Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Locked Rooms and the Suspension of Disbelief

Warning: This post spoils Edward D. Hoch’s “The Problem of the Pilgrim’s Windmill.”

So I’ve been flipping through Robert Adey’s Locked Room Murders recently (and man it feels good to type those words), and seeing all the different types of locked rooms out there. It’s not a perfect book--I’ve noticed a few errors and the descriptions are a little more terse than I would like--but on the whole I’d rather have it than not have it. As part of my flipping, I’ve been seeing how Adey describes some of the locked room mysteries that I’ve actually read, such as Edward D. Hoch’s Dr. Sam stories. So I checked out “The Problem of the Pilgrims Windmill,” an excellent little story that has people apparently being set on fire by Satan in the titular windmill, with no footprints in the surrounding snow. The imagination is sparked at once, and the story is in my opinion quite good. How does Adey explain this?

“Both incidents occurred when gasoline-filled balloons were accidentally ignited.”


He’s not wrong. But I feel this does the story a disservice. The impression is that some madman is lighting gas-filled balloons and sicing them on the windmill, or a very odd comedy of errors. But the whole thing is played seriously, the motives for the burnings are very serious, and the one behind it all is one of the more repulsive killers in the Dr. Sam canon. While one aspect of the second burning is a tad weak (I do think he would have smelled the gas), the whole thing is actually well-done and put together.

This isn’t a criticism, more speculation. While reading Adey’s book, I was struck at how stupid some of these solutions sound out of context. While some of that is down to the book itself being bad, there are probably some well-regarded stories here that leave you going, “Well, yes, that is pretty silly when you put it like that.” This isn’t a knock against quality though, I’ve seen forum games where the entire point is to take well-regarded works and make them sound as boring/inane as possible. But that’s beside the point.

In some ways it makes me appreciate authors who manage to make these stories work all the better. Yes, yes, many mystery plots, if you just sum up the bare minimum, sound really stupid, cliche, or inane. Take Death in the House of Rain for example. If I just blandly stated the solution (and you can sum it up in a sentence), you would probably cry “That’s stupid!” But it’s the sign of a good mystery writer (or writer in general) who can sell you on this set-up, not so much so that you believe that it happened, but that it could have happened, or at least that in the story’s world it’s plausible. In Death in the House of Rain’s case, for all that I have issues with the rest of the book, it does do a good job of justifying why this solution, even if some parts seem shaky to me. I think Hoch does a good job of that justification in this story as well, personally.

No real final point to this. Just me musing about how absurd the things we like are and how creators take the most bizarre ideas and sell us on them. What are your thoughts?


  1. "While reading Adey’s book, I was struck at how stupid some of these solutions sound out of context."

    You're not reading the solutions ahead of reading the stories, are you? Because that's a recipe for bitter disappointment.

    Even the first edition of Locked Room Murders, from 1979, was an ambitious project and you can't take too much space to explain a solution. Somethin I found out first hand when compiling a list of all the impossible crime from Detective Conan for the supplementary edition.

    So my only real gripe with Locked Room Murders is the inclusion of non-impossible crimes. Sometimes Adey acknowledged in the list that a story had been erroneously labeled or promoted as a locked room, but, more often than not, I had to find that out for myself. Adey also missed quite a few titles.

    Honestly, I would have scrapped every post-1920s novel or short story that used hidden passages or unknown poisons as a solution. Unless they found a new and innovative way to use them.

    1. I may have read a few... Just a few.

      In all seriousness, it was only for stories that sounded interesting that I was sure I wouldn't be reading anytime soon or stories that I've already read. I've honestly forgotten which one's I've read (beyond basic info like if the solution sounded interesting or not) so I even if I read them now it would be like going in blind. :P

      That the stories sound disappointing out of context is part of the point of the post; even great stories become dull when stripped of what surrounds them. I'm fascinated by how authors/creators can make us accept these ideas, although I probably didn't get that across! These posts sound better in my head.

      And what in the world is going on with that supplementary edition? I e-mailed John Pugmire months ago offering what (little) help I could for the project, but he told me someone else was handling it and I haven't heard anything in awhile. Hopefully your entries make it in!

    2. I've been told the edition is progressing, but Brian Skupin, who co-edited The Realm of the Impossible, keeps finding and adding new titles to the ever-growing list.

    3. Wow. More locked rooms. That's such a poor excuse. I can't believe the pain that comes from finding more locked rooms to read about. I better not wonder if he's seen the Ace Attorney series or something, who knows what he might do.

      This is sarcasm. I have no idea how I'd even contact him about that series in the first place, and Ho-Ling could be of more help there. :P