Roger Ormerod’s retro-classical mystery novels have received repeated mention on this blog for their seamless splicing of the DNA of classical Golden Age-styled puzzle plots and the grit-and-grime of contemporary police thrillers. Time to Kill, Roger Ormerod’s debut featuring his first series sleuth private eye David Mallin, was an entry on my first list of my 15 favorite impossible crimes for its inspired spin on the “impossible alibi” problem, a post on which also earning a mention of the novel. A later novel in the same series, the more straightforwardly classical locked-room mystery More Dead Than Alive, was also fantastic. This novel, The Key to the Case is therefore the third novel of Ormerod’s to be covered — this one however, instead of David Mallin, features Roger Ormerod’s crime-solving husband-and-wife duo of retired police detective inspector Richard Patton and his wife Amelia, being the ninth book in the series about their exploits.
After solving “the affair of the clocks” (likely a reference to an earlier novel), Richard Patton finds himself spending most of his post-retirement life dealing with miscellaneous personal affairs like hunting for missing pets or handling property disputes. Following in this trend is Ronnie, an ex-convict and purportedly reformed petty burglar known to Richard, who claims to be innocent of an aggravated burglary that, unfortunately, the police want to pin on him. He begs Richard for an alibi, but he’s disinterested in the contract.
Unfortunately, later, a friend of Amelia’s introduces Richard to another purportedly reformed crook named Milo who also needs help from Richard. Milo’s son, Bryan, has just killed himself — or so the police claim. After all, Bryan was murdered inside of a locked-sealed-and-bolted house with all of the locks, seals, and bolts shot from the inside. Milo on the other hand believes that Bryan was murdered, and he needs Richard to figure out how. Although Richard claims to not be interested in this contract either, it slowly nags at him to investigate both problems.
In soon comes to Richard’s attention that Bryan had a lot of people out to get him — he is in actuality a serial rapist, responsible for the assaults of three women and having served and been released from prison. Only a month after his release, a fourth women is sexually assaulted and subsequently murdered in the same place he committed the other attacks, leading to a barrage of death threats. Knowing that his wife’s daughter from a previous relationship was murdered by a rapist, the revelation leads to complicated questions of whether it’s even worth finding Bryan’s murderer to begin with…
An element of Ormerod’s writing that has always appealed him to me is his ability to combine the contemporary police thriller with the classical puzzle plots. Ormerod is a smart creator and destroyer of alibis, and equally skilled at impossible crimes. Although his writing was always dense with personal and interpersonal dramas, at the end of it all he usually revealed how he had deftly laid clues in places you never would’ve thought to see. And, as with all of Ormerod’s writing, the story moves briskly and is defined by snappy, accessible, unfussy writing that makes for easy and quick reading. However, I think it’s possible that The Key to the Case might lean a little too heavily on the side of the contemporary crime story, to its detriment…
The Key to the Case is hurt majorly by its looseness and pacing with building-up the solution. Many plot points that, in a classical detective novel, would be reserved for the denouement, are either heavily suggested as possible or explicitly revealed during the course of the narrative. Strictly speaking, the full picture of the locked-room mystery and its solution is revealed in every part either by confession, implication, or explicit deduction by the middle-point of the novel (only being christened as the solution at the end) — adding to that, it isn’t a very compelling explanation. By the 70% point of the novel, essentially everything had been revealed except for the identity of the culprit in the rape-and-murder, and the Bryan murder cases. However, at this stage, I feel like the information is present that, rather than shocking, renders the solution merely perfectly natural and easily intuited. It’s particularly a shame, because there is a particularly brilliant clue a la Chesterton or “The Purloined Letter” that goes wasted because its intended meaning is easily inferred while bypassing Ormerod’s intended logic.
This is an element I’ve always associated with modern crime thrillers, where a clue leads to a conclusion leads to more investigation — conclusions are dolled out freely in order to maintain audience interest in the plot, rather than reserved for the sake of the puzzle. It’s something that I felt wasn’t present in the other Ormerods I’ve read, where Ormerod was much more tactful with handling little revelations throughout the narrative. Unfortunately, The Key to the Case spoils so much of the solution by the mid-late portion of the narrative that the eventual resolution is the most intuitive given the provided information. The motive, method, and all surrounding details are perfectly organic, all things considered, so that I’d be surprised if the novel has any surprises to spare the reader come the denouement.
The subject matter that defines the police thriller half of the novel’s identity is also troubling and uncomfortable. The matter of rape is by no means treated lightly; however, the resolution Ormerod eventually reaches on why Bryan’s death matters is at best tone-deaf and naive on the impacts of rape, and at worst deeply cynical towards women, suggesting that “the modern woman” is simply no longer impacted by rape because “morality is shifting”. He goes so far as to nearly suggest that Bryan’s rapes are permissible morally because they were “gentle”, depicting women as “grateful” to raise his progeny, and even having one of his victims offer to teach him how to perform sex better during the rape. Worse yet, Ormerod has all of his male characters standing around, being deeply upset about the matter, and has his rape-victim deuteragonist scold them, implying that their outrage at the sexual assaults are misplaced and irrational. It reaches a point where it feels like genuine, honest-to-God rape apologia that I don’t believe can be written off as “a product of its time”, and it’s the kind of thing I hadn’t seen in any other Ormerod novel. I firmly believe that if Ormerod had gotten a single female opinion on any part of this novel, The Key to the Case would be a very different novel than we’d got today.
Unfortunately, I cannot agree with TomCat’s review of The Key to the Case, in which he calls it “Ormerod’s best-plotted novel”. I found the plotting to be damaged by loosely-handled revelations that all but spoil the solution by nearly the halfway point, leaving the plot with nowhere to go but the obvious ending. While there’s one particularly clever clue, both scenario and resolution betray no trace of the imaginative, baroque plotting I saw in Time to Kill or More Dead than Alive. Worse yet, the story reveals a very dark, cynical perspective on rape that permeates throughout the entire novel that makes The Key to the Case obviously a product of having never spoken to a single woman during the course of writing it. As a mystery plot in a void, The Key to the Case is perfectly good on the level that all of the disparate pieces come together cleanly and neatly, but as a plot that harks back to the Golden Age it is flawed and uninspired in a way I’ve never seen from Ormerod.
