Locked Room International, Locked Rooms and Impossible Murders

Come to Paddington Fair by Derek Smith

Paddington

Come to Paddington Fair is quite a curious novel and, as much as I was enjoying it, I spent a fair portion of the book waiting for something impossible to happen. It was being republished by Locked Room International after all.

The usual pattern of an impossible crime novel is that you are presented with an incredible crime and the detectives break it down to show how it could have been performed. Here the book opens with what seems to be a clear assassination committed by an easily identified suspect but our detectives will not accept that solution and soon find evidence confirming that view.

Before going further though let me step back and explain the circumstances of the murder, at least in a vague way.

Chief Inspector Castle receives two tickets to attend a play from an anonymous benefactor. At a key moment in the play the male lead is supposed to shoot the female lead using a gun filled with blanks. We learn that prior to the performance the male lead has been behaving erratically and routinely arriving on set inebriated and they have had a big fight, though we do not yet know what they are arguing about.

During the play at the moment at which the on-stage shooting should take place, a man in the audience produces a gun and appears to shoot the female lead before failing to make his escape. The man is arrested and recognized before being taken into custody on the suspicion of murder.

There are some fantastic ideas at play in this story and I did admire the careful construction of this plot, particularly in the ending which caught me wonderfully by surprise. The plot the killer has devised is simple which I tend to find makes for some of the most successful mysteries.

I particularly enjoyed the theatrical setting which I feel is well observed and filled with believable types of character. There is plenty of backstage rivalry as well as the usual resentments about others’ success and several characters are quick to acknowledge that someone else’s misfortune might be the start of their own success if they are promoted from understudy for a performance or two.

Another aspect of the book I responded strongly to was the way it provided the reader with a seemingly disconnected story strand in the opening chapters and trusted that we would wait for the linkages to become clear. At first this seems completely disconnected from the rest of the tale yet I felt that it stitched together rather well with the main narrative once the connection was understood.

Once the investigation gets well underway, I did find my interest was waning at moments. This is partly because it takes on a rather technical tone based upon opportunity rather than motivation and there are relatively few big revelations in the middle third of the novel. I also suspect it had something to do with my finding Lawrence and Castle a trifle dull as investigators.

Things change considerably in the final third of the novel however as an impossibility finally comes into focus and some characters’ motivations become clearer. I thought the ending was a cracker and I felt that the killer’s plans made a lot of sense. Finally, there is even a Challenge to the Reader page heading into the final chapters – something that always will make me smile.

So, where does that leave me on Come to Paddington Fair overall? I think that the ending significantly raised my enjoyment of the book yet I have to acknowledge that I found the middle of the investigation to be solid but uninspiring fare. This slower section becomes more understandable once you see the impossibility come into view in that final third and it is quite thrilling to see it dealt with as quickly as it is here – something that is only possible because of the facts established in the middle of the novel.

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Golden Age, John Dickson Carr, Locked Rooms and Impossible Murders

The Man Who Could Not Shudder by John Dickson Carr

manwhocouldMartin Clarke has purchased and refurbished a historic home with a reputation for being haunted. As you might expect, he decides to throw a haunting party in which he invites some friends and a few experts in their fields to spend the weekend and see if they observe any ghostly apparitions or paranormal phenomena.

Several centuries earlier the owner of the house had died at the precise moment the grandfather clock stopped and more recently an aged butler was crushed by a chandelier after apparently swinging on it. Soon after the party arrives, an equally strange and improbable death is added to the list as a gun appears to have leapt off its wall mount and shot someone. And that is just one of the strange things that takes place in Longwood House that weekend.

I didn’t have much in the way of expectations coming to this novel having heard precious little about it. My reason for reaching for it now is that I read in the incredibly helpful guide at Justice for the Corpse that my planned next read to feature Dr. Fell spoils a key twist in this one. That book, The Case of the Constant Suicides, has now been shelved until later in the month. Also I should take a moment to suggest you check out that guide before reading this because the novel does spoil the solution to a famous Agatha Christie story.

