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…

Detective Conan Volume 10 (1995-1996) by Gosho Aoyama

(*Note, although this is the tenth in this series of reviews, I only encourage you to read my review of the first volume to get a summary of the series and my preamble about the reviews. It is not necessary to read any other entry in the series besides the first)

Volumes 6 to 8 were a breath of fresh air for a series that started off so mediocrely. Although Volume 9 stumbled a bit, with a very uneven assortment of stories, it evened up by the end with a pretty good alibi trick inside of a decent, if underrealized, mystery tale. The average quality of the stories has improved considerably since the first few volumes, and I now found myself reading Detective Conan again casually, instead of beating out volumes “waiting for it to get good”. Even a mediocre story from this stage of the game is considerably better than a good story from the first three volumes…

Screenshot from the anime series and provided by Detective Conan World wiki

Volume 8 opens with Casebook 25 – Diplomat Murder Case (Chapters 2-6), in which a woman summons Richard to her husband’s study to help with a background check on her future daughter-in-law, who is “too perfect to be good”! However, when the gang arrives at the scene, they find that the husband, a diplomat, has been killed by a poison prick-pin! Worse yet, the room was locked-and-sealed, and when the murder must’ve occurred, not only did everyone have an alibi but one person, but the only keys to the door were either in the victim’s pocket or the wife’s pocket (who was away from the house).

While struggling to piece together the mystery, Conan struggles with a fierce fever. Worse yet, a new detective named Harley Hatwell has shown up and named himself Jimmy’s rival — and he’s about to walk into the killer’s trap and blow the whole case!

This one’s fun, I really like the introduction of Harley as having him bounce ideas off of Conan and also butt heads with him makes the reasoning/deduction segments of Detective Conan more engaging and fun. The mystery itself is a bit minor for a feature-length story, though, as a lot of the story was basically dedicated to the locked-room mystery’s false solution as well as setting up the final confrontation between Jimmy (Conan) and Harley.

The locked-room mystery is fairly basic. The solution is a decent reworking of an age-old trick. However, the way it’s applied here is a lot more elegant on account of the way the presentation of the locked-room is handled. It makes the killer’s actions more natural so that the age-old solution doesn’t quite jump out at you like it would if this story played it entirely like those other stories tend to… This reworking of this particular solution type also lends itself to some fun cluing.

This is a decent story. The introduction of Harley is significant, and the denouement is a very good scene, but the mystery plot is just mediocre.

Screenshot from the anime series and provided by Detective Conan World wiki

Immediately after this is Casebook 26 – Library Employee Murder Case (Chapters 6-8), the first story in the series to share chapters with another story, as chapter 6, the ending of Diplomat Murder Case is a direct tie-in to the beginning of this case (not that it matters to the plot).

Newly reinvigorated with the knowledge of how to return to his adult body, Jimmy accompanies the Junior Detective League on one last case where they investigate the disappearance and presumed murder of an employee… While there, they hunt for the secrets of the owner of the library while their life is in danger!

Screenshot from the anime series and provided by Detective Conan World wiki

Okay, fine! I really liked this Junior Detective League story! There’s a fairly-clued, if obvious, “Purloined Letter”-esque trick with the hiding place of a particular item in the story. The real puncher here, though, is the hiding place of the body, which is just mildly clever on its own, but is further elevated by a really clever piece of mathematic misdirection.

Not an astoundingly brilliant one, but I really enjoyed this one.

The volume ends on Casebook 27 – Medical Professors Murder Case (Volumes 10-11, Chapters 9-1), in which the Moores are stranded outside on a ski trip after Richard loses their lodge keys. The family is, fortunately, saved by a band of medical professors who invite them to spend the night at their private lodge. However, while there, the head professor under which the others study is murdered violently, and it appears he’s left behind a message identifying his killer…!

Screenshot from the anime series and provided by Detective Conan World wiki

This one is ingenious in all of the ways that dying messages tend to be, but also absurd in all of the ways that dying messages tend to be. The message involves intimate knowledge of Japanese culture and language, and also demands you be reading the story in Japanese or else you just won’t get any of the clues that actually reveal the solution to you in the character names…

I think this one is wildly ingenious, but for some reason I just didn’t find it very satisfying. I give it points for cleverness, but I didn’t actually really enjoy this one.


Volume 10 is much more even than Volume 9! While it never quite reaches the highs of any of the volumes before it, there are no standout bad stories in this volume! This is all-around a good, balanced collection of Detective Conan tales.

