CARTER DICKSON “Persons or Things Unknown.” Short story. First published in The Sketch, UK, Christmas 1938. Collected in The Department of Queer Complaints (Morrow, US, hardcover, 1940). Reprinted in Line-Up, edited by John Rhode (Dodd Mead, US, hardcover, 1940) as by J. Dickson Carr, and probably several other places as well.

   With only one possible flaw as far as I could see, and that one exceedingly non-major, this is one small gem of a story, especially if you’re as big a fan of locked room mysteries as I am. It’s a standalone story with none of Carr/Dickson’s favorite detective characters: Fell, March or Merrivale.

   The story is told instead by the owner of an old drafty manor house in England during a party he’s holding at Christmas time. It seems that there is a story attached to one of the rooms located upstairs, one dating back to the 1600s and the days of the Restoration. As recorded in an old diary and the coroner’s report at the time, it seems that one of two rivals for the hand of the then owner of the house was found stabbed to death in that room, while the other two were there with no other entry possible.

   But the lights had gone out before the fatal attack and no sign of the murder weapon could be found, no matter how hard they looked. It is obvious, so to speak, who the killer was, but without murder weapon to be found, he was never convicted.

   All the clues are there, and in plain sight — with a story from John Dickson Carr, you can count on that — and more than that, one suggestion from the current listeners to the story is made and immediately discounted. I’ve always thought using an icicle to kill someone without a trace would be a good basis for a short story (and it’s probably been done), but it was a warm day for Christmas, and there was a huge shortage of icicles to be used. Furthermore icicles are too fragile to be used very effectively as a weapon, especially many times over.

   As I said earlier, this is a small gem of a tale. My only wish is that it Carr hadn’t needed to tell it as a story within a story, a device I’m never all that crazy about, but that’s a small quibble about a story that’s as good as his one is.