Jim Noy has been a major part of the Golden Age mystery community for years now. He made a name for himself first by starting his excellent blog over at The Invisible Event where he reviews and discusses detective fiction — he was, in fact, the second blogger I ever discovered in the genre and influenced a lot of my early reading. Later, Jim started a talk show podcast called In GAD We Trust, in which he invited other prominent bloggers and writers to discuss specialized topics on the genre.
It was clear from his blog and podcast that he had an especial interest in impossible crimes and locked-room mysteries. That’s why it might have come as a surprise to very few that Jim finished marking his territory in the world of detective fiction with the publication of a locked-room mystery novel, The Red Death Murders.
The Red Death Murders takes the world of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death” and transforms it into a fully-fledged, authentically plotted puzzle mystery “leaving clues openly in the tradition of Agatha Christie”.
In a world ravaged by the Red Death, a plague that touches even the sanest men and serenest animals with a rabid insanity, Prince Prospero has in the absence of his father opened his castle walls to all of the rich and influential in the lands. Many men and women came hoping that Prince Prospero had a plan for surviving the Red Death, and left in disgust when they realized that the Prince was merely interested in throwing extravagant and debaucherous parties for the pompous and pandered. Over time, the revelries began to die down. Servants, dissatisfied at their work, would sneak out of the castle at the night and brave the wild world touched by the Red Death, and their masters would leave behind them with nobody to tend after them.
After two-hundred-or-so days, only nine people remained — the prince, his bodyguard, six guests, and a single servant — so that when a seemingly impossible but fortunately failed attempt was made on Prince Prospero’s life by a man dressed in a mask representing the Red Death itself, the entire castle is shook. But none more so than when they find one of their guests, with his wrists slashed, evidently murdered, in a primitive bathroom sealed from the inside by a piece of twine wrapped around two nails in the door and doorframe.
Spurred into action by the realization that there’s more to worry about than the Red Death, the thirteen year old Thomas aids respected Sir William and his brother Sir Marcus on their investigation into the true nature of the murders committed and assure everyone else can leave the castle safely…
The Red Death Murders is a tightly-plotted impossible crime novel, but it’d be doing the novel a disservice to say that the impossibilities are the core focus of this book. There are two-and-two-halves more impossibilities throughout the book — another locked-room murder, a man dead by poison even though he drank from the same cup everyone else partook of safely, a man stabbed semi-impossibly when everyone’s locations were accounted for and nobody was near the victim (except for two people who are not reliably accounted for), and the semi-impossible penetration of the Red Death into the castle to infect someone — and these impossibilities are far from handled casually. However, by the end of the book, when you’re given the Challenge to the Reader that assures you you have all of the same clues used by the detective, whomsoever it may be, to solve the crime, half of the actual impossibilities are already neatly resolved.
No, the impossibilities are not all that make up The Red Death Murders. The book is also packed full of delicious drama, world-building, history, politics, characters, routines, and habits — details compounded upon details that not only fill out the world and the people occupying it, ingratiating you to the fully-realized characters within and keeping you invested with their comings and goings, but also form a complex mural of crime and punishment in which no detail is uninteresting or wasted, even if the payoff only comes in the form of a false solution. A lesson in paying attention and accounting for absolutely everything, The Red Death Murders transcends Chekhov’s Gun — it’s a veritable Armory of Chekhov, with barrels of guns and tips of blades tapering together and downwards to a fine point.
And what a fine fine point it is, too! An utterly complex, compelling scheme that makes entire sense the entire way through, and yet also manages to baffle you with false explanations, red herrings, and expert misdirection, and Agatha Christie-esque dodges galore! This is also one of the few locked-room mysteries where I was genuinely impressed by the why as well as the how. Greatly clever in every single respect.
As for the resolutions to the impossibilities themselves, the problems are numerous, so no, not every single explanation for every single crime is an utter genre-bending classic. Plus, honestly, there are a few instances in which I found the false solutions more compelling than the actual, absolute truth. But where these crimes succeed, they succeed! The murder in the privy comes up with what is to my knowledge a wholly original explanation to the problem of a murder in a locked-and-sealed room, and the cup poisoning is also entirely original — I will confess that while they stop barely shy of having that forehead-slapping, book-dropping, world-shaking effect me, I can still be awe of the utter ingenuity here that actually shakes me in my typical resistance to very physical tricks like these. The impossible disappearance is a very simple but satisfying alibi-adjacent trick employed to create a neat impossible effect, and I do love it when alibi tricks are employed in impossible crimes so I particularly liked the impossible disappearance.
