The Mammoth Book of Perfect Crimes and Impossible Mysteries (2011) ed. by Mike Ashley – Part 3

I’m sure you know the drill at this point. Twenty-nine locked-room mystery short stories, spread between six different parts of this long review of Mike Ashley’s anthological accomplishment, The Mammoth Book of Perfect Crimes and Impossible Mysteries. If this is your first time reading this mini-series, be sure to check out the previous two parts before jumping in.

Part 1 – “An Almost Perfect Crime” (William F. Smith) – “The X Street Murders” (Joseph Commings) – “Locked in Death” by Mary Reed and Eric Mayer – “Proof of Guilt” (Bill Pronzini) – “No Killer Has Wings” (Arthur Porges)
Part 2 – “Murder in Monkeyland” (Lois Gresh and Robert Weinberg) – “The Impossible Murder of Doctor Satanus” (William Krohn) – “A Shower of Daggers” (Edward D. Hoch) – “Duel of Shadows” (Vincent Cornier) – “Eternally Yours” (H. Edward Hunsburger)
Part 3
Part 4 – ???
Part 5 – ???
Part 6 – ???


“The Hook” by Robert Randisi is a historical mystery featuring Bat Masterson, a real-world journalist, lawman, and gambler.

A slew of unsolvable murders is haunting police officers — three women, all of whom died inexplicably despite no apparent signs of violence. When journalist Bat Masterson chides the police for their sloppy work in solving the crime, a spiteful Police Chief Flaherty drags him down to the station and challenges him to do better. It’s during the course of his investigation that an autopsy is performed, showing that all of the women are missing their internal organs despite only a small incision being made in their sides…

I’m already not a fan of “biological impossibilities” like this, but… god, it’s bad. Earlier, I considered just leaving the review at that. “‘The Hook’ by Robert Randisi is a bad story. The end.”, and then move on with my life. But then I decided that it wasn’t professional enough, so now I’m going to spoil this story in this review. I can’t articulate how annoying the ending is without taking that step. This is your one and only warning if you still give a damn about reading this story, because the very next sentence reveals the solution to this gripping impossible crime. The answer to the question of “how could the killer remove his victim’s organs despite the presence of only a small incision?” is… “the killer removed his victim’s organs through the small incision”. The “woundless death” impossibility is also just an idiotic consequence of people neglecting to remember that poison is a thing that exists — and also the police just… being wrong about the presence of no marks on the body, which should’ve been noticed even in spite of the lack of exhumation. Ultimately, everything just turns on the fact that, damn, forensics and the police really sucked in the 1890’s, and that’s basically the extent of the story’s explanation for its main plot hook. Add to this the fact that the killer is caught on baseless intuition (“his eyes were challenging me”), and then needlessly confesses to the crime (which, even in arrogance, shouldn’t end with him being surprised at his capture), and you get a bad story, the majority of which is pointless. You’ll get more satisfaction from reading this paragraph review of the story than I got going through the whole damn thing to the end. Simply the worst story in the anthology so far, and I can’t say there’s anything worth reading here unless you’re dying to know what Bat Masterson got up to in the late 1800s.

“The Hook” by Robert Randisi is a bad story. The end.

“Slaughterhouse” by Barry Longyear is a locked-room mystery and the only mystery story from a sci-fi author best known for his classic “Enemy Mine”, which was the subject of a 1985 film adaptation.

Nathan Griever has killed his wife, and inherited $23,000,000 from her. Police knew he had to be the killer, and yet he perfectly got away with the crime as it had happened inside of a locked room with a complex security system and a door with an electronic lock that constantly requires two living people to operate for anyone to get in, or out, of the room. His friend, Sir James Owen Cockeral, invites him to join “Slaughterhouse”, a club filled with criminals who have perfectly committed murder and escaped the law. Every member of the club will take a stab at solving his murder, and if they all fail he is granted membership and the right to explain his brilliant machinations to an adoring audience…

Another story straddling the “impossible-inverted-mystery” genre. This is going to shock everyone who knows me and has read this story… but I actually didn’t mind it all too much. This is definitely an outlier for me, since it’s not the kind of story that would appear to hyper-purists, and I don’t think it was on purpose but this story just did something right that made it pleasant enough for me.

