Crime Classics

How the mystery of the disappearing object (and people) baffles readers of crime fiction

Footprints, weapons, people, vehicles, buildings: things that melt away. The fourth in a series on the workings of the genre.

In the Tamil writer Rajesh Kumar’s cheesily titled short story “Hello, Dead Morning!” – translated into English by Pritham K Chakravarthy for The Blaft Anthology of Tamil Pulp Fiction, Volume 2 – a man is found hanging from the ceiling in a windowless room that’s locked from the inside. This seems to point to suicide…except that the room has no chair or stool that he could have stood on and kicked away.

The solution, provided at the end of a twist-laden narrative, is that the man did himself in by using a big block of ice, which melted quickly in the summer heat, leaving only a damp patch on the ground. And no, this isn’t a big spoiler: most long-time readers of crime fiction would already have figured it out. Ice – in the form of daggers, cudgels or other tools – has been used so often as a murder weapon (or as in this case, a suicide aid) in such stories that it is now a genre cliché. Skilled authors have employed almost every variation on the basic idea.

But writers who operate in the “impossible crime” subgenre – and are likened to magicians playing games of misdirection or sleight of hand – can make other things vanish too. Things that don’t conveniently melt away on their own. Some examples, in more or less ascending order of size:

An important letter or document

As in Edgar Allan Poe’s classic short story “The Purloined Letter” – one of a few Poe tales that supplied a template for modern crime writing – which explores the idea of an item being hidden in plain sight. Which is to say, placed in such an obvious spot that no one would think of looking for it there (or recognising it for what it is).

Footprints

in which two sets of footprints lead up to a murder site, one set belonging to the deceased and the other presumably to the killer, but no footprints lead away. Or, as in John Dickson Carr’s great how-dunnit The Three Coffins, a “hollow man” exits the scene of his crime leaving no traces on the snow-covered ground outside. Again, there are many variations on this plot, though most serious crime writers and readers agree that some solutions amount to bending the genre’s unstated rules: for instance, involving a helicopter or some other flying device – which the murderer can use as a getaway – is a cheap trick.

(Incidentally, this head-scratcher of a trope also features in an unsolved real-life crime: the creepy Hinterkaifeck case of 1922, where a German clan was found massacred in their farm. A few days earlier, the patriarch had mentioned seeing unfamiliar footprints in the snow leading to his house but none leading away.)

A weapon

(Other than the hackneyed ice-dagger, that is.)

What about when a murder case seems clear-cut except for the important detail that there is no apparent weapon at all? One of the most fun solutions to this puzzle occurs in Bill Pronzini’s story “Proof of Guilt” (included in the Mike Ashley-edited anthology The Mammoth Book of Perfect Crimes and Impossible Mysteries), with its simple-seeming premise: a man has been shot dead in his office; the only person who could have done it claims innocence but also admits to having had a motive for murder. Despite all common sense pointing to this man being the killer, the police can make no arrest because there is no gun, only a bullet. The answer to the mystery is a good demonstration of how a clever crime writer can extract humour as well as suspense from a given situation.

People

Murderers slip away and become untraceable, or their victims’ bodies can’t be found. This is so commonplace in crime writing that instead of dwelling on it, I’ll just point you to a tense passage in Gaston Leroux’s groundbreaking 1907 novel The Mystery of the Yellow Room, in which four people – including the story’s main detective – close in on an escaping burglar in a hallway late at night, then realise he has disappeared from this confined space. So unsettling is the episode for all involved that it leads to some pseudo-scientific speculation about the “dissociation of matter” – but the explanation turns out to be pleasingly straightforward. (It is only one of the mysteries solved in this book, the other major one being how a violent and noisy attack could have taken place in a locked room which, when opened, had only the wounded victim inside.)


But coming to bigger things than people, and to one of the biggest books I know. The Otto Penzler-compiled anthology Black Lizard Big Book of Locked-Room Mysteries has sixty-eight crime stories over 950 pages (with each page divided into two columns, in the style of the old-time mystery magazines), but its largest and arguably best sub-section is the one titled “And we missed it, lost forever” – which deals with Disappearances.

There are fine pieces here by such writers as Dashiell Hammett, HRF Keating (who also created the series about Inspector Ganesh Ghote of the Bombay CID), the astonishingly prolific Edward D Hoch, and one of my favourite short-story writers, Stanley Ellin. But the three stories I’d like to mention are about things that you’d think are too big to be whisked out of sight:

A car

Jacques Futrelle was one of the early masters of the impossible crime, and his “The Problem of Cell 13” is one of the most frequently anthologized short stories ever. A little less intricate, but just as enjoyable, is “The Phantom Motor”, in which a car enters a long, tunnel-like stretch of road with a policeman keeping watch at either end – but never comes out. Each policeman thinks the other took a bribe to let the car zip past at above the speeding limit, but it soon becomes obvious that something odder is afoot.

A school bus

(Albeit a small one.)

Hugh Pentecost’s “The Day the Children Vanished” involves another baffling disappearance along another long stretch of road: in this case, a nine-seater van bringing children home from school never makes it to its destination, though there are no exit points along the road (the stretch is bordered by a mountain on one side and by a frozen lake on the other).

A large house

In the novella-length “The House of Haunts”, also known as “The Lamp of God”, a group of people wake up to find that the big black house right next door – which they had visited and walked through the previous night – has vanished. What makes this Ellery Queen tale (the name refers to both the fictional detective and to the pseudonym of the two writers who created him) doubly puzzling and urgent is that the house is at the centre of an inheritance battle. As you might imagine, Ellery – who is among the people who saw and then “un-saw” the black house – has plenty of work to do.


It bears mentioning that in most of the above cases, the disappearance – though an important plot device – is not in itself what makes the stories so readable. Their lasting value (I find myself rereading many of them – not something you’d expect to do if the only attraction was the revelation at the end) comes from clever plotting, sharp and economical prose, and compelling characters. For instance, while “The Day the Children Vanished” builds sympathy for the parents who anxiously await news of the school bus, it is also about a final, poignant hurrah by an old vaudeville performer who gets to play hero for a while. Disgrace and redemption, which have formed the dramatic arcs of so much high literature over the ages, are just as central to this “pulpy” suspense tale.

It might also be said that, given the vintage of many of these books and stories, they perform a function comparable to that of a time machine. “The Phantom Motor”, for example, being published in 1905, offers a glimpse of a very different era in automobile transport and road manning, a world where forty miles an hour is well-nigh unthinkable and there is an uneasy suspicion about motorized technology. This adds to the narrative tension – the characters themselves are never quite sure where new science ends and black magic begins – and even a jaded 21st century reader can easily disappear (so to speak) in these pages.

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