Saturday, August 2, 2014

Large And In Charge

Anthologies are like a pair of dice. Albeit a very large pair of dice with more than six sides a piece and that make you feel empowered to beat Chihuahuas to death whenever you hold them, but a pair of dice nonetheless. This is because anthologies, a collection of stories with the same theme, are very hit and miss. The editor's definition of quality is probably very different from yours (and as such is wrong) and the sheer amount of stories generally means that there will be a few clunkers. So why did I pick something so risky (and long) for my second foray into mysteries? Because it was one of three books that I picked from a list at random.

The Mammoth Book of Perfect Crimes and Impossible Mysteries is actually the second locked room anthology (though there are some regular "perfect" crimes for variety) that Mike Ashley has edited (the first being The Mammoth Book of Locked Room Mysteries and Impossible Crimes) and one of many anthologies he's edited. But does that mean that this is worth your time? (Before we start, I want to say that descriptions and reviews will be shorter than normal. This is because I want to keep this from getting bloated and the stories aren't connected except in theme, so it's hard to keep a thread going.)

An Almost Perfect Crime by William F. Smith

A man enters an all-glass phone booth and, in full view of witness, kneels over from a curare-tainted icepick. An icepick that somehow ended up in his back despite the fact that no one was inside, or even near the booth, and the glass was undamaged...

A good start to the collection, with a neat problem and a neat solution. It was a little more technical than I would have liked, but it works as far as I can tell. (SPOLIER Unless there's a problem with the location of the tube and the phone itself. There might've been, but I wasn't sure. SPOLIER) It's neatly clued too.

The X Street Murders by Joseph Commings.

An envelope arrives for Kermit Gosling on X Street. It contains a gun, a gun that can fire three shots on its own and not tear the envelope...

One of Commings' excellent Senator Banner stories, this has everything: good clueing, a unique situation, and an excellent solution. The killer can be rather easy to spot though.

Locked in Death by Mary Reed and Eric Mayer

Nikolai Zubov was a cruel man and an incompetent ringmaster and it was only a matter of time before someone got tired of him. It's just that no one thought that it would be the lion tamer's corpse in a locked trailer...

Don't let my synopsis fool you; this story is awful. Or, to be more precise, it's solution is awful. I knew when I read it that that solution didn't work. (SPOLIERS SNAKES DO NOT WORK THAT WAY! SPOLIERS) Disappointing, considering the situation.

Wingless Pegasus by Gillian Linscott

A nobleman is found on an island, his head bashed in. That is not the impossible crime. The true impossibility is why a horse is on the island with him...

Once again, neat problem, terrible solution. (SPOLIERS It's pretty much "the horse swam there". SPOLIERS) The narration is entertaining enough, but the story is a let down as a whole.

Duel of Shadows by Vincent Cornier

Henry Westmacott sits down to listen to the radio...and is shot. And this time, the fact that no one could have left the room is a minor problem compared to the fact that the bullet was fired over 200 years ago...

Quality! Glorious quality! Not only do we have an intriguing problem, but the solution isn't a let down! Admittedly, the solution does require scientific knowledge, but there are enough hints for you to at least see where the author is going, even if you can't figure out the specifics.

The 45 Steps by Peter Crowther

At dinner, Arthur Clark gets up to use the restroom. Minutes later, he is dead in a locked stall due to acute nicotine poisoning. And there was no poison in his food or drink...

Well. This is a thing. This is... I really don't know. I mean, the solution is fine (and kind of creepy when you think about it) but the quality is buried under ANGST!!! It just felt too surreal for me to truly get into it. Disappointing.

Contrary to the Evidence by Douglas Newton

Stanley Park is dead. Of natural causes. He simply kneeled over from a heart attack at the sight of his worthless nephew. But Barbra Tabard insists it was foul play even though Gerald Park was seen to have never gotten near his uncle...

This story is hard to judge, because while I can't say that I care for the solution (SPOLIERS Random mechanical device and strange poison! SPOLIERS) I did enjoy seeing the gradual revelation of the killer's activities. The idea of a psychic detective is also interesting.

The Impossible Footprint by William Brittan

A pair of hunters stumble on a gruesome sight; a corpse with one foot hacked off. It looks like the man cut his foot off to escape from a bear trap, but a footprint made by the cut-off foot casts doubt on that...

A good story with a nice sense of humor, but one that never really felt impossible to me. It's hard to explain, but even when I read it the first time, it felt like there were too many obvious answers to really make it impossible. Still a good story though.

Three Blind Rats by Laird Long

Lenny "The Rat" Laymon is killed in his house. Not exactly an awe-inspiring problem, but the case gets interesting when it looks like he's been robbing jewelry stores while dead...

