The Age Old Question: Impossible Crime and Alibi’s – Through Evil Under the Sun (1941) and The Case of the Missing Minutes (1937)

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.

vil

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, missingand 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.

dart.jpg
An actual impossible crime!

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 evilthere, 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! 

 

7 thoughts on “The Age Old Question: Impossible Crime and Alibi’s – Through Evil Under the Sun (1941) and The Case of the Missing Minutes (1937)

  1. I agree with your distinction (impossible alibis are separate from impossible crimes), but I’d position alibi problems closer to the category of impossible crime than you. Consider, if Christie had revealed the culprit of EUtS to be a random sex maniac who rowed out from the sea, she would have violated a damn-near unbreakable rule and completely lost her readers. Because the author has the duty to present the suspects (within a reasonable time during the narrative), the reader is comfortable presuming the killer is a character whose alibi may be judged. This would be independent of any real-world possibilities. It could be called the Net of Suspicion rule. If all the alibis are rock solid and these characters are the only possibilities, I’d say EUtS is fairly close to impossible.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I have to agree with your points. My main position is that since there still is that possibility of Christie deciding to be a inept fool (which she would never be!) and it still being possible per se, the crime can’t be described as a full on impossible crime.

      But, the world an author creates and the crimes they create are all that we see, and therefore are all that there is in a detective story. Since Christie posits that only her group of suspects could have done it, and we know that the culprit will be there, the alibis and your Net of Suspicion rule come into play. They all now have alibis, and it really does seem like its impossible for anyone to have done it. And that’s why EUtS is so close to being impossible, but it just doesn’t quite cross the finish line, if I’m making any sense.

      The mixing of an author’s world and what we can know from our, real world is really interesting when you think about it, because detective fiction can be and must be incredibly restrictive in a way. There are entire rule sets developed for the genre, for crying out loud, and in the past when they were broken, a la Murder of Roger Ackroyd, well, that reception wasn’t exactly passive 🙂

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  2. Does an alibi problem, wherein everyone who could possibly have done a crime has one, constitute an impossible mystery?

    When does an alibi count as an impossible crime, you ask? The answer is simpler than you might think.

    There’s one, very strenuous, condition that turns an unbreakable alibi in an impossible crime, but the problem is that they tend to be kind of rare and seldom recognized as an impossible crime (such as a certain Hercule Poirot novel). The condition that has to be met is that the murderer should appear to have been physically unable to have carried out the murder and not simply rely on a paper trail (e.g. train or movie tickets), manipulating clocks or witnesses. Monk has some good examples of the impossible alibi with the murderers being either in a coma, having a shattered leg and being in space.

    And then you have the Birlstone Gambit, in which the murderer is revealed to be someone everyone assumed had been dead.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Yes, yes, that’s exactly the sort of situation that makes a alibi problem into a impossibility. Given that all forms of paper trails can be doctored, that therefore destroys any idea of the situation being fully impossible. Plus, winding a clock back isn’t exactly the most … spectacular of impossible crime solutions.

      I’m really fascinated by the idea of someone committing a crime from space, now that is a very ingenious and tantalizing situation. When I was a kid I used to watch Monk and a variety of other shows late at night, maybe it’s time I revisit.

      And of course, the Birlstone Gambit, I don’t think theres ever been a better twist 😄!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. The impossible alibi is really just the “least-likely suspect” taken to extremis, in my opinion. As you say, the distinction devolves down to the commission: no-one was near Nigel Manson when he was shoved out the window — but in EUtS there’s nothing impossilbe about reaching the beach where the murder occurs, we’re just led to believe that a certain person couldn’t have been there when they were.

    This might seem like so much hair-splitting, but that’s really what the least-likely suspect is: the person who has been cleared from suspicion turns out to’ve dunnit. Now, yes, this also can be the case in an impossible crime, but with the added flourish that there’s some additional aspect of that crime — inaccessible, no footprints, etc. — which must also be cleared up.

    But expect the debate to rage on nonetheless…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, the only real limitation to a alibi problem is, well, the alibis! Whereas when someone’s been pushed out a window with no one near them, there’s certainly much more going on there.

      The alibi problem technically makes everyone the least likely suspect, so calling it a very large extension of it is probably a very accurate position. Albi problems only focus on the natural, i.e people being the factor that contorts them, while the impossibility lies in the unnatural – no footprints, vanishing from a sealed room, all that good stuff.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. This is exactly the issue, how to test an ‘unbreakable alibi’ when they could have simply lied! (And we see that in a lot of terrible GAD works). I agree with both JJ and Tom Cat (who both commented succinctly on my post) that rhr main requirement for an ‘impossible’ alibi problem is thr physical inability to complete the action. This is where a kor of modern reviewers seem to be confused and it leads to (as I said in my post which you linked to) someone calling every episode if Death in Paradise impossible, when it certainly isn’t.

        Another interesting reversal on this is the idea of needing to believe one perspective for the problem to actually be impossible. Take as the main example The Judas Window.

        Liked by 1 person

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