This isn’t spoiling too much, since pretty much the entirety of the mystery turns on people making various guesses along the lines of the killer’s mechanism for holding the electric bolt open long enough to escape, but… really, that’s the impossibility. Not “the murder in a locked room”, but “the impossible wedging open of a door that is simply designed to not allow it”. Sure, it’s disappointing, and none of the solutions (the fake ones or the real one) are exactly clever or tricky, but I think the story framing itself as “how did the killer carry out this one specific type of locked-room solution?” curbs your expectations for what kind of explanation you’re going to get and primes you for it in a way that sorta subdues the disappointment you’d have gotten if the story were established as anything else.

I’m a bit worried to mention this here, since… while I don’t give away any aspects of the solution, I’m acknowledging something that the reader probably shouldn’t be aware of going in, so best to skip this paragraph if you plan to read the story blind. What really made this story shine for me is the one-two sucker-punch ending that revealed that a second puzzle tangential to the locked-room mystery was lurking in the background the entire time about the identity of the “Slaughterhouse” club, and the reader very possibly never noticed it. A real “slap your knee for not getting it”, and “feel clever for spotting it” resolution that came in at just the moment to save the story from a really mediocre locked-room mystery. No, it’s not totally “fair”, but I think it’s foreshadowed well enough to get that “yeah! In retrospect…” feeling. A better impossible crime would have won this story more points, but I’m more forgiving of it than I was in “Eternally Yours” in light of a better surprise, its clever “hidden puzzle”, and decent-enough setting up of the locked-room angle that keeps your fancies grounded. Probably the weirdest story to appeal to the small, not-as-stuffy side of my normally purist brain.

“Death and the Rope Trick” by John Bayse Price is one of the few known mystery short stories from a man who was a zoologist, biologist and teacher by trade.

Western University is offering a $500,000 reward to anyone who can perform the Indian Rope Trick, a legendary magic trick that few (if any) have ever seen performed with their eyes, which involves a rope standing stiff in the air, a young boy climbing to the top, and then suddenly vanishing before rematerializing a mile away. A skeptical Edward Dobbs, Chairman of the University’s Board of Trustees, is sent to verify Dr. Clive Marlin’s claims to be able to perform the trick “with the power of his mind”. And, lo and behold, he succeeds… with a caveat that the assistant materialized on the other side of a lake, and drowned to death.

This is actually the second story using the Indian Rope Trick as a subject I’ve read, the first being Tom Mead’s “The Indian Rope Trick”, written as a contribution to a 2020 issue of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, and I think this vindicates me in my stance that the narrower and more fantastical the problem, the harder and harder it is to think of unique ways out. Both “Death and the Rope Trick” and “The Indian Rope Trick” clearly had similar thought processes behind how to approach the problem, and in the end the explanations were themselves similar in mechanism, but distinct in application — distinct, in that I feel “Death and the Rope Trick”‘s explanation suits a magic trick, whereas “The Indian Rope Trick”‘s better suits a mystery story.

“Death and the Rope Trick” had a solution that was… cunning, but in the very same way a magic track in real life is cunning when the curtains are pulled back and the mechanics exposed. This reminds me very much of Hake Talbot’s The Rim of the Pit in that regard. “Sure, it’s neat that all of these things could contrive to make that happen, but…”. The effect comes first and foremost, and the explanation second. A dozen different moving parts come together to create the illusion, but there’s no precision, no conciseness, no clever trickery, no elegance. Some things were even just explained away by “oh, he just lied about this being there or not being there”. A complicated series of mechanisms that tripped over itself and dulled the impact of the reveal by none of the smaller parts being even remotely interesting on their own, and the end product being less than the sum of its parts. Tom Mead’s “The Indian Rope Trick” is overall a simpler explanation, but much more refined — and a better written story at that.

