Ye Olde Book of Locked Room Conundrums (2016) ed. by JJ

This review really ought to start with an apology as I have left off reading this collection for a shockingly long time. Not out of any malice I hasten to add, but just sheer forgetfulness, as I am incredibly bad at remembering books which are on my computer rather than in paperback form. I really do need a physical TBR pile to remind me what I have to read. Apologies over, this is an extra special collection of short stories, as it was compiled and edited by JJ, who writes The Invisible Event blog, though I do believe it was Tom Cat (writer of the blog Beneath the Stains of Time), who selected the stories to be chosen (correct me if I’m wrong anyone). As the title suggests all of the stories are locked room mysteries and in particular a keen aim of the collection was to include stories which get ‘typically overlooked.’ So no Rue Morgue for us, though there is a story in the collection which involves a monkey.

If you wish to try the collection out for yourselves (free of charge) click the link below:
https://theinvisibleevent.wordpress.com/2016/10/29/15-ye-olde-book-of-locked-room-conundrums-publication-day/

Rhampsinitus and the Thief (c.480 BC) by Herodotus

Got to say this is the earliest mystery story I have ever read and told by Herodotus no less. The clue is definitely in the title, as this story involves two thieves who manage to rob the local ruler of much of his wealth, which resides in a supposedly sealed chamber. The how element of the crime is told to us early on and I think in a way this story is more concerned with the consequences of the crime to the thieves. In a way this is an inverted mystery and although very short, is rich with potential for a writer to expand upon and develop it.

The Spectre of Presburg: A Hungarian Tale (1818) by Anne and Annabel Plumptre

There is quite a time leap to our next story, which is set in is Presburg in Hungary, where a spectre (of a man who was recently killed on the battle field) is causing havoc in a local inn where members of the army are quartered. This spectre has such an effect that one soldier almost seems to lose his mind and much of the story is involved in locating him when he goes AWOL. What makes everyone so sure that this is indeed a spectre is that the figure is seen to walk into room where there is no other exit apart from the door they have entered. There is only one man who seems to think something else might be going on and proceeds to work behind the scenes. The mystery element does take a little bit of a backseat in my opinion as the middle of the story is more concerned at looking at the effects it has had on local people. Equally like the previous story this one also is interested in looking at what happens to the guilty party and their motivations. The howdunnit element is something told to us rather than something we can figure out for ourselves. Definitely a story which I think could have been shortened.

The Diamond Lens (1858) by Fitz-James O’Brien

This story is a good example of how unusual the stories collected here are. Our narrator is in the mould of the narrators found in Victorian biographically styled novels – i.e. they are naïve and selfish pain in the butts until events force a change to their character – but what a change there is though in the case of this story! Suffice to say the root cause of our narrator’s troubles is microscopes. Yep microscopes. I will say no more as this is such a wonderfully bizarre story that you should know no more going into it.

The Black Pearl (1888) by Victorien Sarbou

A storm in Amsterdam is the setting of the next story where a home robbery, (in locked room conditions of course), tears at the relationships between the inhabitants. The evidence stacks highly against one of the inmates, leaving the others in a very difficult position. Unlike the other stories so far this story has a more conventional plot structure with a police investigation. Yet for all that conventionality the solution to the crime is truly unique and is anything but conventional.

The Case of Roger Carboyne (1892) by H. Greenbough Smith

In Smith’s story two friends are riding whilst on holiday in the Welsh mountains. One of them, Roger, goes on up ahead of the other. Yet when his friend arrives there is only his horse. The saddle itself shows sign of a struggle, but all around the horse is pristine snow, with no other marks than horse hoof prints. But then how did Roger end up 60 foot up the mountain they are nearby. And what did he die of? Again I certainly have to take my hat off to the writer for such a wonderfully bizarre, yet very plausible solution.

The Suicide of Kiaros (1897) by L. Frank Baum

As with some of the other stories in the collection this is not a story of a crime which gets detected and therefore punished. This is one of those rare stories of the perfect crime, which Felix Marston manages to achieve when he fears his embezzlement of company funds will be discovered.

The Lost Special (1898) by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Well no story collection would be complete without a tale from Doyle and again I have enjoyed this experience to read one of his non-Holmes stories. In this story the impossible crime is the disappearance of an entire train and its occupants. It was heading towards Manchester but for some inexplicable reason never made it. As expected with Doyle the plot and narrative style are superb and the pacing works well. The solution is also up to standard, though I must say it is very dependent on location and good luck. I also loved finding out in this story that you could pay for a “special” train to take you somewhere rather than wait for a scheduled train. Ahh those were the days…

The Mystery of the Circular Chamber (1898) by L. T. Meade and R. Eustace

This is the first of our “haunted” house locked room mysteries and in this one there is an inn where occupants of the haunted room always seem to be dead in the morning – cause unknown. Again a solution which is location dependent, but very intriguing and the prose style is smooth and very readable. In a way I think this short story could have been developed into a novella or novel.

The Mystery of the Locked Room (1905) by Tom Gallon

Next up is a theft which takes place at Highbridge Spa, of a diamond necklace which was locked in a room and the only window was visible to witnesses throughout the time the necklace could have been removed. This story has quite a neat trick, though once a key clue is revealed the solution is quite obvious.

