Tantalizing Locked Room Mysteries (1982)

This anthology made it onto my radar when Cornell Woolrich’s Murder at the Automat was reviewed over at The Invisible Event.  It’s not so much that the description of the story made me swoon, but it was the mention that the story could be found in Tantalizing Locked Room Mysteries, and hey, anytime I learn about the existence of a locked room mystery collection I’m going to buy it.  Plus, one of the editors is Isaac Asimov.  While I’ve never been a fan, he’s the author of a supposedly solid impossible crime (I have yet to read) The Caves of Steel, and I was curious to see what he might have brought to the table.

Well, aside from the story choice, Asimov’s contribution is a three page introductory essay titled Nobody Did it.  It’s meant to set the stage by tantalizing us with an introduction to the genre of locked room mysteries, but Asimov gets tripped up and wastes one page on a philosophical point that veers into the question of how the moon came to exist.  That leaves us with little space for a few scrap mentions of Arthur Conan Doyle, Edgar Allan Poe, Agatha Christie, and John Dickson Carr – Carr being the one name that truly deserves a mention given the topic, and he’s not even featured in the anthology!

Oh, I know, I know – Poe and Doyle had a historical influence on the genre with The Murders in the Rue Morgue and The Adventure of the Speckled Band, and I don’t mean to dismiss that, but the very reason that I know it is because you can’t open a damn locked room anthology without those stories being included.  And in true predictable form, Tantalizing Locked Room Mysteries opens with The Murders in the Rue Morgue and The Adventure of the Speckled Band.  It’s followed by The Problem of Cell 13 by Jacques Futrelle, another story that is apparently legally required in any impossible crime collection.  I’m not really going to mention anything about these first three entries, because you probably already have five different books on your shelf that feature them, although I’ll happily admit that The Problem of Cell 13 is a really fun read.

In contrast to the three standards that front the collection, the rest of the entries are more obscure – perhaps with the exception of The Leopold Locked Room by Ed Hoch, which I seem to recall coming up elsewhere.  This isn’t a jaw dropper of a collection – I think I walk away with three stories permanently etched in my mind – but as with most short story collections, you can’t exactly go wrong.

MacKinlay Kantor’s The Light at Three O’Clock is one of those stories that stood out.  The night switchboard operator at an apartment building keeps receiving calls from a room where a man was murdered earlier that day, but upon answering he only hears a strange gargling sound.  This isn’t your typical locked room mystery in that the puzzle is how phone calls are originating from within an empty apartment (the key to which is in management’s possession), and the solution isn’t quite what an impossible crime fan is looking to get their fix with.  However, it’s absolutely bone chilling in parts and I’ll remember it for that.

Cornell Woolrich’s Murder at the Automat again is the story that led to me seeking out this collection.  It’s an enjoyable slice of noir, although a bit out of place in this collection.  The “impossibility” involves the question of how a poisoned sandwich was dispensed from a vending machine-style eatery, and the simple solution of “the person who made the sandwich poisoned it” is brushed aside with the least convincing explanation, which basically boils down to the detective saying that didn’t happen.  The true solution reinforces the feeling that this was never really meant to be an impossible crime in the first place and just got thrown into the collection as one.

The Exact Opposite by Erle Staley Gardner is one of those mysteries where you follow the events of an infallible human who instantly deduces every detail and whose every plan plays out to perfection.  In this case it’s a “good guy” thief who undertakes a lengthy scheme to steal a diamond and make the police look like fools in the process.  It’s a bit amusing, but runs long.  There’s a locked room murder of sorts involved in a tangential backstory, although the solution is yet another that will leave you questioning why the crime was considered impossible in the first place.  That’s a bit of a theme that runs throughout this collection.

Fortunately we hit our stride with two really solid entries.  Barry Perone’s The Blind Spot is an unusual twist on the impossible crime.  A drunken author comes up with the most brilliant solution ever for an impossible crime, but the following morning he can’t recall what it was.  The conclusion to the story may disappoint some, but it will stick in my mind for years.  A minor masterpiece.

Next we get The 51st Sealed Room by Robert Arthur, which presents a somewhat related plot.  A famed author of locked room mysteries brags that he’s come up with his best solution yet.  He’s found murdered a week later in a cabin that’s locked down air tight.  It’s a grisly scene: the victim sits in front of his typewriter, but his head has been placed on a shelf nearby, convincingly proving that the killer was in the cabin and somehow managed to escape.  The end to the story is fantastic and I haven’t seen this specific solution before.

William March’s story The Bird House is based on a real life unsolved locked room mystery.  The successful portion of the story involves laying out the facts of the case, but then a smugly pretentious cast of arm chair detectives lob absurd philosophical solutions at it.  I can see why Asimov included this one, but it didn’t work for me.

Jack Wodhams was a science fiction author, a fact that’s reflected in Big Time Operator.  It’s a story melding small time grifters, mobsters, and time travel.  Eighty percent of readers are sure to predict the general direction that this is going, but there’s a puzzle in the specifics of it all, which is solved by a delightful final sentence.  This is a perfect example of a throw away inclusion in an anthology that somehow manages to make a big score.

I have to admit that I couldn’t associate the titles of the last two stories with even a vague memory of what they were about without cracking the book back open while writing this.  The Leopold Locked Room finds one of Ed Hoch’s series characters, Captain Leopold, involved in a jam while attending a wedding.  The actual circumstances of what happens is the big surprise of the story, so I won’t go into detail regarding the set up.  It’s a unique inversion of the locked room, in which we see the events in said room unfold, but can’t explain them.  The solution isn’t anything that special, although at the time this was written it may have presented some new ideas.

