feel, is an author you’ll either adore or hate. His settings and solutions are brilliant and original, but also stretch credulity and highlight above anything else the puzzle. As a sheer lateral thinking exercise, Murder in the Crooked House contains one of the best impossible crimes in any novel ever, even if I can’t confidently say it’s one of the best novels containing an impossible crime. It is wholly original, complex, intricately-plotted, and taut, and a fantastic puzzle from end to end with a fantastic method for committing murder in a triple-locked room that more than makes up for its obvious culprit.

Time to Kill – Roger Ormerod (1974)

Roger Ormerod is an author who wrote well after the Golden Age had ended. Despite this, his novels had all of the fairly-clued plotting and cerebral misdirection and alibi tricks as a novel from the 1930s, blended with the aesthetic of a gritty contemporary PI novel. His debut novel is an impossible alibi problem — from the moment the murder is committed, we know who the killer is, but there’s one problem: the killer has an airtight alibi provided by the narrator himself and we have no idea how he committed this murder under such impossible-for-him circumstances. I used to think that there were only three basic explanations for the impossible alibi, but Time to Kill offers a fourth possibility that to this day is still my favorite explanation for this particular problem. It perfectly sets up Ormerod’s thorough and educated understanding of Golden Age-styled alibi trickery almost in the style of Christopher Bush — a lost disciple of the puzzle mystery that more people should be seeking out.

Till Death Do Us Part – John Dickson Carr (1944)

Despite being a self-styled disciple of the impossible crime problem, I’m actually incredibly ashamed to admit that my reading into John Dickson Carr’s oeuvre is very limited! My first review on this blog was me airing out how little I enjoyed The Case of the Constant Suicides. Aside from that, I’ve only read a small handful of specially-recommended Carrs, only around 10 I think. I’ve been so caught-up in reading other impossible crime novels that I’ve neglected to honor the master himself! Let this be a wake-up call to me to get back to Carr…

Till Death Do Us Part is absolutely the most brilliant locked-room conceived by Carr that I’ve read. Preceded by expectation, nobody needs to know what I have to say about this book. It’s damnably simple and clever, the puzzle is brilliantly conceived, the cluing clever and well-done.

Jonathan Creek (Season 1 Episode 2) “Jack in the Box” – David Renwick (1997)

Jonathan Creek is a late 90’s-early 2000s BBC drama featuring the titular magician’s assistant who uses his knowledge of stage illusions to solve locked-room murders and impossible crimes. I think the series is incredibly hit-or-miss, containing both some of my favorite and least favorite locked-room mysteries ever conceived, and it might be a little worrying that in Jonathan Creek‘s 17 year run I think the show peaked in its second episode ever…

There are more than a small handful of fantastic impossible crimes in this series, actually. The Christmas special “Black Canary”, the first episode of season two “Danse Macabre” are both also great, but “Jack in the Box” really perfected the formula right out of the gate with a satisfying and original explanation to the shooting of a man in a locked-and-sealed bunker that entirely inverts the very premise of a locked-room murder as a question of how the killer escaped from the room.

The Great Ace Attorney 2: The Resolve of Ryūnosuke Naruhodō (Case 3)
“The Return of the Great Departed Soul” – Shū Takumi (2017)

Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney is a Japanese mystery video game series, one game of which I’ve reviewed on this blog. In Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney and all of its subsequent spinoff titles, the player takes on the role of a lawyer tasked with proving the innocence of clients falsely accused of murder. Using a point-and-click interface, the player investigates crime scenes, interviews wacky witnesses and suspects, and collects evidence. The next day, the player goes to court and is tasked with cross-examining witnesses who are either grossly mistaken about what they saw or hell-bent on seeing your client behind bars and deliberately lying. Through a series of simple question prompts, the player finds lies in testimony statements, presents evidence to expose the lies, and then is loosely-guided on a series of Ellery Queen-esque sequences of deductions and logic where the player explains why the lie was told or the mistake was made and then what the truth of the situation is. By the end of every case, the real killer is discovered and your client is saved from wrongful imprisonment!

In the spinoff series The Great Ace Attorney the format is shaken up by placing the player in the role of Phoenix Wright’s ancestor Ryūnosuke Naruhodō, a Japanese lawyer who teams up with the Great Detective Herlock Sholmes in Victorian London. The third case of the second game of this particular series is a very unique take on the impossible crime problem, inspiring one of my 15 categories of impossible crimes — the impossible technology problem!

