Confessions of an Impossible Crime Skeptic

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.

11 commentaires sur “Confessions of an Impossible Crime Skeptic

  1. What you’ve written is perfectly reasonable. They are difficult to write and many fall prey to ‘trick fetishism’ or an all-encompassing desire to appear clever. I don’t think there are two ways about it.
    I’ll throw in a couple thoughts I had while reading this.

    1. ‘story’ and ‘poor writing’ are two completely separate concepts. Poor writing can mar any type of mystery (or any other genre) in equal measure. Perhaps poor construction is the better phrase and it’s more common with plot-heavy impossible mysteries. And plot is really what we’re talking about–a logical concatenation. The mechanics involved in capturing the image of a dead body in a locked room or a teleporting murderer can be labored to the point of disinterest. Enmeshing these mechanics within the story and then plotting them out logically IS rare.

    2. Motive. The motive for murder (in any type of mystery) interests me less and less. The four L’s–lust, love, loot, and loathing (revenge is certainly a type of loathing) are all there is. The permutations and the presentation in character are endless to be sure but in the end, this is what we’ve got. But you mention the motive for the impossible crime itself. The easy answer is a desire to keep the crime hidden. If the sleuth cannot even say how it was done, how will he or she be able to say who did it? But let’s not forget that many impossible murders are a combination of (hopefully) devious planning and happenstance. (MILD SPOILER) ‘The Reader Is Warned’ is a lovely combination of both. The happenstance of the first « murder » leading to the devious plan of the second. (END SPOILER)

    3. Character vs plot. The aforementioned Carr book is a tremendous plot with small character moments. I recently read Juanita Sheridan’s ‘The Chinese Chop’ which is a wonderful character study with a serviceable plot. Readers usually prefer one or the other. Those who favor character seem to require the human connection to care about the plot. I say ‘ seem’ because I am firmly entrenched in the other category. Which (among other things) means I am far more forgiving of the common flaws of impossible crime fiction.

    Perhaps love of impossible crime is a disease and some us have no immunity.


    1. « Perhaps love of impossible crime is a disease and some us have no immunity. »

      Y-yeah! We’re not a bunch of hopeless addicts! We’re just suffering from an incurable disease called miraculitis. Please keep us in your prayers.

      Aimé par 2 personnes

  2. Since Jim Noy and TomCat are probably already setting the bonfire…

    A bonfire? You’re getting the Balthasar Gérard treatment for this heresy!

    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.

    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.

    I agree with your first point. There have been so many writers who failed miserably when attempting to write a locked room or impossible crime mystery, but, if you think the genre is lacking originality and innovation, you’re simply looking in the wrong place – because some of the most ingenious locked room mysteries have been written very recently. Japan is a good example of this. They have complete reinvigorated the locked room mystery, most notably with their so-called corpse-puzzles, but even when they’re not playing around with body parts, they show a great amount of ingenuity when it comes to crafting seemingly impossible crimes.

    Last year, I watched two, multi-part episodes of the Detective Conan anime-series, entitled The Cursed Mask Laughs Coldly and The Case of the Séance Double Locked Room, which are two of the best locked room mysteries I’ve ever encountered! Particularly the former has a completely original and ingenious solution that’s arguably more terrifying than the impossible murder itself. The original manga series also some really good locked rooms, like “The Poisonous Coffee Case” from vol. 60, which is not only an excellent impossible crime story, but also a very human one with a heartbreaking solution.

    I recently read a modern Dutch mystery novel (review coming next month) with two locked room murders and the second one has a solution that makes you wonder why nobody else has ever thought of it before.

    So there’s more than enough innovation, ingenuity and originality to be found, but you have to know where to look for them.

    Aimé par 2 personnes

  3. What sets a good impossible crime apart for me is why the impossibility occurred in the first place. Many of the best stories have a reason for the impossibility that transcends « because it creates a good puzzle » or « to make it harder for the police to solve ». Carr specialized in this; examples that jump immediately to mind being The Problem of the Wire Cage, The Reader is Warned, The Unicorn Murders, and The Bowstring Murders.

    Aimé par 1 personne

  4. This has nothing to do with your post, but I wouldn’t mind another post on Hoch. Like you, I greatly admire him. Some of it is nostalgia, since he was one of my gateway authors into mystery fiction, but I really do admire his creativity and skill (even if I do agree that some of his more creative work, even in regard to puzzles, was found earlier on although I haven’t read near enough to say for sure.

    As for your post itself, I honestly don’t disagree much, although I wouldn’t put it quite so bluntly and in the end I am one of the infectees Byrnside talked about. I do honestly prefer an ingenious impossible crime over a story that might have good characters but a simple plot (although obviously the ideal is that both plot and character are good).On the whole, I can accept a non-impossible crime (I’d rather have a good non-impossible crime than a bad impossible crime), but I still prefer a complex plot. But that’s off-topic.

    I do agree that Carr is more than the impossible crime (although I’ve only read two novels and many more short stories/radio plays). It was richmcd (of the sadly defunct Complete Disregard of Spoilers) who went as far as to claim that impossible crimes were Carr’s weakness; his true skill was the manipulation of identity-roles/archetypes (see the comments in this post I’m not sure how much I would agree with this, but even so. I re-read the ending of The Peacock Feather Murders today and was struck by how much deduction and reveal is based around things not related to the impossible crime. So I’d agree he should be seen as more than just an impossible crime author. I can’t speak for the originality or not the genre as a whole though, since I don’t consider myself very well-read compared to bloggers like you.

    Aimé par 1 personne

  5. I’m late on this, but I would say that I feel much of your pain over poorly conceived or trope-ridden impossible crime plots — but then I feel that way over poorly-conceived detective plots alone, regardless of an impossibility. I’m not sure I could take any of your criticisms and apply them only to impossible crimes, either, since the detection genre has been done to death, and badly, many times over. Adding the impossibility maybe just makes it stand out more, since there’s that extra layer of contortion; but I dunno, Xavier, this doesn’t sound like as much of an « impossible crime problem » as you may think 😛


  6. Impossible crime stories can stretch credibility to breaking point. I don’t mind that. I don’t demand realism from detective fiction. If I wanted realism I’d read a criminology textbook.

    There are other flaws in detective fiction that I have much more trouble forgiving. Like having too many people involved in the murder which to me often seems like a cheat to get around an unbreakable alibi or alibis. Or having two different unrelated crimes that just happen to take place at the same time and same place, thus confusing both the police and the reader. That also strikes me as a cheat.

    On the other hand I don’t consider an incredibly complicated far-fetched impossible crime to be a cheat as long as it has at least some semblance of plausibility.

    Aimé par 1 personne

    1. I call your second situation a palimpsest. P D James was fond of using it.

      In general I care less about the mystery or the mechanics than about the clueing. And many locked room puzzles fall down there. I think this might explain why I like The Crooked Hinge more than most of the puzzle boffins do.


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