On the 15 (and a half) Types of Impossible Crimes

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.

…Or so I said in On a Defense of the Impossible Alibi Problem. A perfectly good introductory paragraph, wasted.

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…

7.) Vanishing

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!

8.) Materialization

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.

My Mother, the Detective (1997) by James Yaffe

The great gamut of female detectives is taken up by little old ladies solving mysteries with their inordinate sense of human nature and time-sharpened wit. We all know of the exploits of Miss Jane Marple, Miss Maud Silver, and Miss Hildegarde Withers. But in a little apartment in the Bronx, cooking a mean roast chicken dinner, is another little old lady who proves that, truly, Mother knows best.

Over the course of 80 years, James Yaffe proved himself to be something of a mystery-writing prodigy, being one of, if not the youngest author published in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, first publishing when he was a young teenager. From 1943 to 1946, Yaffe wrote six stories for the publication, all locked-room mysteries or impossible crimes featuring the aptly named Department of Impossible Crimes. Only one of these stories has since been anthologized, that being the exceptionally clever “The Problem of the Emperor’s Mushrooms”, re-published in the Mystery Writer’s Association’s All But Impossible! locked-room mystery anthology.

Impossible crimes, however, would only be a footnote in Yaffe’s career, as in 1952 Yaffe would kickstart a series of short stories and novels that would span seven decades! We’re talking, of course, about Mom, whose made her written debut in 1952 in “Mom Knows Best”. Since this story, Yaffe would publish another four stories from 1953 to 1955 featuring mom, another three from 1966 to 1968, four novels from 1988 to 1992, and another story in 2002.

As a series, “Mom” is fairly formulaic in structure — I clued into this within the first page of the first story, in fact, after realizing that the first seven paragraphs introducing Mom and our narrator Dave are nearly word-for-word identical to the first seven paragraphs introducing the same two characters in A Nice Murder for Mom, the first Mom novel, published 36 years later.

Nearly every Mom story has our narrator, a police detective, and his wife Shirley visiting his Jewish mother in the Bronx for a Friday night dinner of roast chicken. Although she makes fun of him for his job, insisting it requires no brains, she still takes an inordinate interest in hearing about the cases her son is struggling with (usually with him arresting the wrong person as the killer and her proving their innocence), asking “three little questions” that always seem bizarre at the outset, and lording it over him that she can crack the case before dessert, all the while Shirley occasionally butts head with Mother, not liking the way she talks over Davie; Mother, in turn, butts heads with Shirley, not liking the way she talks over Davie, and Davie just tries to keep the peace. And then, come the solution, (ROT13) qrfcvgr gurer orvat n fznyy frg bs fhfcrpgf, Zbz jvyy zber bsgra guna abg cebir ubj gur xvyyre jnf n zvabe onpxtebhaq punenpgre zragvbarq va gur zbfg pbairavrag bs cnffvatf.

The first two stories, “Mom Knows Best”, in which Mother solves the murder of a promiscuous young women in a hotel after three suitors come to visit her one after the other, and “Mom Makes a Bet”, in which Mother proves that the meek little waiter Davie arrested for poisoning the soup of a rude customer is innocent of the crime, are the purest forms of this formula.

In the introduction to My Mother, the Detective, Yaffe explains he had moments of disillusionment with the detective story as a vehicle for a puzzle of murder. He felt, at times, that he had “graduated” to more mature, character-oriented writing in his career since he’d become an adult. Over time, he says, he began to reconcile with the craft, realizing that he’d never fall out of love with it, but also that there’s no reason the detective story can’t also have flesh-and-blood characters and be in touch with reality. Hence, over time, while the Mom stories were always problem-oriented detective stories, they’d slowly grow to be equally fascinated with the characters and their psychology, albeit in an unfussy, unobtrusive way. This included — or, in fact, highlighted the character of the detective.

In the introduction, Yaffe describes “meaningful eccentricities” — traits that seem like silly quirks on the outside, but present insight into the character’s psychology on retrospection — as one of his guiding philosophies for writing Mom. Going forward, quirks established in the first two stories are retroactively given more depth as Mom’s character is fleshed out from a loving caricature of a Jewish mother to a loving portrait of a Jewish mother.

Starting with the third story, “Mom in the Spring”, while the basic formula is relatively in tact, the actual telling of the stories start to shift a little. Davie and Shirley still visit for Friday night dinner, Mom still listens to her son’s stories, still asks “three little questions”, and then, finally, elucidates. However, in this story, despite her constant bickering with Mother, Shirley and Davie have agreed to set her up with Davie’s coworker, Inspector Millner. She immediately takes a keen liking to him, falling for his “helpless eyes” that appeal to her constant need to mother someone. Mother’s… motherly habits also play into the fourth story “Mom Sheds a Tear”, in which Davie arrests a five-year-old boy for murder. Mother refuses to stop harassing Davie about having a child of his own, and proves that the five-year-old is innocent to show him that children are the best gift in the world. For once, however, Mother, in her constant infantilization of those she dotes on, fails to realize that all men were once someone’s gift. Davie lords it over her that the true murderer was also somebody’s child once.

This greater introspection into the identity of Mom gives the stories more flavor and character, and turns Mom into a more compelling and interesting character. However, it also comes at the expense of the actual reasoning that brings about the explanation.

Mom’s detection style can essentially be boiled down to a bisection between Miss Marple and early Ellery Queen. She’s an armchair sleuth solving crimes related to her exclusively through stories from her son, and is equipped with Miss Marple’s knowledge of human knowledge and constant references to stories that tangentially relate to the murder case. She, however, also has Ellery Queen’s propensity for chaining together deductions into deductions — a typical Mom denouement is not a collection of disparate observations and contradictions that build up a picture of the crime, but instead one fatal observation that unleashes a swarth of deductions after inductions after abductions that break apart Davie’s understanding of the crime. Something like “we know that these two irreconcilable facts are presented to us, therefore this one is false, which gives a new perspective on an older detail that suggests that we were totally mistaken about this person’s turn of phrase, which by turn also suggests that the killer did this, and since the only person who was in the position to do that was this person for XYZ reasons, it stands to reason that they’re the killer” would be perfectly at home in an earlier Mom denouement.

