Locked-room mysteries and other impossible crime stories have been relished by puzzle-lovers ever since the invention of detective fiction. Fiendishly intricate cases were particularly well suited to the cerebral type of detective story that became so popular during the 'golden age of murder' between the two world wars. But the tradition goes back to the days of Wilkie Collins, and impossible crime stories have been written by such luminaries as Arthur Conan Doyle, G.K. Chesterton, Dorothy L. Sayers and Margery Allingham. This anthology celebrates their work, alongside long-hidden gems by less familiar writers. Together these stories demonstrate the range and high accomplishment of the classic British impossible crime story over more than half a century.
The British Library Crime Classics proudly presents their first anthology of locked-room mysteries and impossible crimes. This was one of the most eagerly awaited titles in their current line-up, but does it deliver?
Some of these stories had already been anthologised in The Black Lizard Big Book Of Locked Room Mysteries and none of them were good enough for me for wanting to reread them. Since I can’t bring myself to write something about each story, most of them are of annoying mediocrity, I’m just going to point out the highlights and the ahem lowlights (does that word exist? Never mind.)
Let’s start with the bottom of the barrel. The ones conceived by some offspring of the devil. Those which should carry a sign: Avoid at all costs!
The Aluminium Dagger by R. Austin Freeman – A man is found in his locked study with a dagger in his back. Enter Dr. Thorndyke who always knows the answer to everything and can solve even the most ridiculously complicated crimes. Reading the first few pages of this was enough to make me realise that I was already familiar with this tale and unfortunately I absolutely loathed it the first time around. I was not going to subject myself to this torture again. This is a story that perfectly illustrates certain things which annoy me about a certain type of crime fiction. Could I be any more vague? Well, I can hardly give away the ending. I’ll give you a clue: the dagger in the title is a cheat. In fact the whole story is a cheat and about as far removed from fair play detective fiction as you can get.
The Sands Of Thyme by Michael Innes – A body is found on the beach with no footsteps leading up to it. How did it get there? Another one I had read before. I wish I had not. It is not weak or bad, it is so staggeringly awful, that one has to wonder why anyone would want to include it in any anthology. This happening once could be choked up to a mistake, but twice! If you want to anger someone (preferably a fan of detective fiction) recommend this story to them; or even better: tie them down into a chair and read it to them aloud. Come the denouement you will observe their eyes bulging out of their skull, their mouth twitching and foaming, their face carrying an expression of complete horror before eventually taking on an air of utter bewilderment like after witnessing something so horrible which the mind can barely comprehend. You are going to leave them scarred for a life.
The Miracle Of Moon Crescent by G. K. Chesterton – A classic which I loved on first reading but felt a bit underwhelmed by this time. Perhaps I have read too much mystery fiction in recent years, but the solution was less ingenious than I remembered. It is a Father Brown story and it also gives Chesterton plenty of opportunity to preach about morals and the immorality of agnostics or basically everyone who is not a good devout catholic. An American millionaire disappears from his locked room and is found hanging from a tree outside the building. It sounds like a baffling riddle, but the solution is actually surprisingly simple.
Death At 8.30 by Christopher St. John Sprigg - Christopher St. John Sprigg died in the Spanish Civil War before reaching the age of 30. He was a communist and a lover of detective fiction. He wrote seven detective novels, one of them, the wonderful Death Of An Airman was previously published in the British Library Crime Classics series. Death At 8.30 is about a sinister blackmailer who threatens rich men with death. If they do not pay they will be killed. Yet then he makes a mistake by choosing the British Home Secretary as his next victim who is not as rich as he assumed and refuses to pay. This is great escapist fun. Completely unbelievable, but the story is perfectly aware of how ludicrous it is and just runs away with the wonderfully outlandish concept.
If you are a newbie to the impossible crime subgenre, this might give you a decent introduction and provide a few hours of solid entertainment. But if you are already fairly well-read in classic detective fiction, there will be little new or worthwhile here for you. This is a rather underwhelming collection, but let’s hope the next BLCC anthology will be better.