Peter Lovesey did this story already, and I'm pretty sure that he did it better. It's not bad and the use of technology is interesting but it also, in some ways, cheapens the solution. I do find the idea of the older detective embracing technology with the younger rejecting it to be funny though.

Death and the Rope Trick by John Bayse Price

A man and his nephew travel to meet a man who claims that he can preform the famous Indian Rope Trick (in which a rope levitates, someone climbs the rope, and the person vanishes). All goes
according to plan, until the vanished person turns up drowned...

This story is stupid. The solution is indecipherable, it probably doesn't even work in real life, the protagonists are completely gullible and I love this story. None of this occurred to me on my first read-through and I blissfully went along, unaware that anyone hated it until TomCat ripped into it. I thought about and I still think that the story's good, just in a stupid way. Turn your brain off and enjoy.

The Problem of the Black Cloister by Edward D. Hoch.

The year is 1942 and the small town of Northmont is preparing for a war bond drive. A noble cause, but one that grinds to a halt when the hired actor drops dead from a heart attack. Could it have something to do with a strange death at the titular cloister...?

At first I was wondering what this was doing in the collection until I realized that it fit a different party of the title. The story clicked a lot better and now my compliant is that Hoch uses a clue where (SPOLIERS you have to have knowledge of another language SPOILIERS) but it is but one clue among many and you can still figure out most of what's going on. EDIT: I forgot to mention how interesting it is that the detective actually starts wondering if they're the cause of all the murders. He was so close to understanding the Detective's Curse(TM)...

A Shower of Daggers by Edward D. Hoch

All Susan Holt wanted to do was meet a contact for a department store. She definitely wasn't planning on being arrested, getting caught up in counterfeiting, or having her contact stabbed to death in the contact's shower while Susan was sitting right outside it...

Now this is an impossible crime! Hoch's skill gets a better showing with a clever crime, a simple and ingenious solution, and clues scattered throughout to make you hit yourself when you fail to solve it. (Yes, I am a Hoch fan, can you tell?)

The Hook by Robert Randisi

A serial killer is stalking the streets and he's got a strange way of killing. Most serial killers just cut you up; this one will take the organs right out of your body...

Why is this story here? There's an impossible element, but it's easily resolved and there's no mystery surrounding the killer. It's not bad per se, it just has no business being in this collection.

The Mystery of the Sevenoaks Tunnel by Max Rittenberg

A man hurls himself out of a passing train car. The footprints in the dust show that he was alone. However, the man's niece and the lawyer who wants her hand, are convinced that it was murder...

An entertaining story. The solution is perfectly fine and while the clueing may be sparse, it's made up for by the characters. This story is funny, maybe not laugh-out-loud funny, but funny nonetheless. Also, would I be crossing a line if I said that Magnum (who names their kid that?) might be a predecessor of a certain Sir Henry Merrivale?

The Red Ring by Willaim Le Queux

An agent of the British Secret Service is found dead in his locked hotel room. The verdict is suicide by poison, but what explanation is there for the strange red ring on the man's neck...?

Why is this story here? Once again, it's not a bad story, it just has little business being here. Heck, you can't solve any of it, since the method for locking the room only shows up at the end! And the detective only mentions it as he's explaining it!

Observable Justice by Will Murray

A man named JOHN DOOM is found in a hotel room. His death looks like it's from natural causes, but soon it looks like JOHN DOOM may have used remote viewing to get a glimpse into Hell itself...

Why. Is. This. Story. Here. There really isn't an impossible crime from what I could see. The whole "and if you look down you'll see Hell" is unique and all, but it isn't really treated like an impossible crime. Is this one of the "perfect crime" stories? It doesn't feel like it. Also, the victim's name is JOHN DOOM. I still find that hilarious.

On the Rocks by J.A. Konrath

A young woman is found on her apartment floor, her wrist slit. It looks like a suicide, and how can it be anything but, when the door is not only chained on the inside but blocked with a couch...?

An okay story. The solution isn't anything to write home about, but it works considering the context and the interactions between the characters are good. (That Houdini thing at the beginning was funny.)

Eternally Yours by H. Edward Hunsburger

Jeff Winsor believes in the scarcity of good New York apartments. He doesn't believe in ghosts. This belief is challenged when he starts receiving letters in response to a dead man, a dead man who died behind the locked door of his apartment...

A much better story, with good narration, an interesting problem, and a simple but effective solution. One of the better stories in this collection. (Even if the killer's motive is ridiculous.)

Murder in Monkeyland by Lois Gresh and Robert Wienberg

A scientist dies in his lab in a secret government building known as The Slab. The place is secured tighter than Alcatraz with keycard sensors, a lack of windows, and huge hunks of stone blocking the labs at night...

