JJ MADE ME DO IT: The Impossible Crimes Project

The blogosphere is just like school at recess: you step into the yard and look fearfully around for people who you can play with and will like you for who you are. I’ve found so many wonderful, thoughtful writers in here who have expanded my understanding of what lies out there in the world of mystery fiction and have even caused me to ponder my own stands on the small amount of knowledge I have acquired. Still, it’s only natural to align oneself with those who seem – at least at first glance – to share many of your own opinions and favorites.

One of these writers is JJ, host of The Invisible Event (here), whose delightful ponderings on mysteries, both classic and (occasionally) modern, I highly recommend to you. (If I could figure out how to put favorite sites up on my own page, you would find regular links to his work right here. Ah, someday . . . )

JJ has inspired me to look at my own relationship with his favorite sub-genre of mystery – the impossible crime – and to expand my own experience of the various authors who specialize in this sort of novel. To that end, I have chosen four books to read and react to in order to hopefully find my way toward a greater appreciation of this type of mystery. This constitutes what will be called The Impossible Crimes Project! Of course, four novels alone – or four authors even – is a miniscule sample from which one may try to come to any conclusions. So maybe, if all goes well, TICP will continue with me for years to come. Thank you, JJ. (Or curse you, you fiend . . . we’ll see what comes of this!)

I am not a novice when it comes to locked room and impossible crimes. I actually started with the best. The third “grown-up” mystery writer I discovered (after Agatha Christie and Ellery Queen) was the king of the locked room himself, John Dickson Carr. I was trolling the mystery section at a local bookstore when I came upon these attractive covers and bought four: The Arabian Nights Murder, The Mad Hatter Mystery, The Blind Barber and The Case of the Constant Suicides. Carr super-fans can tell you how well I chose at the age of 13 or 14, but I enjoyed all of these, particularly the structure of Arabian Nights and the humor of Constant Suicides.

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It was enough for me to add Carr to my “must buy” list, but my reasons might strike some as odd. I thoroughly enjoyed the element of surprise Carr often employed, something I found in most Christies and some Queens (and later in Christianna Brand) but which I found lacking in the books of Ngaio Marsh, Rex Stout and Erle Stanley Gardner, authors whom I also read regularly. I also love a good sleuth, and at the time Dr. Gideon Fell struck me as something of a riot, with his girth, his “hmf”s and “harummph’s” and his tendency toward slapstick antics. What I did not pay as much attention to was the most emblematic aspect of a Carr novel: the impossible crime aspect! Oh, I noticed it, of course, but I didn’t embrace it as a favorite part of my enjoyment of Carr’s books. Nor did it make me seek out authors of a similar bent, such as Clayton Rawson (although his stories would pop up in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, to which I subscribed, and I would always enjoy them.)

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I’m not stupid, but I know my limitations, and I am not of a particularly mechanical or technical frame of mind. When it came time for Dr. Fell to explain that the killer had threaded the keyhole with a thin filament of conductor material, then utilized a concoction of ammonia, bubble bath and cyanide in a hidden ball of carpenter’s wire under the victim’s study chair to cause a chain reaction that made the third pane in the bay window dissolve and the arrow hidden in the third branch of the oak tree outside the window to . . . well, at this point my eyes tended to go crossways and I just kept reading until I got what I wanted – the name, sir! The name of the killer!!!

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I read nearly all of the Dr. Fell books, but for some strange reason, I steered clear of that whole other branch of Carr books – those he had written under the name of Carter Dickson – that featured Sir Henry Merrivale. I thought of Merrivale as a pale copy of Fell, and, with the stubborn resolve that only a teenager can muster, I refused to read them. Even when I started to hear from folks who much preferred the Merrivale novels, both for their ingenious deployment of “impossible” strategies and for what, in their opinion, was a superior utilization of humor, I stayed loyal to Dr. Fell. (The good news here is that I am now a much more reasonable man, and I have a whole parcel of Carr books I can look forward to reading. And I liked The Judas Window very much, thank you!)

The funny thing about Carr is how much I have forgotten about what I read. Unlike Christie (some of whose words I can recite by heart) and Queen (whose plots remain indelibly burned in my brain), there is little about the Carr books – situations, characters and solutions – that I can recall. My favorite has always been The Crooked Hinge, and I remember that one well enough for its double surprise ending, but the whole middle eludes me. I remember the surprise ending of Dark of the Moon, which I enjoyed so much despite people saying that this late Carr is really rather terrible. What this means is that I can, if I so choose, go back and reread some books I’m sure I read before. To that end, I recently purchased He Who Whispers and The Problem of the Green Capsule in a used bookstore. Many rank the first as the best Carr, and JJ recently raved about the latter. So I have those to look forward to, and I hope to have them finished in time to join the Tuesday Night Bloggers when they tackle Carr in March.

