And Throw Away the Key!

Locked Room P.I. Mysteries

S. S. Van Dine's Philo Vance, possibly the only detective more annoying than Hercule Poirot, may indeed need a kick in the pants, but there are indeed locked-room capers and other impossible crimes that good ol' regular joe private eyes cracked. Here are a few, listed more or less in chronological order:

Alternately known as "Tom, Dick or Harry," this is one of the very first locked-room mysteries to feature a Hard-boiled private eye, as we understand the term. And what a private eye -- it's Hammett's own Coontinental Op who's got to figure out how a ruthless armed robber manages to escape a locked down apartment building surrounded by the cops.

A string of over sixty thoroughly entertaining and consistently inventive puzzlers that appeared in Detective Fiction Weekly back in the thirties and forties, featuring numerous impossible thefts, told from the point of view of cocky, dapper scam artist, lawyer and sometime detective Lester Leith. Leith's so cocky he doesn't even mind that his valet is a stool pigeon for the cops. He just cons him, too.

It's rare for the worlds of hard-boiled crime fiction and screwball comedy to merge, and even rarer for them to enter into locked room mystery territory, but damn if that isn't exactly what these three novels, featuring Latimer's hard-drinking private eye Bill Crane, manage to do. The series kicked off with Murder in the Madhouse, wherein a body is thrown out of the only window of a room -- a window way too high to reach, never mind toss a stiff out of. In Headed for a Hearse, Crane has to figure out -- between drinks -- how a box full of money disappeared from beneath a bridge under constant observation, and in The Dead Don't Care Crane discovers that trying to crack the death by shooting in a locked room can really interfere with a guy's drinking.

  • The Deaths of Lora Karen (1944)
    The Whistling Legs (1945
    The Blushing Monkey (1953) by Roman McDougald

Genteel NYC private snoop Philip Cabot specialized in locked room mysteries and other impossible crimes in these three novels, which leaned more towards Van Dine and John Dickson Carr than Chandler and Hammett.

More Philip Mcdonald than Ross Macdonald, perhaps, but young, dashing former Intelligence officer Algy Lawrence, who now consults for Scotland Yard, bills himself as an "unofficial detective." That's good enough for me. I just hope he gets paid.

Anyway he appears in just two novels, but one of them, Whistle Up the Devil, is generally considered one of the greatest locked room mysteries of all time; a stone cold classic from the Golden Age of crime fiction. In fact, it's also a Valentine of sorts to the sub-genre, with shout-outs to such past masters of the form as Israel Zangwill, John Dickson Carr and Clayton Rawson. At one point, Algy and a police inspector even sit in a library filled with mysteries, discussing famous locked room novels and trying to apply their solutions to their case.

Barry Ergang writes: "Includes both a locked-room problem and a seemingly impossible disappearance. Both are initially intriguing but turn out to be very lame. Neither is fairly-clued. (P.I.) Steve Drake's entry into the case is prompted by a couple of all-too-convenient coincidences, the nature of one of which would be a spoiler if revealed here. Suffice it to say I found the book to be a huge disappontment, and I sincerely doubt anyone would rate it a great example of an impossible crime story."

  • Too French and Too Deadly (1955) by Henry Kane

"A pretty darn good locked-room P.I. tale" featuring New York private richard Pete Chambers, this novel was reprinted in its entirety as "The Narrowing Lust" in the more or less definitive collection of locked-room mysteries, The Locked Room Reader, edited by Hans Stefan Santesson. The collection was later reprinted in two volumes by Dell, as 8 Keys To Murder and 8 Doors To Death.

Jonathan Latimer again, this time under a pseudonym. While some of the titles on this list may technically be private eyes, they often lack that that P.I. attitude that rings my chimes. But this one flips that one on its head -- the hero here, screenwriter Richard Blake, is NOT a private eye, but he's got the attitude down in spades. poissibly Sam Spades. It's also one hell of a locked room case, involving death by shooting on a movie set. The whole thing's even been caught on film during filming -- but the they still can't solve it! They are able to play back the film but unable to find anyone who could have been close enough to the victim at the time of the murder.

  • "No Way Out" (February 1964, Mike Shayne Mystery Magazine) by Dennis Lynds

  • Murder Among Children (1967) by Tucker Coe

A hardboiled locked-room mysteryfeaturing wall-building private eye Mitch Tobin. This is, I think, my favorite in the series, but all five books are worth tracking down. I think a British publisher reprinted them about ten years ago. All come heartily recommended by Coe contemporaries such as Donald Westlake and Richard Stark.

