Brian Skupin is Consulting Editor for the publishing company Locked Room International (founded by one of EQMM’s most prolific translators, John Pugmire!) and copublisher of Mystery Scene Magazine, for which he has won the Mystery Writers of America’s Ellery Queen Award, the Poirot Award from the Malice Domestic convention, and the Anthony Award from Bouchercon. He is also the editor of the forthcoming Locked Room Murders Supplement, a bibliography containing over 1,000 impossible crime stories. It shouldn’t have been a surprise to us that when invited to do a post for this site Brian chose locked-room mysteries as his subject, with an emphasis on those published in EQMM. It’s a topic we’re delighted to see addressed! Brian mentions several recent locked-room EQMM stories here, including one in the current issue (September/October 2019) by Dutch author Anne van Doorn. Readers will find yet another in our next issue (November/December) by Canadian author Elizabeth Elwood.—Janet Hutchings
Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine (EQMM) has been publishing short mystery fiction for nearly eighty years. In that time I daresay every kind of crime or detective story has appeared.
But everyone has their own favorite type of story, and mine is the locked-room mystery.
From the very first issue, all the way until the most recent issue, EQMM has recognized the special allure of the locked-room to those of us who come to mystery fiction in search of a puzzle: the crime that appears to be absolutely impossible. Only the locked-room, or more generally, the impossible crime, can satisfy the desire to know not only who, not only why, but how a crime was committed.
Frederic Dannay, cofounder of the magazine and its driving force for the first forty years, was no stranger to the impossible crime, having written, for example, the classic novel The King Is Dead. A man announces in advance that he will kill his brother at a particular time, and does so despite all precautions including his brother being protected inside a steel-lined vault.
The first ten issues of EQMM contained six impossible-crime stories. This pace could not be maintained, but impossible crimes continued to be a regular occurrence.
The eleventh issue (July 1943) was notable in that it contained the first story by James Yaffe, who premiered in the Department of First Stories, which showcases a writer’s first mystery fiction. Yaffe debuted with a classic problem: a man gets on an elevator alone, and when he arrives at his destination floor he is found stabbed to death.
That same issue also had the excellent “The Proverbial Murder” by all-time locked-room master John Dickson Carr, in which a man is shot in his locked study, and has a particularly unexpected villain.
Carr was inspired by the Father Brown stories of G.K. Chesterton, whose “Oracle of the Dog” had presented a new locked-room solution to death by stabbing in an inaccessible summer house and was reprinted in July 1950.
Carr in turn inspired many writers, among them Edmund Crispin, who belonged to a John Dickson Carr club. “The Name on the Window,” (February 1953) about a man found dead in a small cabin with only his own footprints in the dust leading inside, perfectly displays Crispin’s wit and ingenuity.
Is it possible for a witness to watch a man enter a telephone booth, but never come out? This is surely one of the best impossibility problems ever devised, and Clayton Rawson made it happen in September 1949 with “Off the Face of the Earth.”
In my opinion the two best locked-room short stories ever written appeared in EQMM. “The 51st Sealed Room” (October 1951) by Robert Arthur features a writer of locked-room mysteries who thinks up an original idea, only to have it used against him when he is found beheaded in a small cottage with the door nailed shut, with his head perched on the fireplace mantel. Stephen Barr was the writer of several books about logic and math puzzles, and applied his analytical talents to the problem of how a man can disappear from a locked house in “The Locked Room to End Locked Rooms” (August 1965).
Nearly all big-name writers attempt the locked-room at some point, and although I won’t list all of their stories many of those writers were given space by Dannay, including Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh, Margery Allingham, Dorothy Sayers, Christianna Brand, and Bill Pronzini.
Edward D. Hoch had by far the most locked-room stories published in EQMM, across five decades, several with original ideas. My favorite is “The Problem of the County Fair” (February 1978), which features the impossible appearance of a dead body in a sealed time capsule.
In addition to encouraging first-time writers, a tradition that Dannay started but that continues to be observed by current editor Janet Hutchings, EQMM has always sought out foreign authors. This is a trend that has accelerated in the past few years with translated stories coming from, among other places, Taiwan, Japan, and France.
Perhaps the biggest new name in impossible crimes is Paul Halter, a Frenchman with many novels and stories brimming with originality. In “Jacob’s Ladder” (February 2014), a man is found dead, and it appears he has fallen from a great height—but there are no high buildings or geographic features anywhere around.
In “Miracle on Christmas Eve” (May 2016), Szu-Yen Lin of Taiwan writes of a boy whose friends tell him there is no Santa Claus. The boy’s father invites them to spend Christmas Eve sleeping outside the only door of a locked room. On Christmas morning he opens the door to reveal that Santa has delivered a roomful of presents! A delightful story.
Last year in the May/June issue, Brazil’s Carlos Orsi gave us an impossible stabbing in a glass observation room in a casino. And right now in the current issue of EQMM we have the first locked-room appearance in English of Dutch writer Anne van Doorn, with “The Poet Who Locked Who Locked Himself In,” about a poet found dead by rifle shot in his locked writing cabin.
Over nearly eighty years, there’s been no greater friend to the locked-room mystery than Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. For the best in new impossible crimes, make sure to subscribe.
And if you’re interested in finding sources for these and many other stories, look for the bibliography Locked Room Murders, with over 2,000 impossible crimes published through 1991, at https://www.mylri.com
A new supplement, edited by me, with over 1,000 additional stories is coming in September.