Death of Jezebel (1949) by Christianna Brand

Amazon.com: Death of Jezebel (The Inspector Cockrill Mysteries Book 4)  eBook: Brand, Christianna: Kindle Store

Agatha Christie. Margery Allingham. Dorothy L. Sayers. Ngaio Marsh. These four names have been carved into the annals of crime fiction history as the “Queens of Crime” — the highest of the highest examples set in detective fiction, the grand dames of murder, the gold standard of mysteries for a century to come. These four women were the superpowers in crime writing culture in their time…

But nobody’s ever been satisfied with just four of anything, right? Four is such an awkward number. Three’s much nicer, but… well, it isn’t very nice to say that someone doesn’t deserve their decorated reputation. That isn’t to say I wouldn’t, but I want this to be a positive piece so, instead, I’d like to make a case for a fifth Queen of Crime. A brilliant writer who put to paper three accepted masterpieces and at least three more nearly-comparable efforts in about the same amount of books it took Dame Christie to grow out her training wheels, and one of the unsung heroes of the women of the Golden Age of Detection: Christianna Brand!

Christianna Brand’s literary career started in 1941, when she wrote a murder mystery featuring Inspector Charlesworth, called Death in High Heels. The novel was inspired by her fantasies of how she’d get away with killing bothersome customers and co-workers while she worked as a salesgirl and, evidently, crime writing proved to be a cathartic outlet for her unsavory tendencies as she almost immediately wrote and published Heads You Lose, the first of her longest-running series of novels featuring Inspector Cockrill. She had a steady output of detective fiction featuring primarily Inspector Cockrill for the next two decades, before slowing down but still occasionally publishing the odd crime novel or children’s book well until her death in 1988.

In 1948, she published Death of Jezebel, a locked-room mystery where Cockrill’s career is still recovering from his blunder in Green for Danger, her most famous novel, a 1944 mystery set in a military hospital during wartime bombings. Consequently, he is at odds with a local police inspector, who also just so happens to be Brand’s secondary series sleuth Inspector Charlesworth and who isn’t entirely convinced Cockrill is up to snuff to solve this mystery. Though Death of Jezebel novel is technically a crossover between the two, it’s primarily a Cockrill novel, with Charlesworth ultimately failing to solve the crime before Cockrill.


Her name is Isabel Drew. But her company prefers “Jezebel”. It’s been years since Drew compelled her best friend Perpetua Kirk to engage in drunken adultery with Earl Anderson, even though she had only just recently gotten engaged to her loving fiancé. Cruelly, when the fiancé shows up looking for Perpetua, Drew led him straight to the scene of her infidelity and, horrified, he immediately drives his car into a wall, killing himself.

Since then, his death continues to linger over the company like a nasty miasma. When Drew, Anderson and Kirk, all still together in spite of the horrible events years prior, are set to premier in a historical medieval pageant at the Homes for Heroes Exhibition, with this animosity culminating in each of the trio receiving death threats, promising their demise at the Exhibition. Not willing to sacrifice the pageant, the three bring in Inspector Cockrill to defend them, falsely hoping that the deaths, if any should there be, would occur between shows…

And yet, to the horror of thousands of spectators, in the middle of the pageant, as seven knights ride out onto stage on their horses, Isabel is thrust from the peak of the tower on which she stood, and is found to have been fatally strangled just a few minutes before her fall. On one side of the tower, a door was locked and bolted from the inside, and guarded on the outside by one of the crew… and on the other side of the tower, an open archway exists, in full view of the massive audience, all of whom swear that nobody ever went into it since all of the actors rode out on stage. A seemingly impossible case of strangulation and defenestration, committed inside of an empty tower nobody could’ve ever entered, in front of a reliable crowd of thousands of witnesses.

And so, the game is afoot, with Inspectors Cockrill and Charlesworth on the tail of a dangerous killer armored with unparalleled ingenuity.

Death of Jezebel represents the greatest example of and the logical extreme of Brand’s greatest strength as a puzzle-crafter: her mastery over the dramatic logical reversal. Brand is borderline Machiavellian in her ability to plant ideas and theories into the reader’s brain, convince them they thought of it themselves, shred it to pieces and move on. Brand is a puzzle-crafter who is able to lay down pieces with such a casual frankness that it’s always hard to tell when she’s trying to hide something from you, or if she’s trying to hide the fact she isn’t trying to hide anything at all… False solutions that play on theories the reader will assuredly have at that point in the game, clues that never mean quite what they seem they should… and in the middle of Death of Jezebel, during a long series of false confessions, possibly the single most damnably mischievous and mean-spirited “meta”-misdirection I’ve seen in this genre, period end, which I would love to talk about in a little spoiler-dedicated section at the end of this review, as it aligns somewhat with a complaint many people have with this book….

Oh, and never-you-think that all of this misdirection, cluing, red herring planting, game-playing, manipulating and mind-reading Brand’s engaging in is wasted on a solution that isn’t worth her efforts. Brand demonstrates marked ingenuity and cleverness in her locked-room puzzle, creating a solution that, while somewhat convoluted (is that really a bad thing?), flows brilliantly and organically from the information we’ve been given, and which could truly only work in this set-up. The solution is devilishly macabre and novel, and beyond daring and clever, and hits like a bolt of lightning when it’s revealed.