I’ve never liked making “top favorite” lists in genres where I am so painfully aware of how little I’ve experienced in contrast to how much of it still exists waiting for me. Making a list of my favorite impossible crime novels specifically felt impossible because I’m just so, so, so aware of how many likely very good locked-room mysteries are sitting in my to-be-read pile right now. It’s worse, in fact, since I’ve started studying Japanese and have become more aware of a whole new world of obviously brilliant mystery novels. My personal horizon is so narrow, but the potential is so broad and it makes me feel like any list I make will come off as pedestrian. That’s why I’ve labeled this “revision 0”; I’m confident that by this time in 2023 the list will look immensely different. Maybe 33% of the entire list will be traded out by that time, I’m sure, and there will be at least one revision
This list is media non-specific. Television, movies, video games, comics may all apply. This is also why I’ve also settled on 15, rather than 10, because in the making of this list I realized that it was hyper-dominated by locked-room mysteries from Japanese novels and non-novel media, and I wanted to make some room for good, accessible, western media too. I’ll also only include one full entry from an author, including honorable mentions if necessary. Having qualified my list and the title of the post, my top 15 favorite impossible crimes, in no particular order, are…
Anyone who has ever spoken to me will not be surprised by this being my immediate first inclusion on a list of favorite impossible crimes. Not only is Death of Jezebel my favorite Christianna Brand novel, not only is it my favorite impossible crime novel, it’s simply my favorite Golden Age mystery novel ever written. Christianna Brand is in top-form at demonstrating her ability to build up entire false narratives and hoodwink you into them, to bait the audience into believing things without ever really saying or doing anything. A masterclass in misdirection, the murder of a woman in a locked-and-guarded tower during a play also features multiple grand mechanical and technical tricks that are clever, novel, and macabre. One of four Brand masterpieces that I think even people with no interest in impossible crimes should give a chance.
The Moai Island Puzzle – Arisu Arisugawa (1989), trans. Ho-Ling Wong (2016)
The impossible shooting that occurs in this novel is a very strong alibi trick, but as good as it is this element of the story is only a small part of what makes The Moai Island Puzzle so strong a contender for fans of mysteries-as-a-puzzle. Puzzles buried within ciphers wrapped within riddles and tied-up with lateral thinking problems are the name of the game with this novel that celebrates puzzles as almost like an artform. A brilliantly intriguing and cerebral mystery novel.
Whistle Up the Devil – Derek Smith (1953)
Cringe-inducing romance and overly-convoluted climax aside, this is a homerun of an impossible crime novel. The principle murder of a man conducting a ceremony within a supposedly haunted room is just a good offering, with a complex arrangement of what still amounts to a quick series of little tricks we’ve all seen before, obvious bits and pieces and sleights of hand, but nonetheless enjoyably convoluted. What elevates this novel from good to fantastic is the knee-slapping devious and blastedly simple alibi trick employed in the secondary murder in a police station that nobody ever walked into or out of, aside from two men who were in each other’s view for every point of time that mattered. This short story-length masterpiece hiding in an otherwise just-above-average impossible crime makes this well-worth reading.
Here I want to give a quick honorable mention to Derek Smith’s other novel, Come to Paddington Fair, which if you were to ask me probably has a more brilliantly-plotted and conceived central murder, and a much more unique trick. I neglect to mention it as a proper entry on the list, because I felt like when you realized that coincidence doesn’t exist in a deliberately-plotted world the beginning of the story spoils the resolution in such a way that it makes much of the ensuing investigation feel redundant. Come to Paddington Fair is a fantastic idea, but unfortunately relies so majorly on an early Christie-esque dodge that, if you’re not hoodwinked by it, ends up toppling the whole story and every misdirection that comes after it. I noticed the initial dodge immediately, and pieced together the rest of the plot before the story had even hit its stride, and that did dock a few points for me. I still heavily recommend it, because while I feel like it spoils itself by being too clever by half, I think I’d always prefer a too-clever-for-itself story to its dull counterpart any day — it’s novel, unique, and a very intelligently plotted crime novel with a very innovative take on how to establish an impossible crime.
Murder in the Crooked House – Sōji Shimada (1982), trans. Louise Heal Kawai (2019)
Sōji Shimada is the Japanese locked-room murder, well known for his output of well over 50 novels featuring locked-rooms and other various impossible murders. His other major impossible crime offering, The Tokyo Zodiac Murders, which is also available in English is much more well-known and equally deserving of praise for its brilliance and grandiosity of mechanical scale, but I just adore Murder in the Crooked House. Sōji Shimada, I feel, is an author you’ll either adore or hate. His settings and solutions are brilliant and original, but also stretch credulity and highlight above anything else the puzzle. As a sheer lateral thinking exercise, Murder in the Crooked House contains one of the best impossible crimes in any novel ever, even if I can’t confidently say it’s one of the best novels containing an impossible crime. It is wholly original, complex, intricately-plotted, and taut, and a fantastic puzzle from end to end with a fantastic method for committing murder in a triple-locked room that more than makes up for its obvious culprit.
