On Magic in Murder (and why a Magician’s Handbook is the best impossible crime lecture)

Forcing spectators to interpret what they see and hear in ways which they know are false comes as close to genuine magic as we are likely to get.

Henning Nelms (Hake Talbot) in Magic and Showmanship: A Handbook for Conjurers

The very first person to open the discussion on the relation of stage magic to the art of murder was, to the best of my understanding, Clayton Rawson, who was, suitably, as much stage magician as crime writer. Published in 1938, his first novel Death from a Tophat featured the impossible strangulation of a cultist in his perfectly sealed apartment, and was notable for the cast being fully populated by illusionists and magicians, down to the detective The Great Merlini. Merlini would go on to frequently use stage magic as an analog for how one can commit murder in a locked room.

Clayton Rawson would go on to write three more locked room mystery novels and twelve short stories. Six years later, in 1944, another American stage magician by the name of Henning Nelms would publish a locked room mystery under the pseudonym of Hake Talbot, possibly inspired by Rawson’s success. A much more cinematic take on the impossible crime, Rim of the Pit almost convinces the reader that what he’s witnessing is honest-to-god horrors unfurling in the pages! A man appearing to fly after a possession, a locked room murder, and footprints that appear to mysteriously begin and end in otherwise virgin snow, the book takes you along for a ride and you bear witness to spectacles until the curtain calls, the illusion drops, and you’re reminded that it was all just a show. A very similar feat of conviction occurred in his second novel, The Hangman’s Handyman, wherein a man appears to spontaneously decompose! As Talbot himself said in Magic and Showmanship: A Handbook for Conjurers, “forcing spectators to interpret what they see and hear in ways which they know are false comes as close to genuine magic as we are likely to get,” and if that’s the case then it is impossible to deny the magic in this novel. Truly, Talbot took pages from his own magician’s handbook in the writing of Rim of the Pit.

The conversation would hit an awkward pause until many, many years later, when Jonathan Creek hit British television. The show, which in many ways endears itself to the Golden Age classics, features the titular Jonathan Creek, a magician’s assistant who winds up getting himself unfortunately tangled up in many seemingly impossible murders, usually brought to him by his mystery writer friend who uses the cases for inspiration for her work. Just like in the original works of Clayton Rawson, Jonathan Creek uses stage magic as an analog for the illusions involved in committing supposedly supernatural slayings.

Whether you love every of these works, or you hate them all, or you feel they’re a mixed bag, they’re perhaps the most inf an important takeaway here: the only difference between a locked room murder and stage magic is that at the end of one a body appears, truly sawed in half.

What made Hake Talbot’s Rim of the Pit and the subsequent The Hangman’s Handyman such impactful works of impossible crime is the illusion. Where John Dickson Carr presents the impression of the supernatural — a dollop, a taste — Talbot may very well have succeeded in providing a reader with impossible scenarios where he’s truly not sure he’s reading a detective novel or a gothic horror tale. It takes some effort to remember that there are physical, human forces at work and not some puppeteering supernatural foe. This is something Talbot touched upon in Magic and Showmanship, where he posits that a trick makes the observer wonder how it was done, but an illusion convinces the observer that there is no need to wonder: it was simply magic!

To note, Talbot’s mystery writing was well-supplemented by his own technique in creating illusions on the stage. The topic manifests very objectively in Jonathan Creek and The Great Merlini, but in Talbot’s writing it is much more intuitive. To take a look at Magic and Showmanship, the writer of Golden Age-styled mysteries may be entertained to find that the advice is not totally inapplicable to their craft. In fact, to date no novel has been written on the nature of the craft of producing an effective locked room puzzle plot, but if any should there be, Magic and Showmanship is the act to follow!

In Chapter 1 of Magic and Showmanship, Talbot discusses why meaning and context are the greatest parts of engaging people with your illusion. His own example, if you were to approach a man and tell him to check his pocket, and he were to find a ham sandwich, he’d be amazed, but then think “what of it?” Whereas, if a man were to say he was hungry, and you could conjure a ham sandwich for him out of thin air, he’d be amazed and the miracle would have practical meaning! In the world of impossible crimes, very much the same is true.

