Locked Room Mysteries, Part One

Somehow I'm not in the mood for a heavy post today. So how about an essay on another of my favorite topics: Locked Room mysteries.

Here are the first two paragraphs of what I regard as the finest detective story ever written:

To the murder of Professor Grimaud, and later the equally incredible crime in Cagliostro Street, many fantastic terms could be applied -- with reason. Those of Dr. Fell's friends who like impossible situations will not find in his casebook any puzzle more baffling or more terrifying. Thus: two murders were committed, in such fashion that the murderer must not only have been invisible; but lighter than air. According to the evidence, this person killed his first victim and literally disappeared. Again according to the evidence, he killed his second victim in the middle of an empty street, with watchers at either end; yet not a soul saw him, and no footprint appeared in the snow.

Naturally, Superintendent Hadley never for a moment believed in goblins or wizardry. And he was quite right -- unless you believe in a magic that will be explianed naturally in this narrative at the proper time. But several people began to wonder whether the figure which stalked through this case might not be a hollow shell. They began to wonder whether, if you took away the cap and the black coat and the child's false-face, you might not reveal nothing inside, like a man in a certain famous romance by Mr. H. G. Wells. The figure was grisly enough, anyhow.

If you do not recognize this then I fear I have exposed a major hole in your literary education. They are from The Three Coffins, by John Dickson Carr. Never has the fair-play detective story achieved a higher expression than this. I have read the novel multiple times (knowing the solution in advance only heightens my awe at Carr's craftsmanship), but I have nonetheless found it difficult to put the book down after transcribing those paragraphs. Can you seriously tell me you are not now incredibly curious about the remainder of the story?

In it's classical form the locked room mystery involves a murder committed in a room locked from the inside. Typically the murder method is such as to require close contact between the murderer and the victim -- strangulation, stabbing, shot at point-blank range, that sort of thing -- but the locked room adds an element of howdunit, to the usual whodunit. Nowadays the term is applied more generally, to refer to any crime committed under seemingly impossible circumstances.

The Three Coffins offers good examples of both. Professor Grimaud is in his study, fearing a visit from his brother, whom he had wronged terribly many years previously. Anticipating trouble, he instructs several members of his staff to take up positions near the study, ready to step in if their is trouble. His brother, going under the name Pierre Fley, comes to the house. He is shown to the study, where he is seen exchanging a few words with Grimaud. Fley is enters the study and the door is bolted from the inside. Moments later sounds of a struggle are heard from inside the room. There is a gunshot. The door is broken down. Grimaud is found on the floor, shot point-blank. He is not yet dead, but is clearly fading fast. The window in the room is opened, but there is undistrubed snow on the ledge, ruling it out as a means of escape. The snow several stories below is entirely undistrubed, as is the snow on the roof of the bulding above. There is a fireplace in the room, but the chimney is far too small for a person to have climbed out.

Grimaud is taken to the hospital, where he manages to utter a few words just before dying. The novel's first act ends with these words being transmitted from the hospital back to the police, who are still investigating at Grimaud's house:

He was conscious just before the end. He said certain things which can be attested by two of my nurses and myself; but he might have been wandering and I should be careful of them. I knew him pretty well, but I certainly never knew he had a brother.

First he said he wished to tell me about it; then he spoke exactly as follows:

It was my brother who did it. I never thought he would shoot. God knows how he got out of that room! One second he was there, and the next he wasn't. Get a pencil and paper, quick! I want to tell you who my brother is, so that you won't think I'm raving.

His shouting brought in the final hemorrhage, and he died without saying anything else. I am holding the body subject to your orders.

E. H. Peterson, M.D.

They all looked at each other. The puzzle stood rounded and complete; the facts stood confirmed and the witnesses vindicated; but the terror of the hollow man remained. After a pause the superintendeant spoke in a heavy voice. “God knows,” repeated Hadley, “how he got out of that room.”