Time to Kill – Roger Ormerod (1974)
Roger Ormerod is an author who wrote well after the Golden Age had ended. Despite this, his novels had all of the fairly-clued plotting and cerebral misdirection and alibi tricks as a novel from the 1930s, blended with the aesthetic of a gritty contemporary PI novel. His debut novel is an impossible alibi problem — from the moment the murder is committed, we know who the killer is, but there’s one problem: the killer has an airtight alibi provided by the narrator himself and we have no idea how he committed this murder under such impossible-for-him circumstances. I used to think that there were only three basic explanations for the impossible alibi, but Time to Kill offers a fourth possibility that to this day is still my favorite explanation for this particular problem. It perfectly sets up Ormerod’s thorough and educated understanding of Golden Age-styled alibi trickery almost in the style of Christopher Bush — a lost disciple of the puzzle mystery that more people should be seeking out.
Till Death Do Us Part – John Dickson Carr (1944)
Despite being a self-styled disciple of the impossible crime problem, I’m actually incredibly ashamed to admit that my reading into John Dickson Carr’s oeuvre is very limited! My first review on this blog was me airing out how little I enjoyed The Case of the Constant Suicides. Aside from that, I’ve only read a small handful of specially-recommended Carrs, only around 10 I think. I’ve been so caught-up in reading other impossible crime novels that I’ve neglected to honor the master himself! Let this be a wake-up call to me to get back to Carr…
Till Death Do Us Part is absolutely the most brilliant locked-room conceived by Carr that I’ve read. Preceded by expectation, nobody needs to know what I have to say about this book. It’s damnably simple and clever, the puzzle is brilliantly conceived, the cluing clever and well-done.
Jonathan Creek (Season 1 Episode 2) “Jack in the Box” – David Renwick (1997)
Jonathan Creek is a late 90’s-early 2000s BBC drama featuring the titular magician’s assistant who uses his knowledge of stage illusions to solve locked-room murders and impossible crimes. I think the series is incredibly hit-or-miss, containing both some of my favorite and least favorite locked-room mysteries ever conceived, and it might be a little worrying that in Jonathan Creek‘s 17 year run I think the show peaked in its second episode ever…
There are more than a small handful of fantastic impossible crimes in this series, actually. The Christmas special “Black Canary”, the first episode of season two “Danse Macabre” are both also great, but “Jack in the Box” really perfected the formula right out of the gate with a satisfying and original explanation to the shooting of a man in a locked-and-sealed bunker that entirely inverts the very premise of a locked-room murder as a question of how the killer escaped from the room.
The Great Ace Attorney 2: The Resolve of Ryūnosuke Naruhodō (Case 3) “The Return of the Great Departed Soul” – Shū Takumi (2017)
Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney is a Japanese mystery video game series, one game of which I’ve reviewed on this blog. In Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney and all of its subsequent spinoff titles, the player takes on the role of a lawyer tasked with proving the innocence of clients falsely accused of murder. Using a point-and-click interface, the player investigates crime scenes, interviews wacky witnesses and suspects, and collects evidence. The next day, the player goes to court and is tasked with cross-examining witnesses who are either grossly mistaken about what they saw or hell-bent on seeing your client behind bars and deliberately lying. Through a series of simple question prompts, the player finds lies in testimony statements, presents evidence to expose the lies, and then is loosely-guided on a series of Ellery Queen-esque sequences of deductions and logic where the player explains why the lie was told or the mistake was made and then what the truth of the situation is. By the end of every case, the real killer is discovered and your client is saved from wrongful imprisonment!
In the spinoff series The Great Ace Attorney the format is shaken up by placing the player in the role of Phoenix Wright’s ancestor Ryūnosuke Naruhodō, a Japanese lawyer who teams up with the Great Detective Herlock Sholmes in Victorian London. The third case of the second game of this particular series is a very unique take on the impossible crime problem, inspiring one of my 15 categories of impossible crimes — the impossible technology problem!
Your client is a scientist who was presenting an instantaneous kinesis machine, a piece of technology that is capable of molecularly dissembling any human subject and then reassembling them somewhere else, allowing them to teleport from one location to another in the blink of an eye! Unfortunately, during the presentation, his assistant and test subject was teleported to the wrong location. While he was meant to be transported to the INSIDE of a nearby glass tower, the test subject was instead manifested a few dozen feet in the air above the tower, whereupon he fell through the walls of the tower. The police were summoned only to find the man stabbed to death by a screwdriver through the heart. Since the tower was totally inaccessible to anyone until the police arrived, it’s determined that the only person who could’ve committed this murder is your client, who must’ve stabbed the victim before teleporting him away. In order to prove your client’s innocence, you need to prove how the teleportation could’ve been faked! But how else can you explain a man moving hundreds of feet into the air in less than a second…
The solution to the teleportation isn’t at all difficult to figure out, but there’s a second and third puzzle hiding in the background of this case that makes it brilliant. The true explanation for the murder when you get past the impossible problem is genuinely shocking, and there are quite a few plot threads that connect this murder to an ages-old serial killing that the rest of the game’s narrative is concerned with. A brilliantly innovative presentation of impossible crimes, the method of connecting this subplot to the overarching narrative of the game is a masterstroke of writing, and a somewhat obvious impossible solution doesn’t stop the mystery from offering up some genuine surprises. One of the best cases from a very, very good mystery series.
Death Among the Undead – Masahiro Imamura (2017) trans. Ho-Ling Wong (2021)
One of the most defining features of the shin-honkaku movement that I feel like westerners don’t see from just the translations we get from Vertigo Pushkin and Locked Room International is the amount of authors who love to experiment with form, style, and genre without betraying the underlying and ever-present element of a complex, cerebral puzzle. Hybrid mysteries, the sort we get from Isaac Asimov’s sci-fi mysteries like The Cave of Steel, are even more present in modern Japanese mystery writing than they ever were over here! There are authentically Golden Age-styled mysteries written to take place within the confines of a world that operates under the rules of a fantasy roleplaying video game, or mysteries set within fantasy worlds. There’s a short story collection about a group of murderers who share stories of their exploits over an internet board and every story is a different member of the board. And then there’s Masahiro Imamura’s breakout hybrid mystery, Death Among the Undead, which combines the locked-room mystery with a zombie apocalypse!