Are there any hang-ups with the novel? Yeah, the descriptions are beautifully written and the landscape richly and clearly developed, but I had trouble keeping the castle spatially clear in my head, and I feel like I would’ve benefited from a map or floorplan.
This is also a personal gripe, but there are two elements I feel could’ve been further utilized in the murder plot. The multi-colored rooms in the dungeons could’ve absolutely been utilized further in the creation of an impossible disappearance and I was a little disappointed by the lack of tricks involving light and color — a somewhat under-explored area of trickery.
The Red Death itself in particular I also would’ve loved to see play a more central role in a murder. While reading The Red Death Murders, I was struck with comparisons to Masahiro Imamura’s Death Among the Undead, which utilizes zombies to construct impossible crimes. Given that the Red Death itself is a plague that turns people into mindless, shambling, rabid monsters intent on spreading itself to new hosts through blood-contact, it wasn’t hard to make the connection between that and zombies. In a lot of ways, The Red Death Murders is incredibly shin-honkaku in other respects, too, with its heavy focus on complex, unconventional architecture, so I was expecting there to be some intimate involvement of the plague in the mechanical commission of the murders. I was a little sad that the rules the plague abided by didn’t play too much into the murder plot, but then again there’s already so much happening so I can’t expect everything and anything to be used to commit a locked-room murder!
The Red Death Murders is a tour de force that hardly feels like a first-time writer making his debut. Expertly and tightly plotted, The Red Death Murders is not only a compelling locked-room mystery novel, but a compelling dark fantasy/horror novel that uses all of its worldbuilding to the fullest to inform and enhance a brilliant murder plot. If there are any smudges, they’re very minor and only caused by my getting carried away with impossible expectations. Combined with two very unique explanations to two different impossible crimes, that makes Jim Noy’s The Read Death Murders a necessary read for any locked-room mystery fan.
I’ve never liked making “top favorite” lists in genres where I am so painfully aware of how little I’ve experienced in contrast to how much of it still exists waiting for me. Making a list of my favorite impossible crime novels specifically felt impossible because I’m just so, so, so aware of how many likely very good locked-room mysteries are sitting in my to-be-read pile right now. It’s worse, in fact, since I’ve started studying Japanese and have become more aware of a whole new world of obviously brilliant mystery novels. My personal horizon is so narrow, but the potential is so broad and it makes me feel like any list I make will come off as pedestrian. That’s why I’ve labeled this “revision 0”; I’m confident that by this time in 2023 the list will look immensely different. Maybe 33% of the entire list will be traded out by that time, I’m sure, and there will be at least one revision
This list is media non-specific. Television, movies, video games, comics may all apply. This is also why I’ve also settled on 15, rather than 10, because in the making of this list I realized that it was hyper-dominated by locked-room mysteries from Japanese novels and non-novel media, and I wanted to make some room for good, accessible, western media too. I’ll also only include one full entry from an author, including honorable mentions if necessary. Having qualified my list and the title of the post, my top 15 favorite impossible crimes, in no particular order, are…
Anyone who has ever spoken to me will not be surprised by this being my immediate first inclusion on a list of favorite impossible crimes. Not only is Death of Jezebel my favorite Christianna Brand novel, not only is it my favorite impossible crime novel, it’s simply my favorite Golden Age mystery novel ever written. Christianna Brand is in top-form at demonstrating her ability to build up entire false narratives and hoodwink you into them, to bait the audience into believing things without ever really saying or doing anything. A masterclass in misdirection, the murder of a woman in a locked-and-guarded tower during a play also features multiple grand mechanical and technical tricks that are clever, novel, and macabre. One of four Brand masterpieces that I think even people with no interest in impossible crimes should give a chance.
