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.
Locked Room Murders
by Robert Adey.
Death Locked In
edited by Douglas G. Greene and Robert C.S. Adey.
edited by Jack Adrian and Robert Adey.
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
edited by Mike Ashley.
by Edward D. Hoch (Crippen & Landru)
by Edward D. Hoch (Crippen & Landru).
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).
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
by John Dickson Carr
by John Dickson Carr.
All But Impossible!
edited by Edward D. Hoch.
Jacques Futrelle’s “The Thinking Machine”
by Jacques Futrelle.
The Locked Room Reader
edited by Hans S. Santesson.
Beware of the Trains
by Edmund Crispin.
Tantalizing Locked Room Mysteries
edited by Isaac Asimov, Charles G. Waugh and Martin Harry Greenberg.
written by Yozaburo Kanari and drawn by Fumiya Sato.
edited and with an introduction by Ellery Queen.
13 to the Gallows
by John Dickson Carr and Val Gielgud (Crippen & Landru).
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.
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."
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 can’t find the murder weapon. An excellent film.
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.
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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.