Death Among the Undead is a brilliant piece of work with three absolutely stunning impossible crimes that all three offer up entirely novel and unique explanations to the problem of murders committed in locked-rooms either provided by or enhanced by the presence of a horde of brain-eating undead! This novel is an absolute jaw-dropper of plotting genius that can confidently stand with its head held high among any classic of the genre. It is no less a classic, puzzle-driven impossible crime story for the presence of zombies — in fact, I’d say it’s even more so, as the rigid rules that the zombies abide by offer an extra layer of complexity and reasoning. Simply fantastic.
Death in the House of Rain – Szu-Yen Lin (2006) trans. (2017)
Death in the House of Rain is a dangerous impossible crime novel, because its an idea that I feel like could’ve easily failed. It doesn’t succeed on the strength of its core idea alone, but on the framing of its idea through the personification of fate and fortune as almost its own character, which arguably is the true killer, above anyone else who might’ve committed murder in the story. The solutions to the three first disparate locked-room murders are all connected by a single thread that is very devious and devilishly simple, brimming with an original idea whose reliance on coincidence could’ve easily failed if not for the underlying theme of fortune. It’s, in fact, an idea I proposed in my List of 50 Locked-Room Solutions which people often privately criticized me for because no impossible crime existed which could claim to use the solution, so I’ll admit I’m a little biased from reading this book and getting that feeling of aha! I told you!.
A fourth impossible crime brilliantly rises from the resolution of the previous three as a connecting thread, and it’s just as good as you could hope. This novel is fantastic, but easily could’ve not been.
The Kindaichi Case Files Shin (Case 3) “The Prison Prep School Murder Case” – Seimaru Amagi (2006)
I actually know very little about the Kindaichi Case Files franchise or its sister series Detective School Q, having only organically read one or two mysteries from each of them. They weren’t bad at all, mind you! Honorable mention to Detective School Q‘s first proper murder mystery for being blindingly brilliant, actually! However, I was directed to this particular case by TomCat’s blog post on this very same topic, and reading it honestly reawoke my interest in the two franchises! This is ingenuity distilled into its purest form, plain and simple, with a grand, brilliant, and complex impossible alibi trick at the heart of it.
Both Kindaichi Case Files and Detective School Q are classic examples of the locked-room mystery puzzle plot in the realms of anime/manga series, and having read one of the best impossible crime stories of all time by sheer chance in these series I can easily recommend anyone and everyone to seek this series out and read it if they have even a tiny interest in locked-room mysteries. John Dickson Carr would be proud of these two detective series. I read this case in Japanese in the manga, but the anime adaptation is available in English for anyone curious!
Case Closed/Detective Conan(Anime-original, Episodes 603-605) The Séance’s Double Locked Room Mystery Case – Chiko Uonji
Detective Conan, as I’ve mentioned on my post about the franchise, contains many classics of basically any form of Golden Age-styled plotting you can think of. Alibi problems, locked-room mysteries, inverted mysteries, Detective Conan could probably make a top 10 list of any of them. Between both the manga and the anime, Detective Conan has produced more than its fair share of strong impossible crimes, many of which could end up on a list like this. For anime-originals, honorable mention to The Cursed Mask Laughs Coldly, which I think is more inventive and innovative, but The Séance’s Double Locked Room Mystery Case narrowly won out for its intricate intertwining of two impossible crimes. A brilliant set of two locked-rooms that rely on each other for their solutions makes this case a stand-out for its uniqueness of plotting, and the solutions are nothing to sneeze at either, but trust me when I say there are probably at least seven other Detective Conan impossible crimes equally worth mentioning at some point or another…
“The Lure of the Green Door” by Rintarō Norizuki (1991) trans. Ho-Ling Wong (2014)
The standout story from international tour of impossible crimes, The Realm of the Impossible, “The Lure of the Green Door” is a locked-room mystery inspired by the premise of an old science fiction parable by English author H. G. Wells in which a man enters a green door to another world. In “The Lure of the Green Door”, a man is murdered in his locked-and-sealed study with a green door that isn’t locked but mysteriously cannot be opened… The solution is a physical trick that plays on an old concept, but it’s a startling unique take on the concept that I’m proud to have solved ahead of time. The scale of the solution is also great without detracting from the elegance of the trick! A masterpiece of the short-form locked-room mystery.
“The Clown in the Tunnel” by Tetsuya Ayukawa (1958) trans. Ho-Ling Wong (2020)
A clown commits a murder, is seen running into a tunnel, and then vanishes before he can appear from the other side!
Tetsuya Ayukawa is a Japanese author famous for crossing wires between impossible crimes and alibi problems. As the introduction to the The Red Locked-Room collection notes, Ayukawa often uses alibi tricks to establish impossible crimes, and locked-room tricks to establish alibis. This gimmick very often lends itself to old tricks being applied in unique, novel, and stunning ways, and “The Clown in the Tunnel” is the best example of this! An absolute stunning example of how an alibi trick can lend itself to an impossible disappearance, and one of the best stories from a very good collection.
“The Ginza Ghost” – Ōsaka Keikichi (1936) trans. Ho-Ling Wong (2017)
The Ginza Ghost is a fantastic collection of impossible crimes from early Japanese crime writer Ōsaka Keikichi. Despite it existing in the early eras of the honkaku school of plotting, this collection shows off an author who demonstrates marked ingenuity and genius, with ideas that are still novel nearly 90 years in the future. The best story in the collection is easily the title story, “The Ginza Ghost”, which features a murder inside of a locked tobacco shop where a woman appears to have killed another and then herself — however, mysteriously, the murderer appears to have died significantly before her victim, suggesting the presence of a ghost who committed the crime… Ordinarily, I don’t enjoy impossible crimes that rely so centrally on an accident for the illusion to function — I’m a sucker for cartoonishly intelligent criminal geniuses — but the accident in this case is so elegant, simple, and brilliantly unique that it’s impossible not to love it.