As a puzzle mystery, locked-room or otherwise (but especially for locked-room mysteries), Death of Jezebel has become the gold standard for me. It’s become an example I try to follow in my own impossible crime writing in cluing, misdirecting, and solving, and the example against which I measure nearly every locked-room mystery novel I read. It’s impossible to describe just how formative this novel has been in guiding my experience with reading and writing puzzle mysteries for years since I’ve read it. I’ve read mystery novels that surprised; this one took it a step further and inspired.

And hark, O Ye Socialites of the genre, for no Brand is ever just a simple, cozy, humdrum puzzle plot. As with any of her mystery novels you can select at random, the characters in Death of Jezebel are described and developed with a surprising amount of that ever-elusive third-dimension, and a persistent charm. Even the bleak, more toxic cast of Death of Jezebel sticks out to my mind years after I first read the book, and the clarity and complexity in which their flaws are drawn gives them a sort of bizarre negative charm; Perpetua Kirk is one of my favorite suspects in a mystery novel ever. And mind you, I’ve never been one much to get too caught up in the literary merits of a Golden Age mystery — puzzle first, and all that — but Brand’s skill at eliciting immediate familiarity with her core players is still worth mentioning, even for someone like me who usually doesn’t care.

The novel pips along chipperly in a marked contrast to its somewhat un-cozy, darker narrative, and manages to be reliably playful when it knows it ought to be. And yet, there’s also its own fair share of grittiness and frankness that you rarely see from this genre, in this period of time. As with her puzzles, Brand’s stylization is, put simply, daring. I also consider Death of Jezebel one of her better-paced mysteries. Many of her other novels take too long setting the stage, and the interpersonal dramas, before getting to the murders, but the more concise, elegant dynamics between the central trio in Death of Jezebel let Brand get to the mystery quickly without necessarily sacrificing the human element that she’s always handled so well.

I’m sure you can tell, given I’ve had not a single negative word to say about this novel from beginning to end, but I absolutely adore Death of Jezebel. I can say with no reservations, no doubt, and no trepidation that this is my favorite locked-room mystery ever written, my favorite puzzle plot ever conceived, my favorite piece of misdirection, and my favorite mystery novel ever written, period, and has been wildly influential to me as a reader and writer of puzzle plots and impossible crimes. It is, in my opinion, the greatest effort by one of the greatest practitioners of the Golden Age mystery, who should be better known than she is. Book-for-book, Brand would make Agatha Christie sweat if the two decided to compete. No complaints, no negativity. Death of Jezebel is a masterpiece, and anyone and everyone with half an iota of interest in anything crime fiction could do much worse than to pick it up for themselves, and then read four more Brands immediately after…

All rise for the newest Queen of Crime.

*** SPOILERS ***

One of the most frequent complaints I see levied against Death of Jezebel is the false solutions being annoying and not credible. In any other mystery novel, I’d accept that a pointless series of false confessions is annoying and detracts from the work, but in Jezebel I feel as if the greatest piece of misdirection in the novel would be lost without them.

Many locked-room mysteries make the mistake of tipping their hand by not letting the reader get to intimately investigate key pieces of information that highlight the vulnerabilities in the set-up. In pure spite of that, Brand boldly reveals the most important half of the solution in the middle of the book. Christianna Brand reveals the actual solution in the middle of a long series of fake solutions, at a point in the novel when it’d be unthinkable for the writer to reveal the real solution, and so she never has to actually prove it wrong. We’ve already subconsciously accepted that there’s no way this is going to be a real answer, presented in the middle of five other fake confessions, in the middle of the book. When the detective gives some flimsy excuse proving this solution wrong… we just sorta go “okay, that’s fair” and immediately X out that line of reasoning from our brain. The book tricks us into taking the CORRECT answer when it’s presented to us, distrusting it, and immediately throwing it out and just deciding to never think about it again for the rest of the book without any great deal of logical effort from her part. This is absolutely brilliant, even if S. S. Van Dine wouldn’t necessarily approve, and I could not imagine this book without this fantastic piece of false-solution-based misdirection.

The Fourth Door (1987) by Paul Halter (transl. John Pugmire 1999)

Humor me for a moment, while I tell you a riddle that has nothing to do with the coming review.

A man is found, hanged to death, inside of a barn. There are no chairs, tables or any other sorts of furniture for the man to have kicked himself off of. He’s too high off the ground to have hung himself, and yet the barn was locked from the inside, precluding from the possibilities murder of any sort. So, how did the man die?

Well, we’ve all heard the riddle before. The solution is, naturally, that the man stood on top of a sheep, or a goat and jumped off to hang himself and the poor complicit animal simply walked off to another part of the barn, away from the body.