While the story could lend itself to quite an atmospheric, gothic style it is remarkable just how little atmosphere Carr creates in this piece. This is actually quite appropriate given his choice of a more skeptical character to narrate the tale and the composition of Clarke’s party, favoring open-minded but skeptical guests. However, it may well disappoint those who were hoping to see the characters more affected by the prospect of a haunting.

There are some nice touches along the way and the murder, when it does come, is appropriately bizarre and does take place in some intriguing circumstances. We have a shooting occur in a room with just one person present in the room yet the doors and windows and all under observation within seconds of the shot being fired. When the weapon is identified, there are no fingerprints to be found at all and not even any telltale signs of the handler wearing gloves. While the witness’ claim that the gun moved by itself off the wall and shot seems incredible, it is at least partly confirmed by the physical evidence of the room.

While this seems to be one of the most baffling setups for a story I have read to date in a Carr novel, I expected that the investigation would focus more tightly on the mechanics of how the crime was committed. Instead a substantial part of the narrative focuses on trying to work through some contradictory accounts to discover the killer’s identity.

There are some good moments along the way, not least the explanation of the significance of a key, and I did appreciate that the story boasts its fair share of “how on Earth did I miss that” revelations. When the explanations come however I was left with mixed feelings, being struck both by the comparative simplicity of the solutions but also the convoluted way in which they are worked.

And then there is the second crime. While not as ludicrous or frustrating as the one in The Problem of the Wire Cage, I felt it served less of a purpose in the story other than to string the investigation out for a little bit longer.

So far I have only read a handful of Carrs and I am still getting to know the author. I can say that of the four novels I have read, this is the one I found least entertaining though it is still an interesting read. While I liked some elements of the story a lot, I feel it misses some opportunities that its setting and plot might have afforded.

For those interested in reading some different takes on the novel, I would suggest these reviews from Puzzle Doctor, The Green Capsule and Pretty Sinister Books all of whom are more enthusiastic. And while he doesn’t have a full review on his blog, JJ lists the book as one of his Five Carrs to Try. Clearly I am odd man out on this one but hopefully I will enjoy Constant Suicides much more.

Vintage Mysteries Challenge: Reference to a man/woman in the title (What)

French Crime, Locked Room International, Locked Rooms and Impossible Murders

The Phantom Passage by Paul Halter

PhantomPassageWhat if there was an alleyway that could not be found on any recent maps, that appeared from nowhere and seemed to disappear the moment those who found it have left?

American diplomat Ralph Tierney turns up at Owen Burns’ room, seeking out his old friend with such a tale. He tells Owen and Achilles Stock that he had stumbled upon the passage and witnessed a strange vision in a room on the second floor of a house there. When he fled the passage and tried to find his way back it, and the landmarks that guided him to it, seemed to have vanished completely.

When Owen and Achilles start to look into this they discover previous accounts of similar experiences and that the visions experienced in that room have either happened in the past or will happen in the future. Could this passage really be showing people events from the past or future or is there some sinister design behind it?

The Phantom Passage is, for much of its duration, a truly inventive and bewildering read. Halter skillfully introduces and plays with the concept of a supernatural occurrence. The idea of this passageway into the past and future is so fantastical and its physical presence seems to be so clearly disproved that at times it seems the only possible explanation.

As Owen and Achilles investigate the stories of those who have encountered this passageway before we are introduced to a few striking characters and get to hear of further seemingly bizarre events. By the time we get to the point of revelation I was aching to know how Halter would explain away some of those strange little points of interest in the case and make sense of what seems a truly bizarre set of events.

Unfortunately when that time comes, Halter’s explanation struck me as unconvincing. I did not find it at all credible that anybody who had the motive given in this novel would devise this convoluted method to execute their plans. There seemed to be too much coincidence and too many moments in which those plans might go wrong to make any sense of those choices.