The novel's second act has the police going to Pierre Fley's apartment. They find him dead in the middle of a snow-covered, dead-end street. Shot point blank, with no footprints but his own in the snow around him. The watchers at either end of the street heard the murderer say, “The second bullet is for you!” and heard the gunshot, but no one saw the crime committed. Various lines of evidence showed that this crime took place after the events in Grimaud's study, with the same murder weapon.

This is a worthy example of the second sort of locked room mystery.

Of course, I am not going to tell you how the crimes were committed. The solutions are far too complicated to present here at any rate. I urge you to procure a copy of the book, but you will probably need the services of a well-stocked used bookstore, or perhaps a mystery bookstore, to do so. After finding a copy, you will find it difficult to resist peeking ahead.

Though many mystery writers have tried their hand at the genre, there is no question that John Dickson Carr is the absolute master. In addition to its other merits, The Three Coffins contains a chapter entitled “The Locked Room Lecture” in which the action is paused, and Carr's detective, Dr. Gideon Fell, discourses on the various methods by which a locked-room crime can be committed. It's an implicit challenge to the reader. The lecture is quite thorough, and relaly does cover everything, at least in terms of basic schemas. But which of these basic methods are at work here?

Gideon Fell appeared in twenty-three novels, most of them featuring a locked room mystery of some kind. As enjoyable as most of these novels were, I actually preferred Carr's other series detective, Sir Henry Merrivale. These novels were published under the not so subtle pseudonym Carter Dickson, and while Merrivale, like Fell, was something of an authority on locked room murders, no one made the connection between them for quite some time. Carr's reason for using a pseudonym was simply that in his prime years he was too prolific for one publisher to handle. He was writing four novels a year, for heaven's sake.

The early Merrivale novels are a breathtaking succession of genre masterpieces. In The Unicorn Murders the characters, Merrivale among them, are trapped by a storm in an elegant country house. The house features a tall staircase, of the sort that has a right-angle bend in the middle. A man standing at the top of this staircase is attacked with a short-range weapon. Witnesses at the top of the stairs saw the man struggle with his attacker, and topple down the stairs. The body tumbles to the bottom where other witnesses see the body land. But no trace of the murderer is found.

In The Judas Window, a suitor trying to win the favor of a man whose daughter he wants to marry, is shown into the man's study. The door is locked from the inside and the only window is barred. Sometime later the father is found dead on the ground, stabbed with a heavy arrow that had been hanging on the wall, the suitor hovering over the body. The suitor claims that he had been drinking seltzer water with the father, that his water had been drugged, and that when he came to he found the father dead on the ground. No one believed him, both because the room was sealed up from the inside, and also because the bottle of seltzer water kept in the room was full to the top, with four undisturbed and bone-dry glasses on the platter around it. Well, Henry Merrivale believed him, and offers his services as the man's lawyer. This is the beginning of what is surely one of the greatest courtroom dramas ever written.

In Nine -- And Death Makes Ten Merrivale is one of ten passengers on a trans-Atlantic ocean voyage. One of the passengers is murdered, the bloody fingerprint of the murderer found next to the body. Everyone is fingerprinted, but the print matches no one. Extensive and thorough searches of the ship turn up no sign of a stowaway.

These are just a few favorites. One of Merrivale's lesser efforts was called A Graveyard To Let. As a mystery this one is not in the same league as the others I have mentioned, but it deserves a word just for the sheer cleverness of its impossible situation. A wealthy man is in his backyard, having a party with some guests. He knows the police are coming to arrest him for some financial misconduct (or something). When the police turn up he says to his guests (Merrivale among them) that he has to go. He walks towards his swimming pool, and jumps in, fully clothed. Moments later his clothers are seen floating to the top of the pool. The man himself has vanished.