No one, indeed, especially Collins' one-armed gumshoe, Dan Fortune, who has to figure out
if a death by hanging inside a locked room was murder or not. And if it was murder, how the hell did the killer get out? This one appeared in EQMM back in 1969, and was Collected in All But Impossible, Ticknor, 1981.

  • Invisible Green (1974)
    Black Aura (1979) by John Sladek

Although Thackery Phin is a former university philosopher turned private detective, he's a long way from hard-boiled.

Thomas Banacek was the insufferably smug freelance insurance investigator who starred in a string of fondly remembered made-for-TV movies back in the seventies, which aired as part of NBC's Wednesday Night Mystery Movies. He was an ace detective,, recovering stolen goods when nobody else could. A missing airplane? A prototype car stolen off a moving train? A three-ton sculpture vanished without a trace? A star football player who disappears -- during a nationally televised game? The more impossible the crime, the better for Bancek. Which was why he got the big bucks -- much to the dismay of the invariably stuffed shirt insurance executives of Boston who had to reluctantly hire him after thier own investigators had failed. Sure, Banacek could be an asshole, but anyone who's ever had a boss they hated understood.

  • Hoodwink (1981)
    Scattershot (1982)
    Bones (1985)
    Shackles (1988)
    Schemers (2009) by Bill Pronzini
    "Booktaker" (1982, Sosetsu Shincho)
    "Whodunit?" (1988, Small Felonies) by Bill Pronzini

Next time somebody cranks up The Breakup Song by Greg Kihn and starts shouting "They don't write 'em like that anymore " in your ear, slap that mother down and hand 'em a Pronzini book. He's not only one of our greatest living writers of the P.I. genre, a whiz bang carrier of the torch for decades, but he's also -- whether people realize it or not -- one of the true masters of the locked room mystery, endlessly clever and inventive, and one of the the best ever at fusing the PI story with the impossible crime. In addition to the novels and short stories listed here, all of which feature his name-challenged private eye, he has about several standalone short stories, a few written collaboratively with Marcia Muller or Jeffrey Wallmann, that qualify.

In Hoodwink (1981), the pulp-collecting Nameless crack a death by shooting in a locked hotel room and another one, this by axe, in a locked shed. All this while attending a pulp convention where, while searching for a few rare issues, he accidentally finds true love. Oh, and while attending the convention, he refuses to wear a name tag. Cute, huh? Hot on Hoodwink's heels, Scattershot featured not one, not two, but three impossible crimes: a murder by stabbing in a car Nameless has beentailing and had under constant surveillance, a death by shooting in a cottage where all doors and windows were either locked or under constant observation and, finally, the theft of a ring from a room full of wedding presents Nameless was hired to guard. In Bones (1985), Nameless has to contend with the murder of a man shot and killed in a locked study. "Booktaker", a short story in Case File, St. Martin's, 1983 is a particularly good story of someone stealing rare items from a bookstore, and is linked to his well-known novel Shackles, listed below.

Pronzini must have been in a locked room mood in the eighties because he also wrote several impossible crime short stories, most notably "Booktaker", an intriguing 1982 short story revolving around the impossible theft of several rare items from a bookstore. The events in this one inevitably lead to his 1988 novel Shackled. Although in truth, it's not so much a locked room mystery as a sort of inverted locked room mystery in that the burning question is not "How did a murderer get into a remote mountain cabin?" but "How on earth will Nameless, shackled to the wall and left for dead ever get out?" Easily one of my favourite P.I. novels, it's a writing tour-de-force that recalls Stephen King's Misery.

But it's obvious that Pronzini's not done with locked rooms. His 2009 Nameless novel, Schemers, has yet another gun death in a locked room, and is probably his most original locked-room idea yet. With so many impossible crime gimmicks merely retreads of older ideas, Pronzini deserves props for Shackles, "Booktaker", and Scattershot all boasting original ideas but, as Brian says, Schemers "somehow has extra clever in it."

Oh, and one more: Pronzini may also written the shortest locked room mystery ever, "Whodunit?" It appeared, appropriately enough, in the 1988 Pronzini collection titled Small Felonies. It was one sentence long.

  • Even the Wicked (1997) by Lawrence Block

New York eye Matt Scudder has to deal with a vigilante who calls himself "The Will of the People," seems to be able to get anyone anytime, and is kind enough to announce the identity of his intended victims to the media before he kills them.