The problem, for me, is that even in that resolution there are individual elements that I think work really well. Ideas that, taken in isolation, make sense and which can be quite effective but that never stitch together to make a convincing whole psychologically, even if they mechanically make sense.

This is particularly frustrating because the book up until the final two chapters is highly enjoyable. While it is quite a short read in terms of its page count, I stretched it out taking regular breaks to consider just how the effects may have been achieved. For all that thought and concentration, I don’t think I ever achieved the full explanation.

I also have to say that I really like Owen Burns and Achilles Stock as a detective pairing and how distinct they feel from his other series pairing of Twist and Hurst. Both characters get some strong moments but I particularly appreciated a lengthy sequence featuring Stock towards the end of the novel and its repercussions. I certainly look forward to trying some other stories with this pairing.

I really enjoyed reading this book up until its final two chapters but because of my frustrations with its explanation I can’t recommend it and would likely place it lowest of the Halter novels that I have read so far. That is in spite of having enjoyed it more than Death Invites You and about as much as The Madman’s Room. I think the enjoyment of the ride probably makes up for its conclusion and so while I ultimately felt frustrated by the novel, I would suggest that you check out one of the more positive reviews out there such as JJ’s and check it out for yourself.

 

Historical Mysteries, John Dickson Carr, Locked Rooms and Impossible Murders

The Witch of the Low Tide by John Dickson Carr

WitchoftheLowTideAfter having two very positive early experiences with John Dickson Carr’s work, I was keen to get back to him quickly. I decided however that I wanted to mix things up a little by selected one of his novels that didn’t feature Dr. Gideon Fell to get a better sense of his range as a writer.

Unfortunately as many of you will be aware, the selection of Carr titles available is patchy at best and of the few ebooks available this was the one that seemed most promising. The Witch of the Low Tide is a standalone historical mystery, which is a style I tend to enjoy, and features not just one but two impossible crimes.

The first is an attempted strangling that takes place in the home of a friend of our sleuth. When the would-be strangler is interrupted they run down into the cellar which they lock from the inside. In spite of there being no exit however when the cellar is searched the strangler is found to have mysteriously vanished.

The second crime is also a strangling and takes place in a pavilion located on a stretch of wet sand. Our hero discovers the body there but is struck by how there have been no footprints left in the sand. The Police quickly jump to the conclusion that his lady friend, Betty, is responsible so he decides that he will play detective and find the killer himself.

This setup of a male taking responsibility for proving the innocence of a female character seems to be a common theme in Carr’s work from the little of it I have enjoyed so far. The Problem of the Wire Cage featured its male hero trying to cover up for his love interest and having to solve the crime himself while The Problem of the Green Capsule had a detective character fall in love with a female suspect.

While each of those stories featured a younger male fulfilling that role, the romantic lead here is an older analyst who has formed an attachment to a much younger widow. What makes that situation more intriguing is that near the start of the book that character is told by Inspector Twigg that the object of his affections may have a scandalous secret, setting up an antagonistic relationship between the two men that runs throughout the novel.

That antagonism was, for me, one of the most successful parts of this novel and I think it is a very effective source of tension in its second half and makes both characters more interesting. Certainly I think Garth, the analyst hero, becomes more interesting once he has an adversary to pit his wits against and we see his resourcefulness come through.

The mysteries themselves however feel a little unfocused and I felt some of the explanation given at the end did not make sense to me. Looking at the spoiler section of the review at The Green Capsule, I see that I am not alone in feeling that it did not make a lot of sense that the two crimes would play out the way they do.

While I think that explanation left something to be desired, I did generally enjoy the journey to get to that point. I particularly appreciated Carr’s attention to little period details that gave a strong sense of its historical setting. Some of those details are introduced in quite splashy ways but others feature more subtly such as the general lack of knowledge about psychoanalysis and the work of Freud. It is these sorts of touches that I think make this a genuine historical mystery rather than just a mystery that happens to be set in the past.