The Moai Island Puzzle – Arisu Arisugawa (1989), trans. Ho-Ling Wong (2016)
The impossible shooting that occurs in this novel is a very strong alibi trick, but as good as it is this element of the story is only a small part of what makes The Moai Island Puzzle so strong a contender for fans of mysteries-as-a-puzzle. Puzzles buried within ciphers wrapped within riddles and tied-up with lateral thinking problems are the name of the game with this novel that celebrates puzzles as almost like an artform. A brilliantly intriguing and cerebral mystery novel.
Whistle Up the Devil – Derek Smith (1953)
Cringe-inducing romance and overly-convoluted climax aside, this is a homerun of an impossible crime novel. The principle murder of a man conducting a ceremony within a supposedly haunted room is just a good offering, with a complex arrangement of what still amounts to a quick series of little tricks we’ve all seen before, obvious bits and pieces and sleights of hand, but nonetheless enjoyably convoluted. What elevates this novel from good to fantastic is the knee-slapping devious and blastedly simple alibi trick employed in the secondary murder in a police station that nobody ever walked into or out of, aside from two men who were in each other’s view for every point of time that mattered. This short story-length masterpiece hiding in an otherwise just-above-average impossible crime makes this well-worth reading.
Here I want to give a quick honorable mention to Derek Smith’s other novel, Come to Paddington Fair, which if you were to ask me probably has a more brilliantly-plotted and conceived central murder, and a much more unique trick. I neglect to mention it as a proper entry on the list, because I felt like when you realized that coincidence doesn’t exist in a deliberately-plotted world the beginning of the story spoils the resolution in such a way that it makes much of the ensuing investigation feel redundant. Come to Paddington Fair is a fantastic idea, but unfortunately relies so majorly on an early Christie-esque dodge that, if you’re not hoodwinked by it, ends up toppling the whole story and every misdirection that comes after it. I noticed the initial dodge immediately, and pieced together the rest of the plot before the story had even hit its stride, and that did dock a few points for me. I still heavily recommend it, because while I feel like it spoils itself by being too clever by half, I think I’d always prefer a too-clever-for-itself story to its dull counterpart any day — it’s novel, unique, and a very intelligently plotted crime novel with a very innovative take on how to establish an impossible crime.
Murder in the Crooked House – Sōji Shimada (1982), trans. Louise Heal Kawai (2019)
Sōji Shimada is the Japanese locked-room murder, well known for his output of well over 50 novels featuring locked-rooms and other various impossible murders. His other major impossible crime offering, The Tokyo Zodiac Murders, which is also available in English is much more well-known and equally deserving of praise for its brilliance and grandiosity of mechanical scale, but I just adore Murder in the Crooked House. Sōji Shimada, I feel, is an author you’ll either adore or hate. His settings and solutions are brilliant and original, but also stretch credulity and highlight above anything else the puzzle. As a sheer lateral thinking exercise, Murder in the Crooked House contains one of the best impossible crimes in any novel ever, even if I can’t confidently say it’s one of the best novels containing an impossible crime. It is wholly original, complex, intricately-plotted, and taut, and a fantastic puzzle from end to end with a fantastic method for committing murder in a triple-locked room that more than makes up for its obvious culprit.
Time to Kill – Roger Ormerod (1974)
Roger Ormerod is an author who wrote well after the Golden Age had ended. Despite this, his novels had all of the fairly-clued plotting and cerebral misdirection and alibi tricks as a novel from the 1930s, blended with the aesthetic of a gritty contemporary PI novel. His debut novel is an impossible alibi problem — from the moment the murder is committed, we know who the killer is, but there’s one problem: the killer has an airtight alibi provided by the narrator himself and we have no idea how he committed this murder under such impossible-for-him circumstances. I used to think that there were only three basic explanations for the impossible alibi, but Time to Kill offers a fourth possibility that to this day is still my favorite explanation for this particular problem. It perfectly sets up Ormerod’s thorough and educated understanding of Golden Age-styled alibi trickery almost in the style of Christopher Bush — a lost disciple of the puzzle mystery that more people should be seeking out.
