Tom Mead’s stellar debut, Death and the Conjuror, is an homage to golden age crime fiction. Set in 1930s London, magician Joseph Spector is consulted by his Scotland Yard friend, Insp. George Flint, in the baffling case of an Austrian psychotherapist who was found dead in his study with his throat slit so deeply that his head was almost decapitated. As the room’s door and windows were locked, Flint hopes Spector, a master of conjuring tricks and misdirection, can explain how anyone could have committed the crime and left the room sealed. Mead maintains suspense throughout, creating a creepy atmosphere en route to satisfying reveals.
Like many people, I’m a sucker for an old-fashioned Golden Age-style puzzle mystery. Therefore, I couldn’t be happier to see that the genre has been enjoying a new lease on life in recent times. Take, for instance, the success of Knives Out—an excellent movie that snagged a well-deserved Oscar nomination for its ingenious screenplay. Or, more generally speaking, consider the popularity of fantastically well-plotted contemporary works by the likes of Martin Edwards, Elly Griffiths, and Anthony Horowitz, not to mention newcomers such as Janice Hallett. Then there’s the forthcoming movie See How They Run (starring Oscar-winner Sam Rockwell and should-be-Oscar-winner Saoirse Ronan), which is heavily inspired by Agatha Christie’s legendary play The Mousetrap and shows that the cultural renaissance for quirky, clue-driven fair-play mysteries looks set to continue.
Furthermore, the British Library’s wonderful Crime Classics series has brought several long-neglected authors back into print (including two of the very greatest, John Dickson Carr and Christianna Brand). Similarly, the American Mystery Classics from the Mysterious Press have given magnificent authors such as Carr, Ellery Queen, Fredric Brown, Anthony Boucher and many more the glorious new editions they deserve, with no signs of slowing down.
To my continued delight, this in turn has led to a resurgence in the popularity of mystery fiction’s most devilishly challenging and enthralling subgenre: the impossible crime.
“Impossible crime” and “locked-room mystery” are two analogous terms referring to mysteries in which how a crime was committed is equally important as who committed it. Crimes which are seemingly impossible, which appear to have been committed in defiance of both physics and logic. As such, these mysteries are often tinged with a hint of the surreal, the sinister, and the uncanny. However—and this is particularly important—the crime always, always has a rational explanation. By its nature, this is a fiendish subgenre, but when done right it’s also one of the most satisfying for both writers and readers. The puzzle and the atmosphere are perfectly intertwined; all the clues are there, but they are so ingeniously disguised as to make it nigh-on impossible for the reader to suss out what is going on.
To my mind, the best examples often involve a criminal acting in a manner that seems to defy reason—for instance, going out of their way to arrange a decidedly unorthodox crime scene, as in Ellery Queen’s The Chinese Orange Mystery, only for there to be a clear and eminently practical basis for their actions. As such, it takes a somewhat skewed imagination, meticulous construction, and lateral thinking to pull off such a unique literary conjuring trick. The most successful examples provide a scenario which seems to be utterly incomprehensible, but which has an explanation that is entirely logical and (with the benefit of hindsight) inevitable.
Nobody did this better than John Dickson Carr, whose exemplary career lasted throughout the Golden Age of Mystery Fiction and produced numerous indisputable masterpieces of the genre. His series detective, Dr. Gideon Fell, is a magnificent creation to rival Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot, while his mastery of suspense and misdirection are second to none. In many ways, he is the patron saint of impossibility.
Carr’s essay “The Grandest Game in the World” is a perfect distillation of what makes the genre great. He observes that although the “quality of ingenuity is not necessary to the detective story as such, you will never find the great masterpiece without it. Ingenuity lifts the thing up; it is triumphant; it blazes, like a diabolical lightning flash, from beginning to end.” A perfect assessment.
Fortunately, the impossible crime has plenty more to offer. Recently, Gigi Pandian’s short story “The Locked Room Library” was nominated for a prestigious Edgar Award, while her novel Under Lock & Skeleton Key hopefully heralds the start of a long-running series of new impossible mysteries.
