Among aficionados of detective fiction, the term "locked-room mystery" has become an inaccurate but useful catch-all phrase, meaning the telling of a crime that appears to be impossible. The story does not actually require a hermetically sealed chamber so much as a location with an utterly inaccessible murder victim. A bludgeoned, stabbed or strangled body in the centre of pristine snow or sand is just as baffling as a lone figure on a boat at sea or aboard a one-man plane or in the classic locked room.
Like so much else in the world of mystery fiction, readers are indebted to Edgar Allan Poe for the invention of the locked-room mystery, which happened to be the startling core of the first pure detective story ever written, The Murders in the Rue Morgue, initially published in the April 1841 issue of Graham’s Magazine.
In this ground-breaking tale, two women are heard screaming and a group of neighbours race up the stairs to the women’s apartment. They break down the locked door, the key still in the lock on the inside, to find the savagely murdered mother and daughter. The windows are closed and fastened, egress through the fireplace chimney is impassable, and there are no loose floorboards or secret passages. Of course, the police are baffled (just as readers were then, and continue to be today, 170 years after the story’s original appearance). Only the detective, C Auguste Dupin, sees the solution, establishing another of the mainstays of the detective story: the brilliant amateur (often replaced in later stories by the private eye) who is smarter than both the criminal and the official police.
The locked-room mystery, or impossible-crime story, is the ultimate manifestation of the cerebral detective story. It fascinates the reader in precisely the same way that a magician is able to bring wonderment to his audience. What he demonstrates appears to be impossible. After all, young ladies, no matter how attractive and scantily clad, don’t just disappear, or turn into tigers, or get sawn in half. Yet we have just seen it happen, right before our very focused eyes.
While it is true that Poe invented the locked-room story, Robert Adey, in the introduction to his monumental bibliography, Locked Room Murders (1991), gives credit to a pioneering effort by the great Irish novelist Sheridan Le Fanu, claiming the honour of first story for A Passage in the Secret History of an Irish Countess, which appeared in the November 1838 issue of Dublin University Magazine and was later reprinted in the posthumously published The Purcell Papers in 1880. But there can be no argument that the greatest practitioner of this demanding form was the American author John Dickson Carr.
Not only did Carr produce 126 novels, short stories and radio plays under his own name and as Carter Dickson, but the range of seemingly impossible murder methods he created was so broad and varied that it simply freezes the brain to contemplate. In perhaps the most arrogant display of his command of the locked-room mystery, in his 1935 novel The Three Coffins (published in England as The Hollow Man), he has his detective, Dr Gideon Fell, deliver a lecture to a captivated audience. In this display of erudition, Fell spends 15 pages enumerating all the ways in which a locked room does not turn out to be impenetrable after all, and in which the impossible is clearly explained.
He offers scores of ideas for solutions to the most challenging puzzles in the mystery genre, tossing off in rapid succession a greater cornucopia of invention than most mystery writers will conceive in a lifetime. When he has concluded his seemingly comprehensive tutorial, he informs the attendees that none of these explanations is pertinent to the present case and heads off to conclude the investigation.
In The Three Coffins, Carr addresses the difficulty of constructing this kind of detective story and raises its major drawback. Readers are often dubious about its fairness, incredulous at what they have just read but, worse, somewhat disappointed. "The effect," Carr writes, speaking of both a magician’s illusion and an author’s sealed-room mystery, "is so magical that we somehow expect the cause to be magical also. When we see it isn’t wizardry, we call it tomfoolery."
It might be impossible to describe Carr’s best books, each with a plotline more complicated than the directions for assembling Ikea’s finest, but with denouements as pleasing as being forgotten by the HMRC. Try to solve cases such as The Burning Court, in which a body disappears from a coffin in a sealed crypt and a woman disappears through a bricked-up doorway or Fire, Burn!, in which the victim is shot to death in a passage where only one person had a gun – and she is innocent.
As we read a locked-room story, we will inevitably be disappointed, just as explanations of stage illusions exterminate the spell of magic that we experience as we watch the impossible occur. Impossible crimes cannot be impossible, as the detective will quickly point out, because they have happened. Treasure has been stolen from a locked and guarded room or museum or library, in spite of the constant surveillance by trained policemen. A frightened victim-to-be has locked, bolted, and sealed his home because the murderer has warned him that he will die at midnight, and a brigade of officers in a cordon surrounding the house cannot prevent it.