Notice how you practically have all the information you need right there in that paragraph. To figure it out demanded no strenuous detection or investigation — just a creative reconstruction of the information as it’s observed from the first pass. One could even argue there’s any other number of possible solutions besides the intended one… Such is the nature of the lateral thinking problem. Fun, short bursts of creative, semi-misleading problems. One can only wonder how such an exercise would fare if stretched well out over a full novel…


The Fourth Door (originally published in French as La quatrième porte) is the apprentice novel by Paul Halter, who people would have you believe is the second coming of The King of Locked-Room Mysteries John Dickson Carr himself, the Da Vinci of sealed rooms and how to commit murder inside of them. Incidentally, the second post on this blog is a review of Halter’s second novel, Death Invites You, which I felt had a dreadfully uninspired resolution and cheap misdirection, and I’m only motivated to read more Halter on merit of some delightfully clever clues…

The Darnley home has become something of a local legend in this quaint Oxford-adjacent village, ever since the night when Mrs. Darnley apparently took her life in the loft of the house. John Darnley and his father Victor quarrel violently at every opportunity as the latter’s mental health worsens by the day. Out of work, he rents the home out to tenants who stay no more than a few weeks before leaving, complaining of hearing footsteps from the attic and seeing ghosts! When the Latimers, two apparently spirit-loving occultists, move in, it seems like a match made in heaven… and their bond only bolsters, when Alice Latimer, in an apparent fit of hysterics, is able to precognitively read a letter written to the dead woman and wax-sealed in an envelope, and give an answer from beyond the grave…

Three years after the seance, the Latimers are continuing to do professional spirit-speaking services, when they suddenly declare that they’ll attempt to summon the spirit of the dead woman, matrialize her, and give her agency to communicate with her husband. Patrick Latimer will be in the so-called “haunted room”, which will be marked with wax seals pressed with a unique coin to rule-out any sort of foul play, and left there to communicate with the spirit. But when the spectators return to find the seal unbroken but no answer from within, the door is opened to the sight of a dead body — and it’s not Patrick Latimer! An impossible murder in a sealed room… has Mrs. Darnley returned from the grave to exact revenge on her killers?

Scattered throughout the novel are a ton of little “minor” impossibilities, including the same person being spotted in two different places at the same time, impossible footsteps heard inside of an empty room that was decidedly impossible to escape from, a young boy having a clairvoyant dream of his mother’s death, and a final murder committed in an empty house surrounded by unmarked snow. All the while, our skeptical and even-headed narrator, James Sevens is at odds with Scotland Yard Inspector Drew, with mundane but reasonable-sounding solutions being established, discarded and revisited over the course of the narrative…

The plot is over-stuffed in a lot of ways with strange going-ons and decidedly impossible crimes, but I’ll maintain early on that this novel is for a certain mind. For those who revel in simply the presentation of a mystical scenario, seemingly supernatural, and the subsequent setting-in of reality in a rational explanation — those who take the impossibilities as reading material first, and problems to solve second — this is a cornucopia of varied ideas and a plot that feels closer to a feverish horror novel than a story of detection. If you’re absolutely here for the puzzle, and ingenious conceits behind the crimes, you’re going to be disappointed, and I can’t say I wasn’t.

Recalling the beginning of this review, few of the impossible crimes were given special consideration beyond the first pass. You got the information, the information was refined and refined but rarely if ever significantly changed, and the book moved on to its next plot point. The Fourth Door in many ways presents itself as a horror novel with incidentally human agency behind the events, with the horrific events handled like the lateral thinking problem above where it’s a simple matter of being imaginative enough to see what the writer believes is “the sole possible explanation”. You’ll find few clues that either point towards the proper solution, or point away from equally applicable wrong solutions. Absolutely, this novel is not a tale of deduction, detection or ratiocination. Now, there’s something of a meta-textual “turnabout” in the structure of the novel towards the end that, I suppose, in many ways serves as both a framing device and an apology for this plotting style, but I honestly wasn’t impressed — the novel could have been left entirely in-tact without this “turning inside out” the plot, and it wasn’t a necessary point to sacrifice the plotting for in my opinion.

Come the denouement, many of the impossible happenings are explained away with a textual shrugging-off of an earlier piece of information that falsely disproved an inordinately mundane and disappointing theory held by the narrator. I also take umbrage with the book’s insistence that from context these are “the only possible explanations”, another unfortunate result of the book’s plotting not being entirely favored by it’s “turning inside out” of the story. When we finally get to the wax-sealed-room trick, I’m actually delightfully surprised to find a hugely unique and clever resolution to the problem, but by this point I’m so exhausted with the denouement that I couldn’t muster the energy to be excited or invested in it. Immediately following it, we’re treated to a second denouement to the wildly predictable footprints in the sand mystery.

As a puzzle-lover, I am wildly dissatisfied with The Fourth Door. There is a clear energy and flourish for the macabre and unexplainable here that is very admirable for Halter’s freshman effort, but the novel wants to throw near half a dozen impossibilities at you with no special consideration for them outside of the treatment you’d give a lateral thinking puzzle. All of them but one are resolved sloppily and boringly, and even the one that was incredibly well-realized had its effect dulled by being sandwiched between two full denouement chapters that simply weren’t worth it. The pre-resolution twist is a clever enough conceit from a storytelling perspective that does serve to recontextualize the book’s odd nature, but doesn’t begin to make me enjoy what were otherwise dull and loose impossible crimes. The seal-waxed-door is another seed of hope that later Halter’s later endeavors properly showcase the efforts of the reincarnation of Carr, but The Fourth Door is a second fizzle for me…

The Policeman’s Evidence (1938) by Rupert Penny

I don’t think it’s any exaggeration to say that if Ramble House has fans, J.J. of The Invisible Event is one of them. If Ramble House has no fans, J.J. is dead. Between his emphatic praise of the works of Rupert Penny and the works of Norman Berrow, and the fact that both authors appeared in his top 15 impossible crime novels, it’s hard to imagine that anyone else in the mystery blogosphere is as excited about the Ramble House reprints as J.J.. And the excitement is as infectious as smallpox! About half a year ago I read and positively reviewed The Footprints of Satan by Norman Berrow, and now I’ve finally made my way to J.J.’s other Bramble House locked-room favorite The Policeman’s Evidence.

