book review

The Realm of the Impossible

When I gave my impressions of The Locked Room Reader, I felt I may have been too harsh. Though some of the individual stories didn’t impress me, it was a pleasure embarking on one locked-room mystery after another. As I’ve now chosen another gathering of impossible delights to discuss, I’d like to make it clear that this is a collection, offering different takes on impossible crimes. Overall, the quality is high and I’d recommend it. I don’t like to give ratings (they’re often meaningless or contradictory) but for clarity’s sake, I’ll toss in some grades for each story. (Note-the book also has cases of real-life impossibilities which are fascinating but unsuitable for grading.) My apologies if some of these of brief, there are a lot of stories in here and Christmas is a busy time.

Jacob’s Ladder by Paul Halter

The problem: The victim is found lying on the bank of a pond. Because of the contusions on the body and the many broken bones, it is determined he must have fallen from a great height. But from where? There’s nothing close he could have fallen from. To make matters worse, he was heard crying out just minutes earlier.

Like many short mysteries, Jacob’s Ladder is told as a story within the story. Our old friend Dr. Twist hears of the events and attempts to solve the crime. Even within this short frame, Halter manages to fit in a legend (Jacob’s Ladder) and a red herring or two. This is the author in microcosm–good story, fantastic solution. B+

Cyanide in the Sun by Christianna Brand

The Problem: The Sunnyside Guest House has a history of foul play. It’s happening again. The victims receive a warning of impending doom and are then poisoned. A group of six make sandwiches together, one placing lettuce, another dabbing on mustard, etc. Only one of them dies. Same sandwiches, vastly different outcomes.

Brand is my favorite author. I was beginning to doubt my fandom. Maybe it’s because she’s my favorite author that I rave about all her work. In other words, I can’t judge it accurately because I want to love it in advance. Sorry, I read this thing three times and it’s awesome. It’s funny (…he choked on a crumb and suffocated himself…And the ninth of the Cyanide Murders was the only blot on the blue and gold of those shining summer days…), creepy ( …watching that terrible, jerking, gasping marionette thrashing about in its death throes…), and the solution is oh-so-gorgeous. I love how Brand isolates the sandwich scenes within the narrative, maximizing the tension. A+

WIndfall by Ulf Durling

The Problem: A man is found dead of natural causes under an apple tree. Fortunately for fans of impossible crimes, another man takes credit for his murder in a suicide note. This “murderer” was fifty meters away at the time.

I appreciated the problem, but (and my own prejudices regarding solutions are heavily influencing my judgment) it’s not an exciting story. This may be another problem with anthologies — 2 brilliant stories and a fair one is going to seem mediocre by comparison. Perhaps, this is an impossible crime story for people who aren’t impossible crime junkies. If someone has read this and thinks it’s the bee’s knees, let me know. I’d love to hear why. It didn’t do anything for me. C

The Case of the Horizontal Trajectory by Joseph Skvorecky (Shkvoretsky — I’m not finding the hacek online)

The Problem: A woman has been stabbed in the eye. The body is discovered in a locked room.

Having lived in Prague for 10 years, I was excited to read a Czech version of the impossible. As I had suspected, it’s funnier than it is unnerving. Lieutenant Boruvka (Blueberry) is a wonderful creation, forcing his long-suffering daughter to do his arithmetic and plowing through a worthless confession from the neighbor. The solution isn’t brilliant, but it needn’t be. This was fun to read. B

The Mystery of the Sleeping-Car Express by Freeman Wills Crofts

The Problem: Two people are shot dead in a locked (wedged) sleeper car. A woman was in the car with them, but saw no murderer.

The golden rule seems to be complicated set-up combined with simple solution. That’s perfection. However, if the first is a bit simpler and the second more elaborate, it is by no means a deal-breaker. This story has me conflicted. The building of the crime scene is so wonderfully elaborate. Crofts’s detectives go into minute detail, destroying every possible avenue to a solution. It’s an impressive show. In the end, he offers a solution that is A. difficult to picture and B. too complicated. After all that minutia, I could have done with simple clarity. It’s good, but for a while, I thought it was going to be marvelous. B

Dead Man in the Scrub by Mary Fortune

A corpse in a sealed tent.

This is a wonderful short story, but (as indicated in the preface) it is not written as a locked-room mystery. That bothered me on the first read so I read it again and the qualities of the piece shined through. It gathers a lot of subtle power from its depiction of the Australian wilderness circa 1850. Despite the locale, this would have fit in very well as an episode in the Coen Brothers’ recent western anthology, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. A

The Hidden Law by Melville Davisson Post

The Problem: A thief is somehow entering a locked house and stealing gold.