Your client is a scientist who was presenting an instantaneous kinesis machine, a piece of technology that is capable of molecularly dissembling any human subject and then reassembling them somewhere else, allowing them to teleport from one location to another in the blink of an eye! Unfortunately, during the presentation, his assistant and test subject was teleported to the wrong location. While he was meant to be transported to the INSIDE of a nearby glass tower, the test subject was instead manifested a few dozen feet in the air above the tower, whereupon he fell through the walls of the tower. The police were summoned only to find the man stabbed to death by a screwdriver through the heart. Since the tower was totally inaccessible to anyone until the police arrived, it’s determined that the only person who could’ve committed this murder is your client, who must’ve stabbed the victim before teleporting him away. In order to prove your client’s innocence, you need to prove how the teleportation could’ve been faked! But how else can you explain a man moving hundreds of feet into the air in less than a second…

The solution to the teleportation isn’t at all difficult to figure out, but there’s a second and third puzzle hiding in the background of this case that makes it brilliant. The true explanation for the murder when you get past the impossible problem is genuinely shocking, and there are quite a few plot threads that connect this murder to an ages-old serial killing that the rest of the game’s narrative is concerned with. A brilliantly innovative presentation of impossible crimes, the method of connecting this subplot to the overarching narrative of the game is a masterstroke of writing, and a somewhat obvious impossible solution doesn’t stop the mystery from offering up some genuine surprises. One of the best cases from a very, very good mystery series.

Death Among the Undead – Masahiro Imamura (2017) trans. Ho-Ling Wong (2021)

One of the most defining features of the shin-honkaku movement that I feel like westerners don’t see from just the translations we get from Vertigo Pushkin and Locked Room International is the amount of authors who love to experiment with form, style, and genre without betraying the underlying and ever-present element of a complex, cerebral puzzle. Hybrid mysteries, the sort we get from Isaac Asimov’s sci-fi mysteries like The Cave of Steel, are even more present in modern Japanese mystery writing than they ever were over here! There are authentically Golden Age-styled mysteries written to take place within the confines of a world that operates under the rules of a fantasy roleplaying video game, or mysteries set within fantasy worlds. There’s a short story collection about a group of murderers who share stories of their exploits over an internet board and every story is a different member of the board. And then there’s Masahiro Imamura’s breakout hybrid mystery, Death Among the Undead, which combines the locked-room mystery with a zombie apocalypse!

Death Among the Undead is a brilliant piece of work with three absolutely stunning impossible crimes that all three offer up entirely novel and unique explanations to the problem of murders committed in locked-rooms either provided by or enhanced by the presence of a horde of brain-eating undead! This novel is an absolute jaw-dropper of plotting genius that can confidently stand with its head held high among any classic of the genre. It is no less a classic, puzzle-driven impossible crime story for the presence of zombies — in fact, I’d say it’s even more so, as the rigid rules that the zombies abide by offer an extra layer of complexity and reasoning. Simply fantastic.

Death in the House of Rain – Szu-Yen Lin (2006) trans. (2017)

Death in the House of Rain is a dangerous impossible crime novel, because its an idea that I feel like could’ve easily failed. It doesn’t succeed on the strength of its core idea alone, but on the framing of its idea through the personification of fate and fortune as almost its own character, which arguably is the true killer, above anyone else who might’ve committed murder in the story. The solutions to the three first disparate locked-room murders are all connected by a single thread that is very devious and devilishly simple, brimming with an original idea whose reliance on coincidence could’ve easily failed if not for the underlying theme of fortune. It’s, in fact, an idea I proposed in my List of 50 Locked-Room Solutions which people often privately criticized me for because no impossible crime existed which could claim to use the solution, so I’ll admit I’m a little biased from reading this book and getting that feeling of aha! I told you!.

A fourth impossible crime brilliantly rises from the resolution of the previous three as a connecting thread, and it’s just as good as you could hope. This novel is fantastic, but easily could’ve not been.

The Kindaichi Case Files Shin (Case 3) “The Prison Prep School Murder Case” – Seimaru Amagi (2006)

I actually know very little about the Kindaichi Case Files franchise or its sister series Detective School Q, having only organically read one or two mysteries from each of them. They weren’t bad at all, mind you! Honorable mention to Detective School Q‘s first proper murder mystery for being blindingly brilliant, actually! However, I was directed to this particular case by TomCat’s blog post on this very same topic, and reading it honestly reawoke my interest in the two franchises! This is ingenuity distilled into its purest form, plain and simple, with a grand, brilliant, and complex impossible alibi trick at the heart of it.