Ernest Basil Charles Thornett is an English “crossword expert” who, under the pseudonym “Rupert Penny”, wrote a series of detective novels featuring Scotland Yard Chief Inspector Beale and narrated by his watsonian pal Anthony Purdon, starting with the 1936 The Talkative Policeman and ending with Sealed Room Murder in 1941. The Policeman’s Evidence is his fifth novel to focus on Chief Inspector Beale.

Major Adair, a skilled cryptographer from the Great War, catches wind of a document from a miserly, hunchbacked former tenant of a now-decrepit manor that somewhere on the premises a great treasure is hidden. The ever ambitious Major assembles a crack team of hired-guns, daughters, employees, friends, enemies and randoms to help him scour the home for any sign of the treasure or more hints to its whereabouts, which leads him to a seemingly insurmountable riddle in an old shorthand code and a valuable ruby. He recluses himself in his study to tackle the riddle… and just as he is on the cusp on uncovering the meaning behind the message, the ruby is stolen and Adair apparently destroys all of his work and shoots himself inside of his study. Of course it had to be suicide! After all, how could Major Adair have been murdered in his study with double-treble-bolted, locked door, and shuttered and latched window? Only Inspector Beale isn’t convinced, and sets about making an unofficial case of the death…

The Policeman’s Evidence is a shockingly intricate enterprise, touched up with delightfully pulpy self-awareness that never did become too much, and hugely readable prose that keeps the book drifting along nicely even during its slowest moments. More than anything, The Policeman’s Evidence is fun to read — and it’s clear as day Penny had fun writing it, too. The detective in particular is a bit of a character, and a delightful departure from the typical “humored and bemused but impersonal saint” supersleuth we’re used to, with Beale having no reservations being honest with his sometimes not-totally-polite opinions on the members of the household.

This novel is a puzzle plot, purely and simply, and it’s been a long while since I’ve had the delight of reading a crime puzzle that’s such a delicate tapestry of clues woven with this level deftness and dexterity. Part of me was a bit skeptical about this near the end of the book. The murder doesn’t take place until pretty much the exact, perfect midpoint of the narration, and there are some points where it felt like they were trying to get a book’s length of investigation into half that page real estate, and some (admittedly unimportant) information was handled pretty inelegantly. However, come the denouement, I was shocked to find out how many seemingly mundane and innocuous interactions from upwards of damn near 80 pages before the murder occurred were actually integral to piecing the whole picture together, and some of them are so insanely clever that it’s hard not to be in awe at Penny’s ingenuity.

The locked-room itself is, and this will make the most sense after reading the novel, better than it had any right to be. The physical artifice of how the locked-room was executed is nothing to write home about, being an ages-old cliche that even in 1938 people were likely just a bit tired of. However, The Policeman’s Evidence is probably the purest piece of proof of the idea that as much as we may seek out totally new, entirely innovative answers to the question of “how can murder be committed inside of a locked room?”, sometimes that’s not possible, and an otherwise mundane solution can still strike like a bolt of lightning when the misdirection backing it is so salient, deft and powerful! Sure, the room is so “over-looked” that it’s hard to not guess at part of the core of the solution, but to fill in all of the necessary blanks, dot your i’s and cross your t’s is another thing all together, and this book does a good job at keeping you on your toes nonetheless.

Unfortunately, the novel isn’t quite the masterstroke I’d love for it to be. For starters, I can think of a dozen ways that the solution to the encrypted riddle could’ve played a more intimate part in the mystery than it did, and yet it… didn’t. Aside from playing the twin role of MacGuffin/trap-for-the-killer, the solution to the riddle was unceremoniously wrapped up in a two-page appendix slap-dab at the end of the novel, after the narration proper had already ended. It only served to give the reader an extra “for your consideration” puzzle, and almost never mentioned in remarkable detail for the remainder of the novel. It felt like a criminally underutilized plotpoint, for something that dominated basically the entire first half of the book leading up to the murder.

Furthermore, some events which led the detective to the solution felt like they happened solely to lead the detective to the solution. More than in almost any other Golden Age puzzler, there were times that I could feel the detective got wildly lucky in this unrelated person making this specific decision, or this unrelated person making this specific observation. Perhaps that’s true in nearly every crime novel of this sort, but there’s one or two specific examples here that feel especially egregious. They weren’t mistakes that occurred organically in the throes of committing the crime, or covering it up, but just things that happened independently of the criminal committing the crime that just so happened to establish necessary evidence for the feature sleuth. This isn’t a deal-breaker, so to speak, but I do feel as if there could’ve been better ways to establish the same information without the overwhelming chance.

