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Locked Room Reviews:
The Black Lizard Big Book of Locked Room Stories
Edited by Otto Penzler – Part 4 of 8
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General Book Review included in all 8 parts: Scroll down for Part 4 story reviews
My ‘to read’ list is in total disorder! I am just about finished reading ‘The Black Lizard Big Book of Locked Room Mysteries’ and that is no small task! This fantastic collection of 68 of the best locked room short stories is a monstrous read that never seems to end, and most locked room fans would be in seventh heaven if that was truly the case! The Penguin/Random House paperback edition is an oversized “telephone book” edition consisting of 960 pages, and it is clearly many more pages in any ebook format! This collection has been billed as the most complete collection of locked room stories ever published, and it actually lives up to this claim! I have a whole shelf full of locked room anthologies, and the only ones that even comes close are Mike Ashley’s ‘The Mammoth Book of Locked Room Stories’, and his companion volume ‘The Mammoth Book of Perfect Crimes & Impossible Mysteries’, which are both published in a similar format and clock in at 532 & 548 pages respectively. In addition, perhaps the most important point of all, is that these three collections have very few duplicate items, thereby creating a very impressive library of the locked room and impossible crime short story at a very reasonable price.
‘The Black Lizard Big Book of Locked-Room Mysteries’ is the work of mystery aficionado, Edgar winner, and all round mystery genre expert Otto Penzler, who has done a truly fantastic job of assembling a taste of nearly all the most important authors in this fascinating mystery sub-genre. Penzler (born 1942) is familiar to most mystery fans as a well know anthologist, the head of ‘The Mysterious Press’ and the proprietor of The Mysterious Bookshop in New York City. Only one warning is required before launching into this book, if you are a locked room purist, who wants only nailed shut doors and windows, you may be slightly disappointed as there are likely more ‘Impossible Crimes’ than actual locked room plots in this collection – an editorial decision which raises no problem by my standards. To exclude impossible crimes would simply rule out too many great works by too many of the great masters of this genre. Another warning that prospective buyers should consider, is whether it is better to buy the ebook or the paperback edition. I have read it as an ebook, and have had no problems, but other reviews, by those reading the paperback edition, often complain that this over sized, extremely thick volume, printed in an old fashioned two column layout, is very difficult to hold and cumbersome to read.
There is something very special about the short story format in the locked room mystery genre. The two just seem to fit together in a quite remarkable manner. Sustaining a good locked room plot throughout a novel, is no small accomplishment, though many remarkable authors have managed to create a great library over the decades. Yet, many locked room literary devices seem to be custom designed for the short fiction format, which has led several of the best locked room authors to make a career out of writing only locked room short stories. The ‘Big Three’ that immediately jump to mind are Edward D. Hoch, Joseph Commings and Arthur Porges, but as Penzler so convincingly proves, this was also done by several early authors, like Jacques Futrelle, and they were all in good company amongst a distinguished list of locked room short fiction authors that reads like a ‘Who’s Who?’ of the entire mystery genre.
I have remarked on several occasions that the closest cousin to the locked room mystery is the stage magician’s illusion, with the main difference being that the magician does not have to give up his secrets after every trick, while the locked room author is required to explain away the mystery after every short story or novel. This fact should help the reader to recognize the incredible ingenuity that goes into writing these stories, and also, unfortunately, explains why we often seem to have run out of locked room plot devices – though as Edward D. Hoch demonstrated for most of his life – there always seems to be one more great illusion just waiting to be invented.
Penzler, in a fascinating essay on Huffington Post that announced the launch of this book, provides us with a few insights into his editorial approach:
“I don’t care how old we get — as long as we retain a sense of wonder, we’ll stay young and live a happier life than those too-cool-for-school cynics who have a weary, ho-hum, is-that-all-there-is response to magic shows, fireworks, and locked-room mysteries.
After a half-century of reading more mystery, crime, and suspense fiction than normal people, and being blessed to have a career in this delicious literary niche as an editor, publisher, bookseller, reviewer, author, and anthologist, I maintain that no sub-genre is as difficult to produce as a locked room mystery.
A lifetime of reading helped produce my new book, The Big Book of Locked Room Mysteries, since I’d hunted down short stories of this type ever since I learned that such things exist.
Almost all the best impossible crime stories were written during the Golden Age of detective fiction, those two decades between the world wars, and, sadly, almost no one produces them nowadays. Of course not. They are as difficult to write as it is for Captain Hook to thread a needle.
I read about 350-400 stories before settling on the final 68 (I was fussier than Goldilocks), which represent almost every kind of scenario for a crime that appears to have no rational solution.
