For Part One, go here.
Let us return now to the weighty topic of great locked room mysteries.
In Part One I focused on the works of John Dickson Carr, who is certainly a central figure in the history of the genre. There are plenty of other works to be acknowledged, however, and we turn to that subject now. This will certainly not be anything like an exhaustive list, which would be impossible in any case. I will simply list a few that made an impression on me, and I invite the commenters to mention others. The ever-useful Wikipedia has an interesting reading list, including quite a few with which I am unfamiliar.
Quick spoiler alert: Below I reveal the endings of the stories “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” and “The Adventure of the Speckled Band” by Poe and Conan Doyle respectively. Otherwise there are no spoilers.
We begin with Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” and Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Adventure of the Speckled Band.” Both are well-deserved classics of the genre, but their reliance on animal killers (an orangutan in the former case, a snake in the latter) make them rather dated. A nice gimmick to do once (or twice), but nowadays more imagination is required. If you are tempted to write a story of your own, be warned that animal killers are about one step up from secret passages as ways of resolving an impossible situation.
Israel Zangwill’s The Big Bow Mystery, first published in 1892 is often credited with being the first locked room mystery novel in the modern sense. It is quite an enjoyable story, heavy on atmosphere and local color, and it introduces a few plot techniques that have since become standard. Most notably the fair-play aspect is in evidence, and several alternative solutions are provided along the way. A “union agitator” is found murdered in his sealed-up bedroom, the lack of a weapon ruling out suicide as a possibility.
Gaston Leroux, better known for having written The Phantom of the Opera, wrote a true classic with his The Mystery of the Yellow Room, first published in book form in 1908. Building on Zangwill, we now have the presence of an eccentric detective (reporter Joseph Rouletabille), and also multiple impossible situations. John Dickson Carr described this as the finest detective tale ever written, and it certainly deserves a place high up in the pantheon. However, in my view the explanation of the main impossible situation (a woman murdered in a locked room) is implausible, and the explanation of a second impossible situation (in which the murdered seems to disappear into thin air despite having been cornered by various pursuers) was fairly obvious. On the other hand, I read this one back in college about fifteen years ago, so perhaps it’s time to give it a second chance.
Next up is Jacques Futrelle, whose detective Professor S. F. X. Van Dusen, “The Thinking Machine,” solved a wide-variety of impossible crimes in the early twentieth century. The Thinking Machine appeared in roughly fifty stories before his creator died on the Titanic in 1912, but one of these stands so head and shoulders above the rest that it deserves special mention. I refer, of course, to “The Problem of Cell 13,” which features dialogue like this:
“I’ve heard you say such things before,” he said. “But they mean nothing. Mind may be master of matter, but it hasn’t yet found a way to apply itself. There are some things that can’t be thought out of existence, or rather which would not yield to any amount of thinking.”
“What, for instance?” demanded The Thinking Machine.
Dr. Ransome was thoughtful for a moment as he smoked.
“Well, say prison walls,” he replied. “No man can think himself out of a cell. If he could, there would be no prisoners.”
“A man can so apply his brain and ingenuity that he can leave a cell, which is the same thing,” snapped The Thinking Machine.
Dr. Ransome was slightly amused.
“Let’s suppose a case,” he said, after a moment. “Take a cell where prisoners under sentence of death are confined — men who are desperate and, maddened by fear, would take any chance to escape — suppose you were locked in such a cell. Could you escape?”
“Certainly,” declared The Thinking Machine.
“Of course,” said Mr. Fielding, who entered the conversation for the first time, “you might wreck the cell with an explosive — but inside, a prisoner, you couldn’t have that.”
“There would be nothing of that kind,” said The Thinking Machine. “You might treat me precisely as you treated prisoners under sentence of death, and I would leave the cell.”
“Not unless you entered it with tools prepared to get out,” said Dr. Ransome.
The Thinking Machine was visibly annoyed and his blue eyes snapped.
“Lock me in any cell in any prison anywhere at any time, wearing only what is necessary, and I’ll escape in a week,” he declared, sharply.
So begins one of the finest short stories (or perhaps, more accurately, novellette) ever written. It ranks up there with “The Nine Mile Walk,” by Harry Kemelman and “Sandkings” by George R. R. Martin (not a mystery).
Agatha Christie only made a few forays into the locked room genre, and most of these were fairly simple. However, there are two that rate a mention. Her novel “And Then There Were None” features eight people brought to a small island where, together with two of their hosts, they are systematically murdered one by one. You can imagine the confusion of the police in trying to sort out who killed whom upon discovering the ten corpses.
I’ve always been partial to a little-known Hercule Poirot novella called “The Incredible Theft.” As the title suggests, the plot involves the theft of some top secret government documents under circumstances where it seems no one had the oportunity to do it. The solution is simple, but quite satisfying.
In the late thirties and early forties professional magician Clayton Rawson wrote a series of novels and short stories in which remarkable crimes were solved by his detective, The Great Merlini. Two of these featured classic locked room scenarios. His first novel, Death From a Top Hat, with its impressively impossible situation and something like six or seven possible solutions (as I recall), is justly considered a classic, but I actually prefer his fourth novel, “No Coffin for the Corpse.” The gimmick by which the locked room is achieved is simple, but ingenious. The relationship between Merlini and his Watson is also well done.
Hake Talbot’s Rim of the Pit (1944) deserves to be better known. Multiple impossible situations and an engaging detective with a satisfying, fair play solution. Not easy to find, but worth a read if you can score a copy.
Ellery Queen made a few forays into the locked room genre. The Chinese Orange Mystery (1934) is often rated highly, but I felt the gimmick here was too complex and implausible, and Queen’s deductions seemed a bit farfetched in a number of places. I preferred his 1952 novel, The King is Dead, in which an arms magnate is shot in a locked and guarded room.
Locked room mysteries have occasionally turned up on television. Notable here is the short-lived show Banacek which was part of a rotating series of mystery movies (along with Columbo and Kojak.) George Peppard played an insurance investigator who solved seemingly incredible thefts. The show itself was a bit weak, with poor writing and an incredibly unlikable lead character. The impossible crimes were often easy to solve. But the show does get credit for some very clever gimmicks, such as a flat-bed train car being stolen out of the middle of a moving train, a football player who vanishes form the bottom of a pile after being tackled by a horde of opposing defensive players, and a statue weighing several tons being stolen from a museum. The show managed to be enjoyable despite its flaws.
In recent years Edward Hoch has been one of the main practitioners of the locked-room mystery, particularly through his stories featuring Dr. Sam Hawthorne. These are enjoyable stories, but they do illustrate for me what is a basic principle of locked roomery: The genre works better in novel form than it does in short stories. In short stories you pretty much only have time to set up the impossible situation and then resolve it a few pages later. In such cramped confines the puzzle is often easy to solve. There is little time for mood or atmosphere. One of the things that made Carr so successful was his ability to combine the locked room aspect of the story with an atmosphere of dread. The thought of a killer who can walk through walls is a scary one, and needs to be played up as such. Short stories tend not to allow for such things.
So that’s it for me. Feel free to mention your own favorites, whether locked room or otherwise, in the comments.