Okay, someone else who has read this, please correct me if I’m wrong. It cheats! I don’t mean a little, I don’t mean it restates its own established scenario to present facts in a new light, I mean it flat out disregards the set-up. Maybe that was allowed back then, but it doesn’t cut it on my kindle a week before 2020. That being said, I enjoyed it more than The Doomdorf Mystery. C

House Call by Alexandre Dumas

The Problem: A woman has vanished from a locked room at a boarding school.

Lovely. A detective with a delicious name (M. Jackal) arrives at the school to deconstruct the events of the disappearance, one footstep and one ladder movement at a time. Besides the attention to detail, I appreciated the smartass dialogue and the intelligence of the detective. A

The Twelve Figures of the World by Jorge Luis Borges and Adolfo Bioy Casares

The Problem: It’s not really a problem. There’s a murder to be sure and some inexplicable magic, but I’m uncertain I can say any of this is presented as a problem.

Sometimes, you read a story and it’s not for you. The only thing you can do in such a case is to admit it. The solution to this story hinges on an old magic trick – one any amateur magician has tried. That trick (similar in spirit to the, shall we say, life-sized extrapolation of the solution in The Tokyo Zodiac Murders) is the best thing in this otherwise lackluster tale. there’s no oomph, no passion. There isn’t even a studied coldness to appreciate. It just limps along and then gives a neat solution. C-

Rhampsinitos and the Thief by Herodotus

I’m not going to review this. Its inclusion here is surely meant to provide a thoroughness to the types of stories presented. It’s historically significant, dramatically inert. N/A

The Martian Crown Jewels by Paul Anderson

The Problem: The eponymous jewels are loaded onto a spaceship which then hurdles across space until it lands on Mars. The ship is opened and (you guessed it) the jewels are gone.

Anytime a mystery is set in the future (or space or deals with aliens) there is always the opportunity to have some fun with invented tech and creatures and such. Anderson takes full advantage here. His Holmes is a stork-like Martian with a love of mysteries and a brilliantly deductive mind. The solution is good the set-up intriguing. This will put a smile on your face. I loved it, and take note that I hate mysteries about stolen jewels. B+

Leaving No Evidence by Dudley Hoys

The Problem: On a snow-covered mountain in Beirut, a mysterious “thing” comes from nowhere and snatches the men from the ground, never to be seen again.

Brilliant! A perfectly measured story of madness and murder. It’s also instructive. If I told you the whole story, solution and all, you wouldn’t think much of it. But within the narrative, everything works. A+

The Venom of the Tarantula by Sharadindu Bandyopadhyay

The Problem: A bitter, profane wretch is somehow sneaking hallucinogenic tarantula venom into his guarded room.

I have no idea why I liked this story so much. Maybe it’s how much of an unrelenting prick the villain was or maybe it was the unique set-up with the family working together to shield him from his addiction. I’m at a loss. A very simple, effective solution. B+

Sir Gilbert Murrell’s Picture by Victor L. Whitechurch

The Problem: Somewhere along a train journey, a wagon in the middle of the train vanishes.

This is a wonderful set-up, with some fine clue work, and then…the solution is forced at gunpoint. As an homage to Doyle it works. As an interactive mystery, it’s sorely lacking. Granted, the trick is neat. It needs some work on the presentation. C

The Miracle on Christmas Eve by Szu-Yen Lin

The Problem: Santa Clause enters a sealed room and leaves presents for some disbelieving children.

Adorable. I could be mean to this story and complain about the lack of child murder, but…it’s Christmas. A

Seven Brothers by Aleksis Kivi

The Problem: A man’s footprints in the snow suddenly become a fox’s.

As I’m currently writing a footprints-in-the-snow tale of my own, I get scared when I read one. What if they do the exact thing I do? Luckily, it’s not the case. This is actually a good solution. The main principle is something that’s been done well and poorly, but the reason for its use here is rather clever. This is an excerpt so I cannot grade it properly. N/A

Lying Dead and Turning Cold by Alfonso Carreiro

The Problem: A body is found in the snow with no footprints anywhere near it. It can be supposed that he was placed there before it started snowing except…there is no snow on the body at all.

Now this is a fine footprints solution. The bulk of the story takes place within one night and the story builds a thick atmosphere with all the typical threatening shadows and things that go bump in the night. A

Deadfall by Samuel W. Taylor

The Problem: Two men are stranded in a snowy cabin. One of them begins seeing the footprints of his family.

