Err, hello again! It’s been quite a while since I’ve posted anything, but I’ve just been caught up with life and my education and the time to read and write has just magically vanished. However, things have wound down, and I’ve been aching to blog, and now the opportunity has arrived. Expect a lot more in the next few weeks, and oh look, my one year anniversary just flew by 🙂.
Note: Most of this, if not all of this post, will focus on a singular aspect of this discussion that dawned on me and interested me. Of course, there’s so much more to look at, and I may do so in the future!
Impossible crime and the alibi. Both have been intertwined since the beginning of the genre, and in that comes the key point I want to look at today, if quite briefly. Does an alibi problem, wherein everyone who could possibly have done a crime has one, constitute an impossible mystery?
This point came up to me as I was reading Evil Under the Sun, a crime novel that needs almost no introduction to anyone inside, or outside, the blogosphere. The basic setup of the main murder is quite simple in which the glamorous actress Arlena Stuart is found strangled on the beach of a secluded cove by two witnesses. This isn’t incredibly unusual, nor does it hint of anything impossible, but things are befuddled when throughout the investigation, everyone with a possible motivation to kill Arlena is found to have a decent alibi, adding on the physical dexterity it would take to overcome any of these alibis, and the whole thing does look quite impossible.
However, I have very rarely, if ever, seen someone describe EUtS as an impossible crime novel – Murder in Mesopotamia is usually the only book ever mentioned in a discussion of Christie’s exploits through the genre. The same goes towards the book I read right after EUtS, The Case of the Missing Minutes by Christopher Bush, which itself is also based on an alibi problem.
This story revolves around the murder of a vile old man, who severely abused the little girl in his care. Once again, everyone at all involved in the crime has an airtight alibi, and it once again brings to mind the question of whether this is a situation that could be seen as impossible.
In many ways, to have an impossible crime, you do need alibis. The central idea of the genre, is to have a situation that seemingly cannot be explained by normal means, whether it be a stabbing in a sealed room or defenestration by invisible man. That central conceit leads right into the alibi problem. For many an impossibility, albi’s are a requirement to the set up. Let’s look at an example I mentioned above; the impossible defenestration seen in Paul Halter’s Demon of Dartmoor.
A famous actor sits on a window ledge, promptly falls off it. Could easily be called an accident. However, witnesses say he seemingly struggled, as if being pushed by an invisible man, and that’s what tinges the book from that moment on. Everyone around him couldn’t have gone near him, and they didn’t, with everyone present corroborating the story. They now all have alibis, and the situation just has to be impossible.
Now, can we apply the same logic to EUtS and TCotMM? Are they technically impossible crimes? Because they seemingly do have the ability to work as one.
Here I think, comes the main distinction between the impossible, and the simple alibi problem. As said above, an impossible crime is “a situation that seemingly cannot be explained by normal means”. That is the main factor that separates the two. When you have, say, three people who could have killed someone but all have alibis spread across a town, you don’t distinctly see it as an impossible crime. It is just an alibi problem, because there is no real tinge of the impossible. Just compare it to something like the tower murder in He Who Whispers, which you instantly think of as impossible, with the talk of vampires, stabbing, etc.
With the alibi problem, such as in TCotMM, one cannot describe it as a full blown impossibility, the same with EUtS, maybe quasi or semi. Because with these, the circumstances still allow for the crime to have occurred, just with someone random. Alibi problems close the situation across a certain group of people, but there is always the possibility that someone outside of it committed the crime, and that therefore ruins any idea of the impossible. There also is the possibility of people lying, which once again ruins the impossible idea. Alibi problems have the room to not be impossible in set up, if that makes sense, while in the actual impossible crime, there is no room.
In EUtS, someone could have very easily rowed out from the sea and done the crime, a random sex maniac or the like. In something like The Demon of Dartmoor, there is no way for that to have occurred, because it’s not based on people, it’s based on event’s. Alibi problems have to revolve around people, and that’s what prevents most from being impossible crimes. An impossibility is a specific event, someone being pushed by an invisible man, a murder in a completely sealed room. It doesn’t need to revolve around people per se (besides the murder victim, if you have one) and therefore these situations are impossible crimes.
And that’s my key point. There are ways that alibi problems can be impossible, as they can revolve around people but also have an event/situation added alongside which allows for the qualification. Say, a presumed murderer locked inside a prison, only for a person he said he would murder to be killed outside said prison. If the murderer is proven to be the murderer, then you have an impossible crime/alibi scenario. I do hope it makes sense.
Now to go back to the main books I’ve used for this. I’d consider EUtS and TCotMM to both have quasi impossible situations, since the authors narrow down the stories to a specific group of people with alibis and we know they won’t pull a suspect from outside of it. However, there still is a possibility, and that’s what discounts them from being full fledged impossible novels. Besides those points, both books are wonderful reads.
Evil Under the Sun is one of Christie’s masterworks, stunning solution and situation, wonderful characters and atmosphere, 5/5. The Case of the Missing Minutes is also right there, with a very eerie situation and truly tragic situation, with a just as wonderful and ingenious resolution, buoyed by one of my favorite crime fiction characters ever. 4/5 for it, both are highly recommended.
Here ends my rambling and very singular blog post, if you’d like to examine the topic a little more, than look no further than the wonderful (and much better) posts written by JJ at The Invisible Event and Dan at The Reader is Warned. This is a very broad and interesting topic, so I’d love any conversation about it in the comments below, I’m sure I’ve made a lot of mistakes or brash opinions!
Next time (which should hopefully be soon), I’ll be looking at the impossibilities of a much beloved cartoon mutt, before following it up with a much beloved (and hated) author!