by Barry Ergang
This article was originally published in a slightly different form in Mysterical-E in 2004.
I spend every year literarily mixed up in murder. Notice I said “literarily,” not “literally.” Of the multitude of novels and short stories I read annually, relatively few are not of the mystery/detection/suspense variety, but then my fiction diet has always contained generous helpings of crime and mystification.
Yes, I’m an unregenerate, unapologetic fan of the mystery genre, probably since I was seven or eight, when my mother bought me the first two books in the Hardy Boys series. Several years later, I discovered Conan Doyle (I still remember being thoroughly captivated and happily chilled by Watson’s eerie description of the moors in The Hound of the Baskervilles), though I never became the rabid Sherlockian many mystery fans are. Subsequently I graduated to the puzzles woven by Agatha Christie and Erle Stanley Gardner, then to the “hardboiled poetry” of Raymond Chandler and Ross Macdonald. The latter two remain among my all-time favorites.
My father’s bedside table was always stacked with books. Through him, I was introduced to some of the paperback authors who have become highly collectible today. Paperbacks cost a quarter or thirty-five cents back then; now some of them fetch hefty prices for which their authors would have loved to earn royalties. Among them were Richard S. Prather’s hilarious Shell Scott mysteries, Stephen Marlowe’s tales about “international” private eye, Chester Drum, the Matt Helm espionage novels of Donald Hamilton and John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee adventures.
Owing to my father’s tastes, I discovered Ian Fleming’s James Bond before President Kennedy made him a household name. Having read a lot of Sax Rohmer’s Dr. Fu Manchu novels, I was instantly intrigued by the title Dr. No and its back-cover blurb: “British secret agent James Bond tangles with a honey blonde and a six-foot-six madman with a mania for lust and torture.” What better way for a fourteen-year-old to start a morning? I sprawled out on my bed, started reading and didn’t stop till I finished the book that afternoon.
My venture into the hardboiled realms ultimately steered me away from the more traditional whodunits, with their English country houses à la Christie or New York mansions à la S.S. Van Dine. The “mean streets” of a Dashiell Hammett seemed more credible, and the tough detectives who traveled them a lot more realistically drawn than the haughty, eccentric amateurs or professionals of the “traditional” school.
Occasionally I leavened my rugged diet with a traditional, and thus discovered the prolific John Dickson Carr, who reawakened my pleasure in the classic fairly-clued puzzler. Although his novels were “veddy British” in setting and style, Carr was born in Uniontown, Pennsylvania and educated at Haverford College. Some of his earliest detective stories were published in The Haverfordian and introduced French sleuth Henri Bencolin, who later featured in four novels. Carr’s better-known detectives were the Chestertonian, Dr. Gideon Fell and, appearing under the author’s Carter Dickson pseudonym, the cantankerously comical, Sir Henry Merrivale.
Carr was the undisputed master of the “impossible crime” tale, my favorite type of traditional. More than any other writer in the detective field, Carr successfully wrought variations on the locked-room problem and other seemingly impossible situations with a distinctive flair for eerie atmospheres and page-turning suspense. His “best” has often been debated, but in a poll of mystery writers, editors, critics and readers conducted in the early 1980s, The Three Coffins emerged by a huge margin as the “greatest” impossible crime story of all time.
The novel poses two bafflers. The first is a murder committed in a room bolted on the inside, from which–apart from the door–there is no possible exit for the killer. The second is the murder at close range of a man in the middle of a snow-covered street with witnesses nearby. The only footprints in the surrounding snow are the victim’s. Who committed the murders–and how did he or she escape undetected? In The Man Who Could Not Shudder, a gun floats off a wall, aims and kills in the presence of witnesses. The victim in He Who Whispers is stabbed to death at a time when nobody could have gotten near him. In A Graveyard to Let, a man dives into a swimming pool–and vanishes. These are but a few of many Carr/Dickson gems.