Anyone interested in this problem would be better off just asking Tom Mead for a copy of his story and giving Price’s story a skip afterwards.

“Three Blind Mice” by Laird Long

A serial robber nicknamed “The Rat” is found dead one morning in his apartment, but security footage shows him robbing a jewelry store later that afternoon — even though his death had already been assured.

Dreadfully bad writing with no sense of time or place, and which loves to hard-cut between locations, days, and scenes with the most choppy of transitions, makes the greatest puzzle in this story figuring out where the protagonists even are right now. Every paragraph has at least one hilariously bad, uber-cheesy line that reads like a poor attempt at gritty police witticisms. Also, a type of impossibility that isn’t well-known for being represented with the most ingenious of solutions (which usually fall into two equally boring camps). This story has a solution that’s just as mechanical and disappointing as “Murder in Monkeyland” with none of the science-fiction creativity to even make the horribleness memorable. Some stand-out lines in the story:

Maybe The Rat had actually gone out the same way he’d come in — accidentally, Pinero thought.

And the young detective’s apparent indifference to all things chip-driven earned him a special place of contempt in McGrath’s ebook.

McGrath played around some more with his Blackberry, his right eyelid twitching as he stared at the glowing screen. “I told you, I don’t follow boxing. It’s too violent.” Thumbs flying like a twelve-year-old video-gamer chalking up kills on God of War, he added, “You should see all the great features on this thing.”

Tolmeyer laughed. She had a soft spot for Pinero — right between the legs.


I’m going to cut this one short here. I realized that when I counted the number of stories in this anthology, I was off by one — there’s twenty-nine, and not thirty. Which means one of these posts gets to get away with one less story than the others, and honestly this feels like it. I was going to wait until the very last post, but I’m starting to get a stress head-ache from grinding through 14 generally poor short stories in three, four days? This set of four is overall not great, with two stories cracking the bottom three, and I’m starting to worry the anthology’s peak is well behind us. The updated ranking is below.

  1. “The X Street Murders” by Joseph Commings – 7.75/10
  2. “The Impossible Murder of Doctor Satanus” by William Krohn – 7.25/10
  3. “Slaughterhouse” by Barry Longyear – 6.75/10
  4. “No Killer Has Wings” by Arthur Porges – 6.25/10
  5. “A Shower of Daggers” by Edward D. Hoch – 6/10
  6. “Eternally Yours” by H. Edward Hunsburger – 5.75/10
  7. “Death and the Rope Trick” by John Bayse Price – 5.25/10
  8. “An Almost Perfect Crime” by William F. Smith – 5/10
  9. “Duel of Shadows” by Vincent Cornier – 4.75/10
  10. “Murder in Monkeyland” by Lois Gresh and Robert Weinberg – 4/10
  11. “Proof of Guilt” by Bill Pronzini – 3.75/10
  12. “Three Blind Mice” by Laird Long – 2.75/10
  13. “Locked in Death” by Mary Reed and Eric Mayer – 2.5/10
  14. “The Hook” by Robert Randisi – 1.50 / 10

The Mammoth Book of Perfect Crimes and Impossible Mysteries (2011) ed. by Mike Ashley – Part 2

In my very last post, I decided to take a step out of my comfort zone and delve more into my very sad, neglected pile of locked room mystery anthologies, starting with The Mammoth Book of Perfect Crimes and Impossible Mysteries. I then decided that because I couldn’t afford another three month hiatus on my blog I could do worse than to document my experiences with the stories contained within so that other… short-story-shy readers like myself would know where to look and what stories to avoid for satisfying impossible puzzlers! Just as before, we’ll be looking at five stories (chosen in the order I decide to read them) and ranking the anthology at the very end! Today, the curtain rises on Monkeyland…

Part 1 – “An Almost Perfect Crime” (William F. Smith) – “The X Street Murders” (Joseph Commings) – “Locked in Death” by Mary Reed and Eric Mayer – “Proof of Guilt” (Bill Pronzini) – “No Killer Has Wings” (Arthur Porges)
Part 2
Part 3 – “The Hook” (Robert Randisi) — “Slaughterhouse” (Barry Longyear) — “Death and the Rope Trick” (John Bayse Price) — “Three Blind Mice” (Laird Long)
Part 4 – ???
Part 5 – ???
Part 6 – ???