And there you have it, my 15 favorite locked-room mysteries, which is 66.6% Japanese, quite a few of which aren’t even from novels. I’m sure Ho-Ling doesn’t mind the free publicity. I don’t mind to seem biased, but there are just so many strong and ingeniously plotted mysteries in the Japanese honkaku and shin-honkaku schools of mystery writing… This list will definitely not last long, but I enjoyed making it.
There’s been no end to the ingenuity of the impossible crime genre. When you see murders committed inside of perfectly sealed rooms, and stabbings in virgin snow where the killers leave no footprints, you’re only taking the daintiest of baby-steps down the iceberg of magic murders. Take a few steps further and you’ll find yourself barreling into the realms of animated murderous snowmen, disappearing hotel rooms, witchery, teleportation, telekinesis, premonitory dreams, apparitions, flying men, transmogrification, impossible golf shots, men dying from falls when there’s no elevated surfaces for miles, time travel, people running through solid brick walls, and even the apparently magical disintegration of a man in front of witnesses. All of which, mind you, must be explained through perfectly human means without reliance on far-fetched science-fiction technology or preternatural agency — or, if sci-fi tech and ghostly happenings are commonplace in your world, their rules must still be adhered (and are usually exploited to establish the impossibility…). A whole world of man-made miraculous murders that would have the skeptics of our world taken aback! When you imagine the impossible crime problem, you imagine a scenario which absolutely cannot be taken at face value, and which the characters in the story have to battle with the reality of, whether it’s through disproving the supernatural or an ostensible suicide. There’s an impossible crime tale for damn near every insane scenario under the sun a person could think of.
The impossible crime tale seems to be a favorite of people looking to create taxonomies. From solutions to situations, the impossible crime sub-genre more than any other seems to invite people to create lists trying to chronicle every little manner of plot, style, and form that exists. You might argue that this is a testament to the sheer formulaicity of the impossible crime story, or a testament to the magnetism of its versatility…
Just like I’ve done before in attempting to produce a list of 50 solutions to the 3 principle impossible crime genres, I will here be attempting to produce a list of all every conceivable manner of impossible crime situation — within reason. I will only be adding to this list if I feel like the entry is all of (a.) something that meaningfully alters the presentation of the impossible crime, (b.) something that meaningfully alters the potential explanations to the crime, and (c.) categorically non-specific so to be applicable to a suitable variety of stories. This is primarily because the minutiae distinguishing two locked-room mystery situations is a lot less significant than the minutiae distinguishing two solution types — this also means I can provide less “theoretical” entries than I could before.
Over at The Invisible Event, Jim Noy has actually covered a lot of our bases on his own post a few years back on the same topic. My intention here is not to contradict him, but rather to supplement his list with a few potential entries I feel worth pointing out. I will be covering a lot of re-tread ground here, so in the interest of keeping Jim’s contributions and my own separated I’ll simply be listing Jim’s entries first in one set and then mine at the end. I’ll be supplementing each category with a paragraph or two explaining the concept too — just so that this is my post, and nobody else’s!
Without further ado…
1.) The Locked-Room Mystery
The grandfather of mystery fiction and the perennial favorite of all impossible crime aficionados, locked-room mysteries scarce warrant an introduction. You have a murder committed within a room locked, sealed, and barred from the inside so that every entry is blocked-off. The only key to the room is inside of the victim’s pocket, so the killer must be still inside of the room… and yet they are not! The implication is that the killer has someone walked through the walls or vanished into thin-air…
This is the most popular form of impossible crime, and examples are a-plenty. Edgar Allan Poe’s “Murders in the Rue Morgue”, popularly (and debatably) considered the original detective story, Clayton Rawson’s Death from a Top Hat, and John Dickson Carr’s The Hollow Man (also known as The Three Coffins) all features killers who seem to vanish into mid-air within a locked room…
1.5.) The Judas Window Locked-Room
Not, perhaps, a separate situation altogether, but a prominent enough sub-sub-subgenre to warrant mention, this is one of those “Doylist Impossibilities” I invoke in On a Defense of the Impossible Alibi Problem. The situation is entirely the same as a traditional locked-room mystery, with one caveat: there is a single suspect locked inside of the room with the victim, so that it appears entirely impossible for them to be innocent of the murder! The situation is only impossible if you, as the reader accept the condition that this person is innocent and the murder must’ve been committed by an external agency.
I’ve named this one after the most prominent example, John Dickson Carr’s The Judas Window. This situation is a favorite of many cases of the Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney video game series in which you defend clients falsely accused of murder — more often than not, this accusation comes as a direct consequence of the defendant being locked in the same room or sealed in the same general location as the victim. Edward D. Hoch, the “Master of Short Stories”, also produced more than a handful of these, such as “A Shower of Daggers”.
2.) Footprints in the Snow
…or sand, or dust. These crimes involve a man found murdered in a vast expanse of snow! The killer definitely murdered the man from close-quarters, and the man was murdered after the snow had finished falling… so how could the killer have committed this murder without leaving his footprints in the snow!? A killer who can somehow float over the snow…
John Dickson Carr dealt with the problem most notably in The White Priory Murders, and his French-speaking disciple Paul Halter also wrote these in, among others, The Lord of Misrule and The Gold Watch. Christianna Brand produced one of these in Suddenly at his Residence using dust, and Arthur Porges’s “No Killer has Wings” and Hal White’s “Murder at an Island Mansion” are two examples of this problem on sandy beaches.
3.) Psychological Impossibility
We’re starting to get into the abstract. A man’s death is caused not by direct murder, but instead by a behavior that is so absurdly unbelievable it defies every known principle of human psychology! The most famous example of this is Father Ronald Knox’s “Solved by Inspection”, which involves a man who starves to death in a room surrounded entirely by safe-to-eat food that he could’ve eaten at any moment.