The self-publishing boom has also been kind to the genre, with authors such as James Scott Byrnside and Jim Noy rising to prominence with fabulous new works such as The Case of the Barrington Hills Vampire and The Red Death Murders, respectively. Similarly, independent publisher Locked Room International continues to do sterling work in bringing forth previously untranslated works by the likes of contemporary master Paul Halter, while Crippen & Landru shines a light on the impossible crime short story through its numerous excellent collections. Plenty of reason for fans like me to rejoice.
What follows (in reverse order) is a list of the most puzzling impossible crimes I have come across. These are the stories that made me fall in love with the genre, that made me desperate to devour as many as I could and gave me the impetus I needed to try my hand at writing them myself. Each is also a stunning success in its own right, conforming neatly to Carr’s description of the mystery story as “a hoodwinking contest, a duel between author and reader. ‘I dare you,’ says the reader, ‘to produce a solution which I can’t anticipate.’ ‘Right!’ says the author, chuckling over the consciousness of some new and legitimate dirty trick concealed up his sleeve.” If you’ve never before tackled a tale of locked-room mystery or impossible crime, this might just be the place to start.
10. The Moving Toyshop by Edmund Crispin
The puzzle here is irresistible—as is Crispin’s ebullient, Wodehousian prose style. He was an avowed devotee of John Dickson Carr (reason enough to admire the man), and in the donnish amateur sleuth Gervase Fen he created a vivid and highly enjoyable character. Crispin’s colorful prose style was more than matched by his imaginative plotting; The Moving Toyshop features a poet returning to Oxford for a holiday, whereupon he stumbles across a murdered woman in the flat above a toyshop. He is then knocked unconscious, and wakes to find that not only the cadaver but the shop itself has completely disappeared…
9. The Seven Wonders of Crime by Paul Halter
French author Paul Halter has been much-vaunted in recent decades as a successor to John Dickson Carr’s immense legacy. Fortunately for Anglophone readers, many of his works are now available to read in English. I’ve selected The Seven Wonders of Crime from his catalogue of worthy titles (The Fourth Door, Death Invites You, The Seventh Hypothesis, etc.) because of the sheer audacity of its concept. Not one but seven impossible crimes, each with an original and satisfying solution. The highlight here is the corpse discovered beneath a pergola surrounded by mud marked with just a single set of footprints: the victim’s own. Fast-paced and macabre, with a sleuth modeled on none other than Oscar Wilde, this is an excellent introduction to a modern maestro of impossibility.
Fair-play puzzle plots have long been a staple of the literary scene in Japan, with honkaku (“orthodox”) mysteries serving as an effective counterpart to the Golden Age of Detective Fiction. Unlike the Golden Age, though, the honkaku era never ended, and was instead supplanted by the shin-honkaku, or “new orthodox,” breed of mystery fiction. First published in Japan in 1981, The Tokyo Zodiac Murders bridged the gap between honkaku and shin-honkaku. It was the powerhouse debut for an author who has gone on to become one of the elder statesmen of the locked-room mystery. Beginning in 1936, this sprawling, multi-faceted epic unfolds over the course of four decades and features one locked-room murder followed by a sequence of grotesque serial killings and dismemberments. The solution to the mystery is deceptively simple, and yet I can honestly say I have never read one quite like it anywhere else. This book is an unmissable triumph.
I tend to think of The Red Right Hand as a kind of literary fever-dream: a stream-of-consciousness narrative which unfurls over the course of a single night and presents gruesome imagery alongside nightmarish suspense and a decidedly surreal ambiance. It’s a story which resists conventional synopsis, so I’ll limit myself to posing the seemingly unanswerable question: who killed Inis St. Erme, and why did they remove his right hand? It takes a trail of bodies before bewildered Dr. Harry Riddle can discover the truth. There is some debate as to whether this novel constitutes a legitimate impossible crime—personally, I believe it does. Either way, it’s a startling success, and a significant benchmark in the field of mystery fiction.
What makes this one brilliant is the puzzle. While there is an impossible/locked-room element to the mystery itself, it is another seemingly unanswerable question that makes this novel a classic: why should an unidentified man be killed in a room in which everything—the furniture, the paintings on the walls, even the victim’s clothes—have been turned backward? Even though this is not a physical impossibility, it seems to be a logical one. And yet, the solution is perfectly, utterly rational… but I bet you won’t see it coming. The Ellery Queen series is one of the definitive achievements of the Golden Age, and The Chinese Orange Mystery represents its authors at the peak of their imaginative powers.