“The Murder in Monkeyland” by Lois Gresh and Robert Weinberg is a locked-room mystery from a duo of writers best known for their “techno-thriller” The Termination Node. Lois Gresh is a computer programmer, and Weinberg is a collector of pulp magazines and art.

At a secure government research facility that engages in torturous animal tests, microbiologist Dr. Carl Schneider is found dead from unknown means after being locked into his laboratory overnight by a perfect and impenetrable security system. Agoraphobic problem solver Penelope Peters is called on to solve the problem with the aid of her assistant, O’Brien, who scopes out the crime scene and reports back to her with his eidetic memory.

I’ll come right out and say it: I chose this story out of pure spite of the word “Monkeyland”. It’s the exact same reason I skipped ahead to the Jonathan Creek episode The House of Monkeys. Whenever I know there’s a monkey-centric setting in a locked-room mystery, my worst instinct is to derisively go “ohoho, out to capitalize on ‘Murders in the Rue Morgue’, are we?”. And, loathe as I am to admit it, I’m always proven wrong; these stories are not out to rip-off Rue Morgue at all… they’re actually worse.

Initially, I was actually on board with the story. Making the detective agoraphobic was a compelling weakness, and her pairing up with a muscle-bound detective with “photographic” memory but no imagination was a fun and intuitive evolution of the traditional armchair sleuth-deadly serious detective dynamic. I also noticed the story’s attempts to ingratiate itself to Sherlockian circles. In many Sherlock Holmes stories, the story will open with Holmes showing off a specific side of his deductive reasoning skills to an agog Dr. John Watson, which would later end up finding itself reapplied in the case-at-hand. In very much the same vein, there was a similar interaction between O’Brien and Peters over a copy of The Sign of Four wherein Peters calls to mind one of Holmes’s most famous axioms: “When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” All of this while avoiding the pages of pretentious references to Greek mythos one often finds in Doyle’s works, and I thought it was a neat, modern interpretation of the Holmes structure… until it became a problem.

Ignoring the solution and taking the denouement in a void, I was… baffled during the last few pages of the story. Bearing in mind that all of the suspects are obsessive but (ostensibly) rational minds of science, Penelope Peters has the insane idea to engage in the years-old mystery cliché of catching the culprit with a séance — the very last thing that would appeal to scientists. It seemed odd, but I decided that the story was just going to indulge in some genre-trope fun and let it be… until… Penelope just entirely abandoned the séance idea altogether mid-performance to frankly call the killer out in front of everyone. She had asked everyone to come in, sit down, hold hands… and then immediately called the killer out. The point of the séance denouement is to scare the culprit into outing themselves, but in this case it was just a normal drawing room with the trappings of a séance for three paragraphs for… some reason? And when asked at the end of it all how she knew the solution, the only explanation offered was the earlier axiom of “When you have eliminated the impossible”, with no real break-down of her mental process.

