Suggested Reading & Viewing

What is a locked-room mystery?  To quote Mike Ashley from his introduction to Locked-Room Mysteries and Impossible Crimes, they “are as much ‘howdunits’ as ‘whodunits.’”  The classic example is a solitary person found shot in a room—doors and windows locked from the inside—with no trace of a gun.  The reader knows the victim was murdered, but how was it done?  That is the essence of a “locked room” murder.  But the room can be as small as a coffin or as large as a continent.  Don’t believe me?  Read “Ice Elation” from the above book.

An “impossible crime” is somewhat broader.  A locked-room mystery is an impossible crime, but an impossible crime need not be of the locked-room variety.  For example, in the fourth Reverend Dean story (“Murder at the Lord’s Table”), a pastor is apparently killed by God in open church.  Regarding the murderer, at least, it’s difficult to get more impossible than that.  But with the exception of an angel vanishing from the pastor’s study, it has nothing to do with a locked room.  Nonetheless, in spite of its more limited definition, the phrase “locked room murder” (or mystery) is often used to encompass this whole sub-genre.

Now that we’re clear on what a locked-room mystery is, what’s the best way to tell such a story?  Ed Hoch suggested in his introduction to All But Impossible! that locked-room crimes might work better in shorter stories than in full-length novels, and I heartily agree.  After the impossible elements have been set up, the last thing I want to do is read 300 pages to find the solution.  It’s like sitting in a restaurant, eating an appetizer, then waiting two hours for the main course.

As a result (except for the first book, which is in a class by itself) the following list is limited to what I think are the best locked-room short-story anthologies published in the last 50 years.  The fact that I can somewhat easily compile this list is a sad commentary on the dearth of such collections.  Nonetheless, a handful is better than none, and although many are out of print, each is worth finding and reading.  Of course, any such list is both limited and subjective.  My goal, however, is not to provide an exhaustive list—aficionados already know what they like—but to provide a resource for new readers as they explore the wonderful world of locked-room mysteries.  Having said that, I’d enjoy receiving email from anyone who has other compilations they’d like to see included.

This criteria also explains the rather limited selection of entries by John Dickson Carr (who also wrote under the name of Carter Dickson).  Carr is considered the master of locked-room mysteries, and it’s hard to argue the point.  He wrote such stories prolifically and well.  However, since this list focuses on short stories, by definition that excludes most of Carr’s repertoire.  Having said that, I can say without qualification that if you want to read a novel-length locked-room mystery, no one wrote them better than John Dickson Carr.

Speaking of notable names in locked-room fiction, I’d like to give a tip of the hat to G.K. Chesterton.  Although his “Father Brown” stories featured some impossible crimes, read as a whole they were too uneven to include in this list.  Nonetheless, Reverend Dean was in part inspired by this character, and it would be ungrateful not to acknowledge the good reverend’s literary forebear.

Finally, special mention should be made regarding Crippen & Landru.  This publishing house is managed by Doug Greene (co-editor of Death Locked In and the Carr collections, below) and his wife Sandi, and specializes in compiling short-story collections;  frequently never-before-collected stories originally written several decades ago.  Without the efforts of Crippen & Landru, these forgotten gems would be lost forever.  Fortunately Doug has taken it upon himself to save these stories for posterity.  Although I’ve omitted the publishers of most of the following books—because such information is rarely needed to locate or identify a title—I’ve noted the Crippen & Landru books because most are still in print, and because the efforts of this publisher should be commended.  A link to Crippen & Landru can be found in the Links page.



Books

Locked Room Murders

by Robert Adey.
Although it’s my loss that I haven’t met most of the editors or authors on this list, I have had the privilege of corresponding with Bob, and he is as much a gentleman as anyone is likely to find.  Moreover, he has literally “written the book” on locked-room crimes.  In this unique volume, Bob lists every impossible-crime novel and short story ever published as of 1991.  In the first section of this book he provides the author, title and summary of the impossible crime.  In the latter half he explains how each seemingly impossible crime was committed.  Thus, it’s a bibliography, rather than a collection of stories, but it’s essential reading for any locked-room fan. There are two editions of this book, one written in 1979, and an updated version published in 1991.

Death Locked In

edited by Douglas G. Greene and Robert C.S. Adey.

Murder Impossible

edited by Jack Adrian and Robert Adey.
Outside the U.S. this anthology is titled The Art of the Impossible.

The Night of the Wolf

by Paul Halter, with a foreword by Robert Adey, an introduction by Roland Lacourbe and translated by John Pugmire.

It’s hard to imagine a quartet with greater locked-room credentials.

The Mammoth Book of Perfect Crimes and Impossible Mysteries

edited by Mike Ashley
The Mammoth Book of Locked-Room Mysteries and Impossible Crimes

edited by Mike Ashley.
The “Mammoth” collections are readily available and easily among the best recent impossible-crime collections.

