The 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 None, Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone, Ellery Queen’s The King is Dead, and numerous stories by Arthur Conan Doyle.
From 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?