Say, for example, you have a stunt artist who is tied up to a stake and burnt, and the performer is able to vanish from her bindings without a single burn on her body. The detective may take an interest in it as an intellectual exercise, but why, fundamentally, does this matter to us as readers of impossible crimes? The stakes are nil — it’s simply a passing fancy and interest. Now, let’s say, for example, that the stunt happens near a museum, and she appears to steal a valuable gem! Or, when she vanishes from her bindings, the corpse of a man reappears in her place, burnt to death! Now we’re involved — not only is the illusion spectacular, there’s meaning and stakes to give it authenticity! We no longer feel as if the talent that goes into the impossible is wasted.

For a modern example, Tom Mead wrote for Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine a locked room short story called “The Indian Rope Trick” wherein a magician claims to have perfected an old trick where a rope sticks straight up into the air, an assistant climbs up, and then vanishes! This alone is a spectacular magic trick, but not in itself impetus for investigation when the assistant simply shows back up. However, when the magic trick appears to have coincided with a murder, there’s finally extra meaning to the illusion!

Two chapters down the line, he deconstructs what gives an illusion meaning. The phenomena itself needs to be engaging, naturally. And, prior to performing it, the magician needs a suitable cause to be presenting this trick. He is no longer a magician, but a man claiming to have evidence of the supernatural! And, finally, physical evidence that can be misconstrued as true evidence of the supernatural at play.

While in a locked room mystery, the motive is revealed near the end and not at the beginning, it’s very much true that priming for the phenomena is something that gives it more impact. In the book he mentions that a man can either pretend to be a fanatic wanting to prove astrology true or a disparager attempting to prove it is absolutely silly. In both cases, the performer will introduce an illusion which appears to vindicate astrology. In a locked room mystery, to be presented with a supposed curse, or stories of a vampire, or the bold claims of a man that he can summon demons gives the locked room much more impact than just a supposedly impossible crime that seems to just happen. And, I don’t think I need to explain this, but the whole section wherein he discusses misleading evidence is such a clear analog for red herrings in mystery writing that it’s insane.

Every chapter of Magic and Showmanship is ripe with similar such advise that is designed for the illusionist and show magician, but can easily be repurposed into advice for writing your locked room murder. There are twenty-two chapters and every one of them has given me a little something to consider. I obviously will not explain the conversion for every chapter, as this post has gone on long enough, but I would like to note another book I purchased on the subject.

Mark Anthony Wilson wrote a book called The Complete Course in Magic wherein he gives the reader a cornucopia of tricks and illusions to employ, not the least of which include summoning people from a box proven to be empty and have no secret holes on it, inexplicably trading places with another person in front of a audience and vanishing a person who sat in a chair far away from any possible obstructions!

In a work-in-progress project of mine tentatively called The Final Execution, I write of a solicitor who is called to purchase an artifact claiming to be the last executioner’s sword ever used in Europe from a historical antiquities auction. The item was stored in a windowless, single-doored room behind a stage and was in plain sight of nearly a hundred auction-goers, and yet it is somehow stolen! The sword itself reappears inside of the solicitor’s client’s study where it subsequently was used to behead the victim! The study was also perfectly guarded by the victim’s family and who swear nobody entered the room that could be a killer.

Both tricks, involving witnesses instead of impossible scenarios happening when nobody is around, were inspired by illusions and lectures provided in The Complete Course in Magic and Magic and Showmanship. It is for this reason that I think that the latter of these two may be the best lecture on the impossible crime ever written, and it didn’t even mean to be! The former, an accidental taxonomy of impossible crime solutions.

A loving message to any budding writer of locked rooms and impossible crimes: buy these books and become a magician. It’ll do you some good.

Bloodhounds (1996) by Peter Lovesey

Surrounded by security.
Victoria, you challenge me,
I shall shortly come to thee.

A banker has just shot his manager and in less than thirty seconds of the police arriving on the scene confesses to the murder. Bored out of his wits with paperwork and thirsting for a suitably engaging case, Detective Superintendent Peter Diamond is quick to get involved when the arrival of a mysterious verse in the press presages the theft of the Penny Black, the world’s oldest and most valuable postage stamp….