Although many excellent impossible crime stories have been written since Poe invented the form with The Murders in the Rue Morgue, the one that equals Carr at his best, in my view, is Hake Talbot’s Rim of the Pit. Like Carr at his most macabre and atmospheric, Talbot hints at supernatural explanations for the bizarre series of events that follow one upon another, chapter after chapter, until the reader, despite knowing their eventual elucidation will be rationally based, is almost convinced that only a supernatural agency could be responsible for them.
Other vintage titles worth exploring include Gaston Leroux’s The Mystery of the Yellow Room; Clayton Rawson’s Death From a Top Hat, The Headless Lady, The Footprints on the Ceiling, and No Coffin for the Corpse; Jonathan Latimer’s Headed for a Hearse, The Dead Don’t Care, and The Search for My Great Uncle’s Head; Edmund Crispin’s The Case of the Gilded Fly, Swan Song, and The Moving Toyshop; Anthony Boucher’s Nine Times Nine and Rocket to the Morgue; Herbert Brean’s Wilders Walk Away, The Traces of Brillhart, and Hardly a Man is Now Alive; and Ellery Queen’s The Door Between and The King is Dead.
Thanks to specialty publishers like The Mysterious Press, The Langtail Press, Ramble House, Crippen and Landru, and Felony & Mayhem, some of the previously noted titles and authors who were out of print for a time are available again. Others can be unearthed in local libraries, used-book shops or in online sites, including abebooks.com, eBay, and Half.com.
Happily, impossible crime stories are not exclusively the provinces of bygone authors. Many modern mystery writers have ventured into this realm. To name but a few: Peter Lovesey in Bloodhounds and Barbara D’Amato in Hard Tack present their sleuths and the reader with “locked-boat” puzzles. In The Dime Museum Murders, The Floating Lady Murder and The Houdini Specter by Daniel Stashower, star-yet-to-be Harry Houdini tackles bizarre crimes. Ben Elton deftly skewers so-called “reality TV” in Dead Famous, when a murder is committed on a “Big Brother”-like program by person or persons unseen and unheard, despite cameras and microphones covering every inch of the housemates’ confined space. Bill Pronzini’s “Nameless” detective has encountered his share of seemingly impossible situations in novels like Hoodwink and several short stories.
Speaking of short stories, Editor Mike Ashley anthologized some superb ones in The Mammoth Book of Locked-Room Mysteries and Impossible Crimes and The Mammoth Book of Perfect Crimes and Impossible Mysteries. In The Mysteries of Reverend Dean, Hal White introduced a likeable clergyman with a knack for encountering and unraveling impossibilities just as the late, great Edward D. Hoch did in his stories about Dr. Sam Hawthorne (among other series characters)—see Diagnosis: Impossible and More Things Impossible.
A list of authors, older and contemporary, who have written impossible crime stories is not feasible due to space constraints–even if I knew who all of them were–and had read them all. I do not and have not.
Among those writing today, award-winning French author, Paul Halter, is an absolute must-read for fans of this kind of mystery. His work first appeared in English translations in 2006 with the short story collection, The Night of the Wolf. Five novels have been translated since: The Fourth Door, The Lord of Misrule, The Seven Wonders of Crime, The Demon of Dartmoor and The Seventh Hypothesis.
I wrote earlier that John Dickson Carr devised more impossible situations than any of his peers. That was true in his day, but with the advent of Paul Halter–who cites Carr as his inspiration–he has quite possibly been surpassed. Although characterization is his weakness and he’s not quite as adept as Carr at evoking portentous atmospheres, Halter’s ability to invent fairly-clued plots full of fantastic events is nothing short of brilliant. None of the aforementioned novels contains only a single “miracle” crime, and one contains seven of them.
Carr called the detective story “the grandest game in the world.” Read some of those I’ve mentioned and you’ll understand why.
Check out other mystery articles, reviews, book giveaways & short stories in our mystery section.