It’s an interesting combination that in the best of the mystery plots, like “Mom Makes a Bet”, creates tight reasoning that points irrefutably in the killer’s direction. Occasionally, however, overreaching gender and age psychology (“this is undeniably the handwriting of a lonely old woman and no other person could write like this”, “no woman would ever open the door to a man and be caught dead without wearing lipstick”, “no child would ever question a lie told to them however much it conflicted with their understanding of the world”) can sometimes make the logic feel a little loose and, by extension, less credible. Not, necessarily, that her methods are wrong, but just that they’d only be right in moments when she lucks into crimes involving the perfect archetypes of what she believes the psychology of every demographic on Earth is, and only if we assume that this psychology is universally applicable, are Mom’s arguments are perfectly sound. In defense of Mom, there is usually a more concrete detail suggesting that something is significantly wrong (for example, someone claiming to see something years before that something even exists) and the psychological clues tend to be supporting details that help resolve that conflict, but in the worst of cases it absolutely goes well beyond where I can be expected to reasonably buy into Mom’s logic. And since the stories always end with the police making a real arrest, I can only imagine these deductions being laughed out of any courtroom in the world…

Another problem with the Mom detection style is her “three little questions”. When all is said and done, and all of the information presented, Mom’s deductions are at the very least valid and reasonable. However, these three little questions are always the three cinching details that show us the correct interpretation of the crime. Before them, you’re not meant to be able to entirely solve the crime. It’s always implied that Mom simply divined the solution from the first pass, and then asked the questions that would retroactively confirm the theory she’d already constructed. It’s never, in any one of the stories, explained how Mom reached the correct conclusion from half-complete information, and in a few instances it borders on omniscience.

That all being said, My Mother, the Detective is an interesting look at an author’s reconciliation with a genre he once had a disdain for. Mom grows into one of the most charming and delightful “spinster” sleuths in the genre, and the mysteries are on the whole incredibly satisfying! That all aside, James Yaffe’s work is clever, charming, colorful, and well-worth anyone’s attention — even if it’s just to see what Ellery Queen would’ve been like as a little old Jewish mother.

As with all of my posts like this, we’ll round things off with a ranking of each individual story in the collections. While I’m moving more towards discussing collections and anthologies holistically, instead of breaking down each individual story, I still want to include this segment at the end of these reviews to at least get my individual opinions on each story out in the open. I’ll leave a sentence or two describing the story and my opinion on it, but ultimately these segments are skippable.

  1. “Mom Makes a Bet” – 8.50/10 – A waiter is falsely accused of poisoning a rude customer. The tightest and most credible reasoning in the collection, one of the most clever clues, and a denouement Ellery Queen would be proud of. Easily a favorite of mine.
  2. “Mom Makes a Wish” – 8.25/10 – A drunk ex-professor is falsely accused of murdering his former boss. Highly psychological, but this story supports the psychology with clever physical evidence that makes it credible.
  3. “The Haunted Mink” – 8.00/10 – A doctor takes out a loan to buy his wife a wildly expensive mink coat she’s been wanting since they got married a month ago. However, after they find out the previous owner committed suicide, a series of supernatural phenomena surrounding the coat — the coat being yanked off her body, a psychic relaying a death threat from the coat’s late owner — eventually culminates in the mink apparently coming to life and smothering the woman to death. The supernatural element here isn’t the most atmospheric, and is hammy in presentation, but the set-up is the most original of all the Mother stories. The explanation for the “hauntings” is about what you expect, but the actual motive makes this clever and, in my opinion, the most seamless marriage between the characters and the mystery. The murder is a minor point.
  4. “Mother Knows Best” – 7.75/10 – A promiscuous young woman is murdered in her hotel room after being visited by three suitors. Features overreaching psychology, but it’s ultimately a minor point that’s supported by other contradictions. A very clever and satisfying clue near the end, and a good reversal with its double-solution. Another entry for Ellery Queen.
  5. “Mom Sings an Aria” – 7.25/10 – A feud between two opera lovers culminates in one being poisoned during a performance, and Mom proves the other isn’t the killer. Awash in farfetched psychology, but in this story the psychology is majorly texturing, or supported by facts that make the important deductions credible. Charming and colorful in its passion for opera, with some good logic, but by far less outright clever than most other stories in the collection. The solution is fairly obvious. Mom is at her most charming.
  6. “Mom Sheds a Tear” – 6.75/10 – A five-year-old boy starts acting up after his late father’s brother moves into their house. The child is later falsely accused by Davie of murdering his uncle by pushing him off of a balcony. The clues are conceptually very neat, and parts of the “killer’s” plan are clever, but the psychology in this one is invasive, overreaching and borderline absurd, patronizing to children and untrue when applied to practically every five-year-old I’ve ever known in my life. The explanation for how the victim actually died makes sense, but is a bit of an anti-climax and unintentionally almost comical. Has one of my favorite scenes with Mom and Davie.
  7. “Mom in the Spring” – 5.25/10 – A woman’s romantic pen pal appears to have murdered her — a fate that her son and daughter-in-law had warned her and the police about. My least favorite story in the collection. Messily plotted, much unverifiable, overgeneralized psychology, generally obvious and unsurprising. As with all of the Mom stories, there’s a few clever ideas, some smart clues, a neat twist or two, but in all this is the weakest Mom story.