Meanwhile, local Bathian Shirley Ann-Miller finds her way to the crypt of The Church of St. Michael with St. Paul, where a weekly meeting of The Bloodhounds, an intimate group of lovers of crime fiction, was soon to be underway. Bored out of her wits by her partner’s long work hours, and passionate of the genre, Shirley Ann-Miller thought the group would provide a suitable alternative to spending an afternoon cooped up in her flat. After a debate on the merits of character versus reality versus puzzles in crime fiction, veteran Bloodhound Milo Motion supplies a copy of John Dickson Carr’s The Hollow Man, intending to make converts of the group with his famous lecture on locked room murders. Only the matter becomes all too real when the Penny Black falls from the book which has never left Milo’s possession or his locked boathouse… and the body of fellow club member Sid shows up under similarly baffling circumstances inside of the locked boathouse. Two impossible crimes in real life, now centered on The Bloodhounds…

Bloodhounds can easily be described as the marriage between a Golden Age puzzler and a contemporary police procedural. The murder in a perfectly locked boathouse, and a spectacular heist of an age-old stamp is straight out of the pages of a novel from the 1930s, but as the book starts to take a more sober stance on the investigation of the problem it’s clear that much of the artificiality (though not all) that makes a lot of locked room mysteries function is missing here. The lock is not a latch that can only be shot from the inside of the room, but rather nothing more than a simple padlock hanging on the outside of the door. And, just like the contemporary police procedural that it is, Peter Diamond does not exhaust himself reasoning out the locked room mystery, spending equal if not more time creating a full picture of his suspects.

While in places this makes the book charming and unique, it also lends itself to some of the books lowest lows and longest slogs that take it well outside of my tastes. A core distinction I’ve found between procedurals and detective novels of the Golden Age is that the former is more about the collection of evidence — individual clues may be misleading, but only misleading in the lack of other information, and as more evidence rears its head, conclusions flow organically from there. The interpretation of the evidence is not complex, and ultimately is not the focus, as it would be in a Golden Age mystery, and even much of the investigation happens in the background with the help of highly specialized police teams. Instead, the focus of the narration is on Lovesey conducting lengthy interviews, crafting complete and thorough profiles of the victim and the people who knew him.

None of that in and of itself is bad. It is simply a separate school of thought in the very broad genre of crime writing, and it is that very breadth that Bloodhounds celebrates. While the heart and soul of Bloodhounds is a procedural, there are aspects of multiple subgenres thrown together that represent the philosophies brought forth by The Bloodhounds. However, the Bloodhounds often struggled, and fought, and the harmony was a perilous and conflicted one and that in and of itself serves as the perfect metaphor for the results of trying to merge so much together in one novel.

The procedural aspects of Bloodhounds, which find their avatar in Rupert, who believes that crime fiction ought to portray a realistic image of crime, caused the crime to often feel incidental to the narrative. Oftentimes when something happened that had dramatic implications and was supposed to totally uproot your understanding of the murder and the theft, it came out of stark nowhere after such a long time of the crimes simply not being in focus that you were confused in the worst possible way, and the impact was dulled and lost.

The Golden Age of Detection was rhapsodized upon by Milo Motion, who thought the puzzle of methods laid out for the reader was the heart and soul of crime fiction. This aspect of the book was hurt by the fact that evidence was often only introduced as it was needed to bring the detectives to the next point of its investigation. While you eventually had all of the information, very rarely was a point introduced and it just have some mystery as to what it means. It usually went that the wrong interpretation was brought forth by the narration, which you frequently didn’t entirely have the ability to correct until more information came later, and when the new information was brought to light the narration would amend its opinion on the earlier clues fairly quickly. The only time you really had much room to work with to puzzle the solution out was between the end of the investigation and the denouement proper, which was only a few chapters. There were some glimmers of earlier fairness, with a lot of small details dotted throughout that the keen reader will definitely pick up on, and that does let the reader get some heads-up on the detective, but not by too far.