  1. ————THE GOOD————
    Moonlight Sonata (CB#18 V7 C2-7)
  2. Art Collector (CB#15 V6 C2-5)
  3. Tenkaichi Festival (CB#17 V6-7 C9-1)
  4. Bandaged Man (CB#12 V5 C1-5)
  5. Night Baron (CB#20 V8 C2-7)
  6. Wealthy Daughter (CB#24 V9-10 C7-1)
  7. Art Museum Owner (CB#9 V4 C1-3)
  8. Library Employee Murder Case (CB#26 V10 C6-8)
  9. ————THE DECENT————
    Poisoned Bride (CB#21 V8 C8-10)
  10. Kogoro Richard’s Reunion (CB#23 V9 C4-6)
  11. Strange Shadow (CB#4 V2 C1-3)
  12. Diplomat Murder Case (CB#25 V10 C 2-6)
  13. LEX Vocalist (CB#13 V6 C6-9)
  14. Hatamoto Murder (CB#7 V3 C1-6)
  15. Shinkansen Bombing (CB#10 V4, C4-6)
  16. Conan Kidnapping (CB#14 V5-6 C10-1)
  17. Medical Professor (CB#27 V10-11 C9-1)
  18. ————THE BAD————
    Haunted Mansion Case (CB#6 V2, C8-10)
  19. Idol Locked-Room (CB#3 V1, C6-9)
  20. Roller Coaster (CB#1 V1 C1)
  21. Soccer Brother (CB#19 V7-8 C8-1)
  22. Monthly Presents (CB#8 V3 C7-10)
  23. Twin Brothers (CB#16 V6 C6-8)
  24. President’s Daughter (CB#2 V1, C2-5)
  25. Billion Yen (CB#5 V2 C4-7)
  26. ORO (CB#11 V4 C7-9)
  27. Ayumi Kidnapping (CB#22 V9 C-13)

Detective Conan Volume 8 (1995) by Gosho Aoyama

(*Note, although this is the eight in this series of reviews, I only encourage you to read my review of the first volume to get a summary of the series and my preamble about the reviews. It is not necessary to read any other entry in the series besides the first)

Back-to-back Volumes 6 and 7 gave us some absolute stunners. From a brilliant inverted mystery at a fire festival, to a somber murder to the beat of a piano, to the shocking murder-by-swordfight of an art collector, Detective Conan has started to produce some genuinely great stories that fans of detective fiction would be doing themselves a disservice to ignore…

Screenshot from the anime series and provided by Detective Conan World wiki

Volume 8 opens with Casebook 20 – The Night Baron Murder Case (Chapters 2-7), as the Moores attend a bizarre competition at a hotel. A person will dress up as the fictional phantom thief, Night Baron, and roam the hotel committing petty crimes. Whoever first discovers the identity of the masked man will be given free room and board at the hotel. However, as Conan investigates and finds out nearly everyone present is a respected computer programmer, he discovers that there’s another, secret prize in the competition: a virus named after the Night Baron character…

During their stay, Conan is thrown off of his balcony by the Night Baron! Now concerned about the true nature of this competition, Conan is on the hunt for the Night Baron… The Baron’s identity is quickly revealed when the character is too cast from a balcony, and lands on the spear of a statue, getting impaled and dying immediately. When the mask is revealed, the identity is revealed to be programmer Tokio Ebara… however, Conan is not convinced this is the real Baron. The Moores begin their search for the culprit of this murder and the true identity of the Night Baron…

Screenshot from the anime series and provided by Detective Conan World wiki

And during their hunt, they find the victim’s room, locked and sealed from the inside, barring access…

I want to get this out of the way now, there is some beautiful cluing towards a brilliant murder trick in this story. In my opinion, in fact, this is the most brilliant piece of misdirection in the series so far. The locked-room mystery itself is minor and resolved immediately, but the locked-room itself is merely a form of misdirection that contributes to the greater solution — the true solution. It’s a brilliant mystery puzzle, so I wish I liked this story more…

The story, bizarrely, feels like two disparate premises stitched together. The murder at a gathering of computer programmers and the ne’er-do-wellery of a fictional Great Thief come to life are, individually, two fantastic premises, but stitching them together by naming a virus after the character makes the whole thing feel confused and muddled, and leads to neither idea really feeling like it gets sufficiently payoff come the end.

What makes this even more bizarre is that there are multiple instances of characters doing wildly suspicious things, and there’s… no explanation for it before or during the denouement. The suspicious activity is hand-waved over the course of what basically constitutes an epilogue, with multiple characters basically giving an apology that amounts to “hehe, whoops, we were so silly!” Very half-baked, artificial attempts to cast suspicion onto another character.

This also returns to the feature-length story trope of having a character make a weak dodge to attempt to deflect suspicion from the culprit, but inadvertently do the opposite and point big, blazing, neon arrows in the killer’s direction. It works here, though. Not from a misdirection standpoint, but just from a storytelling and character standpoint the attempt here actually adds a little to the story and gives Rachel a very compelling WWJD (What would Jimmy do) moment.

Anyway, the central trick here is brilliant and it elevates this story well beyond where it would’ve been with a lesser murder plot, being so loosely-plotted, frustratingly lazy and half-baked in places, and muddled. I’m almost certain this was once-upon-a-time a standard-length story, and it was extended when they realized they wanted it to be relevant to the series’s overarching plot for XYZ reasons… Only it would’ve been much better if it stayed that way. Still worth reading for the trick, but don’t make this your first Detective Conan you seek out.