Diagnosis: Impossible

by Edward D. Hoch (Crippen & Landru)
More Things Impossible: The Second Casebook of Dr. Sam Hawthorne

by Edward D. Hoch (Crippen & Landru).
Just as Carr was master of the locked-room novel, Hoch was master of the locked-room short story.  These bookseach containing stories of a small-town doctor who diagnoses ailments and mysteries with equal aplombare delightful collections.

Banner Deadlines

by Joseph Commings (Crippen & Landru).

The Complete Curious Mr. Tarrant

by C. Daly King (Crippen & Landru).

The Sleuth of Baghdad

by Charles B. Child (Crippen & Landru).

Carpenter and Quincannon

by Bill Pronzini (Crippen & Landru).
Not every story features an impossible crime, but all are well written and enjoyable.  Bill Pronzini clearly did his research when writing for this time period (the 1890s).  Having said that, it’s tiresome to endure John Quincannon’s constant pining for Sabina Carpenter every story.  Marry them, Bill!

Locked Room Puzzles

edited by Martin Greenberg and Bill Pronzini.

This small paperback contains four stories: “The Third Bullet” by Carr; “Booktaker” by Pronzini; “From Another World” by Rawson; and “Day of the Wizard” by Hoch.

Merrivale, March and Murder

by John Dickson Carr
Fell and Foul Play

by John Dickson Carr
The Door to Doom

by John Dickson Carr.
Only as I was compiling this list did I notice that all three volumes were edited by Doug Greene.  But I suppose that’s as it should be, since these books painstakingly collect all of Carr’s short stories;  a task far beyond the scope of most readers, but a role Doug continued for other authors when he founded Crippen & Landru.

All But Impossible!

edited by Edward D. Hoch.

Jacques Futrelle’s “The Thinking Machine

by Jacques Futrelle.
Jacques Futrelle’s life ended tragically on the Titanic, but not before he left behind these stories featuring Professor Augustus Van Dusen, aka “The Thinking Machine.” Harlan Ellison edited and provided the introduction to this 20-story collection, which is one of a long line of "Thinking Machine" compilations. Links to an article on Futrelle's life, as well as a site which reproduces all fifty of his "Thinking Machine" stories, can be found in the Links page.

The Locked Room Reader

edited by Hans S. Santesson.
This 16-story hardcover collection was later released as two paperbacks, 8 Keys to Murder and 8 Doors to Death.

Beware of the Trains

by Edmund Crispin.
Unfortunately the first (and titular) story is the worst entry of this collection;  it also has so much British slang as to occasionally be indecipherable to American readers.  However, if you can get past the lead story, the remainder of this book is a fun read.

Tantalizing Locked Room Mysteries

edited by Isaac Asimov, Charles G. Waugh and Martin Harry Greenberg.

The Kindaichi Case Files

written by Yozaburo Kanari and drawn by Fumiya Sato.
This is a series of manga compilationsblack & white, digest-sized, Japanese graphic novels—and so far 17 volumes have been translated into English. Each story features some type of impossible crime.  Don’t be deterred by the format;  these stories can be complex, and in Japan manga is read as much by adults as by children.

101 Years’ Entertainment: The Great Detective Stories, 1841-1941

edited and with an introduction by Ellery Queen.
Thanks to John Pugmire for suggesting this collection. This massive volume (almost 1000 pages) includes 10-12 (depending upon your definition) locked-room/impossible crime short stories. Although published in 1941, this collection is widely available and surprisingly affordable.

13 to the Gallows

by John Dickson Carr and Val Gielgud (Crippen & Landru).
This is a collection of four plays, rather than novelettes, thus they’re a bit harder to read than the typical short story. However, they all contain examples of Carr’s impossible crime skills, and as a result are well worth reading. This volume is superbly edited by Tony Medawar, who supplied the introduction, explanatory footnotes, afterwords and appendices.

Locked Rooms and Open Spaces

collected and translated by Bertil Falk.

I’d like to thank Alan Mescallado for recommending this book. This anthology collects 16 locked-room mysteries written exclusively by Swedish authors. The gem of the collection is “Reg. No. 94.028/72 Murder,” which is regarded by some as “the best locked room murder story ever written in Swedish.” This book is published by The Battered Silicon Dispatch Box, and is only available through that company. A link appears in the Links page.

Detective School Q
(aka Detective Academy Q, Tantei Gakuen Q and Dan Detective School)
written by Seimaru Amagi and drawn by Fumiya Sato.
Only the first few segments of this superb manga series are available in English, and only via the Internet. Moreover, one story, "The Kamikakushi Murders," is poorly translated. However, the plots are ingenious, and Sato's art surpasses her award-winning work in The Kindaichi Case Files. A link to these stories can be found in the Links page. There is also a compilation of live-action TV episodes of this series, but it's of uneven quality—and the subtitles in the latter episodes are almost indecipherable—thus the non-anime DVDs are only recommended for completists.