Some of these stories succeed because of the impossibility while other are great pieces of writing. This is both. Skillfully depicted as a series of journal entries, Deadfall intensifies the struggle between the two friends until what was once a bleak tale of wilderness survival becomes a study in cunning madness. Highly recommended. A+

The Lure of the Green Door by Rintaro Norizuki

The Problem: A man is found hanging inside a locked room. One door was bolted shut and the other, unable to open. Soon, murder is suspected.

A truly clever principle is employed in this solution. I loved the clues. They work on a literal and metaphorical level. There’s good character work, too–lots of personality in a limited amount of plot. It’s a typical scenario (a bickering man and woman work together to expose a murderous widow) but it’ll surprise you. A

The Barese Mystery by Pietro De Palma

The Problem: Similar to the previous story but with lots of porno and mechanical shutters.

This is quite compact compared with the previous story, and the effect on the reader suffers. Nevertheless, its solution is good and fairly clewed. I had the impression De Palma had a good idea and just wanted to get it over with. B

The Witch Doctor’s Revenge by Jochen Fuseler (sans diacritic)

The Problem: Two men are sentenced by a witch doctor. First they will suffer gruesome torture and then vanish from the face of the Earth. It happens with our detective as a witness.

A good demonstration of a complicated solution with a basic principle–the trick is so good! A lot of these stories end on a whimsical note (to be honest, usually a bit forced). This was delightful. A

All the Birds of the Air by Charles B Child

The Problem: A man is bludgeoned to death in a room. The door was guarded. No weapon was found, but there was a dead bird. So…there’s that.

Here’s a good example of an okay solution buoyed by superior form. The path of the clues is the most enjoyable thing along with the Iraqi setting. B+

The Warder of the Door by L.T. Meade and Robert Eustace

The Problem: An ancient family curse (the soul of a dead father becomes a warder to a hidden crypt until the son dies to take his place).

This is an atmospheric little tale with a solution I did not see coming. Good thing, too. The solution I had considered was horribly banal. It’s fast-paced and enjoyable. B+

The Locked House of Pythagoras by Soji Shimada

The Problem: Tho people are killed inside a locked room. There are footprints outside the house, but they only circle around. It gets a lot more complicated than that. The two lovers were stabbed multiple times and are found on a bed of artwork. Just your typical murder scene.

Shimada brings things to a suitable insane finish. We see all his usual obsessions–eccentric artists, infidelity, brutal violence, geometry gone mad, etc. The detective is a child, a scenario that reads better than it sounds. You’ll get a lot of enjoyment from the police’s reaction to his superior deductions. A

As you can surmise, this is delightful. A few disappointments, but no duds and a whole lot of winners. As a final note to 2019, I’d like to wish all my readers Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, Joyeaux Noel, Season’s Greetings, et al. I hope the new year finds you happy and ready to read lots of murderous impossibilities in the immediate future.

4 thoughts on “The Realm of the Impossible”

  1. There’s really too much in this collection to leave any meaningful comment that addresses all of it, so I’ll chip in with some brief ones:

    I love that Aleksis Kivi excerpt from Seven Brothers: it’s a lovely little problem, and has one of the best motives supplied with the keenest insight in the shortest amount of time I think I’ve ever encountered.

    I don’t remember some of these (‘Lying Dead and Turning Cold’, ‘The Warder of the Door’, ‘The Witch Doctor’s Revenge’) but you make me want to go back and check them out forthwith. Others, like ‘Leaving No Evidence’ by Dudley Hoys, I think you capture perfectly. If you like that Szu-Yen Lin story, you should check out his ‘The Ghost of the Badminton Court’. I really hope we get more novels from him, too, because Death in the house of Rain was ingenious (if, well, dark as hell in some places).

    And the Norizuki is one of my favourite impossible crime stories ever. Ho-Ling tells me that Norizuki hasn’t written much else by way of impossibilities, but I don’t care: I just want more of the man in English, if that’s the way his mind works.

    Happy Christmas!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Wow, we’re very similar in our appreciation of the stories in this one. I am a little less impressed with the Australian story, the Indian story as well as Dudley Hoys’s horror-cum-impossible crime story, and I enjoyed Whitechurch’s train story more than you did, but otherwise you highlighted everything that I liked about this one and pooh-poohed everything I didn’t like. (

    Looking very much forward to your footprints in the snow story!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The Australian one doesn’t work as an impossible crime. I responded to its elegiac tone more than anything. I also decided to look at this collection as more of a whole, offering variations on a theme rather than presenting individual stories. On that basis, it worked for me.

      “Looking very much forward to your footprints in the snow story!”

      Me too!


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