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Locked Room Reviews:
The Black Lizard Big Book of Locked Room Stories
Edited by Otto Penzler – Part 6 of 8
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General Book Review included in all 8 parts: Scroll down for Part 6 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 6: Shoot if you must
It may not be terribly original, but shooting someone tends to be pretty effective
Clayton Rawson, “Nothing Is Impossible”
Bill Pronzini, “Where Have You Gone, Sam Spade?”
G.D.I. & M.I. Cole, “In a Telephone Cabinet”
Stuart Towne, “Death Out of Thin Air”
Agatha Christie, “The Dream”
Margery Allingham, “The Border-Line Case”
Melville Davisson Post, “The Bradmoor Murder”
Leslie Charteris, “The Man Who Liked Toys”
Hulbert Footner, “The Ashcomb Poor Case”
Georges Simenon, “The Little House at Croix-Rousse”
‘Nothing Is Impossible’ by Clayton Rawson, is part of his Great Merlini series, featuring a stage magician and magic shop owner, who assists the police with impossible crimes. Aviation pioneer, Albert North, has made UFO’s his retirement hobby, much to the chagrin of his son in law, Charles Kane, who now runs Northair Corporation. Russ Harte, a journalist and series regular, has scheduled an interview with North, and brought along his friend, Merlini. Just as they arrive, Kane also appears with some papers that require North’s immediate signature and they enter North’s office, leaving Harte, Merlini, and North’s secretary, Anne, waiting outside. A few minutes later, a shot is heard, and after Merlini picks the locks, they enter to find North shot to death, Kane lying on the floor apparently unconscious and completely naked, and an odd line of mysterious writing burned into the wall. Of course, it was quite impossible for anyone else to have entered this room – except, of course, little green aliens! One of the best locked room stories, by one of the masters of the locked room genre, and a famous stage magician.
Bill Pronzini’s classic locked room story, ‘Where Have You Gone, Sam Spade?’, is yet another genre masterpiece. Pronzini’s ‘Nameless’ detective, takes a job as a night watchman at an import company, to help pay the bills. Due to the arrival of a valuable shipment, the warehouse is securely locked and double locked, supposedly making it impossible for anyone to get in, but that doesn’t prevent a body from literally dropping in for a visit! Even if the dead man had been hiding, how was it possible for the murderer to get out? An exceptionally well plotted, good old fashioned detective story, and a great locked room solution. The only fault is that it is not much of a whodunit, the identity of the culprit is fairly obvious from the first pages.
‘In a Telephone Cabinet’ (1928), by the husband and wife team of G.D.H. & M.I. Cole, is one of the most interesting stories in this collection. Superintendent Harry Wilson, and his friend, Dr. Michael Prendergast, are out for a Sunday morning stroll, when they stumble upon the discovery of a dead body. Harold Carluke had been shot to death, inside his telephone cabinet, with some form of weapon that must have resembled an old blunderbuss, loaded with at least a dozen soft nosed slugs, and fired at point blank range – removing large portions of his head. The man had been dead for several hours, before his friend, Barton, became alarmed and broke in to the entirely locked house. This suggests, that since the time of the murder, no one else could have entered or left – but with no matching weapon at the scene, suicide is equally impossible. A great locked room story with one of the most ingenious solutions in locked room fiction. I don’t want to spoil this story, but most modern readers, who are not familiar with a standard phone cabinet in this period, might want to check Wikipedia before reading!
Our first story in this section, was one of Clayton Rawson’s best Great Merlini stories, now we once again return to the same author in ‘Death Out of Thin Air’, this time under the pseudonym ‘Stuart Towne’, with another stage magician character, Don Diavolo, The Scarlet Wizard. Diavolo is a darker character than Merlini, who often flaunts the letter of the law, making him a favourite target of the police. He is not an outright crook, in fact, he usually ends up solving the crime, but only after enraging Inspector Church with tricks designed to misdirect the police at every turn. This is one of the longer stories in this collection, but Rawson keeps up such an incredible pace, with far too many impossible crimes, great magical tricks, and audacious illusions, to ever allow this story to become boring.
