Friday, July 5, 2013

Locked Rooms and Open Spaces

Locked Room and Open Spaces is an anthology of 16 Swedish crime and mystery stories, spanning across 150 years from 1857 to 2002, each story written by a different author and belonging to the genre of Locked Room Murders and Impossible crimes. All these stories have been collected and translated by Bertil Falk with a preface by John Wopenka which gives a brief history of the detective story in Sweden. Though this book was published in 2007 by Battered Silicon Dispatch Box, I haven’t come across anybody mentioning this book when we talk about the locked room anthologies. There are some great stories in this collection and can certainly compete for attention with the other great anthologies that we adore so much. A must have and a must read for all locked room enthusiasts.
Lars Blom and his Disappearing Gun:
This story was first published in 1857 which would in all probability make it the second modern “into-thin-air” story after Edgar Allan Poe’s The Purloined Letter. The story involves the disappearance of a gun on two different occasions when the lowly paid gardener threatens his employer “The Colonel” with a gun. The Colonel calls in for reinforcement each time and by the time people come into the room and overpower the gardener, the gun has vanished – neither to be found on the person nor anywhere in the room. A minor story with an interesting solution nevertheless.
The Murder Of the “Swedish Anne”:
A story set in Chicago where the stingy house owner is found hanging inside her locked and bolted house. The only problem with the scene of the crime for a suicide verdict: 11 inches gap between the leg and the chair which would practically make it impossible for her to have hanged herself at such a height. This story was published in the year 1906 – the same year the Master of the Locked Room Mysteries John Dickson Carr was born. The introduction to this story also reveals that the great master himself has used the same solution in one of his ingenious stories – which makes this story a worthy candidate in the genre of Locked room murders.
The Invisible Sword:
A man is seen boarding his small motor-boat, there are many witnesses who can swear that nobody else was on the boat when it departed from its shores, the boat is met midway by another boat with three occupants and all three swear to the fact that the boat was manned by a single person. Yet when the boat reaches its destination without any scope for it to break its journey, people are puzzled to see an unmanned boat crash on to the shore. When they get on the boat, they find the man unconscious with a heavy blow to his head from a blunt weapon but with no sign of the weapon anywhere on the boat! Solution: Neat and a new variation to the gamut of open air impossible crimes.
The Speckled Cat:
A big crowd including several scientists has gathered to witness the opening of a coffin concealing the mortal remains of St. Olaf – a coffin whose seals have been unbroken for 167 years. And when they do open the coffin, out jumps a speckled cat and there are two skeletons instead of just one. The next day there is an ad in the newspaper that the mysterious speckled cat will make another appearance at the opening of the locked room for insured items of mail at the general post office and so it turns out to the delight of the waiting crowd. At this point of the story the culprit reveals how he achieved these two miracles and accepts a challenge to make the speckled cat appear for a third time – this time in the locked vaults of the Bank of Sweden in Stockholm!
The Murder on Promenade du Midi:
From Adey’s Locked Room Bibliography: “What do Nevil Monroe Hopkins, John Dickson Carr, Nigel Morland, J.E. Gourdon, Arthur Upfield have in common? They all have written an Impossible Crime Story where the theme or the problem concerned a car (or a helicopter or a plane) that was driven by a man who was then discovered to have been dead for some time! The latest author to attempt this theme with a different solution was none other than the modern master of locked room mysteries Edward D. Hoch.”
Well, now we need to add another author to the list: Frank Heller. In this story, the Dutch detective Dr. Zimmertur solves a similar problem in France when a car is stopped by a policeman on a no traffic road. The driver is found dead due to poisoning and his nephew is found asleep in the back seat. He is duly charged with his uncle’s murder. I though the story had some flaws and the solution is not as clever as some of the other stories with the same theme.
Sixten Hard Pulls off a Scoop:
