The Book of Extraordinary Impossible Crimes and Puzzling Deaths (2020) ed. Maxim Jakubowski

This book was brought to my attention over on the GAD (Golden Age Detection) Facebook site and needless to say, my attention was piqued. Eighteen new impossible crime stories by authors who were familiar and unfamiliar to me, including two of my favourite authors, what was not to love?

There was that question of the odd title – Puzzling Deaths? – but never fear, I read the introduction using the “look inside” function on Amazon, and with mentions of Hake Talbot, Gaston Leroux, Bob Adey… I figured I was in safe hands, so I dropped by eight-and-a-bit quid down and bought the ebook.

Just to clarify that – I bought this book, it’s not a review copy – and I am not a happy bunny… Not at all…

Let me hit the positives, first of all. I’ve come across three or four of the authors before, two of which I have occasional exchanges of views with on various electronic media. And let me say, thank goodness, their stories are excellent. Martin Edwards gives a new spin on a locked room tale that just might annoy the purists, but works exceptionally well. Jane Finnis gives a traditional locked room robbery featuring her Roman Britain sleuth Aurelia Marcella, Christine Poulson gives a very atmospheric tale with a whiff of a Carr-ian atmosphere and L C Tyler steals the show (as always) with his story poking fun at the genre while still being a great mystery tale in its own right. These are the highlights, but there are some other entertaining tales. Keith Brooke’s By A Thread, despite featuring a motif from one of the finest impossible crime novels of all time, is a good spin on the idea. John Grant’s The Case Of The Impossible Suicides is fun, if bending plausibility into something of a knot. A couple of others were decent enough reads, some of the rest suffering just because the ideas used are a bit too familiar – one even has the detective saying out loud that the villain didn’t think he’d know the old SPOILER trick. And as a collection, too many use the same fundamental solution, the easiest locked room mystery solution…

But there are others… others that seem to be from different collections. Some really can’t claim to be impossible crimes at all and some are trying too hard to be different. You can’t have (in my opinion) the solution to a locked room mystery that someone has invented a walking through walls machine and yet the use of technology unknown to man is used at least once. The solution to one story – I’m sorry, I can’t think of a metaphor without giving it away – just boggled my mind. The solution to an impossible crime can’t be simply “well, that is what happened”.

I’ve read good collections of locked room mysteries – Carr’s short stories, the two Mammoth collections, etc – and as a whole, they were much more consistent than this. I’ve mentioned six highlights, but there were too many lowlights. I haven’t mentioned the one involving time travel that doesn’t even seem to include a crime, let alone a locked room. I haven’t mentioned one that I found particularly tasteless that featuring an alternate-universe Hitler as a sleuth. I haven’t mentioned one story that not only made no sense but to my eyes was incredibly badly written for a published story.

So yes, I’ve had a bit of a rant about this one, mainly because I paid good money for a collection of impossible crimes and locked room mysteries. Part of the reason that I’m so disappointed is that I was looking forward to this, hoping to see authors’ new takes on the genre, not expecting them to use their own definitions of an impossible crime. I’m close to saying it was worth it for Len Tyler’s story – very close in fact, as I think it’s brilliant – but some of the stories simply aren’t impossible crimes, as if contributors hadn’t read the brief, or the brief is not what the introduction states. I can’t recommend this book of eighteen stories for, at most, six of them. But if you see it reduced, give it a go.

28 comments

  1. This is what I was afraid of when the anthology was announced last year and that all the stories would be brand new, but remained hopeful, because the 2010s still produced some quality locked room/impossible crime stories. But this doesn’t surprise me at all. I can understand why you’re disappointed.

    …not expecting them to use their own definitions of an impossible crime… some of the stories simply aren’t impossible crimes, as if contributors hadn’t read the brief, or the brief is not what the introduction states.

    JJ is right. I don’t think the gross of (Western) crime writers today understand the impossible crime story.

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    • What is particularly annoying is that the blurb and introduction (especially the introduction) is all about the classics – and tellingly it’s the writers who are versed in the classics who produce the best tales. The best are very good – the worst, even the worst that fit in the genre, are poor.

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    • It is arguably close enough – besides, I think I’d prefer to take the hit and review it to let other people know. People shouldn’t be allowed to return ebooks just because they don’t like them, but I can see an argument for not (quite) being the book the blurb describes – but technically, I’d day that only four (I think) don’t qualify in my eyes as impossible crimes. I’m guessing that’s the reason for the clunky title…

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      • You’re right that returning disappointing ebooks, especially when they’re dirt cheap, is not a good idea, but agree with Santosh that you have every right to return this one.

