The locked room mysteries, also known as the impossible crime or closed-circle mystery, is not really a genre. But the popularity of this type oif story can’t be argued. As the name implies, the crime, usually a murder but can be a robbery, occurred in a room that is found locked or otherwise sealed.
One of the earliest examples of the locked room mysteries is The Murders in the Rue Morgue, by Edgar Allan Poe. Poe’s C. Auguste Dupin and the unnamed narrator became interested in a newspaper story of a lady and her daughter who the authorities found dead in their fourth story room. The mother had many broken bones and her head fell off when they moved the body, while someone strangled the daughter and stuffed her up the chimney. The officials found the room locked from the inside, meaning the key would be inside the room. I will let you discover how Edgar handled this on your own.
And that is the crux of the locked room mysteries. One of the fundamental questions of the story is how did someone get in and out of the room? Usually, the author presents the reader with the problem and all the clues, both true and false, then the author asks them to solve the mystery before the resolution during the climax. There is often a hint that there is a supernatural reason for the crime until the protagonist reveals a solution that is completely logical.
The authors from The British Golden Age for Detective Fiction frequently wrote this type of story. Many critics consider Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot’s Christmas (Published in the US as A Holiday for Murder) an example. An elderly and frail multi-millionaire uncharacteristically invited his family (a perfect example of the term dysfunctional) home for the Christmas holidays. After he arranged for everyone to hear him talking to his lawyer, as a sick joke, about changing his will after the holidays, he went up to his study to be alone. His family heard the crashing of furniture and a scream. When they rushed to his aid, they found the door locked, and they had to break it down. To add to the mystery, the witnesses claimed everyone had gathered outside of the room.
Now, that is a great set up for a mystery.
One of Agatha Christie’s most popular books, Murder on the Orient Express, fits this style perfectly. Hercule Poirot received a telegram calling him back to London, so he took passage on the Express. One night, the train got trapped in a snowbank. When they awoke the next morning, the train’s conductor found one of the prestigious passengers murdered in his room. The snow outside the window was undisturbed, so the murderer had to still onboard, but no one had seen a thing. Hercule has to use his little gray cells to find the murderer.
Other novelists who often wrote locked room mysteries included G. K. Chesterton in his Father Brown mysteries and John Dickson Carr, a prolific author in the Golden Age who was more popular in his day than now. In 1981, a group of seventeen authors selected his The Three Coffins as the best locked-room mystery of all times. The plot involved a man shot in a locked room with undisturbed snow on the ground.
Snow always adds a nice extra touch.
The locked room mystery has broadened to include murders not in just a room, but in an enclosed area like an island, a train, or a resort cut off from the world. The must-haves include a fixed number of suspects and a secluded location.
For a more recent example comes from Tess Gerritsen, in her Rizzoli and Isles series. She proves she is very adept at using a secluded and isolated to jack up the tension. In Last To Die, Jane and Maura are locked inside a prestigious boarding school along with the students. Are the administrators trying to keep them safe. Oor do they have another more nefarious reason for locking them away in the secluded grounds?
I am sure these examples have gotten your imaginations racing. Now, you can see why the locked-room mystery is so enticing. The setting can be a skiing resort, a manor, a hotel, or a small town locked in by the snow. In any case, the intimacy and fear of knowing that a killer is among us will keep us turning pages late into the night.
And the sad thing is, as these stories so eloquently show us, locking the door won’t keep you safe. If you do get scared, you can always pull a blanket over your head.
Do you have a favorite locked-room mystery? I would love to hear about it in the comments. And if you would like to see my future articles, please subscribe to my mailing list below.