The book is as confused about what it represents as The Bloodhounds themselves, and the treatment of the crime and mystery felt weird to me. But it isn’t all bad, and despite all of what I’ve just said I think the book has plenty to offer readers. The characters are all fully realized, and more than mere archetypes. The dialogue is often witty enough to earn an audible laugh. And though The Bloodhounds do sadly get phased out of the picture as a group later in the book, with Shirley even inexplicably disappearing as a second narrator, when they’re together, the debates they have are homely and familiar. Much of their talks are well-researched and leaves the reader with plenty of books to chase down. The seasoned reader of mystery novels will likely find themselves thinking they’ve had this conversation before on more than one occasion. And though the way the mystery handled itself was confused, the solution was not, with solid reasoning and a satisfying resolution to every question and problem, bar perhaps the locked room problem itself was not entirely fair outside of being “the only possible solution”, and it was only a somewhat more clever twist of a fairly tired solution type.

All in all, I’m not super passionate about Bloodhounds as a mystery. As Milo Motion himself said, mysteries nowadays are more about the characters than the crime, and the same can be said for this novel. While it tried to strike a delicate balance, with a complex criminal plot one can see coming straight out of Christie or at the heart of it plot, it often leaned too far on one side for the merge to be totally seamless. But there’s a clear lot of love for the genre here, and when it works, it works! It has its low points, but when it matters the book can pull the reader back in, and it ends on a very high note. The book is very nearly fairplay, but in an odd way, and the crime is complex even if it isn’t the essence of the narrative.

Bloodhounds is an easy recommend for people who want more character from their convoluted criminal plots, or who wants a more sober take on the Golden Age puzzle.

Death Invites You (1988) by Paul Halter (transl. John Pugmire 2016)

Death Invites You: Halter, Paul, Pugmire, John: 9781518668753: Amazon.com:  Books

Anyone who has read an impossible crime novel in the last ten years (or in the last 40 years, if you speak French!) probably needs no introduction to Paul Halter. With an impressive workload of over forty novels, nearly all locked room mysteries, his name has become something of a byword for modern specialists in the impossible crime, particularly those who carry the torch of semi-Gothic, semi-horror, entirely macabre tales of murders in locked rooms initially carried by the American king himself, John Dickson Carr. Some have even ambitiously called the man “The French King of Impossible Crimes”!

Admittedly, I was put off for quite some time because a close acquaintance of mine whose opinion I hold in high regard is not one of those who think of Halter as Carr’s second coming, and when I finally did sit down to read Halter it was through his short stories, which I found particularly unimpressive. With such a towering reputation behind him, however, it was hard for me to continue not reading his novels, and just another three months later I finally sat down with Death Invites You, originally published in 1988 as La Mort Vous Invite.

Death Invites You is the second novel featuring one of Halter’s two series detectives, Dr. Twist. In it, Sergeant Simon Cunningham is summoned in secret to a dinner hosted by his father-in-law-to-be, Harold Vickers, a famous specialist in the impossible crime novel (whose much-lauded works suspiciously parallel quite a few of Halter’s subsequent novels…). Upon arriving, he finds that Harold Vickers, who had a habit of shutting himself away for extended periods of time, was locked in his study and refusing to answer the call of his wife. After breaking in, they find that Harold Vickers has been murdered many hours ago, with a full many-course meal of still-steaming foods laid out for guests. Upon further investigation, a lone glove is found with the body, a tub half-filled with water is sat under the window, and all possible entrances to the study were perfectly locked, making this death perfectly mirror an unpublished locked room written that the victim was in the process of writing!

Needless to say, I was immediately hooked. Mysteries where a mystery writer is killed in a way that mimics their writing are ripe with interest, and the presence of an “impossible meal” on top of the locked room murder was an incredibly novel premise from a writer well-known for inventing new types of impossible crime. I instantly felt all of my doubts I had about Halter as a writer fall away, and I read the book through to its conclusion in no time!

