Mon
Nov 19 2012 10:30am

Murder in the Locked Room

The Murders in the Rue Morgue by Edgar Allan PoeThe locked room mystery has always held a special fascination for suspense fans.

Perhaps the most popular—and earliest—of them is Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” in which a mother and daughter are murdered—the mother so brutally ravaged she is almost decapitated and the daughter strangled and stuffed up a chimney—in a room locked from the inside and otherwise inaccessible. In 1841 this was pretty potent stuff. Keep in mind, the mystery genre was not established until the 19th century, and Poe’s stories of murder and mayhem were an extremely popular diversion.

As popular and undeniably entertaining as Poe’s stories were, the Golden Age of detective fiction (mostly the 1920s and 1930s) ushered in a master of the locked-room mystery subgenre, John Dickson Carr. Carr’s novel The Hollow Man was voted the best locked-room mystery of all time by a group of authors and reviewers, and in fact gives a rather detailed explanation for crime writers as to how a criminal could engineer the appearance or illusion of a sealed room, when, of course, logic dictates that the murderer must have had a means of escape.

The popularity of the locked-room subgenre is undeniable. In fact, most of the mystery “greats” have written at least one story involving this fascinating literary device. They include (but are not limited to!) Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were NoneWilkie Collins’s The Moonstone, Ellery Queen’s The King is Dead, and numerous stories by Arthur Conan Doyle.

Death of a Fool by Ngaio MarshFrom the 1950s and ’60s, Dame Ngaio Marsh’s Death of a Fool (Ritual swordsmen! Fertility rites! Decapitation!) is a great example. Another is one of my favorites, Too Many Magicians by Randall Garrett, which will appeal to sci-fi fans too, since it’s an alternate history that takes place in…wait for it…a wizard’s convention. And it has puns! Lots of puns!

The last 30 years of the 20th century brought locked-room stories such as Burglars Can’t Be Choosers in Lawrence Block’s humorous Bernie Rhodenbarr series and the fascinating The Tokyo Zodiac Murders by Soji Shimada, plus many more. Douglas Adams, of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy fame, even wrote a locked-room mystery called The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul featuring his “holistic detective” Dirk Gently  (sealed room, head rotating on a turntable, Norse gods...you know, pure, weird Douglas Adams fun.)

Bringing us into the 21st century is the short story “With a Twist” by J.A. Konrath, which is part of the Jack Daniels series of thrillers (one of my fave series ever, seriously.) Also, be sure to check out The Vanished Man by Jeffery Deaver and Christopher Fowler’s excellent Ten Second Staircase.

So, why do mystery and suspense fans love the locked-room genre so much? In my opinion, it’s simply because most mystery fans love a good puzzle, and it doesn’t get much more puzzling than murder and mayhem in a supposedly sealed room. It takes a special type of criminal to set up such a scenario to cover his crimes; and it certainly requires a talented detective to crack the case, one who must think outside the box in order to do so.

What’s your favorite locked-room mystery, and why do you think they’re so popular?


Kristin Centorcelli reviews books at mybookishways.com, loves a good mystery, and is a huge fan of boxed wine. You can also follow her at @mybookishways.

Read all Kristin Centorcelli’s posts for Criminal Element.

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4 comments
Terrie Farley Moran
1. Terrie
Absolutely it is all about the puzzle! And in short mystery fiction, no one does it better than Ed Hoch in his long running Doctor Sam Hawthorne series, which showed up regularly in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine for many years before Hoch's untimely death. I understand that there will be collections of Dr. Sam and Hoch's other series published in the near future.
Scott Adlerberg
2. ScottAdlerberg
Certainly John Dickson Carr, both in his Dr. Gideon Fell and his Sir Henry Merrivale books, has got to be considered the master of the form, at least for novels. He has so many variations on the locked room crime. The Problem of the Wire Cage, for example, has murder on a clay tennis court. The victim is found strangled in the middle of the court and there is only one set of footprints leading to or from the body -- the victim's. How was it done?

And among classic short stories, what about Jacques Futrelle's "The Problem of Cell 13"? About an escape from the ultimate locked room, a jail cell. How did The Thinking Machine, as he's called, without any tools at his disposal, escape from a cell when he'd told everyone, including the jail's warden and guards, that he would do exactly that one week after being locked up? A pure puzzle story and one of the best.
Kristin Centorcelli
3. MyBookishWays
@Terrie Thanks for letting me know! Another series to add to the wishlist!
Kristin Centorcelli
4. MyBookishWays
@ ScottAdlerberg Very nice! I'm sure I missed a LOT of good ones! Thanks for adding those!
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