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So which are the four novels that will comprise this first leg of The Impossible Crimes Project? I felt I should begin with the master himself, and fortunately there is one classic Carr title which I have never read. Therefore, Book Number One will be The Hollow Man (1935, a.k.a. The Three Coffins in the U.S.). There seems to be some debate as to where this book rates, although it usually rates highly on fans’ lists, plus it contains Dr. Fell’s famous “locked room murder” lecture, which I am looking forward to reading very much. I’m just about a third of the way through the novel and hope to have a post on it soon, despite a very busy work schedule.

For the next three titles, I decided two things: to choose authors JJ had recommended highly and to read these titles in book form rather than as e-books. (Don’t ask me why, except I’ve built a bookshelf in my bedroom to house my mystery collection, and I wanted a better assortment of authors represented there. Plus, many classic locked room puzzles include illustrations and maps, and some e-books don’t include those.)

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Book Number Two will be my first attempt at Paul Halter, the French disciple of Carr who has taken the locked room blogosphere by storm ever since he began to be translated into English. I tried to pick well, and finally I decided to pick one that most seemed to like, as well as one of Halter’s first: The Fourth Door.

 

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Number Three will come from the pen of Rupert Penny, a book (and an author) which JJ has rated highly: Policeman’s Evidence.

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And Number Four was written by a man I had never heard of until I read about him in The Invisible Event: Mr. Norman Berrow. I picked The Three Tiers of Fantasy because even JJ hasn’t read that title yet, and I thought it would be fun to discover it together. But given my huge TBR pile – both on the bookshelf and those stored virtually on my Kindle – I figure he will probably beat me on that score.

JJ, I cannot promise that I will come to adore this sub-genre with the same fervor that I feel coming from you when you write about it. But I promise to give it a shot and to share whatever opinions I form about each novel with the respect to which these authors are due. For me to offer anything less would be . . . well, impossible!

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7 thoughts on “JJ MADE ME DO IT: The Impossible Crimes Project

  1. An interesting project you have set yourself and you shouldn’t put your stash of GA mystery novel knowledge down, as frequently when I am reading your blog and others such as JJ’s, I realise how many books I haven’t read, which everyone else seems to have done. I especially feel behind on my Carr, though I do have two of his books in my TBR pile: The Burning Court and The Hollow Man. I’ll be interested to read your thoughts on the latter. J. J.’s blog has also convinced me to try out Paul Halter, though I picked a different one to you to try out. I too haven’t tended to focus on the mechanics or technical aspects of the crimes I read about in detective novels and also glaze over a tad when the explanations get a bit too mind boggling. An advantage of this though might be that if something is not 100% fair play or plausible I probably won’t notice so easily. My initial thought about why some people focus on certain aspects compared to others is that it links to personality types. Using the Myers Briggs model being an ENFJ myself means I tend to be drawn in by characters, emotions and relationships/interactions and atmosphere which kind of links into narrative style. If I remember correctly JJ (who did the self assessment online after my Ellery Queen post, which looked at personality typing) said he came out as a rationalist and therefore his interest in how the crime are done fits in with that personality group. Of course you can’t really make firm conclusions based on two people but it would be an interesting avenue to explore. And just to make this comment even longer than it already is, if you want to add a blog roll to your blog (which shows the different sites you follow) I think you need to go to Appearances (in the sidebar of wordpress when you login) and click on Widgets. In widgets there should be a widget called Blogs I Follow. This might be what you are looking for.

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  2. I took it, I don’t remember what I am, but I know there’s a rational side to me that loves making lists and charts (and enjoys all of that stuff – and the maps – ) in classic mystery fiction. I totally agree with you, Kate, about that advantage you and I have, especially when I see JJ and Santosh arguing over whether or not this or that would have been possible or something that a normal human murderer would dream up.

    I’m also agog with awe at those who seem to remember every solution and can say, well this one was done in a certain 1945 novel and repeated by another author in 1987 . . . and the locked room aficionados know exactly what they’re talking about. With very few exceptions, I cannot remember the mechanics of ANY Carr novel I have read, and my concern is that this very important aspect of such novels seems to be of little importance to me! But we’ll see if the cleverness of all these authors can change my mind.