4.) Impossible Physical Feats
Humans are constantly displaying their infinite capacity for improvement. Records are always being broken, and the human condition forever expanding. But in these stories, these feats of athleticism swerve from the superhuman straight into the supernatural. A man cannot run from California to New York in a matter of hours, neither can a man leap from the top of the Eifel Tower and land with not a single scratch on his body…
The Stingaree Murders by W. Shepard Pleasants features a knife that’s hammered into the wooden boards of a boat so tightly that not even Mike Tyson himself could remove it without causing significant damage and creating noise that would assuredly not go unnoticed — naturally, the knife is removed. Death in the Dark by Stacey Bishop tells of a baffling murder in which a killer is somehow able to make an eagle-eyed shot at his victim in pitch-black darkness! Impossible Bliss by Lee Sheldon involves a nearly-impossible perfect golf shot from a nearly-impossible angle that not even the most seasoned of pros could achieve!
5.) Killer Rooms
Without fail, every single time a man sleeps in the bed in room 405 of the Dickson Inn, he never wakes up… and is found the next morning, having died of heart failure at precisely midnight… The killer room involves spaces that seem to have the uncanny ability to indiscriminately cause death without human intervention. Even more baffling, these situations may have bizarre, hyper-specific conditions under which these deaths occur…
Impossible-crime-oriented BBC drama Jonathan Creek has an episode episode titled “Mother Redcap” involving an inn where bizarre deaths seem to constantly occur within the same room, at the same time… Max Afford’s “The Vanishing Trick” involves a “kinda haunted” room that constantly swallows up servants and sends them to God-knows-where…
6.) Invisible Murderer
A murder who is mysterious able to pass under your nose without detection, strangle a woman in plain view of a crowd of hundreds without being seen, and murder in rooms guarded on all sides. This impossible problem involves the situation of a murderer who is able to defy detection even when the situation dictates that they would be seen.
Such an impossible crime makes up the principle murder of Christianna Brand’s Death of Jezebel, in which a murder is committed in front of a crowd of hundreds of spectators to a medieval pageant at top of a tower, the only viable entrance to which was also in view of the audience. Derek Smith’s Whistle up the Devil features a murder in a jail cell whose sole door was observed by the narrator and a reliable witness at all times the murderer must’ve walked through the door, and yet neither of them saw any such killer…
Whether person or object, the problem of an impossible vanishing involves something disappear when there’s no reasonable way for this to occur. While it can often overlap with locked-room mysteries, footprint mysteries, or invisible criminals, this class of impossible crime also accounts for people vanishing in front of witnesses like a magician, or thefts of objects while in another character’s hands…
Roger Ormerod’s More Dead than Alive features a world-renowned magician who seems to disappear impossibly from his locked-and-sealed laboratory. Edward D. Hoch wrote multiple stories featuring a Great Thief-cum-Detective Nick Velvet, including the impossible caper “The Theft of the White Queen’s Menu” in which three impossible thefts occur: the theft of a roomful of furniture in a matter of just a few minutes, the theft of a roulette wheel from a crowded casino and yet nobody saw it leave, and the theft of rival thief The White Queen’s menu while it is held in her hands! Quite spectacularly, Paul Halter’s story “The Celestial Thief” involves the disappearance of all of the stars in the night sky as an astronomer is watching them from his telescope!
Diametrically opposite the previous category, impossible materializations involve the production of an object or person where it very well could never have been! A man manifesting within a sealed room, a plane appearing in the sky when it had nowhere from which it could’ve come, and poison appearing within a test-tasted dish…
James Yaffe’s “The Case of the Emperor’s Mushrooms” involves the murder of Emperor Claudius of Rome, who dies to a plate of poisoned mushrooms — quite mysteriously however, the royal food-tester had eaten a portion of the food without dying, and so the poison must have appeared while in the emperor’s hands…
9.) Prophecy, Clairvoyance, and Predictions
The fortune-teller tells you that you will die on June 4th, 2022 at 5:25 PM… and, lo and behold, you find yourself dead at the appointed time! People coming into possession of knowledge which they should never have been able to learn makes up this class of impossible problem.
There are, in fact, two real-world examples. “The Greenbrier Ghost” of West Virginia is a story about a woman who divines knowledge of the cause of her daughter’s death when the young women’s death was named natural. “The Horse Room” involves a group of women named the Blondie Gang who were robbing casinos blind in the 1940s, and the way they managed to cheat at horse-race betting in a room where no information could travel in or out… John Dickson Carr’s The Reader is Warned also involves a psychic predicting a murder, down to the very minute it’ll occur.
10.) Ghost, Witches, and Miscellaneous Supernatural Jiggerypokery
This, ultimately, is a “miscellaneous” category for all impossible crimes that appear to be ghosts, magic, or the supernatural at work but don’t fit into the other categories for being too specific. The appearance of a floating ghost in a room, a woman casting a spell that appears to come true, or the commission of a seance all fall into this category.
John Sladek’s Black Aura has a man suspended in mid-air and walking without any support in front of witnesses, and Hake Talbot’s Rim of the Pit features floating men, ghosts, seances, and nearly every supernatural occurrence you could hope to dream of. “Miracle on Christmas Eve” by Szu-Yen Lin involves the impossible delivery of gifts by a man who could only be Santa Claus himself… Also, suffice it to say, Scooby-Doo anyone?
11.) Impossible Technology
Mind-reading devices, hover-boards, and teleportation machines don’t exist… or do they? The impossible technology problem involves story where a piece of technology is presented as entirely genuine, but there is no scientific way for such a machine to exist. How could this bizarre feat be faked and manufactured?