Both Kindaichi Case Files and Detective School Q are classic examples of the locked-room mystery puzzle plot in the realms of anime/manga series, and having read one of the best impossible crime stories of all time by sheer chance in these series I can easily recommend anyone and everyone to seek this series out and read it if they have even a tiny interest in locked-room mysteries. John Dickson Carr would be proud of these two detective series. I read this case in Japanese in the manga, but the anime adaptation is available in English for anyone curious!

Case Closed/Detective Conan (Anime-original, Episodes 603-605)
The Séance’s Double Locked Room Mystery Case – Gosho Aoyama

Detective Conan, as I’ve mentioned on my post about the franchise, contains many classics of basically any form of Golden Age-styled plotting you can think of. Alibi problems, locked-room mysteries, inverted mysteries, Detective Conan could probably make a top 10 list of any of them. Between both the manga and the anime, Detective Conan has produced more than its fair share of strong impossible crimes, many of which could end up on a list like this. For anime-originals, honorable mention to The Cursed Mask Laughs Coldly, which I think is more inventive and innovative, but The Séance’s Double Locked Room Mystery Case narrowly won out for its intricate intertwining of two impossible crimes. A brilliant set of two locked-rooms that rely on each other for their solutions makes this case a stand-out for its uniqueness of plotting, and the solutions are nothing to sneeze at either, but trust me when I say there are probably at least seven other Detective Conan impossible crimes equally worth mentioning at some point or another…

“The Lure of the Green Door” by Rintarō Norizuki (1991) trans. Ho-Ling Wong (2014)

The standout story from international tour of impossible crimes, The Realm of the Impossible, “The Lure of the Green Door” is a locked-room mystery inspired by the premise of an old science fiction parable by English author H. G. Wells in which a man enters a green door to another world. In “The Lure of the Green Door”, a man is murdered in his locked-and-sealed study with a green door that isn’t locked but mysteriously cannot be opened… The solution is a physical trick that plays on an old concept, but it’s a startling unique take on the concept that I’m proud to have solved ahead of time. The scale of the solution is also great without detracting from the elegance of the trick! A masterpiece of the short-form locked-room mystery.

“The Clown in the Tunnel” by Tetsuya Ayukawa (1958) trans. Ho-Ling Wong (2020)

A clown commits a murder, is seen running into a tunnel, and then vanishes before he can appear from the other side!

Tetsuya Ayukawa is a Japanese author famous for crossing wires between impossible crimes and alibi problems. As the introduction to the The Red Locked-Room collection notes, Ayukawa often uses alibi tricks to establish impossible crimes, and locked-room tricks to establish alibis. This gimmick very often lends itself to old tricks being applied in unique, novel, and stunning ways, and “The Clown in the Tunnel” is the best example of this! An absolute stunning example of how an alibi trick can lend itself to an impossible disappearance, and one of the best stories from a very good collection.

“The Ginza Ghost” – Ōsaka Keikichi (1936) trans. Ho-Ling Wong (2017)

The Ginza Ghost is a fantastic collection of impossible crimes from early Japanese crime writer Ōsaka Keikichi. Despite it existing in the early eras of the honkaku school of plotting, this collection shows off an author who demonstrates marked ingenuity and genius, with ideas that are still novel nearly 90 years in the future. The best story in the collection is easily the title story, “The Ginza Ghost”, which features a murder inside of a locked tobacco shop where a woman appears to have killed another and then herself — however, mysteriously, the murderer appears to have died significantly before her victim, suggesting the presence of a ghost who committed the crime… Ordinarily, I don’t enjoy impossible crimes that rely so centrally on an accident for the illusion to function — I’m a sucker for cartoonishly intelligent criminal geniuses — but the accident in this case is so elegant, simple, and brilliantly unique that it’s impossible not to love it.

And there you have it, my 15 favorite locked-room mysteries, which is 66.6% Japanese, quite a few of which aren’t even from novels. I’m sure Ho-Ling doesn’t mind the free publicity. I don’t mind to seem biased, but there are just so many strong and ingeniously plotted mysteries in the Japanese honkaku and shin-honkaku schools of mystery writing… This list will definitely not last long, but I enjoyed making it.