The Fourth Door (1987) by Paul Halter (transl. John Pugmire 1999)

Humor me for a moment, while I tell you a riddle that has nothing to do with the coming review.

A man is found, hanged to death, inside of a barn. There are no chairs, tables or any other sorts of furniture for the man to have kicked himself off of. He’s too high off the ground to have hung himself, and yet the barn was locked from the inside, precluding from the possibilities murder of any sort. So, how did the man die?

Well, we’ve all heard the riddle before. The solution is, naturally, that the man stood on top of a sheep, or a goat and jumped off to hang himself and the poor complicit animal simply walked off to another part of the barn, away from the body.

Notice how you practically have all the information you need right there in that paragraph. To figure it out demanded no strenuous detection or investigation — just a creative reconstruction of the information as it’s observed from the first pass. One could even argue there’s any other number of possible solutions besides the intended one… Such is the nature of the lateral thinking problem. Fun, short bursts of creative, semi-misleading problems. One can only wonder how such an exercise would fare if stretched well out over a full novel…


The Fourth Door (originally published in French as La quatrième porte) is the apprentice novel by Paul Halter, who people would have you believe is the second coming of The King of Locked-Room Mysteries John Dickson Carr himself, the Da Vinci of sealed rooms and how to commit murder inside of them. Incidentally, the second post on this blog is a review of Halter’s second novel, Death Invites You, which I felt had a dreadfully uninspired resolution and cheap misdirection, and I’m only motivated to read more Halter on merit of some delightfully clever clues…

The Darnley home has become something of a local legend in this quaint Oxford-adjacent village, ever since the night when Mrs. Darnley apparently took her life in the loft of the house. John Darnley and his father Victor quarrel violently at every opportunity as the latter’s mental health worsens by the day. Out of work, he rents the home out to tenants who stay no more than a few weeks before leaving, complaining of hearing footsteps from the attic and seeing ghosts! When the Latimers, two apparently spirit-loving occultists, move in, it seems like a match made in heaven… and their bond only bolsters, when Alice Latimer, in an apparent fit of hysterics, is able to precognitively read a letter written to the dead woman and wax-sealed in an envelope, and give an answer from beyond the grave…

Three years after the seance, the Latimers are continuing to do professional spirit-speaking services, when they suddenly declare that they’ll attempt to summon the spirit of the dead woman, matrialize her, and give her agency to communicate with her husband. Patrick Latimer will be in the so-called “haunted room”, which will be marked with wax seals pressed with a unique coin to rule-out any sort of foul play, and left there to communicate with the spirit. But when the spectators return to find the seal unbroken but no answer from within, the door is opened to the sight of a dead body — and it’s not Patrick Latimer! An impossible murder in a sealed room… has Mrs. Darnley returned from the grave to exact revenge on her killers?

Scattered throughout the novel are a ton of little “minor” impossibilities, including the same person being spotted in two different places at the same time, impossible footsteps heard inside of an empty room that was decidedly impossible to escape from, a young boy having a clairvoyant dream of his mother’s death, and a final murder committed in an empty house surrounded by unmarked snow. All the while, our skeptical and even-headed narrator, James Sevens is at odds with Scotland Yard Inspector Drew, with mundane but reasonable-sounding solutions being established, discarded and revisited over the course of the narrative…

The plot is over-stuffed in a lot of ways with strange going-ons and decidedly impossible crimes, but I’ll maintain early on that this novel is for a certain mind. For those who revel in simply the presentation of a mystical scenario, seemingly supernatural, and the subsequent setting-in of reality in a rational explanation — those who take the impossibilities as reading material first, and problems to solve second — this is a cornucopia of varied ideas and a plot that feels closer to a feverish horror novel than a story of detection. If you’re absolutely here for the puzzle, and ingenious conceits behind the crimes, you’re going to be disappointed, and I can’t say I wasn’t.

Recalling the beginning of this review, few of the impossible crimes were given special consideration beyond the first pass. You got the information, the information was refined and refined but rarely if ever significantly changed, and the book moved on to its next plot point. The Fourth Door in many ways presents itself as a horror novel with incidentally human agency behind the events, with the horrific events handled like the lateral thinking problem above where it’s a simple matter of being imaginative enough to see what the writer believes is “the sole possible explanation”. You’ll find few clues that either point towards the proper solution, or point away from equally applicable wrong solutions. Absolutely, this novel is not a tale of deduction, detection or ratiocination. Now, there’s something of a meta-textual “turnabout” in the structure of the novel towards the end that, I suppose, in many ways serves as both a framing device and an apology for this plotting style, but I honestly wasn’t impressed — the novel could have been left entirely in-tact without this “turning inside out” the plot, and it wasn’t a necessary point to sacrifice the plotting for in my opinion.