    Thanks for the information about the lists. I will give it a shot! (And NEVER worry about running on too long! I love reading your stuff, including what you put on my own page.)

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    1. Looking back at the comments on my Ellery Queen post you came as a Guardian (ESFJ), which does actually correspond with your love of lists and charts. Oh and people who aren’t “rationalists” can also be rational. The personality group called rationalists encompasses a much wider meaning.

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  3. Brad, I am flattered to think that anyone is paying any attention to what I write, delighted that I’ve encouraged you to undertake some Halter, Penny and Berrow, and extremely excited to see what you make of all of them. You give me far too much credit, of course – it sounds like you were all over this impossible crime stuff already without realising it (I had exactly that with Murder in Mesopotamia, which I’m fairly certain is the first impossible crime I read…had I but known!).

    I fully get your obsession with the whodunnit aspect, but it’s increasingly the how that intrigues me…it doesn’t even have to be an impossible crime, I’m just a fan of the mechanics, especially where some subtle misdirection has been involved (the best kind of impossibility – anyone can wrap a tread around a key around a pin and pass it through the keyhole to lock a door, I want the solution to have been staring me in the face!). Christie’s A Pocketful of Rye comes to mind here…not impossible, but the way the culprit turns out to have been responsible is still extremely interesting. You’ve got three great books to explore this aspect with the additional impossible spice, anyway, so I hope you find some extra joy in them.

    I’m unlikely to get to any more Berrow before, say, April or May…how about co-ordinating a simltaneous post of our views on that book and then rushing to see if the other disagrees? And I can’t take the same kind of credit as Santosh at all – he truly is a marvel of recall and information, I’m just doing my best to keep up with him!

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    1. I think what I love about Christie’s “impossible” crimes, JJ, is their absolute simplicity and their purpose (usually, I believe, to create an alibi.) Murder in Mesopotamia was one that I guessed, and I suppose that particular example is as much about atmosphere as it is about alibis. (Did Louise’s first husband come back from the dead to exact revenge???) Hercule Poirot’s Christmas is very clever in that Christie got to create a gory murder and then find a TRUE reason for all the gore, leading to a more typical impossible device. And while I never thought of Pocket Full of Rye as an impossible crime before, the strategies the killer uses to avoid suspicion are quite interesting, even if I think that particular title gets bogged down in its own cleverness, trying to ally itself so closely with the nursery rhyme.

      Sometimes, when the answer is VERY simple, I get it right away, as in Helen McCloy’s Mr. Splitfoot (about murder in an UNlocked room with an OPEN door . . . but nobody went in or out. And there’s snow there as well!!!) That answer just stared me in the face for 150 pages, but I still enjoyed the atmosphere and the interplay.

      This time, with these four books I’m setting out to focus on the HOW, just as you did. I fear that if the how is not accompanied by a compelling WHO, I may not be as satisfied as you. Perhaps Kate is right, and our differing personality types lead us to favor different aspects. But you can guide me, and if I have anything to offer, I can guide you, and we should be able to increase our pleasure and/or appreciation of all the classic mysteries that we read.

      Having a stand-off blog duel over Three Tiers of Fantasy sounds like a marvelous idea. I’m in no rush to complete this project. I have two plays to direct, five classes to teach, and that oh so high stack of other titles just itching to be read, including the two other Rutlands that have my mouth watering!

      Life is good! 🙂

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      1. If impossible crime novels fall down anywhere, it’s frequently the ‘why’ – obviously some hows are better than others, but you do sometimes find yourself wondering what the purpose of that particular approach was. Now, ‘standard’ classic crime novels Iand many modern ones, by my reading) suffer from the same problem, so it’s become something I don’t really notice any more, bu PUzzle Doctor and Santosh are usually very adept at pointing out a ridiculous scheme, and I’ll be all like “Ooooh, yeah, I uppose that was kind of pointless…”

        The two Berrows that I have read integrate their impossibilities superbly – they just work inside the plot incredibly well; Halter reminds me of Carr in that frequently everything is structured since before even the first page to establish a particular trick (I think of The Peacock Feather Murders/The Ten Teacups in this regard) and so ususally everything becomes clear at the end as to why even if it seems a bit unlikely along the way. Rupert Penny is just wonderful. He, like Christie, is often establishing alibis, but there are times I’ve seen him do something quite different that works possibly even better.

        A compelling who…well, that’s down to taste, I suppose. Tryting to work out simply what has gone on in The Hollow Man has most likely been occupying your brain lately, and coming up with who could have gone through all of that is good fun….but, well, I shall wait and see what you make of it!

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