The most standard situation is a hermetically sealed room, doors and windows locked, no secret entrances, closely guarded, yet the intended victim is stabbed, bludgeoned, poisoned, strangled, or shot to death.
But there are other, equally impossible set-ups. A carefully raked tennis court with a bludgeoned corpse at the net, with only his footsteps on the clay. A body that has been stabbed in the middle of a field of undisturbed, newly fallen snow. An empty airplane making a smooth landing. A person who enters a house, never to be seen again.”
This is the true charm of the locked room mystery, and once you delve into this collection, it is almost certain that you will be hooked. ‘The Black Lizard Big Book of Locked-Room Mysteries’ comes conveniently divided into 8 fairly clear sections, so we will explore each of these sub-collections over the next couple of weeks as this series progresses. Many locked room fans will be well aware that I am not the first to attempt to dissect this incredible collection. TomCat at Moonlight Detective has already written a seven part series on this title, but his priorities are somewhat different than mine, and it never hurts to get a second opinion, so let’s get started!
Part 4: And we missed it, lost forever
It is a fantasy for many people to disappear from their present lives. Some people disappear because they want to, others disappear because someone else wants them to. And objects—large objects—sometimes disappear in the same manner.
Hugh Pentecost, “The Day the Children Vanished”
Stanley Ellin, “The Twelfth Statue”
William Irish, “All at Once, No Alice”
Edmund Crispin, “Beware of the Trains”
H.R.F. Keating, “The Locked Bathroom”
Dashiell Hammett, “Mike, Alec and Rufus”
C. Daly King, “The Episode of the Torment IV“
Julian Hawthorne, “Greaves’ Disappearance”
Ellery Queen, “The House of Haunts”
J.E. Gurdon, “The Monkey Trick”
E.C. Bentley, “The Ordinary Hairpin”
Jacques Futrelle, “The Phantom Motor”
Edward D. Hoch, “The Theft of the Bermuda Penny”
Judson Philips, “Room Number Twenty-Three”
‘The Day the Children Vanished’ by Hugh Pentecost is clearly one of the best stories in this collection. A station wagon full of schoolchildren is seen driving into a two mile stretch of road known as the “dug away” with a sheer cliff on one side and a fence guarded drop into the lake on the other. The problem is that it apparently never emerged from the other end! The road is carefully searched, but there is no sign of the vehicle or any accident. With no possible exits for a vehicle, the village is soon driven into a terrified frenzy over the missing children. Then some of the children’s clothes are discovered in an old quarry, but the car is still nowhere to be found! Why would anyone take nine children? And where is the car? Oddly, a real life crime in 1976, known as the “Chowchilla Kidnapping”, proved to be eerily similar!
“The Twelfth Statue”, by Stanley Ellin, is a well-crafted tale that deals with the impossible disappearance of an American producer of B-movies, or “quickies”, in 1960’s Rome. Alexander File’s legendary penny pinching and maltreatment of his employees, produces a lengthy list of suspects, but the search for the body soon runs into a dead end. This is a really well worked plot, and a great mystery read, but not a true locked room tale, as there are simply too many potential ways to bypass the security on the movie lot. However, the main fault with this story is that any locked room fan will see the solution coming down the tracks like a roaring freight train!
‘All At Once, No Alice’ by William Irish, often published under the pen name ‘Cornell Woolrich’, is part of a long locked room tradition of vanishing hotel rooms. A newly eloped couple have trouble finding any room at the inn, due to a convention, and the only room they can find is more broom closet than proper hotel accommodation. The tiny cell is furnished only with a simple cot and few amenities, but James Cannon takes the room for his new wife, before heading for the local YMCA. The real problem begins when he returns the next morning – the small room is being repainted and everyone denies ever seeing him or his wife! The register has also been altered and there is no record of their hasty marriage. Has Jimmy Cannon gone crazy or is everyone involved in a grand conspiracy! Absolutely a great story, but more psychological suspense than impossible crime. Still, it is a really good representative of a large number of stories in this genre that are more concerned with hunting for objects which have impossibly disappeared, than explaining impossible crimes or locked rooms!
‘Beware of the Trains’ is one of the better Gervase Fen stories by the British author, Edmund Crispin. A train engineer impossibly disappears from a station that is completely surrounded by the police. Fen must not only explain this disappearance, but also solve the mystery surrounding the death of a burglar found along the tracks. I love the quote where Inspector Humbleby remarks: “It’s occurred to me that he may be dead and cut up into little pieces. But I still can’t find any of the pieces …. Good Lord, Fen, it’s like — it’s like one of those Locked-Room Mysteries you get in books: an Impossible Situation.” This is a truly classic locked room puzzle by one of the genre’s best authors!