Come the denouement, many of the impossible happenings are explained away with a textual shrugging-off of an earlier piece of information that falsely disproved an inordinately mundane and disappointing theory held by the narrator. I also take umbrage with the book’s insistence that from context these are “the only possible explanations”, another unfortunate result of the book’s plotting not being entirely favored by it’s “turning inside out” of the story. When we finally get to the wax-sealed-room trick, I’m actually delightfully surprised to find a hugely unique and clever resolution to the problem, but by this point I’m so exhausted with the denouement that I couldn’t muster the energy to be excited or invested in it. Immediately following it, we’re treated to a second denouement to the wildly predictable footprints in the sand mystery.

As a puzzle-lover, I am wildly dissatisfied with The Fourth Door. There is a clear energy and flourish for the macabre and unexplainable here that is very admirable for Halter’s freshman effort, but the novel wants to throw near half a dozen impossibilities at you with no special consideration for them outside of the treatment you’d give a lateral thinking puzzle. All of them but one are resolved sloppily and boringly, and even the one that was incredibly well-realized had its effect dulled by being sandwiched between two full denouement chapters that simply weren’t worth it. The pre-resolution twist is a clever enough conceit from a storytelling perspective that does serve to recontextualize the book’s odd nature, but doesn’t begin to make me enjoy what were otherwise dull and loose impossible crimes. The seal-waxed-door is another seed of hope that later Halter’s later endeavors properly showcase the efforts of the reincarnation of Carr, but The Fourth Door is a second fizzle for me…

The Mammoth Book of Perfect Crimes and Impossible Mysteries (2011) ed. by Mike Ashley – Part 1

The Mammoth Book of Perfect Crimes and Impossible Mysteries: Ashley, Mike:  Amazon.com: Books

The Mammoth Book of Perfect Crimes and Impossible Mysteries is the second anthology from Mike Ashley dealing with the ever-beloved set-up of sealed rooms and how to commit murder inside of them. I have damn near every major locked room mystery anthology at my fingertips, but every time I open one up at random I feel like I’m caught in a Groundhog Day loop of Oracle Dogs, Speckled Bands, Rue Morgues, Cell 13s, Doomdorfs, and Strange Beds, and otherwise the usual suspects in terms of writers will still occupy the rest of the book’s print real-estate. I was immediately drawn to The Mammoth Book series due to its introduction promising to do everything in its power to avoid covering over-anthologized stories and authors.

I don’t usually love these anthologies as much as just sitting down with a full-length impossible crime novel. Even the most clever of short fiction impossible crimes tend to not have that same “struck like a bolt of lightning” aspect to their solutions that the best novels like The Death of Jezebel have. It always feels to me that many short stories tend to err on the “too short” side, and don’t spend enough time with setting up misassumptions or misdirection that really hit you when the story topples them. Even then they’re equally clever, it doesn’t feel equally as earned, as the author doesn’t always let you soak in questions, false answers and misunderstandings. Even the most ingenious of impossible crime solutions in short fiction tend to come off to me as “well, sure, that was definitely neat…”, because I think what makes an impossible crime really strike is less about the actual artifice of the crime (though that does help!), and more about the mechanics of how the killer and author conspire to hide it from you. A short story simply doesn’t have as much time to cultivate the confusion.

However! Let it never be said that Isaac Stump didn’t take a chance and move outside of his comfort zone! I plan to cover every short story I possibly can from every anthology I can, and provide a comprehensive ranking of each anthology’s entries so the reluctant reader like me can know where to look. These reviews will cover something in the ballpark of five stories from an anthology each, and won’t necessarily be in chronological order, so without further ado, our first story awaits…

Part 1
Part 2 – “Murder in Monkeyland” (Lois Gresh and Robert Weinberg) – “The Impossible Murder of Doctor Satanus” (William Krohn) – “A Shower of Daggers” (Edward D. Hoch) – “Duel of Shadows” (Vincent Cornier) – “Eternally Yours” (H. Edward Hunsburger)
Part 3 – “The Hook” (Robert Randisi) — “Slaughterhouse” (Barry Longyear) — “Death and the Rope Trick” (John Bayse Price) — “Three Blind Mice” (Laird Long)
Part 4 – ???
Part 5 – ???
Part 6 – ???