Screenshot from the anime series and provided by Detective Conan World wiki

The second and final story this volume is Casebook 21 – The Poisoned Bride Attempted Murder Case (Chapters 8-10), which has the Moores attending the wedding of a police commissioner’s daughter — who also, as it happens, turns out to be Conan’s persnickety former teacher. Before the ceremony can commence, however, the bride is non-fatally poisoned by a packet of sodium hydroxide left in her favorite drink, a can of lemon tea! A video camera that recorded the gang’s entire interaction in the dressing room became a central piece of evidence in the murder…

This one is very good! The alibi trick for the poisoning was very clever, if not entirely unique, turning on a principle that has fundamentally been used a few times in the series already. It’s a fairly distinct interpretation of the idea though, as it relies on a certain character’s assistance to operate under the restrictions of poison, and the visual clue that reveals everything is very neatly handled!

The motive is touching and fairly clued, and the ending is very sweet, even if it a bit on the side of rewarding people for doing bad things…


It’s hard to match peaks, but Volume 8 of Detective Conan makes a valiant effort with its two stories. Volume 8 is absolutely worth reading once you’re a signed-on fan of the series, especially for the brilliant trick buried in the otherwise messy Night Baron Murder Case

  1. Moonlight Sonata (CB#18 V7 C2-7)
  2. Art Collector (CB#15 V6 C2-5)
  3. Tenkaichi Festival (CB#17 V6-7 C9-1)
  4. Bandaged Man (CB#12 V5 C1-5)
  5. Night Baron (CB#20 V8 C2-7)
  6. Art Museum Owner (CB#9 V4 C1-3)
  7. Poisoned Bride (CB#21 V8 C8-10)
  8. Strange Shadow (CB#4 V2 C1-3)
  9. LEX Vocalist (CB#13 V6 C6-9)
  10. Hatamoto Murder (CB#7 V3 C1-6)
  11. Shinkansen Bombing (CB#10 V4, C4-6)
  12. Conan Kidnapping (CB#14 V5-6 C10-1)
  13. Haunted Mansion Case (CB#6 V2, C8-10)
  14. Idol Locked-Room (CB#3 V1, C6-9)
  15. Roller Coaster (CB#1 V1 C1)
  16. Soccer Brother (CB#19 V7-8 C8-1)
  17. Monthly Presents (CB#8 V3 C7-10)
  18. Twin Brothers (CB#16 V6 C6-8)
  19. President’s Daughter (CB#2 V1, C2-5)
  20. Billion Yen (CB#5 V2 C4-7)
  21. ORO (CB#11 V4 C7-9)

Detective Conan Volume 2 (1994) by Gosho Aoyama

Like I promised on my review of Volume 1, much less preamble will be necessary going forward, and these reviews will be shorter, and easier to write as well as to read. I will be reminding you every post to go read my review of Volume 1, however, as that does set the scene for everything else.

Despite sitting in that early-series slump that turns so many people off of Detective Conan, Volume 2 opens with the fairly decent Casebook 4 – Mysterious Shadow Case (Chapters 1-3). The Mysterious Shadow Case opens with Richard Moore, suddenly a respected detective thanks to the intervention of Conan, has been paid an exorbitant amount of money to trail a man for three days. However, the very day afterwards, Richard’s mark has been found dead at a fire festival..! The police are 100% convinced of the guilt of the victim’s old friend… only, at the time of the murder, the friend was provably in another country! Conan, also convinced of this man’s guilt, gets to proving the trick of how he faked his alibi.

Despite often being labelled as such, this isn’t quite an “inverted mystery”. We’re loosely guaranteed the identity of the killer, but we’re not privy to his murder plot, and because the killer has an airtight alibi making this murder impossible I’ll be sorting this into that “Doylist Impossibility” category of impossible alibis. No, TomCat, I won’t be taking any questions. And yes, just to be clear, this means I consider this story the manga’s first impossible crime, and not Idol Locked-Room Murder Case (Volume 1), which I didn’t think was truly impossible.

I actually liked this one. No, it isn’t a “lost classic” of Detectie Conan lore, but it’s a minor peak in the quality you’ll be getting out of the pure detective stories of early Conan for quite a while. Like the previous two stories I discussed in Volume 1, this one turns on pretty obvious and basic clues, but the entirety of the solution wasn’t too derivative. It’s a decently clever alibi trick that kind of calls to mind a less unique and simpler version of the solution to one of my favorite Roger Ormerod novels… Don’t take this praise too seriously though, this story is not exceptional. It’ll be sitting at the “number 1” slot for a hot minute, but I won’t let it get too comfortable…

This story pivots into Casebook 5 – The Billion Yen Case (Chapters 4-7), in which Richard is asked to locate a young woman’s missing father, her “only family”. Another PI elsewhere is asked by an adult man to locate the exact same person, who also claims that he is his father, and his “only family”. The conflicting stories come to a head when the man is reunited with his daughter, only to immediately wind up murdered.