It was at this point that I had to finally take it back and actually figure out who these two were, and Mike Ashley provided me with a very informative explanation in the story’s introduction. They were writers of sci-fi thrillers, who (I’m speculating) wrote a small handful of crime stories on a whim and… I felt it. I think at the end of the day, this just isn’t a locked-room mystery for locked-room mystery fans. This feels like a locked-room mystery for existing fans of the duo’s sci-fi thriller novel. The allusions and parallels to classic mystery fiction feel superficial, and even ill-informed such as in the case of the unnecessary séance gathering, and the solution was science-fiction in the extreme, lacking in trickery and cleverness and more just exercising mechanical knowledge over the elements. I can only gather that anyone who picks up The Mammoth Book of Perfect Crimes and Impossible Mysteries is just not in the story’s demographic. We’re not the audience for this book. Maybe if I was looking for a sci-fi thriller that just incidentally resembled classic crime fiction, I’d have enjoyed it more, but as it stands I can’t speak very highly of it as a locked-room mystery story. All I can say is that it was at least complete and the solution at least had been given some foreshadowing in the story, which is more than I can say about a couple other stories present in this anthology, and even though it was worse than, say, “No Killer Has Wings”, “Murder in Monkeyland” at least gave me plenty enough to talk about…

“The Impossible Murder of Dr. Satanus” by William Krohn was written by an 18 year old disciple of John Dickson Carr, and has the distinction of being the only published crime story by Krohn ever. Though he wrote a second story, it was rejected for being “too complex”, and he subsequently went on to be an accomplished historian and critic of Alfred Hitchcok.

The stage magician Dr. Satanus, christened as Charles Kimbell, boards a hotel elevator with the intention of speaking with a private investigator he hired to ascertain suspicions Kimbell had of his wife’s infidelity. The elevator moves from the floor on which he and his wife slept, to the lobby floor, without stopping even once; yet, shockingly, when the elevator opens on the bottom floor of the hotel, Dr. Satanus is found inside, alone, and impossibly stabbed in the back!

This story is impressive. Not just “for an 18 year old” — but especially because it was written by an 18 year old — but just in general an impressive feat. I’ve seen impossible crime specialists who’ve been writing for decades of their life produce worse locked-room mysteries than something William Krohn dished out on his first and only go at it. And not only is the plotting great, you could easily convince me with the prose that the story was written by someone more seasoned in the genre than this. I do not believe in “talent” or “gifts”, but whatever the next closest thing is, Krohn had plenty of it. The main drawback is that we only ever will see one of these stories from Krohn.

Perhaps it seems a bit disingenuous that I have much less to say about this story than something like “Murder in Monkeyland”, but there’s a lot more ways to mess up a story than there is to write one well — and more ways to talk about it, too. The solution is all very clever, and intricate and neat. If I had to highlight any downfall, it’s Kimbell’s clear lack of confidence — there was no audacity at play here. No “the solution dangles in front of you”, no literary sleight-of-hand, no… chutzpah, as I’ve seen others call it. The clues, the red herrings and the misdirection are handled all very timidly, hiding in the regular information just fine, which is a standard way to obfuscate your solution from the audience but in the same vein also makes the whole thing have less impact. It, along with somewhat of a reliance on an accident that made the whole affair feel less concise, dulled what, with a little more oomph, would’ve been a truly fantastic locked-room mystery and what otherwise was my favorite locked-elevator mystery and my favorite magician-centric crime story. It’s a shame that Kimbell didn’t have the time to grow into the craft more, because this is a promising debut that’s starting to really turn me around on my opinion of impossible crime short stories…

“Duel of Shadows” by Vincent Cornier

In 1752, a Ensign the Honourable Nigel Koffard fired a bullet from his dueling pistol. Two hundred and twenty-two years, two months, one week, five days, twelve hours and forty-seven minutes later, Henry Westmacott is listening to the radio alone in his living room when the very same bullet Nigel Koffard fired strikes him in the shoulder as if shot from the void! With nobody hiding anywhere near the victim, all exits accounted for, a missing weapon, and locked windows, it appears if the bullet had been fired through time to harm Henry Westmacott!

I don’t have much to say on this one. The problem and solution are partially borrowed from a real-world incident (which will remain unnamed) that I already knew the details of when going into the story, so while I couldn’t quite pin the exact solution, the core mechanic was known to me before even reading the story. However, had I not had foreknowledge of the real-world incident, the solution would likely still be disappointing in much the same way many of real life’s miracles are when the artifice behind it is revealed. Scientific coincidence is the keyword for today.