“An Almost Perfect Crime” by William F. Smith was one of just six crime stories written by Smith at the end of a long 40-year teaching career. He had always been taken with crime stories, and even wrote poems playfully penned “Detectiverses” for Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine starting in the 1980s.

Detective Sergeant Raymond Stone is called on to solve the damning murder of Richard Townsend who, in full view of six eyewitnesses, entered a clear telephone booth before falling over dead from an ice pick in the back. Richard Townsend has no known enemies, and was in fact quite shy, so beyond figuring out how this impossible stabbing was carried out, it almost seems unthinkable that there would be someone out for Townsend’s blood.

It’s fine. It wasn’t exceptionally bad in anyway, but it also just wasn’t exceptional in general. Beyond the matter of the locked telebooth mystery, there aren’t many engaging clues, major misassumptions, red herrings or misdirections to clear up. This is clearly a product of the late 1970’s-1990’s interpretation of the Golden Age puzzler, sober and methodical with a focus on the means of reaching the given conclusion, but not at all given to whimsy or imagination. It’s a fairly uninspired if more-or-less competently-constructed walk from standard clue to standard clue until the detective arrives at a mechanical and disappointing solution to the problem. A few pieces of evidence that at least had an idea behind them existed, such as the broken lightbulb in the phone booth, but they only gave the detective a roundabout way to the same predictable conclusions any reader who has read a story before would already have come to while bypassing the line of reasoning Smith clearly wanted you to follow. Despite the promising impossible problem, the work ended up being un-notable in every way, and was, despite the title’s claims, far from “almost perfect”.

“The X Street Murdersby Joseph Commings is widely regarded as the writer’s chef-d’oeuvre of crime writing and locked room mysteries. Commings himself is among the circle of “not John Dickson Carr” specialists of impossible crime fiction walked by the likes of Norman Berrow whose output has seen less reprints and renown than the locked room aficionado would probably prefer. Joseph Commings wrote almost exclusively short fiction for magazines in the 1950s featuring the behemoth Senator Brooks U. Banner.

F.B.I. Agent Alvin Odell and firearms expert Captain Cozzens are shocked when, before their very eyes, Gertrude Wagner, secretary to attache Kermit Gosling, delivers a manila envelope to her boss, only for three shots to sound in the wide-open room! Quickly retaining Ms. Wagner, Odell and Cozzens tear open the manila envelope to find the murder weapon — a freshly fired revolver of Russian make. However, the envelope bears no tears, ruptures or holes to account for the three shots it fired and both men can testify that Gertrude, in full sight of them both for the whole affair, never once opened the envelope, making this a case of a gun impossibly firing through an envelope!

“The X Street Murders” was an absolutely delightful short story. I rarely have as much a reaction to the most clever short stories as I do the most clever novels, but “The X Street Murders” was one of the few short impossible crime novels to come close. The solution relied on an ages-old artifice that any reader of “guarded room” mysteries will have either encountered or considered at some point during their readings — a solution so tired that it had no right to be as satisfying as it ended up being. Skillful implicit misdirection and clever clues, and clear awareness of just why this specific kind of solution fell out of fashion to begin with, help Commings come out of the gate with something that won’t bowl you over with its ingenuity but still engage you with his skillful hand. If I had to name one downside, it’s that the seasoned armchair detective will probably be able to suss out the central mechanic of the impossibility fairly quickly (there are less than five core possibilities, arguably, most of which immediately discredited…), but it’s the application — the howdunit of the howdunit — that can still carry the work far enough. Having made this my first Commings, I’m sold, but I do hope this isn’t his true magnum opus. It’s great, but there’s plenty more room to move up from here and I’d love to see a somewhat more original solution in his other works. Tomcat of Beneath the Stains of Time seems to particularly enjoy “The Glass Bridge”, so we’ll see….

“Locked in Death” by Mary Reed and Eric Mayer is a mystery by a pair are well-known for their historical mysteries set in 6th-century Constantinople featuring John the Eunuch. Inspector Dorj, their other series-sleuth, and the detective of “Locked in Death” is a member of the Mongolian Police department who made his written debut in the locked-room short story “Death on the Trans-Mongolian Railway” in the March 2000 issue of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine.