Carr is notable not just for the imagination and ingenuity of his plots, but also for his gifts as a writer. The problem with the classical detective story, as exemplified by, say, Agatha Christie or Dorothy Sayers, is that they tend to be kind of boring. Lot's of talking, lot's of facts and information being thrown at you, but typically with paper-thin characters who stand around for two hundred pages while waiting for the detective, who had everything figured out before the page numbers reached triple-digits, to explain what is going on. But Carr (at his best, he wrote a number of lemons too, expecially later in his career) had some real gifts as a writer. His novels were heavy on atmosphere, and he had a good ear for dialogue. He also had a certain cockiness about him that heightened the feeling of stupidity you felt at not having anticipated the solution before Fell or Merrivale reveals it. For example, the final chapter of the early Merrivale novel The Peacock Feather Murders (which could easily have been included in the list above) is entitled, “In Which it is Shown That We Do Not Always Think of Everything.” “We” is the reader in this case, and I for one can say without shame that the manner in which the impossible situation was resolved was one that never even crossed my mind while reading the novel.

So why do I like these novels so much? Partly it's just for the sheer joy of an engrossing story. I mean, seriously, how did Fley get out of that room? But I also like the philosophy behind them. Typically there is a point in the story where the characters start saying, “It's ghosts, I tells you!” It falls to the detective to be the voice of reason, to remind everyone that unexplained is different from unexplainable.

A nice example is the Merrivale novel The Reader is Warned, the very title of which shows more of Carr's cockiness. A man named Pennik claims that just as sound waves can break glass, so too can thought waves be used as a weapon. He calls this “Teleforce.” At dinner in the home of a wealthy gentlemen and various of his acquaintances, Pennik grows annoyed by the constant scoffing of his host. At 7:30 in the evening he informs his host that he is unlikely to be alive at 8:00. Sure enough, at 8:00 the host's body turns up dead, with not a single mark on the body and no cause of death apparent.

Of course, everything ultimatley gets explained and Teleforce has nothing to do with it. The final scene of the novel has Merrivale talking to Inspector Masters of the police. Merrivale has just explained the whole thing, and it turns out that much of what was mysterious was the result not of planning by the murderer, but of bad luck and bizarre chance events. There ensues the following bit of dialogue, with Henry Merrivale (H. M.) speaking first: (The ellipsis involves a line that reveals more of the solution than I wish to make known. It will also help to know that Merrivale, in his day job, was a high ranking official in British intelligence.)

“I was just thinking, sir, about the old gentleman on the train: the one who wanted to put Pennik in a zinc-lined box like a tube of radium. Teleforce! And a lot of people getting the wind up. And a death-ray that'd knock bombers out of the air. And all because ...”

“You think that's funny?”

“Don't you?”

“No,&rdquo said H. M. “ Why do you think all this fuss has been allowed?”

“How do you mean?”

“For the salutary moral lesson,” said H.M.,“ when on this bright day the menace of Teleforce is turned into howlin' nonsense, and pseudo-scientific rubbish gets the kick in the pants it deserves. That's how the campaign has been planned. The long-threatened raspberry bursts forth. The Press tells what Teleforce is, and who had the managin' of it. And the next time alarmists go scurryin' from house to house, the next time they tell you about a super-bomb that'll drop from an enemy airplane and wipe out a whole county, the next time they picture London as one cloud of poison-gas from Hampstead to Lambeth, then you look at your back-garden and softly murmur, `Teleforce' and be comforted.”

Well said.

As regular readers of this blog know, I like this kind of attitude. One of my other hobbies is magic, and for much the same reason. In a way, I see the same force at work in my interest in evolution. Of course, much of that is just for my love for and interest in science. You don't need a reason beyond basic curiosity to justify an interest in evolution.

But there is also the locked room mystery aspect of things as well. Here you have the “mystery of mysteries,” the origin of complex organisms. You have large masses of people explaining this mystery with the religious equivalent of, “It's ghosts, I tells you!” What other explanation is possible? It falls to the scientists and rationalists to work out the far more complicated, but also far more wonderful and more satisfying, real explanation.

John Dickson Carr, his centrality in the genre notwithstanding, is hardly the last word on this subject. The novels mentioned here were all written in the 1930's and early 40's, but there is much to say beyond this. But this essay has gone on long enough. We will save the further ruminations for Part Two.