‘The Locked Bathroom’ by the great British mystery author, H.R.F. Keating, features one of his less well known detective characters, Mrs. Craggs, a professional charwoman. Squadron Leader, Jumping Jack Marchpane was taking a shower, while his nagging wife was washing at the sink, when he simply disappeared from this world. He could not have left the bathroom without her noticing. He had simply been there, busy showering one moment, then just ceased to exist. Mrs. Craggs makes tea for Mrs. Marchpane, to ease the shock, then they carefully search the house, but come up empty and are finally forced to call the police! The Great Locked Bathroom Mystery is an immediate sensation, but is never officially solved. Still, perhaps Mrs. Craggs knows more than she’s willing to tell the police! It really is a very charming story!
The last time I read Dashiell Hammett is too many decades ago to clearly remember, but ‘Mike, Alec, or Rufus’ reminded me that I have been missing one of the great mystery authors! The original ‘nameless’ – The Continental Op – investigates a holdup in an apartment building, where the perpetrator has managed a seemingly impossible escape. It is not exactly a locked room story, but close enough! Hammett fans will, of course, love the hardboiled style, the well worked out plot, and the oversized characters. Not the best locked room solution, but acceptable, when one considers that Hammett was writing far outside of his usual territory!
C. Daly King’s, ‘The Episode of the Torment IV’, is another good impossible crime yarn, and by yarn I mean a really tall tale! ‘Torment IV’ is King’s version of ‘The Mary Celeste’. A motorboat runs aground on the shore of a small New England lake – minus the family onboard! Once would have been OK, but when the boat nearly loses it’s crew three times, it must be admitted that King is laying it on a little too thick! If that is not bad enough, the solution is far too incredible for words! It really is a pretty bad impossible crime story – unless you are in the mood for a good laugh. By the way, this is not representative of all the ‘Curious Mr. Tarrant’ stories – some are actually very good!
In Julian Hawthorne’s ‘Greaves’ Disappearance’ (1893), a man disappears in the middle of a busy street, while walking with a friend, during a momentary distraction. Greaves had fallen in love with two women, his fiancé Miss Sophia Baddley, and an exotic Parisian dancer known as ‘Saki’. Had he made off with himself, run off with the dancer, or simply disappeared into thin air? In many ways this story is quite similar to G.K. Chesterton’s Father Brown story, ‘The Invisible Man’ (1911). Not one of my favourites stories, but a well crafted tale.
‘The House of Haunts’, by Ellery Queen, is the original 1935 story which was later developed into the 1936 novelette, ‘The Lamp of God’. It is one of the darker Queen stories, with an eerie gothic atmosphere reminiscent of a classic Victorian ghost story. Ellery Queen is asked by a lawyer friend to help a young heiress, just arrived from England. Her eccentric father, whom she hasn’t seen since she was a child, has just died, days before she could be reunited with her family and inherit her father’s fabled hoard of gold. The group drives for several hours into the wilds of Long Island, until they reach an ugly and nearly uninhabitable Victorian mansion called ‘The Black House’ – just as night falls. The new arrivals meet the very strange extended family, then bed down in a smaller stone house next to the old mansion. The big surprise arrives the next morning – the ‘Black House’ has simply vanished as though it never existed! This story is an excellent example of the art of locked room illusion and misdirection, and one of the better stories in this anthology.
‘The Monkey Trick’ by J.E. Gurdon, is a unique piece of aviation fiction. Written in 1936, as the storm clouds that would become the Second World War were slowly gathering, it creates the illusion of a nearly impossible event as part of a ploy to fool the enemy. The idea of the British is to convince the unnamed (German) enemy, that they possess a wireless controlled plane, capable of travelling at the then unimaginable speed of 800 miles an hour. To accomplish this goal, they create an elaborate illusion in front of the chief of the enemy Secret Service, in the hope that the mere suggestion of such a weapon would dissuade his country from starting a new conflict. The trick is brilliantly executed, and completely baffles all concerned, including the local police. The solution is not very surprising, but it is a very interesting piece of period fiction.