Hercules (better known as Cheslav), despite his fear of lions, was pressured by ringleader Zubov to star in the Circus Chinggis’s fantastical interpretation of the First Labour of Hercules, seeing as the circus’s proper animal-tamer left them on short-notice just a few weeks prior. In his inexperience, Cheslav was viciously mauled to death by the lion, and locked away in Zubov’s trailer where, only not so long later, the ringleader himself was found strangled to death in the locked trailer, guarded by our detective’s assistant Batu… and apparently by Cheslav’s corpse’s own hands, no less!

I’ll just get this out of the way now: do not get attached to the “murdered by a dead man” angle. It is window dressing and serves mainly to inject slight, underutilized Mongolion folklore into the story. The problem is, practically, nothing more than a locked room strangling and another body was, incidentally, present. The resolution is, beyond being one of the genre’s Big Jokes™ when used outside of the strictly historical stories, also incomplete and open-ended, with some questions unanswered and others left with a few different explanations. Hilariously (and by “hilariously”, I mean “frustratingly”), the detective comes to the solution almost entirely from a single clue that he should not reasonably have missed the important implications of (he even lambasts himself for it! “I should have known”, he says, and he’s damned right at that…), and which was acknowledged very early on, with very little of the 70% of the story the investigation took up having any weight beyond making us not feel too bad that the murder victim, the abusive, womanizing ringleader, will go unavenged.

Ignoring for all intents and purposes the locked room mystery, the story is otherwise hugely readable and injected with more character and charm than the conventional locked room mystery short story. The interactions between Detective Dorj and the bearded-woman Larisa were cute enough, and while every member of the cast was one-dimensional at best, they were still given more time than usual to let that one dimension create some sort of impact. But there was very little in the somewhat-charming investigation segment in terms of impact, meaning or theme to justify how little any of it really came together in the end. The poor handling of the central conflict — the locked room — and the unjustifiably unsatisfying ending make “Locked in Death” subpar as both a story and a locked room mystery, despite being otherwise well-written.

“Proof of Guilt” by Bill Pronzini is a short story from a modern disciple of the impossible crime who needs no introduction. Though this is a standalone story, Bill Pronzini is best-known for his “Nameless” series containing his renowned locked room mystery trilogy “Scattershot”, “Bones” and “Hoodwinked”! Despite his fame, “Proof of Guilt” is my first introduction to this particular author…

Lawyer Adam Chillingham is shot to death in his office, and all evidence points to George Dillon being the killer. After all, he was the only one in the room with the victim, and he was immediately locked in by eyewitnesses. Police are one-hundred percent convinced of Dillon’s guilt — he even confesses to his motive, the lawyer’s perceived theft of money from his estranged father — save for one detail: the gun which he clearly must’ve shot the victim with has all but vanished from the locked room!

Mike Ashley, in his introduction to this story, simply called it “the most audacious story in this volume”. I don’t know what Mr. Ashley’s thoughts on this story are, and I won’t presume to make any guesses. However, what I do know is that if someone asked me to write a polite tagline about this story, and I didn’t want to say it was “good” (because it isn’t), I would absolutely call it “audacious”.

It reminds me a lot of “The Flying Corpse” by A. E. Martin in a lot of ways. Namely, the solution was… funny, but in the way that makes it feel like a story that was written at the stark beginning of the impossible crime genre when writers were throwing whatever they could at the wall to see what sticks because there was next to no standard for what really made these kinds of stories tick. Despite this, both stories were actually modern enough for this to not be a problem. The solution also comes out of nowhere with the reveal of some parlor trick which both stories wait until the last paragraph to tell us the culprit is capable of performing.

The story also annoyingly ignores a very easy explanation for the problem that kind of blows the impossible angle apart — they never find the weapon, and assume at once that the crime that there must be some trick involved. However, the murder happened in a room with an open window, and though they didn’t find the weapon immediately around the building they never once for a single second consider that a second party could’ve been waiting at the foot of the building to dispose of the gun as an accomplice. This is not the solution, mind you, but the possibility exists and is never discussed or discredited.

I’ll give Mr. Prozini the benefit of the doubt that this is not indicative of the quality of his much more acclaimed “Nameless” series — which I will soon read with an open mind! — but I felt this was a less than stellar introduction.

“No Killer has Wings” by Arthur Porges is another locked-room short story from another impossible crime specialist who wasn’t exactly afforded the benefit of having the last name “Carr”, or having been born early enough to start his career before the locked room mystery was going out of fashion. Just as Joseph Commings had, Arthur Porges wrote exclusively for mystery magazines and few of his works were reliably preserved in anthologies or collections.