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Real men prefer Raymond Chandler and Kenneth Millar (aka Ross McDonald).

"You know," he said at last, "these smart-alec show-off suicides really make me tired. They only do it to annoy."

"Suicide?" said Dirk.

Gilks glanced round at him.

"Windows secured with iron bars half an inch thick," he said. "Door locked from the inside with the key still in the lock. Furniture piled against the inside of the door. French windows to the patio locked with mortise door bolts. No signs of a tunnel. If it was murder, then the murderer must have stopped to do a damn fine job of glazing on the way out. Except that all the putty's old and painted over.

"No. Nobody's left this room, and nobody's broken into it except for us, and I'm pretty sure we didn't do it.

"I haven't the time to fiddle around on this one. Obviously suicide, and just done to be difficult. I've half a mind to do the deceased for wasting police time. Tell you what," he said, glancing at his watch, "you've got ten minutes. If you come up with a plausible explanation of how he did it that I can put in my report, I'll let you keep the evidence in the envelope minus twenty percent compensation to me for the emotional wear and tear involved in not punching you in the mouth."

It's good to see someone significantly younger than me who appreciates Carr - definitely one of the best. I guess it's time for me to do some re-reading myself. I'll be looking forward to your next installment.

In addition to locked room mysteries, I've also got a thing for intricate timetable alibis. Freeman Wills Croft was the originator and master of that genre as well as the father of the police procedural school of detective fiction. One of Croft's earlier works, The Pit Prop Syndicate, is available for free download from Project Gutenberg. It's also unusual in that it's told in two parts -- the first from the point of view of the innocent people involved, and the second from the viewpoint of the Scotland Yard inspector. http://www.gutenberg.org/etext/2013

I have this prejudice that most mystery novels are inhabited by thin cardboard characters. Ellery Queen and Agatha Christie novels never interested me because I did not like any of the characters and didn't care who killed whom in them. I'm not getting a strong character vibe from your excerpts here either - not that there's anything wrong with that, if you prefer plot over characters, or in fact think you would enjoy having a beer or other beverage with some of the characters in these books.

For me, some of the exceptions are Rex Stout (the Nero Wolfe mysteries), Raymond Chandler, and for a contemporary pick, Michael Connelly.

The mystery genre now includes books like these from Martin Cruz Smith:

1. Gorky Park (1981)
2. Polar Star (1989)
3. Red Square (1992)
4. Havana Bay (1999)

And from James Lee Burke, the Dave Robicheaux Novels

These have almost become the default standard for today's American literature.

And then there's the unbeatable Elmore Leonard

I will have to hunt down a copy of "The Three Coffins", it sounds intriguing.

I hope mentioning a television show isn't bad in this context, but I always liked the "Banacek" episodes on the old NBC Mystery Movies. As an insurance investigator, he got involved in Locked Room scenarios with stuff like race horses disappearing from the track during a race, and 10 ton solid gold wedding coaches vanishing from sealed boxcars, with just a 4 inch square hole in the side of the car. I have to admit that once the crime is described, the filler was not that great...but the solutions were very novel, at least to me.

I always liked "Columbo" also, if only for the novelty of knowing whodunit before the story unfolds, and watching him try to figure it out. He always does, by the way. Smart dude that Columbo.

By BobbyEarle (not verified) on 10 Jul 2008 #permalink

No one is demanding a "heavy post" from you every day Jason! It's your blog. Blog about whatever you want. I'm guessing most of your readers are just looking for news and views with a jason slant, with some heavy stuff once in a while to flesh out important topics.

Being a Pratchett fan, I have to throw one in for Sam Vimes, who has to solve mysteries in a world where magic actually exists...

As he puts it, locked room mysteries are even worse when they leave the room unlocked.

I draw your attention to "Chapter the Last: Merriman Explains" by Alex Atkinson - a beautiful parody of John Dickson Carr's style. It is in the collection Murder Impossible, edited by Jack Adrian and Robert Adey
Carroll and Graf, New York, 1990. Not on the Internet anywhere as far I know...