In The Great Ace Attorney 2: Resolve of Ryuunosuke Naruhodou‘s third case, Twisted Karma and his Last Bow, defense attorney Ryuunosuke Naruhodou is commissioned to defend a scientist of murder. This scientist constructed a teleportation machine that’s capable of de-materializing a man in one place, and rematerializing him in another spontaneously. He was demonstrating the machine at a science exhibition when the device malfunctioned, causing the man to appear above a glass tower, suspended freely in the middle of the air! The man would then crash through the roof of the tower where it would be impossible to approach him… and yet, when the police arrive, the man was stabbed to death. Because of the location of the body, it’s only possible for your defendant to have stabbed the man before his teleportation! And so, in order to prove his innocence, you also have to prove how the entirely impossible feat of teleportation could’ve been faked in front of a massive audience…
12.) The Inverted Howdunit
One of two Impossible Alibi problems I described, this Doylist impossibility tiptoes the line between the inverted mystery (mysteries in which we know of the killer and their plot ahead of time) and the impossible crime. In the Inverted Howdunit, we are privy to the identity of the killer very early — however, unlike most such stories, in the Inverted Howdunit we only know the killer’s identity, but we do not know how they committed the crime… or how they managed to construct an airtight alibi! This impossibility hinges on knowing the identity of the killer, but it appearing nonetheless impossible for them to be guilty.
Roger Ormerod’s Time to Kill features a murder by an ex-convict — however, the ex-convict never once left the narrator’s sight during the period during which the murder must’ve taken place! In Detective Conan Volume 2, the case “Mysterious Shadow Murder Case” involves a man who committed murder while unmistakably in another country at the time… Agatha Christie’s “A Christmas Tragedy” has Miss Jane Marple describe a murder she once solved in which she knew the killer’s identity… and yet the killer had an impenetrable alibi!
13.) Suspect X
Nine people are trapped together on an island. One person wanders off, leaving the remaining eight people together in the dining room. The ninth person is soon heard screaming, and when the eight people arrive…. they find him dead! And yet, this is impossible… he hadn’t committed suicide, everybody was watching each other at all times..! Is it possible that an Xth suspect was on the island, killing them from the shadows?
Suspect X is the second “impossible alibi” problem I described in my post on the topic. This impossibility essentially dictates that, in a closed-circle mystery, the crime is only possible if you assume the presence of one extra person whose existence in the closed-circle is itself also impossible. The solution could involve explaining the presence of this extra person, or ways for the killer, who is among the original cast, to commit murder despite being under constant surveillance.
Such problems appear in Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, in which the entirety of the cast is dead, and all apparently murdered, while isolated together on an island; NisioisiN’s Zaregoto – The Kubikiri Cycle, in which the narrator’s friend’s computer is destroyed while every living member of the cast is together in the dining room; Derek Smith’s Come to Paddington Fair, in which the victim is shot by a bullet from a prop gun which was at one moment loaded with blanks but later loaded with live ammunition, even though every member of the cast is incapable (by alibi and testimony) of tampering with the gun.
14.) Biological Impossibilities and Illogical Causes of Death
Biological impossibilities are any mysteries in which the victim faces a death which utterly defies human physiology and logic. Initially, I was going to have a separate category for “impossible falls”, those stories in which the victim falls to their death despite the lack of an elevated surface within any reasonable distance, but I decided to consolidate those two categories hear under the blanket of “Illogical Death” since I felt like they were conceptually similar enough.
Robert Randisi’s (awful) “The Hook” involves the serial killings of women who have had all their organs removed quite impossibly, despite the presence of only a very small incision through which removing the organs so cleanly would be impossible. Both Paul Halter’s “Jacob’s Ladder” and Mack Reynolds’s The Case of the Little Green Men involve a man falling to his death despite there being no elevated surfaces nearby. John Dickson Carr’s Gur Erq Jvqbj Zheqref and the first case of The Great Ace Attorney both involve a death by curare when ingested — curare can only cause death when it enters the bloodstream, and is harmless when imbibed. Paul Halter also wrote “The Robber’s Grave” in which a patch of grass is unusually unable to grow no matter what… Soji Shimada’s “The Executive Who Lost His Mind” involves someone who was murdered only minutes ago, but their corpse suggests that they’ve been dead for years…
15.) The Lonely Boat
A boat floats in the middle of a lake with a lone fisherman in it. The fisherman suddenly keels over and dies, and when the boat is recovered he’s found stabbed to death! Such a death is impossible — it would’ve been impossible for anyone to approach the boat without attracting attention or getting wet, so how much a man wind up murdered while isolated in the middle of a body of water?
I was initially unsure about whether or not to include this one, as most variations on this problem strongly overlap with the “invisible murderer”. However, I believe this problem meets all three of my criteria in theoretically creating a significant distinction in how the crime is presented and resolved…
Such a problem occurs in Joseph Commings’s “The Spectre of the Lake”, in which two men are shot from close-range in the middle of a lake, and both of John Dickson Carr’s “The Wrong Problem” and W. Shepard Pleasants’s The Stingaree Murders, in which a man is stabbed in an isolated boat.
It’s easy to see how Roger Ormerod can fly under the radar of many enjoyers of Golden Age mysteries. To begin with, he wrote chiefly in the latter half of the 20th century (his earliest novel was published in 1974!), well out of the territory many readers would expect to find a fledgling in the craft of the puzzle plot. The front covers of the most recent reprints of his work are indistinguishable from one another — a brooding silhouette with his back turned against drab urban scenery that may not even have any connection to the plot anyway — and don’t do their part in suggesting anything other than a cheap dimestore crime thriller. An impression which, mind you, isn’t helped by the “A David Mallin Thriller” subtitle slapped onto every book in this particular series (his other series gets the very occasional distinction of “An Inspector Patton Mystery“).