In this case, the locked room mystery begins with the murder of Sergeant Lester Healey, who has just witnessed a disturbing demonstration of an invisibility device, by a criminal gang, who have stolen the machine from a local scientist. Healey quickly returns to his locked office at police headquarters, to write his report, and informs Inspector Church, by phone, that he has important information. Church immediately heads for Healey’s office, which makes him the first on the scene, when the detective is apparently murdered by an invisible man who manages to escape an onslaught of police – leaving a flustered Inspector Church, looking like the only logical suspect. The Moonlight Detective finds these stories a bit too “carny”, but I couldn’t disagree more! Rawson is one of the locked room greats and this is another one of the best stories in this entire anthology!
Agatha Christie’s classic Hercule Poirot locked room story, ‘The Dream’, is yet another one of the best locked room stories of all time! This section just keeps going from one masterpiece to another! Benedict Farley, a very eccentric millionaire, consults Hercule Poirot about a recurring dream that has him worried. In this dream he always takes a gun out of his desk drawer and shoots himself at precisely 3:28! Poirot senses something is amiss, and offers no solution, but the dream soon becomes reality, when Farley shoots himself just as described. Witnesses were completely certain that nobody had entered or left the office, which seemed to rule out murder, according to the police, but Poirot’s “little grey cells” are not so easily deceived. Many locked room fans seem quite unaware that Christie actually wrote five locked room novels and a dozen locked room short stories. For more on Agatha Christie’s locked room works, go to our Locked Room Agatha Christie page.
Another case, by a mainstream mystery author from the Golden Age, is Margery Allingham’s great short story ‘The Border-Line Case’ featuring one of the best detectives of all time, Albert Campion. In this case Campion plays armchair detective, as Detective Inspector Oates tells him about “The Coal Court Shooting Case”. A man is seen crumpling to the pavement by a policeman on his beat, who assumes the death is due to the extreme heat. It is only upon closer inspection, by the coroner, that a bullet is discovered lodged between his shoulder blades, which had caused his almost instantaneous death. Yet, the street where he was found afforded no place to hide, and the constable had seen no one else in the vicinity, nor had he even heard a shot! It is a pretty decent locked room story, with a very elegant and convincing solution, even though the solution does seems a bit confusing at the first read. It is also quite amusing that Allingham actually places herself in the story, as part of the conversation between Campion and Oates! Allingham also wrote a locked room novel and three other locked room short stories. Check out our Margery Allingham page!
In the middle of this quite remarkable series of stories, we are dropped into the too lengthy tale of ‘The Bradmoor Murder’ by Melville Davisson Post. Originally published in 1922, it is not a bad story, by any means, it is just far too long for this fairly limited locked room plotline, and tends to wander across the globe, and the ages, following the mainly irrelevant explorations of the recently deceased Duke of Bradmoor, especially his discovery of a lost civilization in the Libyan desert. The actual locked room mystery is concerned with the death of the old Duke, who was shot while preparing his fishing gear in the middle of a locked stone room. The only entry to this room, other than a thick bolted door, was a narrow slit of a window, set high above the crashing waves that relentlessly smash into the foundations of his ancient ancestral home. The story is told as an after dinner conversation, explaining to the new Duke of Bradmoor, a returned American, how the great explorer’s death occurred, as recalled by Henry Marquis, Chief of the Scotland Yard CID; Sir Godfrey Simon, a psychiatrist, and a fellow adventurer, the Earl of Dunn. The solution is reasonably well done, though, as the Moonlight Detective notes, it is quite similar to a Sherlock Holmes tale, written in the same year.
