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Locked Room Reviews:
The Black Lizard Big Book of Locked Room Stories
Edited by Otto Penzler – Part 7 of 8
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Blogging The Black Lizard: Part 1 of 8
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Blogging The Black Lizard: Part 6 of 8
General Book Review included in all 8 parts: Scroll down for Part 7 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 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”
Erle Stanley Gardner wrote much more than Perry Mason. ‘The Bird in the Hand’ is from ‘The Amazing Adventures of Lester Leith’, Gardner’s smart ass thief, who is always one step ahead of the police. I have already waxed sentimental over such anti-heroes as Simon Templar and Don Diavolo, but I find it rather difficult to relate to this particular crook, as there are far too few redeeming characteristics. Leith generally directs his considerable talents only to making himself richer, though he does bail out a shoplifter to help him pull off his stunt. An international jewel thief is murdered in his hotel room, tied to a chair, and stabbed in the heart. The impossible element enters with the victim’s trunk, which has “evaporated into thin air”, along with a nice haul of diamonds. For some completely unexplained reason, the hotel in question has developed a rather elaborate system for tracking their customers luggage, which means the trunk could not have left the hotel. Lester Leith soon figures out how the trunk disappeared, and locates the gems, helping himself to a significant portion, with the aid of his Peruvian Bloodhound Canary. A well written story, but not a crook that taps my sympathy.
Our next anti-hero is the much more charming, Fidelity Love, a creation of William Edward Vickers (aka David Durham). Fidelity recovers ‘The Gulverbury Diamonds’ from stage actress, Lola Marron, after they fell into her hands, just before the suicide of Lord Gulverbury’s son. Dove, an extremely talented and admirable thief, backed by a gang of admirers, takes pity on old Lord Gulverbury, and sets up a fake interview with the actress. Marron produces the gems, just minutes before the lights go out, and by the time they are restored, the diamonds are nowhere to be found. Detective Inspector Rawson of Scotland Yard’s ‘Department of Dead Ends’ (a Vickers detective who usually gets his man) already had the opulent apartment staked out, and soon figures out most of the scheme, but is ultimately outwitted by the lovely Fidelity and her gang. In these inverted locked room stories, there is no whodunnit factor, but we are given more than sufficient clues to figure out the method – yet I almost missed it. A very amusing read, and one of the better stories in this section. The solution has been used before, but Vickers adds a few twists that nearly caught me off guard.
‘The Fifth Tube’ (1914), by Frederick Irving Anderson, introduces the modern reader to the ‘Infallible Godahl’, a brilliant crook, who as the Moonlight Detective so accurately notes, is the “nefarious counterpart to Jacques Futrelle’s The Thinking Machine.” The story involves the disappearance of forty gallons of gold, in a liquid solution, from the highly guarded offices of the U.S. Assay Office near Wall Street, a part of the U.S. Mint which actually operated at that location from 1854 until 1982. It is an audacious plan, carried out under the nose of a Secret Service agent, Whitaker, who eventually figures out how it was done, just before his investigation reaches a dead end. The best moment in the story is when Whitaker later visits his friend Godahl and admires his “monument to the Incas”. Of course, robbing the mint is a pretty sympathetic crime, and I am not qualified to comment on the chemical plausibility of the crime (which seems a bit suspect), but it is a thoroughly entertaining read. This is actually my first Godahl adventure. I’m not quite sure how I missed these great stories, but it certainly won’t be my last.
MacKinlay Kantor’s, ‘The Strange Case of Steinkelwintz’, is a thoroughly amusing, though not particularly challenging mystery read. Maxwell Grame is an amateur detective, called in by his friends, to solve the case of a stolen baby grand piano. His logic is reasonably impressive, but the crooks are not exactly hardened criminals, and his success eventually proves to be less impressive than he might have expected. Fun to read, but the solution is mundane. Not exactly the type of material that should be used to exemplify the best of the locked room genre.