Till Death Do Us Part – John Dickson Carr (1944)
Despite being a self-styled disciple of the impossible crime problem, I’m actually incredibly ashamed to admit that my reading into John Dickson Carr’s oeuvre is very limited! My first review on this blog was me airing out how little I enjoyed The Case of the Constant Suicides. Aside from that, I’ve only read a small handful of specially-recommended Carrs, only around 10 I think. I’ve been so caught-up in reading other impossible crime novels that I’ve neglected to honor the master himself! Let this be a wake-up call to me to get back to Carr…
Till Death Do Us Part is absolutely the most brilliant locked-room conceived by Carr that I’ve read. Preceded by expectation, nobody needs to know what I have to say about this book. It’s damnably simple and clever, the puzzle is brilliantly conceived, the cluing clever and well-done.
Jonathan Creek (Season 1 Episode 2) “Jack in the Box” – David Renwick (1997)
Jonathan Creek is a late 90’s-early 2000s BBC drama featuring the titular magician’s assistant who uses his knowledge of stage illusions to solve locked-room murders and impossible crimes. I think the series is incredibly hit-or-miss, containing both some of my favorite and least favorite locked-room mysteries ever conceived, and it might be a little worrying that in Jonathan Creek‘s 17 year run I think the show peaked in its second episode ever…
There are more than a small handful of fantastic impossible crimes in this series, actually. The Christmas special “Black Canary”, the first episode of season two “Danse Macabre” are both also great, but “Jack in the Box” really perfected the formula right out of the gate with a satisfying and original explanation to the shooting of a man in a locked-and-sealed bunker that entirely inverts the very premise of a locked-room murder as a question of how the killer escaped from the room.
The Great Ace Attorney 2: The Resolve of Ryūnosuke Naruhodō (Case 3) “The Return of the Great Departed Soul” – Shū Takumi (2017)
Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney is a Japanese mystery video game series, one game of which I’ve reviewed on this blog. In Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney and all of its subsequent spinoff titles, the player takes on the role of a lawyer tasked with proving the innocence of clients falsely accused of murder. Using a point-and-click interface, the player investigates crime scenes, interviews wacky witnesses and suspects, and collects evidence. The next day, the player goes to court and is tasked with cross-examining witnesses who are either grossly mistaken about what they saw or hell-bent on seeing your client behind bars and deliberately lying. Through a series of simple question prompts, the player finds lies in testimony statements, presents evidence to expose the lies, and then is loosely-guided on a series of Ellery Queen-esque sequences of deductions and logic where the player explains why the lie was told or the mistake was made and then what the truth of the situation is. By the end of every case, the real killer is discovered and your client is saved from wrongful imprisonment!
In the spinoff series The Great Ace Attorney the format is shaken up by placing the player in the role of Phoenix Wright’s ancestor Ryūnosuke Naruhodō, a Japanese lawyer who teams up with the Great Detective Herlock Sholmes in Victorian London. The third case of the second game of this particular series is a very unique take on the impossible crime problem, inspiring one of my 15 categories of impossible crimes — the impossible technology problem!
Your client is a scientist who was presenting an instantaneous kinesis machine, a piece of technology that is capable of molecularly dissembling any human subject and then reassembling them somewhere else, allowing them to teleport from one location to another in the blink of an eye! Unfortunately, during the presentation, his assistant and test subject was teleported to the wrong location. While he was meant to be transported to the INSIDE of a nearby glass tower, the test subject was instead manifested a few dozen feet in the air above the tower, whereupon he fell through the walls of the tower. The police were summoned only to find the man stabbed to death by a screwdriver through the heart. Since the tower was totally inaccessible to anyone until the police arrived, it’s determined that the only person who could’ve committed this murder is your client, who must’ve stabbed the victim before teleporting him away. In order to prove your client’s innocence, you need to prove how the teleportation could’ve been faked! But how else can you explain a man moving hundreds of feet into the air in less than a second…
The solution to the teleportation isn’t at all difficult to figure out, but there’s a second and third puzzle hiding in the background of this case that makes it brilliant. The true explanation for the murder when you get past the impossible problem is genuinely shocking, and there are quite a few plot threads that connect this murder to an ages-old serial killing that the rest of the game’s narrative is concerned with. A brilliantly innovative presentation of impossible crimes, the method of connecting this subplot to the overarching narrative of the game is a masterstroke of writing, and a somewhat obvious impossible solution doesn’t stop the mystery from offering up some genuine surprises. One of the best cases from a very, very good mystery series.