Though I enjoyed the interactions between Garth and Twigg, I did find one aspect of them to be very frustrating. This novel significantly spoils The Mystery of the Yellow Room, revealing the killer’s identity and how the victim was killed. While I understand Carr’s interest in having that book provide inspiration for a theory of how these crimes happened, it is annoying to have an ending spoiled. Guess I won’t be reading that next week like I planned then…

So, where does that leave me overall? I think The Witch of the Low Tide has some interesting ideas and I did enjoy the setting but I felt that the different elements didn’t come together quite as tidily as I wished, particularly in that conclusion. Still, I did enjoy the journey and would certainly be interested to try some of the other stories that Carr did without his series detectives. I may just pop back to Dr. Fell for another impossible crime or two first though…

French Crime, Locked Room International, Locked Rooms and Impossible Murders

The Demon of Dartmoor by Paul Halter

DemonBack when I posted my review of the first Halter I had read, Death Invites You, I received a number of excellent suggestions of what I should try next. I took them to heart, put them all on my wishlist, and promptly picked a book nobody had mentioned. Fortunately I loved it but for my third pick I went back to those suggestions and picked a book most people seemed to love – The Demon of Dartmoor.

Have you ever read a book where there’s a little detail that just seems to bother you based on some personal knowledge you have? Well, naming a house in Devon Trerice Manor is exactly that sort of thing. The word is a Cornish one meaning a farm or estate owned by Rhys. Every time I read it, the detail just seemed wrong to me and pulled me a little out of the book. It isn’t a big enough deal that I think it affects my overall reading of the novel but it’s there somewhere in the background.

The good news is that beyond that detail, I found a lot to like here. Halter crafts an interesting and engaging story that is rich on detail. This is a mystery that seems to be grounded in a sense of the community in which it takes place and I appreciated the idea of the Moor as an almost mythic location, reminding me of the role it has played in other adventures. Parts of this book even draw on real local myths such as the Headless Horseman so kudos to Halter for pulling those elements into his story.

As with The Madman’s Room, there are crimes here that occur in the present and in the past and they may, or may not, be linked in some way. Early in the novel we learn about the deaths of three young women on the moor over the space of a few years, each apparently thrown from the rock by some invisible force. These bodies were carried off downstream and were only discovered days later but the locals seem to believe that a demonic force was responsible and have connected these events to an even earlier death where a young woman is seen to have been thrown down the stairs of Trerice Manor (!) by an invisible person.

When a newly married actor and his wife visit the area, he is inspired to create a comedic play loosely based on the idea that a man can make himself invisible and, several years later, he has bought the Manor house and renovated it. He takes his wife to the house and his producer and his mistress, who co-stars with him in his play, to stay with for the weekend. Ill-feeling seems to grow among the small party over that weekend so when history repeats itself and the actor seems to be flung from the window to his death we might assume that one of his guests or a local was responsible. The problem for the Police is that the scene is viewed by multiple witnesses, each of whom say no one was near the actor when he fell.

I thought this was a truly excellent impossible crime and while I quickly developed a theory for what may have happened, it turned out to be completely incorrect. In fact none of my ideas came close to the actual explanation of the crime so I was delighted that the solution to this murder was relatively simple and, to my mind, fairly credible on a technical level.

I was a little less certain whether this was actually a clever method for the murderer to employ given the number of things that might have gone wrong. Twist, in his explanation, does pay lip service to the possibility that the murderer had considered what would happen if they were not entirely successful but I am not convinced this was the safest way for that person to achieve their goal.  I can’t say more without spoiling.

I was even more impressed with the explanation given for the oldest of the historical crimes. Twist’s reasoning is solid both psychologically and mechanically and I love that Halter is able to tuck a second, well-constructed crime around his main one and make it rich and satisfying in just a handful of pages.

The other three crimes? Well, here I think the novel is at its weakest as while these murders add plenty of atmosphere the methods utilized by the killer or killers are something of a stretch. I did appreciate the way they strengthened the main mystery however and built up that sense of a local myth that has built up around these tragic deaths.