This falls into the “too impossible to be good” camp of impossible crimes, where the writer is so invested in the baffling scenario that he creates something so damned fantastic and absurd that there’s simply no way the solution can actually be clever enough to meet the expectations of the problem. It also feels as if it falls into the “so impossible, it’s obvious” camp, where the impossibility is so impossible, and so narrow, the only possibility (the solution), or at least the important parts, end up being highlighted by the sheer absurdity of the situation. And, finally, it turns more on physical artifice than any sort of abstract trickery, which is just a general turn-off for me with these stories. A neat problem with a disappointing resolution that is infinitely better served in the context of nonfiction than a story.

“A Shower of Daggers” by Edward D. Hoch is a blend of contemporary cop-drama and Golden Age locked room puzzler from the man who needs no introduction, the “modern king of short stories” whose output of short fiction in his life was pushing 1000 published works. With such a massive outpour of content, it’s no surprise that Edward D. Hoch is the only writer to get two stories published in the same volume of either Mammoth Book impossible-crime anthology, one of the four only authors to be published in both, and the only writer to get three stories collected between the two volumes.

Susan Holt, a representative of a Manhattan shopping outlet Mayfield’s, is in New York to check on the opening of Mayfield’s first branch in the city. While visiting the apartment of her soon-to-be-coworker Betty Quint, the two are alone in the bathroom while Quint showers. Suddenly, Quint screams in pain, and collapses with a dagger in her back and one at her feet. After calling the police, Susan is immediately arrested under suspicion of Quint’s murder, and soon tasked with finding the real killer to clear her name while also aiding police with an ongoing counterfeiting investigation…

The story was better than I expected, but not by a huge margin. Whenever I read an impossible crime story set in the more-or-less modern day, I tend to expect strictly analog solutions that turn on physical mechanisms and artifice, with very little of the cerebral Golden Age trickery that tend to hit home. Fortunately, Hoch managed to touch base with a fair mix of both that was pleasant, even if majorly uninspired. A few neat clues, such as the disappearing double dagger, were fun enough, even if the elements of actual deduction were flimsy at best. However, beyond just not being very inspired, the solution also demands a lot out of Susan’s behavior and takes the term “miracle problem” to a damn near other level with just how much had to go right (or wrong) for the impossibility to come out at all, and the level of originality just didn’t compensate for the unreasonableness. This really tore apart the conciseness, and made what would’ve otherwise been a not-too-very-unique but competent locked room mystery solution a whole lot more dull than it needed to be. A passable locked-room mystery diversion that seamlessly blends contemporary crime fiction and Golden Age puzzling, but which is not going to gobstop anyone with its ingenuity or originality.

The “Judas Window”-type situation with the detective, Susan, being fraudulently framed for the crime also felt somewhat unnecessary, since suspicions towards her are dropped almost immediately on merit of her reputation as a crime-solver. It almost exclusively served as an excuse to get Susan investigating to begin with, and also detracted a lot from the experience with us being assured of what Susan’s movements were in the locked room, which narrows down the possible solutions significantly. A problem probably better served with our narrator not being the suspect.

Not a bad story by any means, but flawed in a lot of ways. It is neither the best nor worst Hoch I’ve read. I reluctantly find the solution somewhat more interesting at its core than “No Killer Has Wings”, and the disappearing dagger was a cool idea that should’ve been given more attention, but the poor presentation of the impossibility and reliance on flimsy chance knock off just enough points to put it below the Porges story, which was wholly better-constructed and a better-realized locked-room puzzle.

“Eternally Yours” by H. Edward Hunsburger is the only known mystery short story from a writer of mystery novels and westerns.