5. "Two Bottles of Relish" by Lord Dunsany
This short story boasts an ending no less stunning and horrifying than those of some of the finest short stories ever written, such as Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” and W.W. Jacobs’s “The Monkey’s Paw.” It’s not a whodunit—we know the killer’s identity from the outset. The question is how he managed to make the corpse of his unfortunate victim disappear without a trace. The story itself is brilliant and darkly humorous; it’s just a shame that Lord Dunsany never quite managed to produce anything this magnificent again.
4. Through a Glass, Darkly by Helen McCloy
In many ways, Helen McCloy is the unsung heroine of the Golden Age. She was writing mysteries at the same time as Christie, Carr, Queen, and the rest, and yet her name is perhaps not as celebrated as theirs. This is a mystery in itself, as her series featuring the psychologist-cum-detective Basil Willing is a magisterial accomplishment in the field of crime fiction.
Through a Glass, Darkly is a psychological horror story as well as a tale of impossible crime. In it, Basil Willing’s fiancée, Gisela von Hohenems, befriends a schoolteacher named Faustina Crayle, who has a highly unusual problem: the apparent manifestation of a doppelgänger whose appearance seems to portend disaster. Is this a supernatural visitation, or is it something altogether more sinister? There is a palpable undercurrent of menace to this work, which is neatly complemented by the skillful detection of Dr. Willing and a deceptively simple solution.
3. "The Long Way Down" by Edward D. Hoch
In a lengthy career which produced over 900 tales, many of which feature impossible crimes, it’s fair to say that Edward D. Hoch established himself as a worthy successor to Carr. Indeed, the maestro himself bestowed the highest of praise when he said, “Satan himself would be proud of his ingenuity.” But unlike Carr, Hoch’s favored medium was the short story, and nobody did it better. “The Long Way Down” is not part of any long-running series, but the scenario it presents is utterly irresistible: a man is witnessed jumping from the window of a skyscraper, only to vanish in mid-air. Quite a trick! Combine that with the fact that he finally hits the ground some three hours later, and you have a twofold puzzle that adds up to one of the greatest mystery short stories of them all.
2. The Red Widow Murders by Carter Dickson
This entry is something of a cheat—Carter Dickson was a pseudonym used by John Dickson Carr. But he was the master of the impossible crime, so I think it’s fitting that he should be included in this list twice. Under the Carter Dickson moniker, he wrote a sequence of truly wonderful mysteries in which the boisterous Sir Henry Merrivale tackles all manner of crimes and impossibilities. This one features one of his most original tricks: a sort of locked room within a locked room. The mystery revolves around not only how a man came to be poisoned while alone in a locked room, but how the poison got into his system. You see, he was killed with curare, a poison which is only lethal when administered through the skin. And yet the post-mortem examination reveals not a single cut or wound that could have been used to administer the toxin into his bloodstream.
1. The Three Coffins/The Hollow Man by John Dickson Carr
Whenever I am asked what is my favorite locked-room mystery or impossible crime story, this is always my answer. The murder of Professor Charles Grimaud by the mysterious “hollow man” who vanishes without trace is a perfect locked-room problem. Meanwhile, the killing of illusionist Pierre Fley in a street carpeted with unmarked snow is an archetypal example of the popular impossible crime variant, the no-footprints puzzle.
As well as one of the most famous examples of the subgenre, this novel remains an indisputable masterpiece. Not only is it a tour-de-force of plotting, prose, and atmosphere, it also happens to contain within it one of the definitive critical overviews of the genre itself: the famous “locked-room lecture,” a perfect piece of meta-fiction in which Dr. Gideon Fell examines the very nature of the impossible crime. It’s a treatise which probes just about every category of impossible crime, providing numerous examples of methods by which they could be achieved. But is the solution to these two murders lurking somewhere in those scant few pages? Or is the locked-room lecture itself just a red herring?
When I first read this book, the brilliance of the solution left me giddy. Reading it again today, it has lost none of its impact. This book is one of the many reasons that John Dickson Carr remains (to borrow a phrase from Agatha Christie) the “supreme conjurer, the King of the Art of Misdirection.”