The final story, Vanishing Act, is a collaboration between Bill Pronzini and Michael Kurland, and involves a magician being shot on stage in front of an audience half filled with policemen.  The assailant runs into a dead end dressing room, but somehow vanishes.  If you don’t immediately guess the solution, then congratulations, I hope you just enjoyed reading your first impossible crime story.  If there’s any cleverness with this one it’s how the culprit is identified.

Too Long, Didn’t Read

The real standouts in the collection are The Blind Spot and The 51st Sealed Room, with The Light at Three O’Clock receiving honorable mention for dread inducing scenes, as well as Big Time Operator for being a load of fun.  The rest of the stories are inconsequential, with the exception of The Problem of Cell 13, although you can’t take a step without tripping over a collection with that in it.

It’s worth noting that The Blind Spot and Big Time Operator aren’t available in any other mystery collections, which does make Tantalizing Locked Room Mysteries one to have on your radar.  The 51st Sealed Room can be found elsewhere, and The Light at Three O’Clock is available in the collection of Kantor’s short stories It’s About Crime.

As for the rest, I could take them or leave them.  Murder at the Automat is a fine story, but it belongs in a collection of Cornell Woolrich shorts (an insightful observation, I know) rather than a locked room anthology.

Where Tantalizing Locked Room Mysteries can be given credit is that it displays some really diverse takes on the notion of a locked room: a man locked in a jail cell (The Problem of Cell 13), a call originating from within an empty room (The Light at Three O’Clock), a poisoned sandwich in a vending machine (Murder at the Automat), a forgotten locked room solution (The Blind Spot), an impossible crime even though the reader witnesses what happened within the locked room (The Leopold Locked Room), all of Big Time Operator…  You could flip that as a bit of a weakness though, because for all of the experimentation, there’s very little in the sense of your meat-and-potatoes locked room mystery: a body found in a convincingly sealed room, with the reader being left to puzzle over how it could be done.  The 51st Sealed Room and The Bird House are the only real examples of that (unless you insist on dragging in the Poe and Doyle stories), and I promise you, The Bird House does not deliver the type of solution you’re hoping to get.

In essence, it would be a strange introduction to the genre, but if you’ve read deeply already there are a lot of new twists on the subject.  Which again makes it so odd that the collection would contain the Poe, Doyle, and Futrelle entries, as you might as well make room for three other oddball takes.

11 thoughts on “Tantalizing Locked Room Mysteries (1982)”

  1. The Leopold Locked Room was made into an episode of McMillan and Wife called ‘Cop of the Year’. Another Hoch story was filmed as ‘Freefall to Terror’ (man leaps out of a high window but his body never reaches the ground).

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  2. I’m presuming the Poe, Doyle and Futrelle stories were there as copyright-free stories to bulk out a collection. It sounds like an interesting if strange mix of stories and I really appreciate you noting where I might track down some of them if not here. Can I ask, is the Robert Arthur the one of Three Investigators fame? His story is the one that interests me most based on your review!

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    1. Yes, this is the same Robert Arthur who wrote books for The Three Investigators. I have a collection of short stories by him called Mystery and More Mystery. It’s positioned as mysteries for young adults, but everything I’ve read so far seems just as adult as anything else.

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  3. Ooh, so tempting.
    I’m actually currently reading The Bride Wore Black, and am totally blown over by Woolrich’s writing quality! It’s my first by him, and definitely not my last

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  4. I poked my head into this collection but didn’t particularly care for the handful of stories I read and stopped reading the book. As much a fan of locked-room mysteries as I am, anthologies of them are notoriously loaded down with heavy majority either sub-par stories, stories I’ve already read, or sub-par stories I’ve already read. I don’t know if you even knew I existed while I was working on it, but I started a half-finished review series of The Mammoth Book of Perfect Crimes and Impossible Mysteries by Mike Ashley well over a year ago and I’m not sure that series will ever be finished because I read, like, 10 genuinely unenjoyable, bad, and even outright patronizing locked-room mysteries back-to-back-to-back. I started getting upset with myself for not enjoying any of the stories, because I felt like there was something wrong with ME, and I started disingenuously trying to pick out “good points” in stories I really didn’t care for at all until I blew up and just vented my frustrations onto one particularly bad story that I especially hated. The only two stories I liked were among the first three stories in the anthology I read. This all led to three posts which, honestly, I consider to be some of my worst on the blog. It might seem a little silly to you, but I had an emotional experience with the Mammoth Book, and have had a hard time coming back to reading ANY locked-room mystery anthology since then.

    Glad to see there are some standouts here, though. I’ll definitely check out the couple of stories you recommend! You absolutely have not convinced me to force my way through the whole book, but you have convinced me to at least give a few good eggs a look-see.

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      1. Sorry for the overly personal comment! Yeah, I’d love to read them! I’ll definitely check them out. A locked-room anthology I’ve been reading recently and have actually mostly enjoyed so far is Hoch’s ALL BUT IMPOSSIBLE!, which has the exact same title as an Ed Hoch Sam Hawthorne collection. I haven’t read anything in it yet that I consider to be a wondrously lost-and-found classic of the genre, but I also haven’t found anything that makes me have a minor crisis on my blog so fairly even in quality so far!

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