The investigation and plot move along at a brisk pace. Rarely did I feel like the book meandered on one point for too long, but I also never once felt like Halter was trying to rush through to the end either. Admittedly in the second half the book gets a little messy, with a decent number of only vaguely relevant interpersonal scenes with the victim’s family. The greatest sin of the book’s narration is the largely unnecessary back-and-forth regarding the question of the victim’s identity, which majorly exists to poke fun at a well-known trope in the genre and to establish one clue in the single most overlong way the book could have managed. Nonetheless, though, even when the book gets somewhat messy in plotting, it’s still enjoyable to read and definitely encourages you to keep a steady pace.

Halter’s greatest and most well-recorded weakness is his lack of deep characterization. That’s true in Death Invites You, without any shadow of a doubt. Even writing this review, I struggle to remember any of the characters’ names, because so many of them just made no impression. The chief focus is the investigation and clues, and that’s naturally divisive. While I personally am beyond ecstatic to read an entirely puzzle-oriented locked room mystery, that isn’t everyone’s cup of tea and some may find the shallow characters off-putting. I found it welcoming, and exactly what I was looking for.

Unfortunately, despite its clear place in the forefront of Death Invites You and its narrative, the locked room puzzle is incredibly disappointing. The solution to this problem is obvious the second it makes itself known for those seasoned literary detectives who know what to look for, and ironically is easier to figure out BEFORE the novel introduces you to the central clues. It’s admittedly an old and recognizable trick, and while I wouldn’t go so far as to call it a “cliche”, it still failed to leave me gobstopped and actually left me deeply upset when the suspicion that lingered in the back of my head — the solution I hoped it WOULDN’T be — turned out to be true.

I think a huge part of the reason why the solution wasn’t very satisfying, even if it isn’t too worn, is that the premise promises more. The whole affair with the murder mimicking the novel is just stage-dressing — red herrings the killer left to muddy the waters of investigation. And that’s sad! The tricks that Halter could’ve played with involving the tub of water had so much potential to be massively more satisfying than those the true solution offered. While the best red herrings have engaging and relevant alternative explanations, those in this sort of story are wasted, meaning simply nothing.

Had I been Halter, the way I would’ve handled this would be to have an actual solution to the problem as it’s presented in the “inner-book” so the clues could actually resolve themselves in the story-within-the-story. Offering a real solution to the “faked clues” would highlight Halter’s creativity, and not leave us feeling like he just made up whatever he wanted to because it would prove to be fictional. And, on top of that, it would allow the solution to the inner-book’s locked room problem to act as a false solution for the locked room we’re dealing with in the actual novel, drawing surprise from seeing how the killer deviated from the fictional story — perhaps, even, by having the solution in the inner-novel be scientifically or logically dubious as a way to clue at the fact the killer didn’t really replicate his fictional counterpart’s methods, because he couldn’t! Halter could’ve had his cake and eaten it too, but instead he chose to offer us a slice of frosted cardboard cylinder tubes.

If it isn’t apparent, I’m not entirely pleased with my first feature-length offering by Paul Halter. The book has an engaging premise and a competent investigation that builds your hopes up, but the solution is a big fat disappointment that’s only half of what you expect, with little depth to justify the lacking puzzle. I can’t in good conscience recommend Death Invites You to any locked room enthusiast.

Will I return to Halter’s works in the future, though? Undoubtedly. There are two clues in the novel that are incredibly clever and, even with the disappointing solution surrounding them, highlight Halter’s deep love for the genre. One of these is a particular scene involving the painting perfectionist, and the other involves “The Mystery of the Yellow Room by Arthur Conan Doyle”. These two little points are enough to convince me to give Halter more chances, if only to see where he goes from here.

The Case of the Constant Suicides (1941) by John Dickson Carr

Case Of The Constant Suicides: 9781846974595: Amazon.com: Books

When I first discovered the wide, wonderful world of impossible crimes and locked room murders, it shouldn’t be anyone’s surprise that the very, very first name I was introduced to — and one which I’d come to hear, and speak reverently, many more times for years to come — was John Dickson Carr. He’s the veritable king of the locked room mystery! The master of impossible crimes! A masterclass in atmospheric ghost stories-cum-murder mysteries. However, despite the fact Mr. Carr is best known for The Hollow Man (or The Three Coffins, if you prefer going against the tide), I was first introduced to him through a friend’s emphatic review of The Case of the Constant Suicides. For reasons unknown even to myself, I had still decided to put off reading The Case of the Constant Suicides for four whole years, even as I read other Carr novels, but the book was always in the back of my mind. So, finally, in 2020, I decided to do right by myself and my enthusiastic friend and give the book a read.

