Locked in

Melbourne’s been back in lockdown, so a post on locked-room mysteries seems appropriate.

Locked-room mysteries are a sub-genera of crime fiction in which a seemingly ‘impossible crime’ is committed. The circumstances surrounding the crime make it implausible that the perpetrator committed the offence at all, or if they did, it seems unlikely they could evade detection. The crime scene is sealed from the inside with no way out (unless they were Houdini).

These stories usually involve a closed circle of people with a limited number of suspects and a whimsical detective to keep us guessing as they investigate. The solution is always right there, if only we could lay our eyes on the sleight of hand that plays on our curiosity. They are great mysteries for lovers of puzzles and a world away from gritty police procedurals or thrillers about psychopaths and the more brutal side of humanity. They are more cosy-supernatural-gothic.

Think a group of acquaintances getting locked up together on a remote property. They are caught out when the weather turns bad, making leaving impossible and bringing communications down. Keith, who had been driving everyone mad, is found dead in the garden shed. The garden shed has no windows and is locked securely from the inside. When the group break the door down they find Kieth lying on the floor with a bullet wound to his head. Strangely there’s no gun in the shed…Lucky one of the group is also a brilliant detective.

Locked-room mysteries were hot in the Golden Age of detective fiction between the two world wars. Agatha Christie perfected the genera, but Edgar Allan Poe is credited with invention of its long form in 1841 with The Murders in the Rue Morgue, although some say John Dickson Carr pre-dated him with The Hollow Man in 1935.

Casting even further back, the style was evident in short stories. In Dashiell Hammett’s Continental Op story Mike or Alec or Rufus that appeared in the January 1925 issue of Black Mask, the action takes place in an apartment building and the private investigator tries to solve the crime through interviewing suspects; Wilkie Collons’ The Moonstone (1854) is also credited as contributing to development of the sub-genre. Elements can even be found in the Old Testament story of Bel and the Dragon in which an idol who eats food offerings from a sealed room is worshiped. The stories hero Daniel, exposes the secret entrance used by the priests who are taking the food for themselves.

In a Guardian article from 2014, Adrian McKinty nominated his top ten impossible murder novels, ranging from The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins (1868) to La Septième Hypothèse by Paul Halter (1991). Interestingly there are a lot of locked room mysteries with a French origin.

Contemporary novels in this sub-genre are dominated by women writers and include Ruth Ware’s In a Dark, Dark Wood (2016), The Hunting Party by Lucy Foley, They All Fall Down by Rachel Howzell Hall, The Last by Hanna Jameson, Nine Perfect Strangers by Laine Moriarty, The Last Resort by Susi Holliday, and One by One by Ruth Ware who must like four walls, a ceiling and a floor.

Locked room mysteries are concerned with psychology and relationships between people in high pressure environments. They study what can happen when we are forced to spend more time with other’s than we would choose to. When we see one another more clearly that we ever have before and it becomes claustrophobic and uncomfortable because we are cut off from the outside world. Under these conditions our masks and defenses fall away and our true selves are revealed, warts and all. The evaporation of the veneer of civility creates a perfect environment for a mysterious crime. And of course there must be a brilliant detective to keep everyone contained until they solve the case.

I hope your lockdown was less dramatic, but if you can’t get your fill of a locked-rooms in lockdown try one of these:

  • The Black Lizard Big Book of Locked-room Mysteries by Otto Penzier – collection of 68 of the all time best
  • Miraculous Mysteries, edited by Martin Edwards – anthology
  • Locked Room Murders by Robert Adey – a bibliography of the problem and solution to 1,280 locked room crime novels and short stories