In his fourth outing, the force of nature that is Jack Reacher is hot on the trail of a serial killer who leaves his victims dead in their own bathtubs, covered in gallons of camouflage paint, but without leaving any apparent cause of death. But there's a further catch -- all the victims were women, and they all knew Reacher.

  • The Vanished Man (2003) by Jeffery Deaver

Lincoln Rhyme isn't really a private eye -- he's more of a consulting forensic scientist, or maybe a criminalist, but in this one the quadripelegic from NYC is called on to look into a series of murders committed by a killer who seems to have vanished immediately after, despite police officers on the scene, including in one instance by vanishing "through some kind of trapdoor that nobody could find."

  • The Play of Light and Shadow (2004) by Barry Ergang...Kindle it!

This novelette-length story originally appeared in FMAM, Issue 35, 2004, and is an honest-to-goodness locked-room mystery by our very own Barry Ergang, featuring Darnell, a bookworm barfly P.I.

For someone who is not particularly a locked room or impossible crime fan, Think of a Number, the first in an increasingly popular series featuring Dave Gurney, a retired NYC homicide dick now working as an investigative consultant in the Catskills, is probably the best book on the list. There's some great regional color and some terrific marital scenes between the introspective Dave and his long-suffering wife Madeleine, as Dave tries to figure out a bizarre string of murders. People are receiving letters in the mail, challenging them to "think of a number." When they do, they open the second part of the letter and discover -- ta-dah! -- that their number has been predicted. But then later, they're murdered. And you thought spam was bad? Dave has since reappeared in several more books, each featuring some truly bizarre crimes, including one which revolves around a bride found decapitated on her wedding day in a building that no one had access to, and in the upcoming Wolf Lake, four people in different parts of the country all have the same disturbing dream, involving a bloody dagger with a carved wolf's head on the handle. All four are subsequently found with their wrists cut -- apparent suicides.

  • Nine Man's Murder (2011) by Eric Keith

After thirteen years, nine graduates of the Anderson Detective Agency assemble on a remote island for a class reunion. But they aren't there long before they start dropping like flies, each murder more baffling than the first. If it sounds like Christie's And Then There Were None, well, it should. Only these people all know each other, and they're all trained detectives. the author, by the way, is a former game and puzzle designer for a company that created logical games and puzzles.

What? Pronzini again? Now he's got that nice Marcia doing it! In this co-written novel, Pronzini and Muller's 1890s private detectives have to investigate the apparent suicide of a suspect in a locked room, which they susect is actually murder. Oh, and just for fun, a brewmaster is drowned in a vat of his own beer.

ALSO OF INTEREST

  • Santesson, Hans Stefan, editor,
    The Locked Room Reader...Buy this book
    Random House, 1968

Later reprinted in two volumes by Dell as 8 Keys To Murder and 8 Doors To Death.

A classic reference work, featuring info on almost 1,300 "locked-room" and other "impossible" mysteries, from short stories to novels, and where to find them. Even better, though, is that each puzzle is presented -- but not the solution. Because that would be telling. A monumental bit of work, although by now a bit dated (and also rather pricey). Fortunately, Mystery Scene's "locked room guy," Brian Skupin, is working with Adey on a new, revised edition.

  • All But Impossible,
    Ticknor, 1981

A treasure trove of stories sure to delight any puzzle fiend you know, this hefty collection (from the House of Otto) features locked room murders and other impossible crimes from all over the genre (including a few nifty P.I. tales), from short-shorts to novellas, from the ancient past to some of today's hottest writers, and as usual, Otto does a bang-up job in the intros. Contributors include Edgar Allan Poe, Stephen King, Lawrence Block, Agatha Christie, Georges Simenon, Dorothy L. Sayers, P. G. Wodehouse, Erle Stanley Gardner and Dashiell Hammett.

  • Pugmire, John, & Brian Skupin, editors,
    The Realm of the Impossible ...Buy this book
    CreateSpace, 2017.

.It's a small world after all, and also one possibly without any visible way in or out, in this globe-spinning, ground-breaking collection of twenty short stories built around locked room mysteries and other impossible crimes, most never before collected, or even published in a English. Plus a foreword by Otto Penzler.

List report respectfully compiled by Kevin Burton Smith and Bryan Skupin. Thanks as well to Bill Crider, Barry Ergang, Paul and all the others for their contributions to this list.


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