Jeff Winsor has just moved into his new apartment, and is just settling in when he finds himself haunted by postcards addressed to the dead previous tenant of his room, all of which reference modern events that undeniably occurred after the tenant’s death. With some prodding from his girlfriend, who believes the tenant didn’t just slip on his rug and fall to his death, the supernatural-skeptic Winsor seeks out to solve these seemingly impossible events…

Robert Adey called it “quirky and ingenious”, Tomcat from Beneath the Stains of Time calls it one of his favorite mystery short stories ever… Maybe I’m the problem, because I didn’t think this story was all that. It was injected with plenty of charm, the investigation was actually quite fun and populated with a cornucopia of vivid characters, and the core impossibility is harmless and cute. If you read a story like this, and can stop yourself from being in constant anticipation of the resolution and just enjoy the ride, I can 100% see its appeal. A story like this probably won’t appeal to someone like me, though…

In my mind, when a story features an impossible crime, I absolutely do weigh the quality of the impossibility heavily in my overall feelings of the crime. A mystery story that’s otherwise fantastic but fails on constructing an enjoyable impossibility will be disappointing to me — “you could’ve not had this bad locked-room mystery, and this would’ve been a great story without this massive, distracting stain”. Perhaps it’s just because I’m stuck in the mindset of consuming these stories as puzzles first and foremost, the rest of the story second. It may seem reductive to some, and I can’t argue that point, but it’s the factor that has always endeared me more to the Golden Age than to modern crime fiction — it’s the intellectual exercise that emboldens me to keep reading and which has instilled into me the passion for this genre — and I choose to stand by myself here.

“Eternally Yours” is conflicting to me, because I recognize that as a story it is fantastic, and it does make me ashamed of my habit of consuming these stories with minimal concern for the literary merits of the work when I don’t come out of it enjoying it as much as I feel like I should have. As much as it saddens me to say this about what was otherwise a fantastic crime story, the resolution to the impossibility is probably the worst part of the whole affair, and definitely doesn’t help it stay in good standing with me. The locked-room murder is just bad and meager, and obvious from damn near a mile away, and the “ghostly postcard” is yet another one of those “so specific and narrow” impossible situations that spoils the core mechanic of the solution by sheer merit of “it could only really ever be something like this”. And, perhaps this is my fault, but come the denouement I fully understand everything about the correspondence trick except I never got a satisfying explanation for why the postcards ever had to actually totally reach the narrator’s door to begin with, which makes me somewhat dubious of the set-up, but I could blame that on myself and offer this story a re-read in the future…

A fantastic story if you can enjoy the ride, but a sub-par impossible crime in my opinion. Don’t let my somewhat unflattering score put you off of this story. It is probably my most subjective and skewed scoring of the whole anthology.


Alright! Another week and five more stories down. The average quality of this set of five was higher than before. We came close to reaching new highs with “The Impossible Murder of Doctor Satanus”, and didn’t come too close to any lows as low as “Locked in Death”. It was a rocky start with “Murder in Monkeyland”, but it was only ever up from there. I’m not entirely shaken in my stance on the impact of short impossible crimes, but I’m still not deterred from seeing this anthology through to the very end. Without further ado, a comprehensive ranking of the ten stories we’ve covered from The Mammoth Book of Perfect Crimes and Impossible Mysteries

  1. “The X Street Murders” by Joseph Commings – 7.75/10
  2. “The Impossible Murder of Doctor Satanus” by William Krohn – 7.25/10
  3. “No Killer Has Wings” by Arthur Porges – 6.25/10
  4. “A Shower of Daggers” by Edward D. Hoch – 6/10
  5. “Eternally Yours” by H. Edward Hunsburger – 5.75/10
  6. “An Almost Perfect Crime” by William F. Smith – 5/10
  7. “Duel of Shadows” by Vincent Cornier – 4.75/10
  8. “Murder in Monkeyland” by Lois Gresh and Robert Weinberg – 4/10
  9. “Proof of Guilt” by Bill Pronzini – 3.75/10
  10. “Locked in Death” by Mary Reed and Eric Mayer – 2.5/10

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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