Plague of Ghosts (1907) by Rafael Sabatini

In this story Capoulade decides to give up on his life of crime and use his nefarious skills and knowledge for good, by working for the Minister of Police in Paris – for a price of course. His first case is concerned with forgery and a home which is said to be plagued with ghosts. I really enjoyed the rogue turned sleuth character in this one and I could happily read full length novels of his exploits.

The Mystery of the Flaming Phantom (1907) by Jacques Futrelle

Another haunted house this time which has journalist Hutchinson Hatch asking Professor Augustus S F X van Dusen to investigate mysterious and terrifying visitations at a home owned by Ernest Weston. An unsolved cold case involving missing jewels and murder figure in the story and the solution to the howdunnit element is impressive, though the who element is much easier to solve.

The Unseen Hand (1908) by M. McDonnell Bodkin

When a train arrives at a station a ticket collector gets a nasty surprise when he finds a dead body in one of the compartments and suffice to say the death was not a natural one. The victim was in the carriage by himself and the door was locked, but the windows were open. Paul Beck is called to investigate and once more we are given a pleasing solution, which uses its clues and their interpretations very cleverly.

The Round Room Horror (1911) by A. Demain Grange

Grange’s story has a Watson and great detective character pairing and the case is set in a remote mansion in the UK. An elderly patriarch who fears being murdered in his sleep, is unsurprisingly murdered in his sleep. But how did the murderer get into his bedroom? And what weapon made the unusually shaped wound? More of a technical solution to this one, involving diagrams and measurements and in a way I think this is a plot which would have benefitted from being a longer story, as it did feel truncated. Grange does play around with the conventions though which is pleasing.

The Mystery of Howard Romaine (1917) by Herbert Beerbohm Tree

Actor, Howard Romaine, is found poisoned to death on his sofa, dressed for the part of Hamlet. A bottle of poison is found in his hand, but his death is still open as to whether it was murder or suicide. The real mystery though is that prior to the inquest, the body, which was placed in a coffin (already in Romaine’s lodgings) and sealed into the rooms, mysteriously disappears. This plot requires a fair bit of back story but surprisingly, for me at any rate, it actually rather worked, as normally stories with a lot of backstory tend to be weaker efforts. The final of solution is another fabulous one in a dark humorous sort of way.

Flashlights (1918) by Laurence Clarke

Our final tale involves naval espionage, with our young hero exploring a supposedly abandoned house for signs of signalling activity. The locked room feature in this story is quite an unusual one, not involving theft nor murder and again could have been a story which would have benefitted from being a longer tale; the solution is rather told to us than shown. However the setting and the dialogue made it a good finish to the collection.

So as my comments have no doubt imitated already I felt this was a strong collection of stories. By and large the solutions to most of these stories were extremely satisfying and novel, yet weren’t too mind boggling in detail. These stories present a great deal of variety in terms of the crimes committed, the locations they are set in, (not solely taking place in the UK or USA), and the solutions posed. There wasn’t any feeling of being given the same story twice. It was interesting that in these earlier crime stories justice is not always achieved, though there is definitely one perfect crime which has a very sharp sting in its tail. Equally it was good to see how earlier crime writers didn’t have quite the same goals and foci of golden age detective fiction writers. Consequently I would firstly say that this is a definite recommended read and secondly that this is a very important collection of stories, gathering in earlier locked room tales with solutions which later writers would go on to develop and expand upon. If I had to pick favourites I would choose Doyle’s ‘The Lost Special’, Meade and Eustace’s ‘The Mystery of the Circular Chamber’, Bodkin’s ‘The Unseen Hand’ and Tree’s ‘The Mystery of Howard Romaine’.

Rating: 4.25/5

Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt Item (Silver Card): Skull

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About armchairreviewer

Qualified English teacher, with a passion for literature and crime fiction. On a random note I also own pygmy goats and chickens with afros (it doesn't get any cooler than that).
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5 Responses to Ye Olde Book of Locked Room Conundrums (2016) ed. by JJ

  1. TomCat says:

    This collection began with a blog-post by JJ (here), criticizing the lazy selection of Classic Locked Room Mysteries by David Stuart Davies, which I followed up with compilation of an alternative selection (here). And that snowballed into the anthology you have reviewed here.

    If you liked “The Mystery of the Circular Chamber,” you should read the entire John Bell collection, entitled Master of Mysteries, published in the late 1880s. It’s probably the first-ever collection of impossible crime stories and the plots moved away from such hoary plot-devices as secret passages. You can download the book from such places as Gutenberg, because it has since fallen into the public domain.

    Personally, I’m very fond of Clarke’s “Flashlights.” It’s one of those rare detective stories written and set during the First World War. And has a really original impossible problem to boot!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for gathering all the links I managed to leave out and well done on coming up with such a varied list of stories! I didn’t mean the setting or general direction of Flashlight but I think its needed to be longer, with greater development, for it to be a truly good read.

      Like

      • JJ says:

        Yeah, TomCat did superbly in the range of styles and solutions here — some of them are alarmingly inventive, and all the better for it. I’m really pleased you enjoyed it; it’s a great set of early impossible crimes, and shows how the genre has developed through a combination of obvious tricks (the Tom Gallon story, which is beautifully written but still a little disappointing) and some devilish invention (I, like TomCat, am a huge fan of ‘Flashlights’). Maybe we’ll do a second volume sometime…

        Liked by 1 person

  2. JJ says:

    Oh, and Howard Romaine is freakin’ hilarious.

    Liked by 1 person

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