Larry Channing is accused of murdering his uncle, McCabe, on the family’s private beach, by bludgeoning him over the head with a walking stick. The beach was inaccessible save from the family home, and the only footprints in the sand on the beach show that aside from McCabe himself and his dog, Larry Channing was the only person to ever walk onto the beach. Dr. Joel Hoffman, the only county-renowned forensic expert for miles, is called on by a Detective whose niece is the fiancé of the accused to prove how someone else could have committed the murder.

I don’t have a lot to say about this one. It’s easily-told, readable, but fairly thin in setting up the crime scene and the characters. A puzzle, plain and simple, that takes place almost entirely within Dr. Hoffman’s laboratory. As far as being a puzzle goes, it is… competently constructed, no real major faults to speak of. The solution won’t blow anyone away, as it’s a less-interesting and much less surprising interpretation of part of the solution from a particular overfamiliar G.K. Chesterton story and an aggressively uninspired “it would have to be this”-type solution that would’ve fooled me back in the 1910s, but not over a century later. Given the information, I doubt that there are many “footprints in the sand” fans who will fail to key into this pretty bogstandard resolution. However, the story is short (one of the shortest entries in the anthology, it seems), so it’s not too terribly disappointing — it’s a serviceable bite-sized puzzle for anyone looking to quickly sharpen their little grey cells on a short bus-ride, and it’s fun enough, but nothing that I think will stick with people for very long.

I’m very sorry to disagree with Tomcat so heavily on this one — I don’t consider this “brilliant”, as he has, unfortunately — but this is another case where I’ll give the writer the benefit of the doubt and say this probably isn’t the best of his works. Unlike the Pronzini story, I didn’t even dislike this one, so to speak, I just wasn’t struck with any sort of passion for it, so I can’t exactly say I’m deterred. Porges is mentioned quite a bit in recent years in the context of impossible crime short stories, and his output is apparently massive so I’ve no doubt that there will be a Porges here or there for me to sink my teeth into and really savor.


All in all, this isn’t exactly an auspicious start to this anthology, but I’m not exactly put off of reading more from this anthology. Of these five stories, I consider two of them outright bad, but even then they weren’t totally without their merits. Joseph Commings’s “The X Street Murders” is, so far, the high-point of the anthology and honestly one of the heights of my impossible crime short fiction reading in general. Without further ado, my personal ranking and ratings of the short stories I’ve read so far in The Mammoth Book of Perfect Crimes and Impossible Mysteries

  1. “The X Street Murders” by Joseph Commings – 7.75/10
  2. “No Killer has Wings” by Arthur Porges – 6.25/10
  3. “An Almost Perfect Crime” by William F. Smith – 5/10
  4. “Proof of Guilt” by Bill Pronzini – 3.75/10
  5. “Locked in Death” by Mary Reed and Eric Mayer – 2.5/10

On 50 Locked Room Solutions of Our Own

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

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

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

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

UNIVERSAL SOLUTIONS

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

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


A-TYPE SOLUTIONS

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


B-TYPE SOLUTIONS


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


C-TYPE SOLUTIONS

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

The Footprints of Satan (1950) by Norman Berrow

The Footprints of Satan: Berrow, Norman: 9781605431949: Amazon.com: Books

It is a sick joke history loves to play, and it’s a joke that every lover of the Golden Age crime novel has to find it in himself to laugh at every now and again. It’s hardly funny — and in fact quite frustrating — how the spirit of literature can find it in itself to sleep at night when it’s constantly bullying skilled authors into obscurity; and, having recently read The Footprints of Satan by Norman Berrow, I can add to the list yet another victim of Father Time’s mischief, and another Golden Age specialist of impossible crimes, that if the world were fair I’d have known about well before the damned year of 2020. It’s only thanks to Jim Noy of The Invisible Event fame gushing over The Footprints of Satan, and again gushing over The Footprints of Satan, and definitely a few more times gushing over The Footprints of Satan in the Facebook group “Golden Age Detection” that I took notice, and boy am I glad I did! Jim has yet to steer me wrong.