This one’s boring. Not very clever or unique, you’ll see where it’s going from begin to end. Possibly the most uninteresting way to develop this premise. Introduces under-used Conan tech in the form of the tracker badge, though. Meh…

Casebook 6 – The Haunted Mansion Case (Chapters 8-10) is a bit of a departure for the series, having Conan and three of his classmates investigating a supposedly haunted house that was once the site of a grizzly murder! The kids slowly disappear one by one under mysterious circumstances…

This one’s kinda fun, but it has some wild tonal whiplash, going from Scooby-Doo to Edgar Allan Poe in no-time flat. It’s the first appearance of the “Junior Detective League”, but other than that it’s not notable for much. Up until the end, it reads like a middle-of-the-lane Nancy Drew/Hardy Boys-style juvenile detective stories like most of the Junior Detective League stories I can think of… There is, technically, a “murder mystery” that’s solved, but it’s minor stuff, and is more there for atmosphere than anything.


Another mediocre review of a pretty middling volume. I’ll be urging you along for a while, because we’re both working through the slog together, you and me. I want to make it clear that if you see any praise I levy towards these stories that seems colored or reserved, assume there’s an implied “for this point in the series”. There’s nothing great here, but we’re getting to some really good ones… Not, you know, in the next volume, but we’re getting there.

The individual positions of these stories relative to each other doesn’t matter at this point, they’re all kinda the similar level of meh.

  1. Strange Shadow (CB#4 V2 C1-3)
  2. Haunted Mansion Case (CB#6 V2, C8-10)
  3. Idol Locked-Room (CB#3 V1 C6-9)
  4. Roller Coaster (CB#1 V1 C1)
  5. President’s Daughter (CB#2 V1, C2-5)
  6. Billion Yen (CB#5 V2 C4-7)

Death and the Conjuror (2022) by Tom Mead

(*disclaimer: a free advance copy of this book was provided for review by the publisher through the NetGalley service)

Tom Mead is an author who, for anyone reading this blog, likely needs no introduction. A many-time publisher of successful impossible crime short fiction published heavily in crime fiction anthologies and Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, likely best known for his hard-boiled story “Heatwave”, Tom hadn’t produced his first novel-length outing until Death and the Conjuror, published by Otto Penzler and Mysterious Press.

Anselm Rees, world-renowned Italian psychiatrist, has led a stable life in England, keeping a modest practice of only three patients since his immigration with his daughter Lidia. A torrent of unexpected visitors culminates in the throat-slashing of Rees in his study, which had been locked and sealed from the inside so that entrance and escape is wholly impossible. When one of the suspects is also accused of (under impossible circumstances) stealing a rare painting from a house party, Detective Inspector Flint is forced to consult magician and master of illusions Joseph Spector to help elucidate the problem. Together, Flint and Spector interview the late Rees’s family, employees, and patients in order to locate whodunit.

Horizontally, laterally, frontwards, and backwards, Tom Mead’s breakout novel is the impossible crime fan’s impossible crime, having everything a reader of locked-room mysteries will love from a locked-room mystery novel, and safely having nothing he may not. In fact, Death and the Conjuror is ultimately a bisection between your average John Dickson Carr impossible crime and Clayton Rawson’s Death from a Top Hat in all of the best (and not-so-best) ways.

Tom Mead’s writing style is one of the first things I wanted to compliment when writing this post. Many Golden Age greats have written characters with distinct identities and personalities who nonetheless get lost in the same voice of high-class sophistication that permeates much of the prose (even those authors well-known as stylists as well as plotters). Oftentimes even authors who weren’t explicitly trying to be literary felt like they were trying to flout their intellectualism in place of style. Fortunately, Tom manages to blend period-appropriate language with a voice obviously developed with modern sensibilities, creating a novel that, though no less convincing as a 19xx mystery story, is majorly more readable and palpable than the average mystery tale of the period, and boasts clearly defined characters and voices.

As a mystery novel holistically, Death and the Conjuror is fantastically realized. Like any Golden Age tale of ratiocination, Death and the Conjuror brings you from clue to clue, building up a picture of murder over time that only compounds into something more complex, no matter how much the detective wishes it would get better. There are many interesting set-pieces, clever clues, and neat logic throughout, and the ways circumstance unites the characters in the plot-at-large are always interesting and fluid. Apparently there are many reasons for the troubled to visit their psychiatrist in the middle of the night!