Death Among the Undead – Masahiro Imamura (2017) trans. Ho-Ling Wong (2021)
One of the most defining features of the shin-honkaku movement that I feel like westerners don’t see from just the translations we get from Vertigo Pushkin and Locked Room International is the amount of authors who love to experiment with form, style, and genre without betraying the underlying and ever-present element of a complex, cerebral puzzle. Hybrid mysteries, the sort we get from Isaac Asimov’s sci-fi mysteries like The Cave of Steel, are even more present in modern Japanese mystery writing than they ever were over here! There are authentically Golden Age-styled mysteries written to take place within the confines of a world that operates under the rules of a fantasy roleplaying video game, or mysteries set within fantasy worlds. There’s a short story collection about a group of murderers who share stories of their exploits over an internet board and every story is a different member of the board. And then there’s Masahiro Imamura’s breakout hybrid mystery, Death Among the Undead, which combines the locked-room mystery with a zombie apocalypse!
Death Among the Undead is a brilliant piece of work with three absolutely stunning impossible crimes that all three offer up entirely novel and unique explanations to the problem of murders committed in locked-rooms either provided by or enhanced by the presence of a horde of brain-eating undead! This novel is an absolute jaw-dropper of plotting genius that can confidently stand with its head held high among any classic of the genre. It is no less a classic, puzzle-driven impossible crime story for the presence of zombies — in fact, I’d say it’s even more so, as the rigid rules that the zombies abide by offer an extra layer of complexity and reasoning. Simply fantastic.
Death in the House of Rain – Szu-Yen Lin (2006) trans. (2017)
Death in the House of Rain is a dangerous impossible crime novel, because its an idea that I feel like could’ve easily failed. It doesn’t succeed on the strength of its core idea alone, but on the framing of its idea through the personification of fate and fortune as almost its own character, which arguably is the true killer, above anyone else who might’ve committed murder in the story. The solutions to the three first disparate locked-room murders are all connected by a single thread that is very devious and devilishly simple, brimming with an original idea whose reliance on coincidence could’ve easily failed if not for the underlying theme of fortune. It’s, in fact, an idea I proposed in my List of 50 Locked-Room Solutions which people often privately criticized me for because no impossible crime existed which could claim to use the solution, so I’ll admit I’m a little biased from reading this book and getting that feeling of aha! I told you!.
A fourth impossible crime brilliantly rises from the resolution of the previous three as a connecting thread, and it’s just as good as you could hope. This novel is fantastic, but easily could’ve not been.
The Kindaichi Case Files Shin (Case 3) “The Prison Prep School Murder Case” – Seimaru Amagi (2006)
I actually know very little about the Kindaichi Case Files franchise or its sister series Detective School Q, having only organically read one or two mysteries from each of them. They weren’t bad at all, mind you! Honorable mention to Detective School Q‘s first proper murder mystery for being blindingly brilliant, actually! However, I was directed to this particular case by TomCat’s blog post on this very same topic, and reading it honestly reawoke my interest in the two franchises! This is ingenuity distilled into its purest form, plain and simple, with a grand, brilliant, and complex impossible alibi trick at the heart of it.
Both Kindaichi Case Files and Detective School Q are classic examples of the locked-room mystery puzzle plot in the realms of anime/manga series, and having read one of the best impossible crime stories of all time by sheer chance in these series I can easily recommend anyone and everyone to seek this series out and read it if they have even a tiny interest in locked-room mysteries. John Dickson Carr would be proud of these two detective series. I read this case in Japanese in the manga, but the anime adaptation is available in English for anyone curious!
