The Key To A Great Mystery

Reading & Writing


When it came to filling in the Crime Writer’s Association form for which sub-genre of crime I wrote in, I had to stop and think for a minute. I suddenly felt like Hamlet and the players discussing types of play; comedy-pastoral-allegorical and so on. What was I? Not procedural, that’s for sure, not cosies either, thank you very much. All I could come up with was ‘mystery’, and surprisingly, that categories wasn’t listed. Why mystery? Well, the Bryant & May novels are not strictly whodunnits or out-and-out comedies, but have elements of many different types on book. One thing I did notice is that I’m often drawn to an element of locked-room mystery (although that wasn’t listed either). The locked-room story is in itself a sub-genre of another category, the ‘impossible’ crime.

Otto Penzler is an editor of mystery fiction in the United States, founder of the Mysterious Press and proprietor of The Mysterious Bookshop in New York. Who better to go to when you want to know about the best impossible mysteries? He’s just edited what must be the world’s most complete collection of locked-room mysteries ever assembled. It’s called ‘The Black Lizard Big Book of Locked-Room Mysteries’, and it runs to nearly a thousand pages. Here are some of his recommendations.

‘Ellery Queen’s The House of Haunts (1935) sees a man attempt to return to a large house that has disappeared overnight. People had gone into it, smelled its mustiness, touched its contents, but when they returned in daylight it had utterly vanished.

Cornell Woolrich, under the pseudonym William Irish, wrote All at Once, No Alice (1940), in which a man briefly leaves his bride in their hotel room on their wedding night. When he returns, the room no longer exists, his bride cannot be found, and everyone with whom they came in contact denies ever having seen them before.

The Day the Children Vanished (1958) by Hugh Pentecost describes a school bus filled with children entering a road with no exits but the bus never comes out at the other end.

In Edward D. Hoch’s The Theft of the  Bermuda Penny (1975), a man disappears from an automobile that has made no stops along its journey, leaving his seat belt still fastened.

In two of the cleverest stories, a man enters a house from which he never is seen to leave. Lord Dunsany’s classic The Two Bottles of Relish (1932) and Stephen Barr’s The Locked Room to End Locked Rooms (1965) begin with the same situation but have vastly different solutions, both of which provide a shock of comprehension that rattles the bones.’

My personal favourites include those by Edmund Crispin and of course, John Dickson Carr’s utterly bonkers ‘The Hollow Man’. Sadly, the book isn’t available on Kindle, which means you have to lug the thing around in order to read it – but it’s superbly put together and really worth the effort.

The Locked-Room Mysteries, edited by Otto Penzler (£19.99, Corvus), is out on 15 January

6 comments on “The Key To A Great Mystery”

  1. Jo W says:

    The storyline of All at Once,No Alice seemed familiar. After my next cuppa builders,I remembered. A British black and white fifties film – So Long at the Fair. I wonder if the screenplay was based on the story by Cornell Woolrich?

  2. Stephen Groves says:

    Hi Chris,

    I keep Mrs STALKY in a locked room. No mystery there.


  3. jan says:

    wos there a section headed “crap”? tee hee

  4. Vivienne says:

    I once tried to devise a locked room murder scenario, and came up with something that seemed plausible. But I’m not a writer, still less a murderer, so not sure it will ever get tested.

  5. J. Folgard says:

    I love Penzler’s Black Lizard anthologies. I discovered them via his Christmas crime collection and got the Ghost Stories book later. Excellent stuff and a fun format! Head of Zeus recently released short stories he commisioned for his Mysterious Bookshop and it’s a great package too. I’m going to add this one soon, it looks really entertaining!

  6. Mark Pack says:

    Your comment showed a flair for writing I thought Vivienne, so you never know…

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