The Footprints of Satan is the fifth and final mystery elucidated by one of Berrow’s three series detectives, Detective-Inspector Lancelot Carolus Smith. Gregory Cushing is a grieving bachelor who, in the emotional throes off divorce, seeks out a home in the quiet mountainous rurals of Winchingham with his uncle Jack Popplewell. Though shocked to find that his eccentric uncle is more than just a little odd, but in fact a serial drunkard haunted by the spirit of a woman hanged in Winchingham generations ago known only as “The Blue Woman”, Popplewell’s antics prove to be far from the most pressing thing interrupting his vacation. A skeevy, (impliciately) womanizing businessman commits suicide at the very tree where The Blue Woman herself was hung. And, to make matters worse, it happens at the end of a mile long track of bipedal goat-prints that inexplicably and impossibly both begin and end in the middle of a vast expanse of virgin, untrodden snow, and which, to top it all off, makes impossible trips through sold walls and walking on top of weak hedges that “couldn’t hold a baby kitten”. The bizarre mystery has the religious, superstitious and metaphysically scientific minds all wondering if the devil came to England, just as he did 95 years prior….

The locked room mystery, and the “puzzle-oriented” school of mystery writing in general, has a pretty rough mission statement. Making a puzzling crime that is simultaneously complex but also digestible, and at the same time simultaneously a good faith effort to be “fairplay”, but clever enough that the audience feels accomplished if they solve it, and satisfied in the odd chance that they “lose”. It’s a weird balancing act that even some of the best and most accomplished Golden Age detective novels entirely pull off; I would go so far as to say, however, that The Footprints of Satan is in this regards a smashing success.

The introduction of the impossible footprints is followed by a roughly 20-30 page description of the villagers following it through to the foot of the very tree from which the victim hung. I can proudly say that at the conclusion of this description, I was able to figure out the solution down to fingering the culprit. However, I wasn’t in the slightest put off by the novel because of this; on the contrary, the solution was clever in all of the ways where I felt like a sleuth myself for sniffing it out so quickly.

The solution reminded me immensely of my experience with The 8 Mansion Murders that I talked on length about in the group; the core artifice — the mechanical method through which the impossibility was accomplished — is over-obvious merely because of the nature of the crime itself, and that’s the ONLY reason why the solution on the whole is easy to figure out. Both novels use a fairly over-played method in their respective impossible crimes, but both feature a strong misdirection that immediately makes the over-played method seem impossible. Both do a good job of making you doubt your knee-jerk reaction to the set-up of the mystery, and it’s only when you stubbornly stick to your original idea that you can solve the crime with some light guesswork. However, where The Footprints of Satan finds itself as a superior work of impossible crime writing is in the nature of the misdirection itself; The 8 Mansion Murders had a brilliant misdirection, but it was a trick that occurred secondarily to the locked room solution itself, where the actual method of committing the crime is still bogstandard and uninteresting. The Footprints of Satan instead builds its entire solution around a trick that itself makes the core artifice seem impossible, an application of a played-out concept that is brilliant and novel and inexorably integrated with the misdirection itself so that the whole affair feels more concise, cohesive and inspired.

You’ll probably notice that I’m focusing entirely on the core impossibility, and that’s because as far as the reading goes I found it a bit hard-going in places. A particular character has an oppressive and overbearing presence that only serves to mildly confuse the detectives, annoy the reader and extend the book by 30 pages. While she introduces interesting concepts of metaphysics, it quickly feels like she starts to retread the same ground time and time again. And quite a bit too much of the book feels like the detective simply forgetting that his job is to explain how a human committed the crime, and humoring the superstitions of the old woman. I can’t quite shake the feeling the book would’ve been more satisfying as a concise novella without the presence of Miss Forbes…

Nonetheless, while it drags a bit in places (especially around the half-way mark), the book is still readable enough to not detract from the experience. The puzzle is well-clued (perhaps too well-clued), interesting and inspired, the characters are generally endearing, and the plotting is superb. It’s been a hot minute since I’ve been thoroughly satisfied by a “footprints in the snow/sand” impossible crime, so that may make me a bit biased towards The Footprints of Satan, but for the time being I’ll name this my standard to beat in that particular sub-sub-genre. Thoroughly enjoyable impossible crime, though it doesn’t come clouse to ousting my all-time favorite, The Death of Jezebel. Highly recommended to literally anybody with any amount of interest in the form. And now if you’ll excuse me, I’ll have to make a few impulsive purchases of Berrow’s books from Amazon.


P.S. – I know it’s been a while since I’ve uploaded. Holidays, family, returning to university and general life-being-life-ness has caused me to go into an impromptu New Years hiatus. This post marks my return to a regular upload schedule starting this Sunday. Look forward to a review of the mystery video game, “Paradise Killer”, and of more Berrow novels to come!