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