More Dead Than Alive is the second Roger Ormerod novel I’ve read and, by extension, the second David Mallin I’ve read, with the first being his debut novel Time to Kill (1974), and save but the occasional moment of crassness and sex-positivity that would simply be unthinkable to many writers of the former half of the century I can’t find a single strand of the DNA of the dull, lackluster police thriller that the author’s marketing advertises. Yes, the writing is snappy, and the characters are a bit bolder and more down-to-earth than is typical, but at his heart David Mallin seems to be a late member of the class of puzzle-plot mysteries any fan of Golden Age mysteries would be remiss to neglect.
More Dead Than Alive sees David Mallin summoned to the decrepit medieval Kilvennan Castle by his wife, Elsa, to investigate the presumed death and, more importantly, impossible disappearance of famed illusionist and escape artist Konrad Klein. The vanishing act was performed from a room at the top of a tower with a door sealed from the inside by the weight of a trick cabinet and otherwise blocked off by a window opening to nothing but sheer rockface and a deadly drop into the waters below. Klein’s family are concerned about whether his disappearance was a suicide, foul-play, or something else entirely, as the magician’s insurance was quite clear that money would not be paid to the family in the event of suicide; a worry that is quickly discarded when Klein’s body washes ashore, decidedly killed with a bullet wound that creates a brand-new problem of a killer vanishing from a sealed room…
What makes up the majority of the novel is experimentation, with Mallin and his partner, the eager Coe, finding a delightful array of false solutions to the problem of the locked-room. However, at the end of the formulating-and-discarding of theories, David Mallin is able to, with the evidence provided, come to a conclusive answer about how the murder of Klein was committed and provide a blockbuster of a solution to the problem.
As I mentioned at the beginning of this review, More Dead Than Alive is a 1980 novel in nothing but aesthetic. It is conceived, plotted, and resolved as cerebrally and cleverly as any 1930’s crime novel, and provides a thoroughly satisfying and well-crafted impossible crime puzzle. Being released as late as it is, though, the book does borrow something from its contemporaries. A more modern wit, incredibly unfussy and easygoing writing, and characters just a bit more ordinary than a nosy egg-shaped Belgian or a bored aristocrat may make the book something shy of high literature, but absolutely pleasant to read.
The novel and its mystery can well be considered fairplay, but I confess that I can’t speak very confidently on that front. A combination of Tomcat’s review mentioning that, compared to the other solutions, the proper solution is somewhat incredible and the fact Ormerod brow-beats you with a key detail about the killer made it somewhat easy to guess at the core artifice of the solution early into the story while bypassing the intended logic of the puzzle. Ordinarily I’d write it off as simply a lucky guess combined with preparation for the solution thanks to Tomcat’s review, but I confess that I was just as able to guess at the solution to Time to Kill, a novel I’d read ages ago while having no introduction to Ormerod’s work at all. This seems to me to be Ormerod’s greatest weakness in the two novels I’ve read is a hyper-excess of fairness. It’s almost like Ormerod wasn’t confident he planted enough clues for the reader in More Dead Than Alive and felt it necessary to go above and beyond to bring them to your attention in fear that he’d receive scorn if he didn’t. Which, in Ormerod’s defense, is probably a safe assumption, given the solution is tough to swallow, as jaw-droppingly devious as it is!
In spite of this, however, neither of the two Ormerod novels I’ve read so far has been a disappointment. In fact, I’m really taken with Ormerod. The problems and their resolutions in both Time to Kill and More Dead Than Alive are wildly clever and imaginative. I brought up Time to Kill in my post On A Defense of the Impossible Alibi Problem and “Doylist” Impossibilities, and it sprung to my mind when writing the post simply because it is my single favorite resolution to the problem of how a killer, who is guaranteed to be the killer by the narration mind you, can commit a crime while apparently under unbroken supervision by our reliable narrator. Yes, I guessed at the solution, just as I guessed at the solution in More Dead Than Alive, but I felt vindicated, rather than disappointed. I didn’t figure it out because I’d read a lot of mystery stories and was able to spot a familiar pattern in a familiar resolution, which would’ve been, frankly, disappointing and annoying; I figured it out because Ormerod was damn good at setting these problems up, giving you the information to figure them out, and resolving them. The overexcess of fairness might turn some people off, but these solutions are so unique you’re bound to feel clever for figuring them out either way, and if these early stories are, as Tomcat suggests, of lower-than-average quality for Ormerod’s output than I’m more than happy to name Ormerod a very likely favorite of mine.
The recent draught in reviews has, in some part, been due to my recent reading not inspiring much in me to say. I’ve had a whole host of books lined-up to read and review, but it always ended up being the same story for me. I read Come to Paddington Fair by Derek Smith and found the central problem incredibly novel, and the resolution simply as clever as clever gets, but was able to see past the core deception and resolve the heart of the mystery fairly early. On recommendation, I just read A Nice Murder for Mom by James Yaffe and found the resolution uninspired and immediately obvious. I read Mrs. McGinty’s Dead by Agatha Christie, and felt like the solution was incredibly clever and novelly-clued, but was also able to jab at most of the heart of the mystery. Murder in the Maze was a decent classically-styled mystery, but I felt like spotting the identity of the killer was a trifle. I’d also read and easily figured out The House That Kills by Noel Vindry and found the novel incredibly uninspired from its writing, to its crimes, to its solutions and frankly only remember it for this. Add onto this I had a sudden urge to review Time To Kill, which I also resolved fairly early, and it was just too much.
Frankly, I didn’t really want to write seven reviews in a row that included any variation of the phrase “I figured it out”, because not only does it feel like I’m just bragging, it also doesn’t make for interesting reading material for you all. Unfortunately, I felt like I needed to get back into the habit of weekly reviews, so I bit the bullet and picked one of my older reviews to publish. At the moment I’m reading Max Carrados, a short story collection featuring the blind detective of the same name, written by Ernest Bramah, and should be able to review it by next Sunday to return to a regular schedule.