‘The Man Who Liked Toys’, by Leslie Charteris, is part of his famous ‘The Saint’ series, which I avidly followed in my younger days on the British TV series of the same name, starring Roger Moore (later James Bond), as Simon Templar, a very affable rogue who is always one step ahead of the police. In this case, the police are represented by the recurring character of Inspector Teal, who is investigating the death of stock market speculator, Lewis Enstone, who apparently committed suicide by shooting himself in the eye in his bedroom, just after returning from a business dinner with two competitors. The windows were closed and locked, and only his valet was in the hotel suite. The evidence seems quite clear, but Templar is unusually interested in the complicated toys that Enstone regularly brought home for his children, and a cigarette lighter used by one of the men who attended dinner with the financier. The solution is absolutely brilliant, one of the best in this anthology. Perhaps I’m just getting old and sentimental, but I really think this is another one of the top stories, in a section that is already chock full of great locked room masterpieces – though I must admit that the fair play element only allows you to grasp the basic concept, not the exact method.
‘The Ashcomb Poor Case’ (1926), by Hulbert Footner, is another piece that would have benefited from a serious edit. This over long story features ‘Madame Rosika Storey’, an early female detective, who works as “a practical psychologist”, often called in to help the local DA. This time she agrees to interview a murder suspect, Philippa Dean, who has confessed and later repudiated her guilt, but refuses to provide any further details. Madame Storey agrees to conduct the investigation, but only on the understanding that her conversation with the suspect is confidential. The basic facts of the case are quite clear. Ashcomb Poor had been shot in the back while sitting in his armchair, the gun had then been placed under his cold hand to simulate suicide. Only Poor himself, Miss Dean, and the housekeeper, Mrs. Batten, had been home that evening, and a “modern” burglar alarm would have prevented any entry from outside. It is a long story, with numerous twists and turns, and a reasonable solution, which most locked room fans will have already guessed by the time they are half way through this mild snoozer!
Finally, there is the marvellous tale by the Belgian author, Georges Simenon, ‘The Little House at Croix-Rousse’. The police have been forewarned: “Dr. Ceccioni will be murdered, at his home, on the night of the eight-to-ninth instant.” Ceccioni, an exiled Italian living in a small hovel in the Croix- Rousse district of Lyons, has political enemies, so the police first carefully search the house, while the doctor is out to dinner at a local restaurant, then surround it with six gendarmes, to watch every door and window. Despite these precautions, and no suspicious sounds, at 3AM the petroleum light in Ceccioni’s bedroom flickers and goes out, and the Corporal in charge of the stakeout, decides to enter – only to discover the doctor, half on his bed, still in his overcoat, and clearly shot to death. The brilliant Joseph Leborgne is called in to explain this impossible situation, and is finally forced to admit that it is truly impossible – as stated! Another locked room masterpiece with a unique solution, that I have never previously encountered. A short, sharp story, with that inimitable, hardboiled-noir atmosphere, which made reading the Maigret novels so entertaining.
All considered, this is quite clearly the best set of stories in ‘The Black Lizard Big Book of Locked Room Mysteries’, with eight classic masterpieces, and two stories whose main fault is only that they are far too long. Now only 12 tales left in this massive 68 story collection!
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 7: Stolen sweets are best
How does a thief remove valuables from a closely guarded room? It seems impossible, but…
Erle Stanley Gardner, “The Bird in the Hand”
David Durham, “The Gulverbury Diamonds”
Frederick Irving Anderson, “The Fifth Tube”
MacKinlay Kantor, “The Strange Case of Steinkelwintz”
Maurice Leblanc, “Arsène Lupin in Prison”
L.T. Meade, “The Mystery of the Strong Room”
Dennis Lynds, “No Way Out”
C. Daly King, “The Episode of the Codex Curse”
Part 8: One man’s poison, signor, is another’s meat
Often described as a woman’s murder weapon, poison doesn’t really care who administers it
Dorothy L. Sayers, “The Poisoned Dow ’08″
Margaret Frazer, “A Traveller’s Tale”
FP.G. Wodehouse, “Death at the Excelsior”
Also including: Part 9: Our final hope is flat despair
Some stories simply can’t be categorized
Martin Edwards, “Waiting for Godstow”
and a few final words of summation!
A Proud Amazon Associate
Locked Room Reviews:
The Black Lizard Big Book of Locked Room Stories
Edited by Otto Penzler – Part 6 of 8
Find an impossible murder!
A Proud Amazon Associate!