All-in-all, The Policeman’s Evidence is another successful reprint from Ramble House, and another successful recommendation from J.J. to me. A salient, complex puzzle that wastes a few plot threads and ends up tripping itself up in some small parts of its long list of fantastic and ingenious clues. Just like with The Footprints of Satan, I’m not 100% convinced I’m going to run off and name this a favorite just yet, though I will say I’m much more in favor of this one than the former. Some part of me feels like despite my disposition towards impossible crimes, Penny is a writer who would thrive outside of the locked-room mystery format. I’ve got The Lucky Policeman laying at my bedside ready to vindicate me or embarrass me in that stance…

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

Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney (2001) – GameBoy Advance (JP), Nintendo DS, Nintendo Wii, Nintendo 3DS, Nintendo Switch, Android, iOS, PC, PlayStation 4, XBOX One

Ace Attorney Hub | Games | Nintendo

Like I mentioned in my Paradise Killer review, I am equally as in love with video games as I am mystery fiction. So, naturally, I’m always looking out for those which combine my two loves: mystery video games! Unfortunately, very few games seek out to take the spirit of the Golden Age and encapsulate it faithfully in video games (and even less succeed…). If I were to hedge my bets, however, for the country to have the most consistently successful efforts it would be without a doubt the nation of Japan. The Golden Age is just a distant memory for us, but in Japan it’s one of the competing modern standards for how to write crime fiction! It’s in their literature, it’s on their television, in their anime, and their comic books. And, naturally, it is just as well in their video games. What would be a better jumping-off point for members of the Golden Age Detection community than the perennial favorite Japanese mystery video game?

Ace Attorney originally released only in Japan back in 2001 onto the Nintendo GameBoy Advance system as Gyakuten Saiban (逆転裁判). The franchise got two sequels, Justice for All and Trials and Tribulations, both of which never left Japan until four years later when the original trilogy saw its American release on the Nintendo DS handheld system. Three more sequels, two Sherlock Holmes crossovers, a crossover with the series’ Sherlockian mystery co-star Professor Layton, two spin-offs featuring a major antagonist of the franchise, a full anime adaptation, and a few novellas later, the series seems to have been finally laid to rest. However, with remakes for modern-day consoles and a data leak suggesting a new game is right around the corner, it’s never been a better time for fans of the Golden Age mystery to get into Ace Attorney.

In Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney, players take the role of a novice defense attorney whose clients have all been falsely accused of murder. In order to prove their innocence, you’ll navigate Phoenix Wright through crime scenes, investigating clues and shaking down witnesses. You then take to court, where you use your evidence to spot lies in witness testimony that slowly unfurl until you not only prove your client’s innocence… you also find the real killer in the process!

The game is split into five episodes, almost all of which feature three investigation segments and three trial segments that are played intermittently. Investigations are presented in a traditional point-n-click interface, where the player talks with witnesses, asks them about clues and finds evidence at the crime scene. After any given investigation, the player goes to trial, where the prosecutor will summon witnesses to share what they saw on the day of the crime. During these testimonies, witnesses are all hell-bent on seeing your client put behind bars, and they will lie or stand by their mistakes as fact! In order to combat this, the player has to find statements that contradict the facts of the case as you know them, and present evidence to expose the lies! The player will then be asked a series of questions where they have to explain what the contradiction means, and why the mistake was made. Eventually, by swapping between investigating clues, finding contradictions and explaining your reasoning, you’ll find the real killer and prove your client innocent!

Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney Part #11 - Case 2 - Turnabout Sisters - Trial  (Day 2) - Part 3
A typical question as it’s presented to the player in Ace Attorney

The insightful reader will probably notice that no less than half of the sentences in the previous paragraph ended with an exclamation point, which I think is possibly the best way to sum up the energy of Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney. What’s important to consider is that Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney is a mystery game for teenagers, with an anime aesthetic, so naturally the series does not turn on calm, gentlemanly debates in a cozy English parlor. All of the debates are framed in the most melodramatic, almost warlike way the writers could manage. The series’s trademark is for the characters to shout out “OBJECTION!” whenever they disagree with something the other side says. Along with this, characters will go on long monologues about why the other side is so pathetic in their attempts to worm their way to victory, and there are frequent, but admittedly witty, jabs and pop-culture references thrown every which way. The legal battles are portrayed like genuine battles between good and evil! The series is comical in a way that doesn’t quite veer into parody, able to avoid being self-serious and have fun while still writing dialogue that can resonate with you emotionally and engaging in genuine storytelling.

Ace Attorney unabashedly taking liberties in its presentation of our world, the legal system, and criminal investigation, is something that heavily inspires the way the series approaches GAD-adjacent mysteries. The world is presented as ours in almost nothing but name; the idea takes priority over the authenticity, and in a way that’s strangely refreshing. Anachronistic technology, such as flip-phones well into the years smartphones existed and weirdly archaic security systems, and absurd laws, like cased needing to be solved within three days of their first time, are just some of the ways Ace Attorney’s franchise builds tension and creates mysteries in a way no “authentic to reality” mystery would ever get away with.