Case Closed/Detective Conan(Anime-original, Episodes 603-605) The Séance’s Double Locked Room Mystery Case – Gosho Aoyama
Detective Conan, as I’ve mentioned on my post about the franchise, contains many classics of basically any form of Golden Age-styled plotting you can think of. Alibi problems, locked-room mysteries, inverted mysteries, Detective Conan could probably make a top 10 list of any of them. Between both the manga and the anime, Detective Conan has produced more than its fair share of strong impossible crimes, many of which could end up on a list like this. For anime-originals, honorable mention to The Cursed Mask Laughs Coldly, which I think is more inventive and innovative, but The Séance’s Double Locked Room Mystery Case narrowly won out for its intricate intertwining of two impossible crimes. A brilliant set of two locked-rooms that rely on each other for their solutions makes this case a stand-out for its uniqueness of plotting, and the solutions are nothing to sneeze at either, but trust me when I say there are probably at least seven other Detective Conan impossible crimes equally worth mentioning at some point or another…
“The Lure of the Green Door” by Rintarō Norizuki (1991) trans. Ho-Ling Wong (2014)
The standout story from international tour of impossible crimes, The Realm of the Impossible, “The Lure of the Green Door” is a locked-room mystery inspired by the premise of an old science fiction parable by English author H. G. Wells in which a man enters a green door to another world. In “The Lure of the Green Door”, a man is murdered in his locked-and-sealed study with a green door that isn’t locked but mysteriously cannot be opened… The solution is a physical trick that plays on an old concept, but it’s a startling unique take on the concept that I’m proud to have solved ahead of time. The scale of the solution is also great without detracting from the elegance of the trick! A masterpiece of the short-form locked-room mystery.
“The Clown in the Tunnel” by Tetsuya Ayukawa (1958) trans. Ho-Ling Wong (2020)
A clown commits a murder, is seen running into a tunnel, and then vanishes before he can appear from the other side!
Tetsuya Ayukawa is a Japanese author famous for crossing wires between impossible crimes and alibi problems. As the introduction to the The Red Locked-Room collection notes, Ayukawa often uses alibi tricks to establish impossible crimes, and locked-room tricks to establish alibis. This gimmick very often lends itself to old tricks being applied in unique, novel, and stunning ways, and “The Clown in the Tunnel” is the best example of this! An absolute stunning example of how an alibi trick can lend itself to an impossible disappearance, and one of the best stories from a very good collection.
“The Ginza Ghost” – Ōsaka Keikichi (1936) trans. Ho-Ling Wong (2017)
The Ginza Ghost is a fantastic collection of impossible crimes from early Japanese crime writer Ōsaka Keikichi. Despite it existing in the early eras of the honkaku school of plotting, this collection shows off an author who demonstrates marked ingenuity and genius, with ideas that are still novel nearly 90 years in the future. The best story in the collection is easily the title story, “The Ginza Ghost”, which features a murder inside of a locked tobacco shop where a woman appears to have killed another and then herself — however, mysteriously, the murderer appears to have died significantly before her victim, suggesting the presence of a ghost who committed the crime… Ordinarily, I don’t enjoy impossible crimes that rely so centrally on an accident for the illusion to function — I’m a sucker for cartoonishly intelligent criminal geniuses — but the accident in this case is so elegant, simple, and brilliantly unique that it’s impossible not to love it.
And there you have it, my 15 favorite locked-room mysteries, which is 66.6% Japanese, quite a few of which aren’t even from novels. I’m sure Ho-Ling doesn’t mind the free publicity. I don’t mind to seem biased, but there are just so many strong and ingeniously plotted mysteries in the Japanese honkaku and shin-honkaku schools of mystery writing… This list will definitely not last long, but I enjoyed making it.
(*Note, although this is the eleventh 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)
Volume 10 of Detective Conan wasn’t the best of the volumes we had so far, but a far shot from the average quality we were getting earlier on in the series. While its third story was hurt significantly by a Japanese-centric clue, it was still absolutely ingenious. It also had the best Junior Detective League story so far in it, as well as a pretty decent locked-room mystery. Volume 11 comes with a good recommendation from Mr. Sands of Time himself, TomCat, boasting what he considers one of his favorite locked-room mysteries in the entire franchise…
Richard Moore is invited to a detective-themed talkshow, on which he’s asked to give a dissertation to the people on the work he does in solving murders. He gives a talk about the security features of cellular phones, and the show cuts to a murder mystery skit that the live studio audience has a chance to figure out themselves… During this skit the host of the show, Takashi Matsuo, calls his producer Michihiko Suwa and threatens to jump off of the roof. Suwa opens the window to the conference room in which he’s waiting to tell him to stop, and is immediately shot.