In spite of the focus on a psychiatrist and his patients, the book also doesn’t delve too much into overreaching psychology as a clue. It dips its toe in places, but it’s always interesting and never anything it expects the reader to guess based on idealized archetypes of demographic psychology. I will say, however, that despite the novel’s theming around psychiatry, this particular element of the story felt wasted in establishing the killer’s motive, which was ultimately pretty basic in light of all the circumstance surrounding it. Moreover, the way the detective divined the motive is fair, as it demands a few assumptions and guesses that we as readers will or can naturally make, but isn’t as credible from a perspective within the series. (ROT13 for anyone who has read the story: Vg qrznaqf gur nffhzcgvba gung “Gur Fanxr Zna” vf n fvtavsvpnag cneg bs gur fgbel, naq gur nffhzcgvba gung gur fpbcr bs Gur Fanxr Zna’f vaibyirzrag jvgu gur cybg vf erfgevpgrq gb gur cevapvcyr punenpgref bs gur abiry. Gur guvatf pbaarpgvat gur zheqre naq Gur Fanxr Zna fgbel ner cerggl grahbhf, yvxr gur cerggl trarevp angher bs gur jbhaq (n fyvg guebng) naq bar punenpgre orvat va nal cneg bs pbagvaragny Rhebcr ng n pregnva gvzr, naq sryg zber yvxr gur qrgrpgvir zrgn-grkghnyyl ernfbavat sebz sberfunqbjvat engure guna pyhrf.)

As a locked-room mystery, however, I was much less enamored with Death and the Conjuror than I’d hoped going in. There are three impossible crimes in this story, the two mentioned above as well as a murder in an elevator that never opened or moved during the course of the crime.

The principle murder of Dr. Anselm Rees reminds me of all of the things I don’t really like in those locked-room murders in the Rawson/Sladek/Talbot class, where I felt like the effect of an impossibility was valued over the effect of its explanation — like a magic trick. It was a series of tricks which, as part of a mystery novel, culminated in the illusion of a more grand-seeming murder plot than what we were really in store for, all as the cover for what I consider a pretty bland explanation (which relies on an old dodge I think many seasoned readers will probably clue into when the body is found (nsgre gurl, gurl arire gbhpu gur xrl…). While I thought that the individual revelations that led to the explanation were interesting and engaging, and the denouement perfectly satisfying, the whole thing was missing that something that many of my favorite impossible crimes have, that central deception around which everything else revolves in one way or another, that one detail that finally fits perfectly into place after nagging at you for 200 pages — the oomph, or the chutzpah, or whatever it is you want to call it.

The two secondary impossible crimes are fairly minor affairs. The theft of the painting is resolved partway through the story, and the explanation might be one of the first few ideas you have. The question of “where is the painting now?” is much more interesting, and handled very well. The murder in the elevator is a pretty flimsily-established impossibility, relying on the testimony of a single witness, and the explanation for why he’s trustworthy isn’t exactly convincing. It has a neat piece of sleight-of-hand in the set-up, but the actual commission of the murder relies on what I guarantee will be the first thought to occur to most people (when I talk to my uninitiated friends about murders in elevators, this is the first explanation they always jump to before anything else). It’s also diluted by being incredibly mechanical.

There is, near the end, a dissertation on the nature of locked-room mysteries. I’m not quite sure how to qualify it, but it is a very good “locked-room lecture” that some may think flirts a bit dangerously with spoilers…

That all said, my verdict on Death and the Conjuror is that it is a fantastic crime novel… which has a locked-room mystery, and not, unfortunately, a fantastic locked-room mystery. Outside of the locked-room mystery and the killer’s motive, nearly everything here works, and there are plenty of clever, devious revelations throughout that do a fantastic job of juggling suspicions between its core players. Many unique moving puzzle-pieces fill out the plot of this novel, from the psychological afflictions of the victims’ patients, to the identity of the masked man who visited him, to the history of the Rees family, and the inner workings of a theater group… As a crime novel, you can do little better to fill out as intriguing a tale of murder and detection as this.

(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

More Dead than Alive (1980) by Roger Ormerod

More Dead Than Alive (David Mallin Detective series Book 15) - Kindle  edition by Ormerod, Roger. Mystery, Thriller & Suspense Kindle eBooks @  Amazon.com.

It’s easy to see how Roger Ormerod can fly under the radar of many enjoyers of Golden Age mysteries. To begin with, he wrote chiefly in the latter half of the 20th century (his earliest novel was published in 1974!), well out of the territory many readers would expect to find a fledgling in the craft of the puzzle plot. The front covers of the most recent reprints of his work are indistinguishable from one another — a brooding silhouette with his back turned against drab urban scenery that may not even have any connection to the plot anyway — and don’t do their part in suggesting anything other than a cheap dimestore crime thriller. An impression which, mind you, isn’t helped by the “A David Mallin Thriller” subtitle slapped onto every book in this particular series (his other series gets the very occasional distinction of “An Inspector Patton Mystery“).

More Dead Than Alive is the second Roger Ormerod novel I’ve read and, by extension, the second David Mallin I’ve read, with the first being his debut novel Time to Kill (1974), and save but the occasional moment of crassness and sex-positivity that would simply be unthinkable to many writers of the former half of the century I can’t find a single strand of the DNA of the dull, lackluster police thriller that the author’s marketing advertises. Yes, the writing is snappy, and the characters are a bit bolder and more down-to-earth than is typical, but at his heart David Mallin seems to be a late member of the class of puzzle-plot mysteries any fan of Golden Age mysteries would be remiss to neglect.