Having now read it, though, I’m stuck with a bit of a conundrum. As a first Carr novel, The Case of the Constant Suicides is difficult to recommend because the cluing, plotting, narrative and tone are so far-removed from anything traditionally “John Dickson Carr” that it doesn’t offer a good indication of what to expect from his writing. However, those very same problems may also makes The Case of the Constant Suicides a hard read for purists, not only of Carr but also locked room mysteries in general. The book is best served as either a middle read, enjoyed after you’ve developed a casual acquaintanceship with locked room mysteries and your standards and tastes aren’t so rigid, or a nearly-last read, enjoyed after you’re exhausted of reading contrived, winding puzzles and want a mystery more social in natural. Alas, neither of those apply to me, and I can safely say The Case of the Constant Suicides is not one of my most favorite of Carr’s works and, in fact, may be one of my least favorite reads from the author.

In Scotland, the Campbell clan gather at the Castle of Shira to mourn the passing of Angus Campbell, who died after a fall from the highest room of the castle’s tower. Because the room was perfectly sealed from the inside, his death is presumed a suicide, but some among the gathering believe that his recent life insurance policies (which would be annulled in the case of suicide) are proof that Angus hadn’t committed suicide, but was indeed murdered!

Fortunately, as it would so happen, Colin Campbell has connections to Gideon Fell, a renowned amateur-expert in the area of locked rooms and how to commit murder in them. Upon arriving, he confirms the mourners’ worst suspicions… Angus Campbell was murdered!

The Case of the Constant Suicides is a bizarre entry into Carr’s portfolio, but if nothing else it proves that if Carr wrote in the modern world he’d always have television comedy to fall back on should the locked room market collapse. Indeed, the novel’s tone is incredibly out-of-place in the Fell series, which often features a haunting, oppressive atmosphere. Instead, many of the most memorable scenes of Constant Suicides would feel right at place in, believe it or not, an episode of It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia.

To put it in paradoxical terms, the humor in Constant Suicides is incredibly funny, but at the same time my least favorite part of the book. Despite being one of the shortest Carr’s I’ve read recently, no less than a third of the novel is spent in sitcom-space introducing us to the perspective characters of Alan and Kathryn Campbell, feuding academic-writers and unbeknownst cousins, their odd “will-they-won’t-they”, and their quirky distant family. In this way, Constant Suicides is remarkably similar to the earlier Christianna Brand novels, but even then the handling of the murder is frankly bizarre. Once Fell finally gets to make an appearance the problem of the “it could be murder” is given some attention, but then after not so much as a rudimentary physical investigation he divines the solution to the problem, some time is spent with the drama of not believing the room is dangerous and the book carries on with some interrogations to fill some gaps in the story. Unlike any other locked room Carr, where the main article is a winding trail of clues and red herrings leading you along to the solution, Constant Suicides leaves the solution nearly immediately apparent and leaves it at that. And, while there are two more impossible crimes, one is a direct repetition of the original problem and the other is a very disappointing piece. The main article is easily the interactions between characters, their drama and the humor — absolutely not the constant suicides, as the title and any blurb would have you believe — making The Case of the Constant Suicides a social mystery of the highest order, from a man who rarely if ever dabbled in the school.

This unconventional focus in narrative and plotting isn’t bad by any stretch, but it makes The Case of the Constant Suicides feel counter-intuitive to the sort of work Carr did in much of his other 70-plus mysteries. It’s hard to recommend this book to anyone looking for “another Carr” or a puzzling locked room problem, but those who don’t suffer the curse of purism may find here a pleasantly entertaining comedy in the form of an impossible crime.