In addition to its rich setting, I also feel that this book features much stronger character development than in either of the other two Halters I have read. John Pugmire’s translation is also particularly strong and helps build on that sense of atmosphere to make this a really engaging story.

While I think that the crime in The Madman’s Room is a more intricate and clever impossible crime, this is the most satisfying Halter I have read to date and I look forward to continuing to work through his sizeable back catalog this year.

Fantasy, Locked Rooms and Impossible Murders

Too Many Magicians by Randall Garrett

TooManyMagiciansI first learned about Too Many Magicians when I was reading about a list of Locked Room mysteries that Ed Hoch and eight other enthusiasts had collaborated to produce in 1981 (you can read the list and a short history of how it came to be in this MysteryFile article by John Pugmire). The novel came joint-fourteenth in their rankings and its fantasy cover and title seemed to mark it out as being a little bit different from all of the other titles on the list.

Too Many Magicians is, in addition to being a locked room mystery, also a fantasy novel. It is set in the modern-day but in an alternate history in which the Plantagenet kings continue to rule an Anglo-French empire. In this universe magic exists and is pursued as a science, its use is broadly accepted, providing that the user does not perform destructive black magics. The country has a rivalry with Poland and those tensions form an important part of the background to this story.

The magical system that Garrett devises is interesting and complicated, being governed by the same sorts of laws that you would see in a science. I really enjoyed reading about the way magic is used in this world and its limitations but if this isn’t your sort of thing be aware that this is all background. While magic is used at points within the investigation to provide information, the crime itself is a traditional mystery with a physical explanation that can be worked out logically based on facts that the author establishes.

Garrett had begun writing short stories featuring his investigator Lord Darcy, Chief Forensic Investigator for the Duke of Normandy, in 1964 but Too Many Magicians was his only novel to feature the character. It was published in installments by Analog Magazine in 1966 before being collected into a single volume for publication in 1967. Darcy is not a magical user himself but is assisted by the Irish magician Master Sean O’Lochlainn. While this is not the first Darcy story, it is designed to give us the information we will need to understand this world and characters’ relationships to each other.

The novel opens at a Wizarding convention which Master Sean is attending to deliver an academic paper. After it is learned that he and a rival sorcerer, Sir James Zwinge, are both working on substantially similar material, the convention organizers ask them to consolidate their papers for presentation together. When Zwinge misses their appointment Sean goes to his room to discover the door locked with an enchantment by Sir James and his rival is heard calling out for help from within. By the time that they gain access to the room they discover that he is dead, murdered by a knife wound to the chest.

As I noted earlier, magic is not utilized to commit the crime but we quickly encounter a few magical considerations in our understanding of the scene. The door has been locked with an enchantment by Sir James. Only a particular key, which he possesses, can be used to gain access to the room through the door. And while levitation and unlocking spells might be performed on the windows, this process would take a number of minutes, be incredibly complicated and dangerous even for a master magician and would have had to have been enacted in the full view of the magicians gathered in the courtyard below. In short, the magic only reinforces just how locked this room is.

Darcy’s involvement in this case is initially to clear his assistant’s name when he is arrested for murder based on his rivalry and his proximity to the murder. Soon he is invited to meet with the King and is given background about the crime and how it may be related to another murder. Darcy is to find out who committed the murders and how Sir James was killed.

Arguably Darcy himself is one of the least interesting things about this book, though I think this is perhaps appropriate given the complexities of the world Garrett creates and the rules that govern it. We learn relatively little about him as a person, his tastes or background, and so we engage with him almost exclusively through his professional abilities which are considerable. One thing that is clear however is that while Darcy is not a magical user himself, he possesses a strong knowledge of the laws and mechanics of how magic operates.

The question of how the murder was accomplished is, I feel, more interesting than the one of who committed them. While I think that seasoned mystery readers will pick up on some suspicious behavior from a character, learning how they managed to commit this murder in a magically sealed space is both more complex and much more satisfying.