A pianist is found shot dead inside the locked cabin of a ship. The gun is found attached to a contraption, a 10 inch string but the question is how was it held together by such a short string and how was it triggered? Surely there’s no way it could’ve been triggered from outside the cabin and if somebody manually handled it then how did the murderer escape the locked cabin? Hard, a reporter barges himself in on the investigation to solve this intriguing puzzle where his only clues are the glass powder and a gong found inside the cabin. Though the story doesn’t go about unraveling a murderer, it does present an ingenious set up for a locked room murder.
The Burglary at Hotel Esplanade:
This story is set in London – a jeweler’s shop is anticipating buyers for the famous Worwich necklace. When a buyer from another city confirms her willingness to buy it, the store sends out one of its trusted employees to present the necklace to the prospective buyer. He travels by first class compartment in a train and checks in at Hotel Esplanade. He checks the necklace before going to bed and to be super precautious, he puts the case below his pillow. Next day when he wakes up, he finds the case missing even though there is no disturbance in his room. A minor story in this collection.
Salute For The Dead:
This story has a combination of a locked room and an impossible situation – the victim is found shot dead inside a locked toilet, the solution to which is very simple and explained immediately. The impossible situation corresponds to the fact that the remaining guests were all ensconced in a single room when the shot was heard and hence none of them could have pulled the trigger. The solution wouldn’t come as a surprise to many.
The Closed Room:
A man found dead due to Cyanide poisoning inside a locked room with the key still inside would have led to a simple case of suicide if not for the fact that the cyanide bottle was neatly corked. The window catches are all intact, there’s no other entrance to the room and yet a murderer administered the poison and walked out of the room.
Murder in a Tightly Shut Room:
This author cites the solution from the previous story and discards it. He improves on the previous story with a solution where a man could be murdered inside a locked room where no other person other than the murdered is required to be in the room.
Reg. No. 94.028/72 Murder:
This story is by Jan Ekstrom and he is considered as the number one Swedish locked-room-writer and the introduction to this story further states that this story is considered as the best locked room murder story ever written in Swedish. It involves the murder of a scientist during a timed experiment in a hermetically sealed chamber. The room has only one door which can be opened only from the inside after the experiment has started, there are two observers watching a panel which would display a light if the door is opened. The only other entry to this room is a skylight which can be opened and closed only from the inside. The experiment is being conducted at a room temperature of minus 60 degree celsius and when the room is forced open, the scientist is found stabbed with a knife and the body totally immersed in a frozen water tub – which would take an hour to thaw. The solution has a pretty complicated explanation, certainly one of its kinds and makes for fascinating reading!
Death in The Balloon:
A story unique for its setting – a rookie flying with his instructor to earn his certificate for flying a hot air balloon encounter a problem in the air – the lines of the gondola are crossed – the instructor steps on to the rim to correct it and all of a sudden jumps out of the balloon to his death. All this is being watched by the controller who is also the instructor’s partner in the business and he feels that the instructor had done the same maneuver of fixing the lines many times and the only way from him to have come out of the balloon would be if somebody pushed him when he was standing on the rim, an accusation which the rookie denies vehemently. With such a constricted environment, there can only be one solution and it’s not hard to arrive at it.
The Man Who Read “The Man Who Read John Dickson Carr”:
This would be murderer has read the short story “The Man Who Read John Dickson Carr” by William Brittain and he believes he can use an alternative solution to his advantage to get rid of his nemesis which can only lead to hilarious consequences that too in just one and half pages.
The Locked Room:
Another story told from the point of a would be murderer in just 2 pages - to plot a perfect locked room murder.
The Curse of The Royal Prince:
Funniest piece of the collection. An elevator has been installed in the historic palace and the King has been invited to do the inauguration honors by riding the elevator from the ground floor to the third floor on his own. The king gets into the elevator on the ground floor; the technical supervisor presses the button for the 3rd floor and sends a message to the waiting crowd on the third floor to expect the king but when the door opens, the elevator is empty.
It’s a combination of science fiction and Open Space mystery.

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