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 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.
- “The X Street Murders” by Joseph Commings – 7.75/10
- “The Impossible Murder of Doctor Satanus” by William Krohn – 7.25/10
- “Slaughterhouse” by Barry Longyear – 6.75/10
- “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
- “Death and the Rope Trick” by John Bayse Price – 5.25/10
- “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
- “Three Blind Mice” by Laird Long – 2.75/10
- “Locked in Death” by Mary Reed and Eric Mayer – 2.5/10
- “The Hook” by Robert Randisi – 1.50 / 10