More Dead Than Alive sees David Mallin summoned to the decrepit medieval Kilvennan Castle by his wife, Elsa, to investigate the presumed death and, more importantly, impossible disappearance of famed illusionist and escape artist Konrad Klein. The vanishing act was performed from a room at the top of a tower with a door sealed from the inside by the weight of a trick cabinet and otherwise blocked off by a window opening to nothing but sheer rockface and a deadly drop into the waters below. Klein’s family are concerned about whether his disappearance was a suicide, foul-play, or something else entirely, as the magician’s insurance was quite clear that money would not be paid to the family in the event of suicide; a worry that is quickly discarded when Klein’s body washes ashore, decidedly killed with a bullet wound that creates a brand-new problem of a killer vanishing from a sealed room…

What makes up the majority of the novel is experimentation, with Mallin and his partner, the eager Coe, finding a delightful array of false solutions to the problem of the locked-room. However, at the end of the formulating-and-discarding of theories, David Mallin is able to, with the evidence provided, come to a conclusive answer about how the murder of Klein was committed and provide a blockbuster of a solution to the problem.

As I mentioned at the beginning of this review, More Dead Than Alive is a 1980 novel in nothing but aesthetic. It is conceived, plotted, and resolved as cerebrally and cleverly as any 1930’s crime novel, and provides a thoroughly satisfying and well-crafted impossible crime puzzle. Being released as late as it is, though, the book does borrow something from its contemporaries. A more modern wit, incredibly unfussy and easygoing writing, and characters just a bit more ordinary than a nosy egg-shaped Belgian or a bored aristocrat may make the book something shy of high literature, but absolutely pleasant to read.

The novel and its mystery can well be considered fairplay, but I confess that I can’t speak very confidently on that front. A combination of Tomcat’s review mentioning that, compared to the other solutions, the proper solution is somewhat incredible with Ormerod brow-beating you with a key detail about the killer made it somewhat easy to guess at the core artifice of the solution somewhat easily and early while bypassing the intended logic of the puzzle. Ordinarily I’d write it off as simply a lucky guess combined with preparation for the solution thanks to Tomcat’s review, but I confess that I was just as able to guess at the solution to Time to Kill, a novel I’d read ages ago while having no introduction to Ormerod’s work at all. This seems to me to be Ormerod’s greatest weakness in the two novels I’ve read is a hyper-excess of fairness. It’s almost like Ormerod wasn’t confident he planted enough clues for the reader in More Dead Than Alive and felt it necessary to go above and beyond to bring them to your attention in fear that he’d receive scorn if he didn’t. Which, in Ormerod’s defense, is probably a safe assumption, given the solution is tough to swallow, as jaw-droppingly devious as it is!

In spite of this, however, neither of the two Ormerod novels I’ve read so far has been a disappointment. In fact, I’m really taken with Ormerod. The problems and their resolutions in both Time to Kill and More Dead Than Alive are wildly clever and imaginative. I brought up Time to Kill in my post On A Defense of the Impossible Alibi Problem and “Doylist” Impossibilities, and it sprung to my mind when writing the post simply because it is my single favorite resolution to the problem of how a killer, who is guaranteed to be the killer by the narration mind you, can commit a crime while apparently under unbroken supervision by our reliable narrator. Yes, I guessed at the solution, just as I guessed at the solution in More Dead Than Alive, but I felt vindicated, rather than disappointed. I didn’t figure it out because I’d read a lot of mystery stories and was able to spot a familiar pattern in a familiar resolution, which would’ve been, frankly, disappointing and annoying; I figured it out because Ormerod was damn good at setting these problems up, giving you the information to figure them out, and resolving them. The overexcess of fairness might turn some people off, but these solutions are so unique you’re bound to feel clever for figuring them out either way, and if these early stories are, as Tomcat suggests, of lower-than-average quality for Ormerod’s output than I’m more than happy to name Ormerod a very likely favorite of mine.


The recent draught in reviews has, in some part, been due to my recent reading not inspiring much in me to say. I’ve had a whole host of books lined-up to read and review, but it always ended up being the same story for me. I read Come to Paddington Fair by Derek Smith and found the central problem incredibly novel, and the resolution simply as clever as clever gets, but was able to see past the core deception and resolve the heart of the mystery fairly early. On recommendation, I just read A Nice Murder for Mom by James Yaffe and found the resolution uninspired and immediately obvious. I read Mrs. McGinty’s Dead by Agatha Christie, and felt like the solution was incredibly clever and novelly-clued, but was also able to jab at most of the heart of the mystery. Murder in the Maze was a decent classically-styled mystery, but I felt like spotting the identity of the killer was a trifle. I’d also read and easily figured out The House That Kills by Noel Vindry and found the novel incredibly uninspired from its writing, to its crimes, to its solutions and frankly only remember it for this. Add onto this I had a sudden urge to review Time To Kill, which I also resolved fairly early, and it was just too much.