A “teaser” at the beginning of one of the final cases, foreshadowing the “victim died in two places at the exact same time” impossible crime

Furthermore, as always something I deeply admire about Japanese GAD-like mystery writing is that even when, aesthetically, the series is clearly dramatized for the sake of a younger audience, the mysteries still stand on their own as genuine, mature puzzle plots without falling into the hyper-simplification trap some western teen mysteries fall victim to. The same level of cluing, and misdirection, and hyper-convoluted killer plots will be found in Ace Attorney as you’d find in any good GAD or honkaku novel. Though, perhaps well out of the scale of this review, I will note that this is the first of a dozen game franchise, and as such the formula is not as refined as it would later go on to be. Nearly every case but one is presented in some form of the locked room mystery of the “Judas Window” variety, where your client is the only person to be in a perfectly sealed environment with the victim, including in a boat in the middle of an ocean, an elevator during a power outage, and the only person on the other side of a “security gate”. The game openly acknowledges that all of these cases use a remarkably similar idea in their solutions, and the knowledgeable mystery reader will probably clue into the tricks very quickly, and this is definitely a bit less of a problem in later games. However, I would not say that this is, strictly speaking, a fault of this game. What makes Ace Attorney still engaging is that the player, more than almost any other mystery-style game, is actively involved in the solving of the case. The “contradictions” — the lies that lead Phoenix to the solution — are all still super clever, and sometimes can still even surprise the reader who spotted the solution ages ago. The game very personally involves the player with the moment-to-moment lines of reasoning, and unlike many other games, it fills in as few dots as humanly possible for the player, which forces even the “ahead of the game” player to remain keen and vigilant. In this way, Ace Attorney almost perfectly walks the line between a “whodunit” and a “howcatchem”, where the game’s hyper-fixation on the reasoning at every point in time during a case can leave the player just as engaged in finding out how Phoenix nails the killer, whether or not the player already clued into the solution.

Ace Attorney is a bit of a hard sell, I feel. It is… decidedly GAD-adjacent, especially in the way that the series approaches misdirection and almost unrealistically convoluted crimes. However, it is a video game on predominantly children’s consoles, in an anime aesthetic, with a majorly comical, teeny-bop presentation. While the mysteries themselves are maturely conceived and presented, the game itself is probably a bit much on the energetic and cartoonish side for many older fans of Golden Age mysteries who don’t have as much tolerance for the anime melodrama and unnecessarily loud debates. Ace Attorney is, admittedly, the franchise that originally convinced me to head down the Golden Age puzzle plot rabbit hole, and at first I was a bit put-off by how much I had to adjust to a different level of energy when I began to explore books from nearly a century ago, and I imagine the same kind of adjustment would have to be done going the other way. What I can promise, though, is that anyone who thinks the style of the game is pleasant or, at worst, tolerable will find here a nugget of unmissable golden Japanese crime writing, and the franchise only goes on to get better and more polished with later iterations.

Paradise Killer (2020) – Nintendo Switch, Microsoft Windows

Paradise Killer Cover Art.jpg

Someone who reads novels but also enjoys video games? Aghast! Shock! Horror! Perhaps blasphemy? Unfortunately, no, I do not dedicate every waking moment of my life to the pursuit of literary ascension. Despite what seems to be a somewhat prevalent idea that video games and television as entertainment are entirely antithetical to one another, I actually consider video games my twin passion to detective stories. Sometimes I’ll burn out on playing a heathenous amount of whatever indie game of the week has captured my attention and my heart and I’ll need an escape to the puzzling tale of a locked room murder, and when I’ve got a couple of those under my belt I’ll probably spend another unnatural amount of time on some OTHER indie darling. Rinse, repeat, you understand the drill.

Well, some people out there noticed the obvious benefits to taking the metaphorical game of the Golden Age detective novel and adapting that into a literal, honest-to-God game. It started with board games like Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective, but it eventually found its way to the video game sphere. Japan, in particular, has had a field day with this concept, spawning two wildly successful honkaku-styled video game franchises in Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney and Danganronpa. This year, however, the birth-place of the Golden Age, England, saw fit to try their hand at a mystery video game called “Paradise Killer”.

And it’s exactly the opposite of what you think it is.

Paradise Killer takes place on the 24th iteration of Paradise, an island sitting on the fringes of conventional reality, where humans simultaneously take refuge from and offering tireless worship to alien gods that granted humanity civilization and technology. Whenever some sorry soul lets these gods, or demons, into the heart of Paradise, the citizens of the island are slaughtered, and the high-ranking elites are ushered away to another reality where the “Architect” tries again to create a perfect world. Only, this time, things go awry, when on the very night the island is to be reset, the oligarchical world leaders are all murdered behind multiple, seemingly impossible-to-penetrate “Holy Seals” (puzzles) that only the victims know how to pass through. The man responsible for the fall of the island after his demonic possession years prior is soon to be executed after he escapes from his prison, and is soon found outside of the crime scene with a cocktail of the victims’ blood inside of his stomach. The impartial faces of criminal law, Justice, believes there’s more than meets the eye in this case and summons Lady Love Dies (the most normal of the names you’ll find in this game, probably), also known as the Investigation Freak and currently in a 3,000,000 day long banishment from Paradise for inviting a dangerous god into Paradise many iterations ago, to solve this bizarre murder.

