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