        The Book of Extraordinary of Impossible Crimes and Puzzling Deaths is presented as an anthology of the very specific and specialized locked room mysteries, impossible crimes and howdunits, which comes in a long line of classic and often similarly titled anthologies. Such as The Mammoth Book of Locked Room Mysteries and Impossible Crimes, The Mammoth Book of Perfect Crimes and Impossible Murders and The Black Lizard Big Book of Locked Room Mysteries. Add to this the misleading blurb and introduction, you had every right to have certain expectations. That’s why you were prepared to pay for a relatively expensive digital copy. So you should feel no shame in returning it.

        I’m guessing that’s the reason for the clunky title

        Unlikely. When I learned this anthology was forthcoming, the deadline for submissions had not yet expired and that’s why only the title and cover were known at the time.

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      • Well, since JJ has 6 dogs, I believe he is an expert on the behaviour of dogs. For example, he will be able to tell how a dog would behave if a stick is thrown for it to fetch but it is unable to retrieve it ! But I doubt that JJ is an expert on the behaviour of gorillas. 🙂

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      • Well, since there’s one about a gorilla consider me back on board.

        Haven’t you learned your lesson from Murder in Monkeyland and Three Blind Rats?

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      • This is the Laird Long story in one of the Ashley collections were — spoilers, but honestly it’s awful — someone is made to appear alive when they’re really dead because the technology apparently exists to make a 3D projection of their face around someone else’s.

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      • Murder in Monkeyland and Three Blind Rats are two stories specially written for The Mammoth Book of Perfect Crimes and Impossible Murders and they’re atrocious.

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      • OK, I’ve read these two and yes, they are awful. But I prefer these to… Well suppose the solution to the “it must have been a vampire” in He Who Whispers was “yes, it was a vampire”. At least one story in this collection has that sort of solution…

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  2. I’m just finishing reading of this book. I’m just coming up to L. C. Tyler’s contribution, and looking forward to it. But there are, alas, too many short stories here which are, er, less than perfect. A LOT less. Don’t place too much hope in that Silverback gorilla.

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  3. “Well suppose the solution to the “it must have been a vampire” in He Who Whispers was “yes, it was a vampire”. At least one story in this collection has that sort of solution”…
    Are you talking about the gorilla story ?

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  4. May I point out that the title of the anthology does not restrict the theme to locked room mysteries. Hence the cumbersome title which emphasises ‘impossible crimes’ and ‘puzzling deaths’….

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    • No, but the introduction and blurb heavily leans in the direction of the traditional locked room and impossible crime genre (for which I use the phrase “locked room mystery” for) whereas in my mind at least, a number of these stories only hits “puzzling deaths” in the sense that a mystery is a puzzle. I wish I had liked this compilation more – the best stories are genuinely good, Len Tyler’s in particular – but there were too many stories that deviated from what I expected.

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  5. I have not read this anthology,I might do if I ever find it at a reasonable price.
    I’m really posting because I seriously disagree with the idea that a bad book should not be returned. A bad book in my mind is the same as any other bad product, either “not as described“ or “not of merchantable quality”. I do return books if: there are so many typos that it is difficult to read, or the content is so badly written that I cannot carry on reading.
    I would not return any book I had read in it’s entirety but have no problem returning rubbish.
    As for typos I seem to spend all my time reporting them on Kindle ! I am sure they cannot have been printed in the condition that they get to me in online, I mean,I have thousands of actual books in the house and rarely do I find a typo, wrong “facts” yes but not typos. Does anyone know enough about the transposition process to explain this peculiarity ?

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    • I agree in some cases. I’ve returned badly formatted or proofread books before, and there is a case for returning this, in the sense of not being what was advertised. However I do feel that if you just don’t like a book, e.g. you have a problem with the plotting, then that’s not grounds for returning it. And no, I don’t understand the typo situation, I alway presumed they came from the same proof-read source.

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  6. Thank you for the heads up on this one, I would have wasted moolah otherwise. Just out of interest, do you remember who the author of the “walking through walls machine” story was?

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      • Ah, never mind, then. I just wondered because it sounded vaguely similar to a science-fiction story by Gene Wolfe that I read a long time ago, though I doubt very much that it’s the same.

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