And it is from here the player takes control of Lady Love Dies, running around the island of Paradise and investigating suspects and gathering evidence. As the player collects information, clues are automatically organized under files associated with the characters they implicate as well as the individual smaller mysteries that make up the crime, such as who is really responsible for the demonic possession years ago? Who is responsible for the suspect’s escape from prison? Who killed the Council? Whenever the player is satisfied they have a case, they return to Justice whereupon they can start the trial. During the trial, the player walks through every individual sub-crime, name a culprit and back up their accusations with the evidence they have on file

“Paradise Killer” is a weird hotpot of conflicting ideas, with its freedom of investigation undercut by the automation of evidence sorting. The game is angled as a deconstruction of the notion of “Truth” versus “Reality” in the classical detective story, whereby the detective isn’t presenting an absolute, infallible argument but simply their interpretation of the most likely scenario. This is handled by allowing the player to “Build-a-Murder” their own “Truth” by mixing and matching different interpretations of the different sub-crimes into different permutations of plot, so that, while there is a single canon solution, multiple other solutions can become the “Truth”. However, because every piece of evidence is automatically sorted into files for the characters they implicate, and so few characters (three or, usually, less) ever have any clues associated with them for any given crime, it isn’t as free as you’d think, with all evidence interpreted for you by the game. While you can accuse any character with evidence you like, the game also lays an overwhelming amount of evidence on the “canon” culprit of any crime that, if you investigated at all, you’d have to mess up on purpose to not get the proper ending.

The solution itself is suitably complex in its order of events and alibis and the actual goings-on, but as far as trickery goes there is nil. There will be almost no surprises to anyone remotely familiar with the genre, and the evidence almost invariably has a single viable interpretation that the game itself feeds to you. The locked room mystery, despite being a huge part of the set-up and even mentioned as, specifically, a “locked room mystery” is also nothing special and such a minimal part of the actual experience that I had to reconsider whether I wanted to give this post the “impossible crime” tag to begin with.

As for the investigation itself, the open-ended nature of it is super fun… at first. At first there’s a wealth of information and evidence and clues just lying around, so there’s constant feedback. The player has the freedom to direct the investigation however they please, follow whichever leads they think is most important or most interesting at any given time, and get whatever answers they feel they need. However, as the information becomes sparse, often as it will in a real investigation, you end up just beating your head against the wall. Some clues are hidden in totally out-of-the-way places, but because the world is so overlarge and empty, you have almost little reason to explore every little corner of it. And worse yet, it’s almost impossible to know where you have and haven’t already investigated, so that all of the little clues can go missed even after passing through the same area at least a dozen times. Perhaps the greatest fault of the format is that the investigation also plays into the world-building and lore, so that even though the narrator has this information ready it is still up to the player to figure it out, leaving the early hours of the game needlessly confusing and disorienting, especially with how damned odd the writing is.

The aesthetic can be described as something like vaporwave satanism meets Austin Powers. The funky, jazzy presentation of the world, and characters, helps keep long segments of dialogue fresh and interesting. However, the setting is just so weird, to the point that I shudder to think how many people may be put off by it. It’s surreal and bizarre and a weird mix of theology and cyberpunk, modernity and the 70s-80s, that at least a few purists will be put off by that alone. The game also can be crass a times, and while it isn’t gratuitous and simply a natural, well-handled part of the aesthetic, some people may not be comfortable with the frankness with which the game handles topics of sex, drugs, religion and government. It’s hard to consider it very conducive with the Golden Age sort of mystery it’s going for, and it ends up walking the line between GAD and neofuturistic neo-noir more than I’d like.

“Paradise Killer” admirably set out to combine open-ended investigation with a bizarre fantastical world, and in places it absolutely succeeded. Anyone who had a power fantasy of leading their own investigation, and getting frustrated with the detectives for not following the obvious leads in a classical crime novel will find a good few hours of fun here. However, the open-endedness also lends itself to a lot of tedium and thickness in storytelling that detract a lot from the overall experience. The plotting also suffers from the fact that you’re only ever presenting one of a few potential solutions at any given time, making tricks minimal, evidence simple and resolutions straightforward. The good news, however, is that you can essentially end the game at any point you’re bored and feel like you’ve got enough to nail any suspect with the crime, which can save you from the game’s longer, less fun stretches.

The nonlinearity didn’t serve to make the game more fun than the typical mystery game, and to my friends who love a good mystery I have multiple other video games I’d sooner recommend to them than this. Only check out Paradise Killer if you have $20 to spare and a hankering for something more experimental. Otherwise, give it a pass.

The Footprints of Satan (1950) by Norman Berrow

The Footprints of Satan: Berrow, Norman: 9781605431949: Amazon.com: Books

It is a sick joke history loves to play, and it’s a joke that every lover of the Golden Age crime novel has to find it in himself to laugh at every now and again. It’s hardly funny — and in fact quite frustrating — how the spirit of literature can find it in itself to sleep at night when it’s constantly bullying skilled authors into obscurity; and, having recently read The Footprints of Satan by Norman Berrow, I can add to the list yet another victim of Father Time’s mischief, and another Golden Age specialist of impossible crimes, that if the world were fair I’d have known about well before the damned year of 2020. It’s only thanks to Jim Noy of The Invisible Event fame gushing over The Footprints of Satan, and again gushing over The Footprints of Satan, and definitely a few more times gushing over The Footprints of Satan in the Facebook group “Golden Age Detection” that I took notice, and boy am I glad I did! Jim has yet to steer me wrong.