This story is awful. It's pure dross. It starts interesting , has some good dialogue and narration... and then the solution rears it's ugly head. You can't solve it and it doesn't work. The opening blurb mentions that the authors mainly write science-fiction and it shows. Probably the worst in the collection.

No Killer Has Wings by Arthur Porges

A man stands accuses of murdering his uncle and it falls to Dr. Joel Hoffman, coroner to prove his innocence. Quite the task, considering only the victim's footprints and the main suspect's footprints are near the body...

Definitely an improvement over the last story (though anything would've been) this story has both an ingenious solution and fair play clueing. You have no room to object if you can't figure it out! (Also, does anyone know where I can find more of this man's stories?)

Benning's School for Boys by Richard A. Lupoff

A military clerk is found dead in a locked safe room with the money he was guarding joining his killer in vanishing into thin air. Now Nick Train will have to explain how someone can get in and out of a room locked on both sides...

A simple, inoffensive story. It's not bad, but nothing about it really stands out except for some of the dialogue.

The Episode of the Nail and the Requiem by C. Daly King

A model is found dead in the apartment of mad (mad!, MAD!!!) artist Michael Salti. He's obviously the killer, but how did he leave his locked, high-rise apartment...?

A pretty good story. It flows at a nice pace, the solution isn't too out there, and it features something that you normally don't see in stories with Great Detectives (TM). Just try to ignore the racism. (And be thankful that it was this story instead of some of the other Tarrant stories.)

The Impossible Murder of Dr. Satanus by William Krohn

Dr. Satanus aka Charles Kimball is a professional magician who's apparently scared for his life and trying to divorce his wife. The latter means that there's a hired private investigator who sees him lying dead in an elevator with a knife in his back, even though his wife saw him get in and head straight down...

The best story in the collection, hands down. the clues are well-placed, the solution is unique, and it's just a fun story.

The Stuart Sapphire by Peter Tremayne

A century ago, James II fled England to live in exile. Now, his only surviving descendent is having his own troubles as valuable jewels belonging to him family have vanished from a locked safe...

Firmly average. While the historical setting is interesting (and the overly-long title of the protagonist funny) there really isn't much here. The solution is fine, and shows that not every locked room needs to be an elaborate affair, but the story just isn't memorable.

The Flung-Back Lid by Peter Godfrey

A man takes his cable car to the bottom of a mountain. He is alone, but that does not stop someone from plunging a knife into his back...

This story is hard to judge. On one hand, it has a nice solution and, as far as I can tell, it's fairly clued but... something about it did not click the first time I read it, and it makes rereading harder. Nonetheless, I do appreciate what it was trying to do.

The Poisoned Bowl by Forrest Rosaire

A delivery of an acid-filled tube leads to a story of conspiracy, a man being poisoned despite not eating or drinking, and one of those tongue-cutting ebil Chinese guys...

Pure pulp. That's this story in a nutshell. Some parts, such as the culprit's identity, are pulled off well but most of this can only be enjoyed with a shut-off brain. I also have to wonder at how viable the solution to the impossible crime is...

Proof of Guilt by Bill Pronzini

George Dillon enters the office of lawyer Adam Chillingham to confront him about Chillingham's abuse of Dillon's father's estate. Obviously, this ends with Chillingham dead and with Dillon the only one capable of committing the crime if it weren't for the slight matter of the missing murder weapon...

This story is built mainly on it's twist which, while well executed, leaves me feeling cheated. How are you supposed to be able to figure this out! Still a good story in spite of that though.

Slaughterhouse by Barry Longyear

They are known as the Slaughterhouse. They are composed of people who have committed murder...and got away with it. Now they are preparing to introduce a new member, who shot his wife in her locked bedroom...

An ok story (for me anyways). While I like the idea of just flat out deconstructing a locked room, I have a hard time getting behind the more technical solution. The ending is good though.

The Birdman of Tonypandy by Bernard Knight

Lewis Lloyd wants to kill his wife. He plans on making it an ingenious crime, a crime that will leave the police shaking their fists in fury. You might even say that it will be the perfect crime...

No locked rooms here. Just a reverse whodunit, and a lovely game of cat and mouse between our culprit and the police. A decent end to the collection.

All in all, this collection really could have been better. When it's good, it's good but there are just too many clunkers and average stories for me to tell you to go and buy it. it's fine as a collection of crime stories, but the impossible crimes fall flat.  Thankfully, it's pretty cheap on Amazon, so you might be able to buy it and feel satisfied.

As a collection of crime stories, it gets a 7 out of 10, as these are relatively good. As a collection of locked rooms? 6 out of 10.

Next time, we'll look at a man who could've out-told Scheherazade. Be sure to comment!

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