It may seem an odd thing to say for a John Dickson Carr fan like me but the truth is I’m not that into impossible crime mysteries. Not that I have anything against them; I liked them when they’re well done and inventive but they are not my favourite brand of crime fiction.
Since Jim Noy and TomCat are probably already setting the bonfire while most of my readers are deleting this blog from their favourites, I may as well give the reasons behind my heresy, hoping it will somehow placate their anger.
Impossible crime is by far the hardest mystery trope to pull off, which means that the failure rate is extremely high. A good impossible crime must be practical, at least theoretically credible and original. Many are called, but few are chosen and the list of failed experiments include obscure hacks as well as many a major star of the genre. You’ve got to have the knack for it and the truth is not many writers do, even among those that specialize in such stories. A great impossible crime mystery is a wonderful thing to behold partly because it is so damn rare.
Even finding that Ultima Thulé of crime fiction, a wholly original and unheard of situation or solution, is no guarantee of success for a good impossible crime story has to be a good story too – and that’s another frequent cause of failure. I have lost the count of such stories that while clever were so poorly written as to cancel out or at least severely compromise their technical virtues. Another recurring problem is the low attention most writers pay to the motive question. Why does the criminal give themselves so much trouble whereas they might just steal or kill « traditionally »? The answer is rarely convincing and sometimes frankly ridiculous, betraying how little thought was given to it.
That’s because impossible crime stories all too often are all about the trick; everything else is subservient. I’m about to commit another blasphemy by taking on a writer that remains a beloved figure in the traditional mystery community and that I myself hold in high esteem, but Edward D. Hoch to me is a case in point of the dangers of authorial addiction to impossible crimes. Mine is I know a minority opinion but I nevertheless think Hoch’s early, pre-EQMM work is his best because it’s more diverse and less puzzle-driven as exemplified by his most famous story of the period to deal with an impossible crime, The Long Way Down, which deserves all the plaudits it has received since its first publication not just because of its unusual problem and clever solution but because it is a great story, period. His later work on the other hand I find less successful on both technical and literary grounds as Hoch fell victim to the curses that frequently strike prolific writers: reliance on series characters, formulaic writing and primacy of the plot over everything else. Nowhere is it more apparent than with his famous and acclaimed impossible crime series featuring Dr. Sam Hawthorne – a succession of clever plots to be sure, but barely fleshed out as despite Hoch’s attempts at serialization and use of recurring characters none of them ever come to life because of a double lack of space – the stories being too short and the puzzle taking too much room.
The main problem in recent years however is that innovation and originality have become ever rarer in the genre as the genre itself became increasingly marginal. New or seasoned writers rise up now and then to the challenge, with decidely mixed results ranging from brilliant to competent to frankly dire. In the same way that publishers are forever looking for « the next Agatha Christie », fans are always waiting for « the new John Dickson Carr » both being unaware that genius cannot be replicated. Especially when you focus on one small part of their legacy.
For what made John Dickson Carr one of the greats is not that he found ways to hermetically seal rooms from the outside or kill people on a beach without leaving tracks in the sand. This is an important part of his genius, but not the most important one. What sets Carr apart from most of his followers is that his books can be read and enjoyed even if you don’t care a bit how the murderer did it – they’re fun, compelling, well written and in his golden years, unpredictable. What’s more, several of his most acclaimed works don’t involve impossible crimes or only on the margins. Also and despite the claims by some that he wasn’t interested in character, Carr almost always gave his murderers sound motives. In short, he was not an impossible crime writer but a crime writer doing impossible crime mysteries – which is not quite the same thing and the fact that we’re still waiting for someone to claim his mantle forty years after his death suggests the brand is not a common one.
So does it mean the glorious days of the impossible crime are behind it? No and that’s paradoxically because of its rarity that it might survive and bloom again. The fact that is no longer mainstream or a « must-do » for crime writers means that only the dedicated fans will try their luck and that can be a good thing. Impossible crimes will become rarer but hopefully those writing it will do with fresh ideas and different viewpoints, which is what the genre needs most. The people that try to explain miracles will have first to unlock the door and let some air come in.