After the show, Suwa’s body is found inside of the conference room. Conan immediately suspects the host Matsuo, but there’s one problem: in order to get from the stage to the conference room would take nearly three times as long as the time Matsuo was offered, offering him an airtight alibi. Nonetheless, Conan doggedly sticks to his lead, and attempts to prove Matsuo’s guilt in Casebook 28 – The TV Station Murder Case (Chapters 2-4).
The TV Station Murder Case is another hum-dinger of an inverted mystery. Very similarly to the last inverted mystery, The Tenkaichi Fire Festival Murder Case (Casebook 17, Volumes 6-7 Chapters 9-1), this mystery has an element of howdunit. We do know who the killer is, and we do know roughly what their plan is, as we see it conducted from their perspective; however, we do not know how Matsuo managed to get from the stage to the conference room to commit the murder in the time allotted to him. The explanation is perhaps a little less inspired than in Tenkaichi, and is very unreliable in how it turns on the victim performing a very specific action in a very specific way, but it’s nonetheless fun and doesn’t detract from the overall experience in any meaningful way.
The way the killer is caught, like in the previous inverted mystery, is clever, but this story really shines in its denouement — Conan’s deductions are aired to the world as part of the mystery-themed talkshow, and he’s cheered on by the show’s massive audience as he corners the killer. It’s an unbelievably fun denouement that wraps up an unbelievably fun story.
Casebook 29 – The Coffee Shop Murder Case (Chapters 5-7) has Conan with Ran at a coffee shop, waiting for an unknown person, but when a woman is found murdered in a locked stall in the restroom, Conan is able to reduce the suspect list to three people…
I think this one is silly and just not very good. It’s a locked-ish room in presentation, since the mystery is “how could someone climb through the opening without getting covered in the victim’s blood”, but I think the trick used here, on top of not being very compelling, is just unreasonable and unnecessary in getting the desired effect. Maybe if I re-read this in the future I’d like it more, but I do not enjoy this mystery much at all as it stands. It’s just a killer
Conan gets helped by a lawyer who turns out to be Rachel’s mother, making it a plot-relevant story, unfortunately, so if you’re deep in the overarching Case Closed lore, then you’ll have to give this story a read.
Casebook 30 – The Tengu Murder Case (Chapters 8-10) has Conan and the Moores’ car breakdown outside of an old shrine where they’re taken in by monks. While there, they learn about a years-old murder that took place in that temple. A murder committed by a beast of Japanese legend, a Tengu… But upon probing into it, the Moores anger the head-monk, who tells them they will have to be on their way the very next day.
Unfortunately, that night, the head monk is found killed in a way that resembles the old case… Strung up impossibly inside of a room dozens of feet high, fatally hanging from the ceiling beams. When it’s further proven that it’s nearly impossible for a human being to carry a body over those beams to hang him, it’s ruled that the death must be a suicide. But Conan is not convinced, and gets to work proving how the head monk could’ve been murdered!
Complaints that this was never proven to be an “impossible” crime and is more of a “wildly improbable” crime aside, this is an absolute whammy of an impossible crime! The eventual solution is one of those unreasonably high-scale mechanical solutions of the type you’d associate with Soji Shimada’s mysteries like The Murders in the Crooked House, and it is very inspired, if not a bit on the absurd side as well. I agree with TomCat’s prognosis that this story would only be tolerable in the form of a comicbook and would be a little hard to swallow as a novel written in the 19xx’s. Nonetheless, it was very satisfying, novel, and well-done, and easily one of the best stories in the series so far. It’s the first impossible crime in Detective Conan that I really feel strongly about.
Volume 11 has one of the worst stories we’ve seen so far, but it’s sandwiched between two of the absolute best. Since both fantastic stories start and conclude in this volume as well, I can easily recommend interested peoples find a copy for their bookshelves if they’re in the mood for a fantastic impossible crime and a fantastic inverted mystery. A fantastic volume and an easy recommendation.
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.
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…
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!
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.
(*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…
Volume 8 opens withCasebook 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.
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!
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…!
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.
(*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…
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…
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.
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…
(*disclaimer: a free advance copy of this book was provided for review by the publisher through the NetGalleyservice)
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 maynot. 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.
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.
Le Tigre Borgne (The One-Eyed Tiger) by Paul Halter
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.
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.