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Locked Room Reviews:
The Black Lizard Big Book of Locked Room Stories
Edited by Otto Penzler – Part 8 of 8
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General Book Review included in all 8 parts: Scroll down for Part 8 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 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”
P.G. Wodehouse, “Death at the Excelsior”
& Part 9: Our final hope is flat despair
Some stories simply can’t be categorized
Martin Edwards, “Waiting for Godstow”
First up, in this section, is Dorothy L. Sayers’, The Poisoned Dow ’08′. Most classic mystery fans have read Sayers fantastic Lord Peter Whimsey stories, but few know her other hero, Montague Egg. Montague Egg is a travelling salesman, cum psychologist, in the employ of Plummet & Rose, wine merchants. His bible is the ‘Salesman’s Handbook’. In the case of the ‘The Poisoned Dow ’08’, Egg arrives to find Lord Borrodale has apparently been poisoned by a glass of port wine, part of an order he had sold, which had been opened in front of Borrodale inside his study. Fortunately, for Scotland Yard, there is little about wine that Montague Egg doesn’t know, and he soon follows the clues, uncovering the means by which the nicotine poison was added to the wine – which points directly to the only person who could have committed the crime. Another one of Sayers remarkably well crafted stories, but the locked room is essentially irrelevant. This is a much better illustration of the art of logical deduction, than an example of an impossible crime. By this point, I started to get the feeling that Penzler was running out of good locked room plots, even though there are still several important locked room authors who have not been tapped.
Margaret Frazer’s, ‘A Traveller’s Tale’, is set in 15th century England, and the detective is Coroner Thomas Chaucer of Ewelme, a descendent of Geoffrey Chaucer. Chaucer arrives on the scene, just as a wine merchant, Master William Shellaston, his wife, and his son, are all discovered dead in the closed carriage in which they were travelling. Though the servants of the household were riding alongside, they all claim that no one approached the carriage and that they heard nothing unusual. A local herbwife, Mistress Esmayne Wayn, soon sniffs out the poison, or rather poisons, since the parents apparently died by one variety, while the son had succumbed to another; a fact which only serves to confuse the matter, until Chaucer finally pieces together a complex plot. Not a great locked room plot, but close enough, as it is an excellent story and I have a serious weakness for good medieval mysteries.
‘Death at the Excelsior’, by P.G. Wodehouse, is a charming tale about the hubris of a young detective. Paul Snyder’s Detective Agency is called in to investigate the death of Captain Gunner, who has been poisoned by cobra venom in a Southampton boarding house run by the proud Mrs Pickett. Snyder, viewing this as a nearly impossible case, sends in the arrogant young Elliot Oakes, who has been pining for a challenge and is a little too sure of his own abilities, hoping to teach him a lesson. Unfortunately, his plan appears to fail when Oakes soon declares that he has solved the case, and makes a convincing argument that the death was accidental, caused by a snake that had hitched a ride inside a box of bananas. However, despite Oakes low opinion of the elderly Mrs. Puckett, she is not quite as dull witted as he believes, and soon makes her case. An entertaining locked room tale, largely due to the inimitable writing of P.G. Wodehouse, even though the solution stretches the reader’s credulity past the breaking point and leaves us wondering about the professional abilities of the unknown coroner who performed the autopsy.
And finally from Section 9: “Our final hope is flat despair. Some stories simply can’t be categorized”; we have the very odd story by Martin Edwards, ‘Waiting for Godstow’. Clair Doherty is certain she will soon be a widow, because her husband Karl is about to die, at the hands of her cougar bait, Zack, but she is impatient and absolutely hates waiting. Finally, Zack confirms the kill, just before her husband arrives home and confesses to committing another murder. How could he have murdered someone on one side of town, when he was supposedly being murdered at a different location? Sergeant Paul Godstow is on the case, but a confused Clair initially gives her husband an alibi, until she plays detective and discovers that Zack got the wrong man. Still, if she calls Godstow and changes her story, at least she will get rid of her cheating hubby! Only after she destroys his alibi – does she realize that Godstow is actually investigating the murder planned by her and Zack – not the story given by her husband. Now she is once again impatiently (and absurdly) waiting – this time for Godstow and her own downfall. Unfortunately, this nod to Samuel Beckett, really doesn’t fit the context. A rather poor ending to this long anthology. This story is not any form of locked room or impossible crime story, and commits the serious offence of leaving half the story unresolved, though it is quite satisfying to watch Claire put the noose around her own neck.
What can we say about Penzler’s two final sections? The first three stories are great mysteries, with borderline locked room plots, but no masterpieces, and we have already dealt with the Martin Edwards story. All in all, this collection goes out in a wispy puff of smoke, rather than the big loud bang that should have been saved for the finale
Now, the big question: How do we sum up this entire collection? As previously noted, overall, Otto Penzler has done a fantastic job of selecting these tales. I discovered quite a few excellent stories and authors that I had never previously encountered, and he included some rare, hard to find stories, such as James Yaffe’s “The Department of Impossible Crimes,” and Nicholas Olde’s “The Invisible Weapon”. However, I have at least three legitimate points of contention:
Point 1: Who was not included. No Christianna Brand, no Anthony Boucher, no Leo Bruce, no Arthur Porges, and several other lesser lights also come to mind, even though it seems quite clear that Penzler was dredging the bottom of the barrel by the end. Also, no Paul Halter, though good translations of Halter may not have been available at the time of publication.
Point 2: Too many repeated stories. Not a problem until near the end, where there are far too many stories taken from the second biggest locked room anthology, Mike Ashley’s, ‘The Mammoth Book of Locked Room Mysteries and Impossible Crimes’. In general, the last three of Penzler’s sections appear to have too many space fillers, added without sufficient thought or reason.
Point 3: Too many stories with icicles and other odd gimmicks. I completely agree with Moonlight Detective when he notes that this problem “can give new readers the impression the locked room is a one-trick pony.”
Now, we have finally finished all 68 stories in this monster anthology! Hope you enjoyed this far too long review! Still stick by my five star rating – though I was starting to waver near the end!
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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!