Any list of great characters in "character-based" mystery fiction would have to include Martin Cruz Smith's Arkady Renko (as well as the mine investigator in The Rose). I am also kicking myself for not mentioning Dashiel Hammet. Elmore Leonard is a great writer whom I did consider mentioning, but concluded there usually isn't much mystery in his novels. I feel there is a better case for Len Deighton, who nominally wrote spy-thrillers, but often had some mystery at the heart of them.

I happen to be reading Days of Atonement by Walter Jon Williams, which is a very good mystery novel, albeit with some sci-fi elements.

Any attempt at an all-inclusive list would be even more tedious, so I'll stop myself now.

Have you read The Mystery of the Yellow Room, by Gaston Leroux (best known for writing The Phantom of the Opera)? Though by modern lights it is a bit forced and melodramatic, I still think it is the unsurpassed locked room mystery, even including Carr. The criminal makes no less than three impossible escapes, all explained in different (and logical) ways. His identity is also a big surprise and a subversion of some conventions of the genre.

By Alejandro (not verified) on 11 Jul 2008 #permalink

Okay, now I've had time to actually read the blog offline, am I posting a spoiler to ask if there's any ballooning involved in the 3 coffins "mystery"?!

God knows how he got out of that room!

Well there you go. Subpoena God and get his testimony.

By Tegumai Bopsul… (not verified) on 11 Jul 2008 #permalink


You have exposed a hole in my own literary education, since I have never read anything by either Chandler or MacDonald. In general I prefer classical detective stories to the hard-bioled kind.

Cody -

Where is that from?

chezjake -

Thanks for the recommendation. I'm not familiar with Croft, but he is now on my personal list of books to read.

JimV -

You're right about the characterizations in a lot of classical mystery fiction. I like both Ellery Queen and Agathat Christie, but these are definitely books you read for the clever plots and not the insight into human nature. The early Ellery Queen novels in particular were masterpieces of fair-play writing and deductive reasoning, but the dialogue was frequently excruciating and the characters were completely interchangeable. I think Carr was an improvement in this reagard, but where he really excelled was in mood and atmosphere. Some of his novels are borderline horror stories.


I'm poorly read on current mystery fiction. I am an occasional reader of both Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine amd Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, but I'm usually disappointed by the stories I find there. In general I don't care for the idea of appending the title “mystery” to any story that involves a crime. I think that definition is too expansive.

Bobby Earle -

Banacek will be getting a mention in Part Two. Stay tuned! As for Columbo, greatest television detective ever, bar none. He'll get a post of his own someday.

Ian -

Thanks for the encouragement!

wazza -

Pratchett is another hole in my education. He's on the list!

Alejandro -

I have read The Mystery of the Yellow Room albeit a long time ago. It will be turning up in Part Two as well. I remember enjoying it quite a bit, but still giving Carr the nod overall. As you probably know, Carr himself described Leroux's novel as the finest detective tale ever written during the locked room lecture.

Put Columbo and Rockford together and you might get as close to a real life detective, both in methodology and character, as anyone in TV land has yet to do. Been there, done that.

Locked rooms, and Carr especially, are a favorite of mine. I also like Edmund Crispin. Totally dissimilar, more comic, and breaks the fourth wall a lot. Start with The Moving Toyshop. He also published two sets of short story mysteries, which include one of my favorite "ah gotcha, you weren't paying attention..." solutions, Who Killed Baker?

As for character driven series, try Michael Dibdin's Aurelio Zen books. I started reading them last year, and have plowed through 5 or 6 already. The last novel in the series is set to come out this year, and sadly, it will be the last, as the author died in 2007. The publisher even changed the title of the last book to The Last Aurelio Zen Mystery instead of the original (which I can't recall now). Highly recommended.

You might enjoy Chandler's essay "The Simple Art of Murder," in which he explains why he prefers the hard-boiled school of detective fiction to locked-room logic puzzles.

Cody -

Where is that from?

It's from the Long Dark Teatime of the Soul by the late, great Douglas Adams