Bookhunter
written and drawn by Jason Shiga.
This tongue-in-cheek, 144-page graphic novel features a team of "library police" as they try to determine how a rare Bible was stolen from a locked safe, inside a locked room, inside a locked library; without damaging locks or setting off alarms. The distinctive art matches the tone of the story, although the lettering is poor, and the library and bookbinding minutiae can be needlessly complex. Nonetheless, the solution is interesting, and Bookhunter is a pleasant discovery. Information regarding an online version can be found on the Links page.

Alias Simon Hawkes: Further Adventures of Sherlock Holmes in New York

by Philip J. Carraher.

Successful Sherlock Holmes pastiches are rare, but this collection of one novella and three short stories is worth reading. Two of the stories feature locked room mysteries.

The Amazing Adventures of Lester Leith

by Erle Stanley Gardner.

Although primarily known as the creator of Perry Mason, Gardner also created many other characters, including Lester Leith: the suave mastermind who steals only from criminals. In this collection of five novellas, two rather mediocre stories bookend three superb impossible disappearances, including the oft-reprinted, "The Exact Opposite."





TV, Movies & Audio

Jonathan Creek is a BBC TV series which began in 1997 and has produced four seasons and four Specials. (The third Special—"The Grinning Man"—appeared in 2009 after a five-year hiatus.) All episodes feature an impossible crime.  Although the male and female leads share little chemistry, the mysteries are typically first-rate, and it’s well worth the expense to buy or rent the DVDs.  According to Wikipedia, the male lead was offered to, but ultimately rejected by, Hugh Laurie;  who later went on to star in the FOX TV series, House.

Banacek, starring George Peppard, ran on NBC for 17 episodes, from 1972-74.  Every episode featured some type of impossible crime.  To date, it’s probably the best such series to appear on television.

Fracture (2007). Anthony Hopkins stars as a man accused of shooting his wife; but although police surround his house immediately after the crime, they cant find the murder weapon. An excellent film.


Favorite Locked Room Mysteries, edited by Martin & Rosalind Greenberg.
This is one of a series of audio cassette collections which features different mystery sub-genres (another is Favorite American Detectives, which includes “The Leopold Locked Room,” an impossible crime story by Ed Hoch). This collection consists of eight stories on four cassettes: “The Exact Opposite” by Erle Stanley Gardner, “Vanishing Act” by Bill Pronzini and Michael Kurland, “The Problem of Cell 13” by Jacques Futrelle, “His Heart Could Break” by Craig Rice, “The Long Way Down” by Ed Hoch, “The Man who Read John Dickson Carr” by William Brittain, “The Doomdorf Mystery” by Melville Post, and “The 51st Sealed Room; or The MWA Murder” by Robert Arthur.

The John Dickson Carr Collection is a single MP3 CD which contains 41 radio shows (although 8 are repeats), all of which are either written, adapted or hosted by Carr. Several of the programs feature impossible crimes. Each show is approximately 30 minutes long and originally aired between 1942-1959; most on the greatest American mystery anthology of all time, Suspense. This is an outstanding collection, particularly given its $5 price tag. To order, see the "Old Time Radio Catalog" entry in the Links section.

Blacke's Magic. This enjoyable though lightweight 1986 NBC series—starring Hal Linden (Barney Miller) and Harry Morgan (Dragnet and MASH)—deserved a longer run than its 13 episodes enjoyed. Linden played Alexander Blacke, a retired magician who used his knowledge of magic to solve crimes, while Morgan played his con-artist father. Nine of the episodes featured impossible crimes.

The Clue of the New Pin (1961) is a British film based on the ingenious 1923 novel by Edgar Wallace.  The story features two separate murders in a locked vault which can only be opened with a single key.  Unfortunately for the police, each time the key is found on a table next to the body in the vault.  This short film—not quite 60 minutes—is one of a series of 40 Edgar Wallace mysteries which were designed to be shown with longer, bigger-budget productions. Due to their brevity, they were eventually edited and sold to the U.S. market as a TV series, The Edgar Wallace Mystery Theatre.  A 1929 film of the same name—featuring a young Sir John Gielgud—was also based on this novel.

 

Monk, starring Tony Shalhoub, ran from 2002-2009 on USA Network.  The first season struck a superb balance between the lead character’s often comedic obsessive-compulsive disorder, and several impossible crime plots.  Starting with the second season, however, the show emphasized more comedy, and with the third, far fewer impossible crimes.  Detective Tom Michaels, who appears in the Reverend Dean story “Murder at the Fall Festival,” was inspired by a supporting character in Monk, Captain Leland Stottlemeyer (played by Ted Levine).  It’s hard to believe—but a testament to his acting ability—that Levine also played a serial killer in the award-winning The Silence of the Lambs.

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