‘The Ordinary Hairpins’, by E.C. Bentley (1875-1936), is a Philip Trent story by one of the most important authors in the development of modern mystery fiction. Trent is painting a portrait of Lord Aviemore, when the subject turns to Aviemore’s late sister-in-law, the Norwegian singer, Lillimore Wergeland. Six years earlier, after her husband and child were killed in an earthquake in Sicily, she had apparently taken her life by jumping into the sea during an overnight passage aboard a ship. Trent’s interest is aroused by this discussion, and he begins to investigate this very cold case, which ends up turning on an seemingly unimportant item of evidence – four ordinary black hair pins! Not a true locked room story, or even a very impossible mystery, instead it is another of those stories that deal with things that suddenly disappear without a trace. An excellent piece of fiction by one of the great masters, and a great mystery read, but not at all sure that it really belongs in a locked room anthology.
One of my all time favourite locked room / impossible crime stories is the “The Phantom Motor” by the incomparable Jacques Futrelle. It is a hugely entertaining mystery read! Almost every night, a strange phantom car passes Special Constable Baker and enters a long speed trap bordered by high walls on both sides – but never emerges at the other end of the trap, where Special Constable Bowman has been alerted by a telephone connection. Both officers can see part of this stretch of road, but in the middle – right between the walls – the curve of the road blocks their vision. This is the story first reported by Professor S. F. X. Van Dusen’s journalist friend, Hutchinson Hatch, who personally witnesses Baker’s problematic speeder. After the story breaks, twelve reporters stake out the road, but that night nothing occurs, so Hatch decides to take the problem to ‘The Thinking Machine’.
We have already looked at one of Edward D. Hoch’s Simon Ark series, now we are given one of his Nick Velvet stories, ‘TheTheft of the Bermuda Penny’. Nick Velvet is a professional thief who follows only two rules. He will not steal anything of intrinsic value, and the more impossible the challenge of the theft, the more likely he is to undertake the commission, which is always worth a hefty pile of cash. This story provides a double dose of impossibility. The owner of the coin, Alfred Cazar, suddenly vanishes from the backseat of a moving car, leaving the seat belt securely buckled – while Velvet is sitting in the front seat! Two Bermuda pennies had originally been given to two men, as tokens of a gambling debt, which is about to be repaid with considerable interest. The daughter of one of the men has one coin, but believes that Cazar, the owner of the other coin, is behind her father’s death. In the end, she is the one who is first robbed, and Nick Velvet must steal back both coins at the very last moment!
‘Room Number 23’ is by Philip Judson, another pseudonym of Judson Pentacost Philips, aka: Hugh Pentecost, who wrote the first story in this section. In this classic locked room story, a scream is heard emanating from Room 23 of the old Nathan Hotel near Washington Square. The door is finally battered down, only to find the room completely empty, and the occupant, Miss Wilson, who was in possession of a small fortune in jewels, seemingly dissolved into thin air. The door was the only way out of the room, and it was under constant observation from the moment Miss Wilson returned to her room, a few minutes prior to the scream. In addition, the room was flanked by the rooms of her brother, and a PI who had been hired to protected them, and they were both on the scene before the cry stopped echoing down the corridor. The investigation is taken up by a young reporter for ‘The Republican’, Renshaw, assisted by his roommate, the eccentric and brilliant James Bellamy. Eventually, the case becomes a murder, when the body of Miss Wilson impossibly turns up behind some ash cans in the basement – an area which had previously been thoroughly searched. How was it possible to move the body about in a hotel full of police and how did the killer escape from Room 23? The solution is one of the best, giving Philips two great tales in this one rather lengthy section.
It seems quite clear that this section is far superior to the last one, which had few actual locked room masterpieces. It is also the longest section in the entire volume with 14 stories, bring the number of stories now reviewed to 39, with 29 more still to go in the next four reviews of this huge anthology!
How to rate ‘The Black Lizard Big Book of Locked Room Mysteries? There can be no doubt that this is a pure five star collection. Individual tales may not deserve that ranking, but over all, Penzler has still done a masterful job of selecting these stories!
Coming up next:
Part 5: How easily is murder discovered
There are so many ways for the creative killer to accomplish the act
Lynn Wood Block & Lawrence Block, “The Burglar Who Smelled Smoke”
Augustus Muir, “The Kestar Diamond Case”
Kate Ellis, “The Odor of Sanctity”
Edward D. Hoch, “The Problem of the Old Oak Tree”
Nicholas Olde, “The Invisible Weapon”
Ray Cummings, “The Confession of Rosa Vitelli”
Stephen Barr, “The Locked Room to End Locked Rooms”
A Proud Amazon Associate
Locked Room Reviews:
The Black Lizard Big Book of Locked Room Stories
Edited by Otto Penzler – Part 4 of 8
Find an impossible murder!
A Proud Amazon Associate!