Since I love mysteries, picking one to feature this month is so difficult. So I chose one book with a ton of mysteries, The Black Lizard Big Book of Locked Room Mysteries by Otto Penzler. The series of books under the Black Lizard banner is a great way to sample the best in mystery short fiction since the genre was created. I own four in the series, and Locked Room Mysteries is my favorite.
Locked room mysteries and impossible crimes are a subgenre of crime fiction as old as the genre itself. Edgar Allan Poe’s first published mystery short story, “The Murders in the Rue Morgue”, is a locked room mystery and the first story in the collection. The sixty-eight stories are arranged in different categories, such as the seven “most popular and frequently reprinted impossible-crime stories of all time”, stabbing under impossible circumstances, people who disappear when they couldn’t possibly do so, and murdered bodies found without any way for the murderer to have reached or left the victim.
After reading so many of these stories, I’ve noticed a trend in locked room mysteries: an author either hits it out of the ballpark or fouls badly. There isn’t any room in the subgenre for an okay story. The explanation either works so well it astonishes readers or is so contrived it makes them groan.
Below are my favorite stories from this collection.
The Adventure of the Speckled Band by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
One of the best Sherlock Holmes stories. A young woman hires Holmes after her sister dies under mysterious circumstances, her last words being “The speckled band!”
The Doomdorf Mystery by Melville Davisson Post
This story features one of my favorite detectives Uncle Abner, a strong-minded, Christian cattleman, who lives in West Virginia before the Civil War. The Uncle Abner stories, written between 1911 and 1928 may be the first example of historical mysteries.
Uncle Abner accompanies Squire Randolph to confront Doomdorf, a man whose liquor is raising havoc in the area. When they arrive at his home, they find he’s been shot while locked in a room overlooking a cliff. The solution is one of the most imaginative I’ve ever read.
A Knife Between Brothers by Manly Wade Wellman
I enjoy this story because the setting is so unusual for its time. Written in 1947, the detective is David Return, a policeman and member of the Tsichah tribe. His grandfather is the senior policeman on the reservation. David goes to settle a dispute between two elderly brothers and finds one murdered. He knows the living brother wasn’t strong enough to commit the crime, but how was the man murdered in an isolated cabin?
The Twelfth Statue by Stanley Ellin
This is another story I liked because of the setting, a B-movie unit working in Italy in the 1960’s. Mean, greedy, lecherous movie producer Alexander File disappears from a movie studio near Rome one night. With no shortage of suspects, the Italian police get nowhere. The writer working on the movie is equally baffled until he watches the finished product.
The Problem of the Old Oak Tree by Edward D. Hoch
Edward D. Hoch was the master of the mystery short story. One of his detectives, who appears in this story, only solves impossible crimes. Dr. Sam Hawthorne practices medicine in a rural American town in the 1920’s through the 1940’s. A stunt man dies in a scene being filmed near the small town. He’s found strangled with a wire after jumping from an airplane. And there’s no way anyone could have strangled him after he left the plane.
The Locked Bathroom by H.R.F.Keating
This is a fun story. Shrewish Mrs. Marchpane is in the bathroom with her husband when he disappears from the shower. No one can explain the disappearance but the cleaning lady Mrs. Craggs, who figures out the Great Locked Bathroom Mystery isn’t that mysterious at all.
What locked room or impossible crime stories do you recommend?