Frankly, I didn’t really want to write seven reviews in a row that included any variation of the phrase “I figured it out”, because not only does it feel like I’m just bragging, it also doesn’t make for interesting reading material for you all. Unfortunately, I felt like I needed to get back into the habit of weekly reviews, so I bit the bullet and picked one of my older reviews to publish. At the moment I’m reading Max Carrados, a short story collection featuring the blind detective of the same name, written by Ernest Bramah, and should be able to review it by next Sunday to return to a regular schedule.

Happy reading!

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…?

Death of Jezebel (1949) by Christianna Brand

Amazon.com: Death of Jezebel (The Inspector Cockrill Mysteries Book 4)  eBook: Brand, Christianna: Kindle Store

Agatha Christie. Margery Allingham. Dorothy L. Sayers. Ngaio Marsh. These four names have been carved into the annals of crime fiction history as the “Queens of Crime” — the highest of the highest examples set in detective fiction, the grand dames of murder, the gold standard of mysteries for a century to come. These four women were the superpowers in crime writing culture in their time…

But nobody’s ever been satisfied with just four of anything, right? Four is such an awkward number. Three’s much nicer, but… well, it isn’t very nice to say that someone doesn’t deserve their decorated reputation. That isn’t to say I wouldn’t, but I want this to be a positive piece so, instead, I’d like to make a case for a fifth Queen of Crime. A brilliant writer who put to paper three accepted masterpieces and at least three more nearly-comparable efforts in about the same amount of books it took Dame Christie to grow out her training wheels, and one of the unsung heroes of the women of the Golden Age of Detection: Christianna Brand!

Christianna Brand’s literary career started in 1941, when she wrote a murder mystery featuring Inspector Charlesworth, called Death in High Heels. The novel was inspired by her fantasies of how she’d get away with killing bothersome customers and co-workers while she worked as a salesgirl and, evidently, crime writing proved to be a cathartic outlet for her unsavory tendencies as she almost immediately wrote and published Heads You Lose, the first of her longest-running series of novels featuring Inspector Cockrill. She had a steady output of detective fiction featuring primarily Inspector Cockrill for the next two decades, before slowing down but still occasionally publishing the odd crime novel or children’s book well until her death in 1988.

In 1948, she published Death of Jezebel, a locked-room mystery where Cockrill’s career is still recovering from his blunder in Green for Danger, her most famous novel, a 1944 mystery set in a military hospital during wartime bombings. Consequently, he is at odds with a local police inspector, who also just so happens to be Brand’s secondary series sleuth Inspector Charlesworth and who isn’t entirely convinced Cockrill is up to snuff to solve this mystery. Though Death of Jezebel novel is technically a crossover between the two, it’s primarily a Cockrill novel, with Charlesworth ultimately failing to solve the crime before Cockrill.


Her name is Isabel Drew. But her company prefers “Jezebel”. It’s been years since Drew compelled her best friend Perpetua Kirk to engage in drunken adultery with Earl Anderson, even though she had only just recently gotten engaged to her loving fiancé. Cruelly, when the fiancé shows up looking for Perpetua, Drew led him straight to the scene of her infidelity and, horrified, he immediately drives his car into a wall, killing himself.

Since then, his death continues to linger over the company like a nasty miasma. Drew, Anderson and Kirk, all still together in spite of the horrible events years prior, are set to premier in a historical medieval pageant at the Homes for Heroes Exhibition, with this animosity culminating in each of the trio receiving death threats, promising their demise at the Exhibition. Not willing to sacrifice the pageant, the three bring in Inspector Cockrill to defend them, falsely hoping that the deaths, if any should there be, would occur between shows…

And yet, to the horror of thousands of spectators, in the middle of the pageant, as seven knights ride out onto stage on their horses, Isabel is thrust from the peak of the tower on which she stood, and is found to have been fatally strangled just a few minutes before her fall. On one side of the tower, a door was locked and bolted from the inside, and guarded on the outside by one of the crew… and on the other side of the tower, an open archway exists, in full view of the massive audience, all of whom swear that nobody ever went into it since all of the actors rode out on stage. A seemingly impossible case of strangulation and defenestration, committed inside of an empty tower nobody could’ve ever entered, in front of a reliable crowd of thousands of witnesses.

And so, the game is afoot, with Inspectors Cockrill and Charlesworth on the tail of a dangerous killer armored with unparalleled ingenuity.

Death of Jezebel represents the greatest example of and the logical extreme of Brand’s greatest strength as a puzzle-crafter: her mastery over the dramatic logical reversal. Brand is borderline Machiavellian in her ability to plant ideas and theories into the reader’s brain, convince them they thought of it themselves, shred it to pieces and move on. Brand is a puzzle-crafter who is able to lay down pieces with such a casual frankness that it’s always hard to tell when she’s trying to hide something from you, or if she’s trying to hide the fact she isn’t trying to hide anything at all… False solutions that play on theories the reader will assuredly have at that point in the game, clues that never mean quite what they seem they should… and in the middle of Death of Jezebel, during a long series of false confessions, possibly the single most damnably mischievous and mean-spirited “meta”-misdirection I’ve seen in this genre, period end, which I would love to talk about in a little spoiler-dedicated section at the end of this review, as it aligns somewhat with a complaint many people have with this book….