The Footprints of Satan is the fifth and final mystery elucidated by one of Berrow’s three series detectives, Detective-Inspector Lancelot Carolus Smith. Gregory Cushing is a grieving bachelor who, in the emotional throes off divorce, seeks out a home in the quiet mountainous rurals of Winchingham with his uncle Jack Popplewell. Though shocked to find that his eccentric uncle is more than just a little odd, but in fact a serial drunkard haunted by the spirit of a woman hanged in Winchingham generations ago known only as “The Blue Woman”, Popplewell’s antics prove to be far from the most pressing thing interrupting his vacation. A skeevy, (impliciately) womanizing businessman commits suicide at the very tree where The Blue Woman herself was hung. And, to make matters worse, it happens at the end of a mile long track of bipedal goat-prints that inexplicably and impossibly both begin and end in the middle of a vast expanse of virgin, untrodden snow, and which, to top it all off, makes impossible trips through sold walls and walking on top of weak hedges that “couldn’t hold a baby kitten”. The bizarre mystery has the religious, superstitious and metaphysically scientific minds all wondering if the devil came to England, just as he did 95 years prior….

The locked room mystery, and the “puzzle-oriented” school of mystery writing in general, has a pretty rough mission statement. Making a puzzling crime that is simultaneously complex but also digestible, and at the same time simultaneously a good faith effort to be “fairplay”, but clever enough that the audience feels accomplished if they solve it, and satisfied in the odd chance that they “lose”. It’s a weird balancing act that even some of the best and most accomplished Golden Age detective novels entirely pull off; I would go so far as to say, however, that The Footprints of Satan is in this regards a smashing success.

The introduction of the impossible footprints is followed by a roughly 20-30 page description of the villagers following it through to the foot of the very tree from which the victim hung. I can proudly say that at the conclusion of this description, I was able to figure out the solution down to fingering the culprit. However, I wasn’t in the slightest put off by the novel because of this; on the contrary, the solution was clever in all of the ways where I felt like a sleuth myself for sniffing it out so quickly.

The solution reminded me immensely of my experience with The 8 Mansion Murders that I talked on length about in the group; the core artifice — the mechanical method through which the impossibility was accomplished — is over-obvious merely because of the nature of the crime itself, and that’s the ONLY reason why the solution on the whole is easy to figure out. Both novels use a fairly over-played method in their respective impossible crimes, but both feature a strong misdirection that immediately makes the over-played method seem impossible. Both do a good job of making you doubt your knee-jerk reaction to the set-up of the mystery, and it’s only when you stubbornly stick to your original idea that you can solve the crime with some light guesswork. However, where The Footprints of Satan finds itself as a superior work of impossible crime writing is in the nature of the misdirection itself; The 8 Mansion Murders had a brilliant misdirection, but it was a trick that occurred secondarily to the locked room solution itself, where the actual method of committing the crime is still bogstandard and uninteresting. The Footprints of Satan instead builds its entire solution around a trick that itself makes the core artifice seem impossible, an application of a played-out concept that is brilliant and novel and inexorably integrated with the misdirection itself so that the whole affair feels more concise, cohesive and inspired.

You’ll probably notice that I’m focusing entirely on the core impossibility, and that’s because as far as the reading goes I found it a bit hard-going in places. A particular character has an oppressive and overbearing presence that only serves to mildly confuse the detectives, annoy the reader and extend the book by 30 pages. While she introduces interesting concepts of metaphysics, it quickly feels like she starts to retread the same ground time and time again. And quite a bit too much of the book feels like the detective simply forgetting that his job is to explain how a human committed the crime, and humoring the superstitions of the old woman. I can’t quite shake the feeling the book would’ve been more satisfying as a concise novella without the presence of Miss Forbes…

Nonetheless, while it drags a bit in places (especially around the half-way mark), the book is still readable enough to not detract from the experience. The puzzle is well-clued (perhaps too well-clued), interesting and inspired, the characters are generally endearing, and the plotting is superb. It’s been a hot minute since I’ve been thoroughly satisfied by a “footprints in the snow/sand” impossible crime, so that may make me a bit biased towards The Footprints of Satan, but for the time being I’ll name this my standard to beat in that particular sub-sub-genre. Thoroughly enjoyable impossible crime, though it doesn’t come clouse to ousting my all-time favorite, The Death of Jezebel. Highly recommended to literally anybody with any amount of interest in the form. And now if you’ll excuse me, I’ll have to make a few impulsive purchases of Berrow’s books from Amazon.


P.S. – I know it’s been a while since I’ve uploaded. Holidays, family, returning to university and general life-being-life-ness has caused me to go into an impromptu New Years hiatus. This post marks my return to a regular upload schedule starting this Sunday. Look forward to a review of the mystery video game, “Paradise Killer”, and of more Berrow novels to come!

Bloodhounds (1996) by Peter Lovesey

J.M.W.T.
Surrounded by security.
Victoria, you challenge me,
I shall shortly come to thee.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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