‘Arsène Lupin in Prison’ (1907), by the classic French mystery author, Maurice Leblanc, is one of the true classics of the mystery genre. Lupin, ‘The Prince of Thieves’, is a very sly crook, who regularly thumbs his nose at the police, especially Ganimard of The Surete – who has dedicated his career to chasing Lupin. In this story, Lupin is briefly in jail, when Baron Nathan Cahorn, aka Baron Satan, receives a registered letter from Lupin advising him to send several of the treasures in his vast collection of art, prepaid to a train station to be collected by his men, or face the potential robbery of all his treasures upon the night of the 27th. The Baron loves only his treasures, and is sent into a panic by this threat, even though Lupin is safely behind bars. Finally he turns to Ganimard, and pays him for his help on the evening in question, but, of course, by morning the guards are unconscious and all his treasures are gone! Another highly entertaining account of a great heist, but not even close to being a locked room mystery. Only a total fool could fail to see through this not so mysterious disappearance. Once again, while a highly entertaining read, and an important historic contribution to the mystery genre, this story clearly has no place in an anthology that is supposed to provide examples of the best stories in the locked room genre.
‘The Mystery of the Strong Room’ (1899), was written by L.T. Meade and Robert Eustace, two quite important authors in the history of mystery fiction, whose works include, “A Master of Mysteries’ (1898), featuring detective John Bell, which appears to be the first collection of impossible short stories. In ‘The Mystery of the Strong Room’, a valuable diamond impossibly goes missing from a custom made strong room. Our heroes, Mr. Head and Mr. Dufrayer, are quite certain that their arch enemy, Madame Koluchy, the leader of an evil Italian criminal organization, is behind this heist and attempt to set a trap. Another great mystery read, though, once again, not much of a locked room plot. The diamond does disappear from a high tech strong room, but that is pure misdirection. In essence, another story with the same failing as the last two titles in this section.
‘No Way Out’ by Dennis Lyds (aka Micheal Collins), features “Slot-Machine” Kelly, one of two one-armed private detectives he created, the other being the better known Dan Fortune. Slot Machine is a more coddled, than hard boiled, detective, with an admirable love of Irish whiskey and locked room mysteries. Kelly knows these impossible tales never happen in real life, or at least believed this was true, until he was hired to supervise one of three shifts guarding a valuable collection of rubies. All goes well until the third day, when a guard is suddenly shot dead, the gems go missing, and an murderer impossibly escapes, apparently vanishing off the face of the earth, just like he never existed. A fairly good solution, though most locked room fans will guess the method, and the location of the jewels, long before the rather slow witted Kelly, or the even slower witted cops. One of the best locked room stories in this section, which has provided us with so many great pieces of mystery fiction, but not very many really good locked room plots
I am so glad that Otto Penzler added one more of C. Daly King’s ‘The Curious Mr. Tarrant’, stories. Way back in Part 4, we were introduced to theses tales, in ‘The Episode of The Torrent IV’, probably the worst story in this classic locked room series. I attempted to argue that the ridiculous solution and the over ambitious plot found in this story, we’re not representative of this collection, and “The Episode of the Codex Curse” clearly proves my point. Jerry Phelan, a rather dull jock, accepts a bet with the wealthy Marius Hartmann, and agrees to spend the night in a museum store room, protecting a newly discovered, and apparently cursed, Aztec Codex. In the middle of the night, the lights suddenly go out and the codex disappears, before Mr. Tarrant can save the day. Fortunately, for Jerry and the museum, Tarrant has the whole, seemingly impossible, scheme figured out, and immediately makes a promise that the codex will be anonymously returned. The solution is not a great locked room plot, almost every locked room fan will have seen this obvious conclusion coming, but it is still a pretty good yarn, and in this case, not such a completely incredible tall tale!
What can we say about this section? First, there is not really a bad story in the lot, every one is either made worthwhile by it’s humour, or is an important part of the history of the mystery genre – sometimes both! Yet, at least three of these stories do not even belong in a locked room or impossible crime anthology. It remains one of my favourite sections as a mystery fan, but as a locked room fan, I am completely underwhelmed.
Now only 4 tales left in this massive 68 story 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 – finally:
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”
… with a few final words of summation!
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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!