Oh, and never-you-think that all of this misdirection, cluing, red herring planting, game-playing, manipulating and mind-reading Brand’s engaging in is wasted on a solution that isn’t worth her efforts. Brand demonstrates marked ingenuity and cleverness in her locked-room puzzle, creating a solution that, while somewhat convoluted (is that really a bad thing?), flows brilliantly and organically from the information we’ve been given, and which could truly only work in this set-up. The solution is devilishly macabre and novel, and beyond daring and clever, and hits like a bolt of lightning when it’s revealed.

As a puzzle mystery, locked-room or otherwise (but especially for locked-room mysteries), Death of Jezebel has become the gold standard for me. It’s become an example I try to follow in my own impossible crime writing in cluing, misdirecting, and solving, and the example against which I measure nearly every locked-room mystery novel I read. It’s impossible to describe just how formative this novel has been in guiding my experience with reading and writing puzzle mysteries for years since I’ve read it. I’ve read mystery novels that surprised; this one took it a step further and inspired.

And hark, O Ye Socialites of the genre, for no Brand is ever just a simple, cozy, humdrum puzzle plot. As with any of her mystery novels you can select at random, the characters in Death of Jezebel are described and developed with a surprising amount of that ever-elusive third-dimension, and a persistent charm. Even the bleak, more toxic cast of Death of Jezebel sticks out to my mind years after I first read the book, and the clarity and complexity in which their flaws are drawn gives them a sort of bizarre negative charm; Perpetua Kirk is one of my favorite suspects in a mystery novel ever. And mind you, I’ve never been one much to get too caught up in the literary merits of a Golden Age mystery — puzzle first, and all that — but Brand’s skill at eliciting immediate familiarity with her core players is still worth mentioning, even for someone like me who usually doesn’t care.

The novel pips along chipperly in a marked contrast to its somewhat un-cozy, darker narrative, and manages to be reliably playful when it knows it ought to be. And yet, there’s also its own fair share of grittiness and frankness that you rarely see from this genre, in this period of time. As with her puzzles, Brand’s stylization is, put simply, daring. I also consider Death of Jezebel one of her better-paced mysteries. Many of her other novels take too long setting the stage, and the interpersonal dramas, before getting to the murders, but the more concise, elegant dynamics between the central trio in Death of Jezebel let Brand get to the mystery quickly without necessarily sacrificing the human element that she’s always handled so well.

I’m sure you can tell, given I’ve had not a single negative word to say about this novel from beginning to end, but I absolutely adore Death of Jezebel. I can say with no reservations, no doubt, and no trepidation that this is my favorite locked-room mystery ever written, my favorite puzzle plot ever conceived, my favorite piece of misdirection, and my favorite mystery novel ever written, period, and has been wildly influential to me as a reader and writer of puzzle plots and impossible crimes. It is, in my opinion, the greatest effort by one of the greatest practitioners of the Golden Age mystery, who should be better known than she is. Book-for-book, Brand would make Agatha Christie sweat if the two decided to compete. No complaints, no negativity. Death of Jezebel is a masterpiece, and anyone and everyone with half an iota of interest in anything crime fiction could do much worse than to pick it up for themselves, and then read four more Brands immediately after…

All rise for the newest Queen of Crime.

*** SPOILERS ***

One of the most frequent complaints I see levied against Death of Jezebel is the false solutions being annoying and not credible. In any other mystery novel, I’d accept that a pointless series of false confessions is annoying and detracts from the work, but in Jezebel I feel as if the greatest piece of misdirection in the novel would be lost without them.

Many locked-room mysteries make the mistake of tipping their hand by not letting the reader get to intimately investigate key pieces of information that highlight the vulnerabilities in the set-up. In pure spite of that, Brand boldly reveals the most important half of the solution in the middle of the book. Christianna Brand reveals the actual solution in the middle of a long series of fake solutions, at a point in the novel when it’d be unthinkable for the writer to reveal the real solution, and so she never has to actually prove it wrong. We’ve already subconsciously accepted that there’s no way this is going to be a real answer, presented in the middle of five other fake confessions, in the middle of the book. When the detective gives some flimsy excuse proving this solution wrong… we just sorta go “okay, that’s fair” and immediately X out that line of reasoning from our brain. The book tricks us into taking the CORRECT answer when it’s presented to us, distrusting it, and immediately throwing it out and just deciding to never think about it again for the rest of the book without any great deal of logical effort from her part. This is absolutely brilliant, even if S. S. Van Dine wouldn’t necessarily approve, and I could not imagine this book without this fantastic piece of false-solution-based misdirection.