There are some thrilling moments on the way to that resolution, in particular a sword fight that takes place on a bridge that I felt was really effectively written to draw the reader into the action and which made good use of some elements of magic. I also found the sequences in which Darcy and Sean analyse the crime scene to be particularly interesting and I felt that they both approached it in logical, clear ways and explored a variety of possible approaches well enough to discount other solutions to the crime.

Whether you are normally a fantasy reader or not, I think Too Many Magicians is an engaging and interesting read and a great example of the locked room mystery form. The solution is quite ingenious and I really enjoyed the way the investigation is developed. I plan on seeking out the Lord Darcy short story collections to experience some of the character’s other cases soon.

Locked Rooms and Impossible Murders

The Patricide by Kim Ekemar

PatricideGiven how few modern mystery writers tackle the Locked Room form, when I learned about The Patricide (and after trying the sample on Amazon) I was excited to give it a go.

The story concerns the Lafarge family and their estate in the French countryside. The father, Patrice, is concerned that after his death his children will seek to monetize every aspect of their lands, destroying their natural beauty, so he has determined that he will alter his will to create a trust that will bind their actions after his death. His children have long since moved away, to his considerable disappointment, and so he decides to request they all return home for his seventy-fifth birthday so he can share the news.

His children are naturally resentful of this change of plans and, when Patrice refuses to confirm that he has already taken the steps necessary to set up the trust his death seems inevitable. The question is how will it be managed and who will be responsible?

Well, as I noted at the top we are in locked room territory here. In the early hours of the morning following the birthday party, his daughter Constance wakes her siblings to tell them there is smoke coming from their father’s bedroom. They try the door to discover it is locked, forcing the group to break open the window and open the door from the inside. When they do they discover that Patrice died of asphyxiation but there is some further mystery about how the fire started and spread when almost all of the room is made of stone.

The mystery falls into the hands of the unimaginative Inspector Rimbaud who initially has little interest in the conflicts that may have existed between the children and their father but that changes when the coroner informs him that there is clear evidence of murder. At frequent points in his investigation he meets for dinner with his Aunt Emelie who had taught the Lafarge children and they discuss the case and her insights into the children’s characters while he devours the rustic feasts she prepares for him.

Aunt Emelie and Rimbaud make for a wonderful double-act and I really enjoyed reading these passages. Though Rimbaud may be doing all of the leg work and acting in an official capacity, Emelie is able to steer his actions through suggestion and does have some real, credible insight into the participants in the mystery.

One particularly fun aspect of these sequences is that at each dinner Rimbaud will advance a theory about a different family member’s guilt based on the evidence that demonstrates how the murder was achieved, a fire set some hours later and the room was locked. Each is convincing, well thought-through and plausible in the way they address the issue of timing yet clearly they cannot all be correct.

While the seasoned locked room reader will take note of some clues to quickly set on the identity of the killer, possibly even having some idea of how the murder was done, I think the details of the method are clever and original. In this sense I felt the book did keep me engaged until the end.

Ekemar has a pleasing and engaging writing style and does an excellent job of establishing and building up his characters. The characters of each of the children are quite intriguing and he takes the trouble to build them detailed personal lives that will provide motives for murder. I enjoyed learning about each of them and their secrets. In one of my favorite subplots, we see two of the characters’ secret personal lives collide while the siblings are at their family home, unaware of this development. Though I felt the payoff to this moment was a little smaller than I had hoped, I did enjoy those scenes enormously.

While those hoping for a Carrian complication to the story may be a little disappointed, I think that the simplicity of this crime is one of the novel’s virtues and appreciated that the book does not outstay its welcome. The solution is wonderfully fair, with all of the necessary elements clearly established beforehand, and it is easy to follow.

The Patricide is a very cleverly constructed locked room mystery and though the identity of the killer may not be too challenging for fans of the subgenre, I appreciated the challenge of figuring out just how it was done.