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The Best Locked-Room Mysteries: When Impossible Crimes Aren't

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I don't care how old we get -- as long as we retain a sense of wonder, we'll stay young and live a happier life than those too-cool-for-school cynics who have a weary, ho-hum, is-that-all-there-is response to magic shows, fireworks, and locked-room mysteries.

After a half-century of reading more mystery, crime, and suspense fiction than normal people, and being blessed to have a career in this delicious literary niche as an editor, publisher, bookseller, reviewer, author, and anthologist, I maintain that no sub-genre is as difficult to produce as a locked room mystery.

A lifetime of reading helped produce my new book, The Big Book of Locked Room Mysteries, since I'd hunted down short stories of this type ever since I learned that such things exist.

Almost all the best impossible crime stories were written during the Golden Age of detective fiction, those two decades between the world wars, and, sadly, almost no one produces them nowadays. Of course not. They are as difficult to write as it is for Captain Hook to thread a needle.

I read about 350-400 stories before settling on the final 68 (I was fussier than Goldilocks), which represent almost every kind of scenario for a crime that appears to have no rational solution.

The most standard situation is a hermetically sealed room, doors and windows locked, no secret entrances, closely guarded, yet the intended victim is stabbed, bludgeoned, poisoned, strangled, or shot to death.

But there are other, equally impossible set-ups. A carefully raked tennis court with a bludgeoned corpse at the net, with only his footsteps on the clay. A body that has been stabbed in the middle of a field of undisturbed, newly fallen snow. An empty airplane making a smooth landing. A person who enters a house, never to be seen again.

The master of the impossible crime story was John Dickson Carr. While many writers tried their hands at producing "impossible" crimes, they were generally able to sustain the endeavor for a book or two, while the vast majority of titles by Carr (and his pseudonym Carter Dickson) was in this most demanding of all sub-genres. His imagination was so fertile that in one of his most famous novels, The Three Coffins, Fell delivers a lecture regarding impossible crimes in which he offers several dozen methods by which apparently impossible murders may be accomplished, throwing away more ideas in a few pages than all the Grand Masters of mystery fiction combined could muster.

Here are a few of his best books, each with a plotline more complicated than the directions for assembling a gas grill but with denouements as pleasing as being forgotten by the IRS:

Below Suspicion, in which the victim is poisoned in a locked house with only one other resident, who is innocent.

The Bride of Newgate, in which the victim is stabbed to death in a room that is proved to have had no one enter it for more than two years.

The Burning Court, in which a body disappears from a coffin in a sealed crypt and a woman disappears through a bricked-up doorway.

Castle Skull, in which a man disappears from a railway compartment that is being carefully observed.

The Crooked Hinge, in which the victim has his throat slashed while standing on sand unmarked by footprints.

Death-Watch, in which the victim is stabbed to death in a house where the only three witnesses can vouch for each other.

Fire, Burn!, in which the victim is shot to death in a passage where only one person had a gun -- and she is innocent.

He Who Whispers, in which the victim is stabbed to death in a closely guarded tower.

The Lost Gallows, in which a limousine is driven by the murdered chauffeur.

There are many more, but you get the idea.

Other mystery writers also produced masterpieces of locked room detective stories, but they are as rare as delicatessens in Gaza. Among the best was Clayton Rawson, whose four novels and all his short stories featured The Great Merlini, a magician who was asked by the New York police department to explain the phenomenon of human footprints on the ceiling of the room in which the body was found, not to mention the bullet that was apparently fired around a corner (The Footprints on the Ceiling), an escape from an electronically controlled, double-locked prison cell (The Headless Lady), two deaths by strangulation in a locked room and the disappearance of a person from a taxi that was under constant surveillance (Death from a Top Hat).

The solutions to none of these locked room murders and thefts have supernatural elements and there is no cheating about hidden panels, long-lost twins, waking from dreams or hallucinations. No, they are deduced by detectives, who explain all to the incredulous characters and the baffled reader.

This is the only downside of impossible crime stories, I admit. Having them explained is like having David Copperfield describe how he walked through the Great Wall of China or made the Statue of Liberty disappear. The illusion has disappeared. It's not really magic, after all.

If magic and locked room mysteries don't intrigue you... well, sorry, no offense, but you're one of those hopeless, world-weary cynics. You don't deserve magic, mind-bending stories, or fireworks.