If the mind of a diabolical genius can invent a method of robbery or murder that appears to be insoluble, then surely there must be a mind of equal brilliance that is able to penetrate the scheme and explain its every nuance. That is the detective’s role and, although he appears to be explaining it all to the police and other interested parties, he is, of course, describing the scenario to the reader. The curtain that has masked the magic is raised, and all returns to mechanics, physics, and psychology.
Therefore, if you want to maintain the beauty of a magic show, refuse to listen to a magician who is willing to explain how he performed his illusion. Similarly, if the situations in a locked-room mystery have provided a delicious frisson of wonder, stop reading the story as soon as you reach the denouement. No, of course you can’t do that. It is human nature to want to know, and the moment of clarity, when all is revealed, brings a different kind of satisfaction. Admiration replaces awe. The legerdemain achieved by the authors of the stories in The Locked-Room Mysteries collection of which I’m editor, is, to use a word that has sadly become cheapened by overuse, awesome.
In his brilliant history of the mystery genre, Murder for Pleasure (1941), Howard Haycraft warned writers to stay away from the locked-room puzzle because "only a genius can invest it with novelty or interest today". And indeed, almost no one produces them nowadays. The locked-room mystery reached its pinnacle of popularity during the Golden Age of detective fiction between the two world wars. This is when Agatha Christie flourished.
In those years, the emphasis, particularly in England, was on the creation and solution of a puzzle. Readers were more interested in who dunnit, and how dunnit, whereas in the more modern era a greater focus has been placed on why dunnit. Murder – the taking of another person’s life – was a private affair and its solution demanded a ritual that was largely followed by most writers. The book or short story generally began with a fairly tranquil community (even if that community was in a big city such as London or New York) in which all the participants knew each other. A terrible crime, usually murder, occurred, rending the social fabric. The police came to investigate, usually a single detective, and either he (there were precious few female officers in the stories of that era) would solve the mystery or show himself to be an abject fool, relying on a gifted, and frequently eccentric, amateur. Clues were placed judiciously as the author challenged the reader to solve the case before the protagonist did. The true colours of the least likely suspect were then revealed and he or she was taken into custody.
Many modern readers don’t have the patience to follow the trail of clues in a detective story in which all suspects are interviewed (interrogated is a later word), all having doubt cast on their alibis, their relationships with the victim, and their possible motives, until all the suspects are gathered for the explanation of how the crime was committed, who perpetrated it and why they did it. It is not realistic and was never intended to be. It is entertainment, as all fiction is… or should be. Dorothy L Sayers pointed out that people have amused themselves by creating riddles, conundrums and puzzles of all kinds, apparently the sole purpose of which is deducing a solution.
Struggling with a Rubik’s Cube is a form of torment eliciting a tremendous sense of achievement and joy when it is solved. This is equally true of reading a good detective story, the apotheosis of which is the locked-room puzzle, with the added pleasure of becoming involved with fascinating, occasionally memorable characters, unusual backgrounds and, when the sun is shining most brightly, told with captivating prose.
Otto Penzler’s top five locked-room mysteries
1. Ellery Queen’s The House of Haunts (1935) sees a man attempt to return to a large house that has disappeared overnight. People had gone into it, smelled its mustiness, touched its contents, but when they returned in daylight it had utterly vanished.
2. Cornell Woolrich, under the pseudonym William Irish, wrote All at Once, No Alice (1940), in which a man briefly leaves his bride in their hotel room on their wedding night. When he returns, the room no longer exists, his bride cannot be found, and everyone with whom they came in contact denies ever having seen them before.
3. The Day the Children Vanished (1958) by Hugh Pentecost describes a school bus filled with children entering a road with no exits but the bus never comes out at the other end.
4. In Edward D. Hoch’s The Theft of the Bermuda Penny (1975), a man disappears from an automobile that has made no stops along its journey, leaving his seat belt still fastened.
5. In two of the cleverest stories, a man enters a house from which he never is seen to leave. Lord Dunsany’s classic The Two Bottles of Relish (1932) and Stephen Barr’s The Locked Room to End Locked Rooms (1965) begin with the same situation but have vastly different solutions, both of which provide a shock of comprehension that rattles the bones.
The Locked-Room Mysteries, edited by Otto Penzler (£19.99, Corvus), is out on 15 JanuaryReuse content