Locked Room Mysteries, Part II

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.


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Jonathon Creek was/is a good UK produced TV series you might like.

Locked room Mysteries are a subset of one of the 5 categories of Mystery Novels: The Puzzle Mystery. Several of these are further divided into subcategories:

1. The Puzzle Mystery

2. The Hard-boiled Mystery

3. The Straight Mystery

4. The Novel of Pursuit
a) the Spy Mystery
b) the Man-on-the-run Mystery
c) the Metaphysical Mystery
d) the Doomsday Mystery

5. The Whodunnit
a) the Sociopolitical Mystery
b) the Private Eye Mystery
c) the Psychological Mystery
d) the Mechanistic Mystery
e) the Vigilante Mystery
f) the Caper Mystery
g) the Camp Mystery
h) the Period Mystery

Each of these is defined, with examples, in the Dictionary or Definitions page of my subdomain of Magic Dragon Multimedia pages: The Ultimate Mystery/Detective Web Guide.

The locked room need not be a prison cell as such. For example:

Lockup: A temporary detention facility. While in lockup, the prisoner
is photographed and fingerprinted. Each Chicago district station has a
male lockup, while each district headquarters has both a male and
female lockup.
[Chicago Police Department, unofficial]

Isaac Asimov particularly liked this form, he told me.

I second Jonathan Creek. A British TV series about a guy who designs illusions for a stage magician, and solves bafling crimes in his spare time; locked rooms a specialty.

A man with arthritis so severe he can't pick up a glass is found shot in a fall-out shelter 30 foot underground, locked from the inside.

A painting is stolen from an empty, closed room in the minute it takes to get the next group of schoolkids ready to go in

A purported alien corpse goes missing from a moving truck filled with military guards.

Great stuff.

This pose has made me want to go back to mystery novels, which I gave up some years ago.

I also enjoyed Jonathan Creek ... the puzzle was always ingenious, and the solution generally satisfying. Don't know why BBC have not made a few more.

Good list.

I wonder why you didn't include Chesterton's Father Brown stories, which almost always feature some sort of impossible crime, often a locked room. Some classic examples are "The Invisible Man", "The Absence of Mr Glass", and "The Miracle of Moon Crescent". Maybe you just can't stand the philosophy? ;)

I would also mention S.S. Van Dine's The Kennel Murder Case, which features a nice discussion of several methods to lock a door from the outside.

By Alejandro (not verified) on 15 Jul 2008 #permalink

Thanks for all the recommendations. No slight toward Chesterton was intended. I mitted him simply because I've only read one or two of his stories. Jonathon Creek sounds great. The first two seasons have now been added to my Netflix queue.

I'm less interested in the literature as I am in how you managed to produce that list ;) Is it just a great memory, or do you actually actively keep track of this sort of trivia with a system of some sort?

And do you have a fetish for locked room mysteries, or can you produce a list of that depth on any literary subject?

Good list, but as a fan of the old TV series Banacek I consider your criticism of the show and especially that it had "an incredibly unlikable lead character" as wildy subjective if not preposterous. Personally it was the "unlikeable" Banacek which was the strength of the show.

My brain must be irretrievably polluted with sci-fi. I read the "Thinking Machine" dialog quote before I read Jason's description and was seriously pleased to see a mystery with a robot in it.

But now that I think about it, maybe The Cube would count as a sci-fi locked room mystery of sorts. (I watched one afternoon while terminally bored and it turned out to be alright, if goofy.)

The Jonathan Creek show sounds good too. I will definitely check that out too. Fun! This topic was a swell idea, Jason. It's a nice intro to the genre for a newcomer. I only wished I'd read this instead of that damn PZ wafer fiasco.

I think you can cut Poe some slack, seeing as he pioneered the genre of Locked Room Mysteries to begin with. An animal culprit might be a cliche in 2008, but that doesn't mean it was in 1841. In fact, the animal culprit might be obvious today BECAUSE the earliest examples of the genre used it (i.e. many subsequent writers imitated Poe). To criticize Poe for using the "obvious" way out of the locked room is falling prey to the "pull of the recent", in a sense. The animal culprit wouldn't have been so "obvious" over 160 years ago, when "locked room mystery" wasn't even a genre yet, because people 160 years ago weren't living 160 years after Poe.

He wasn't criticizing Poe, just pointing out that the solutions he and Doyle offer will seem dated to the modern reader, as they often do. I have the same problem sometimes with Christie.

Leni, you are clearly one fucked mother.

Jorge Luis Borges once wrote an essay arguing that Poe invented the mystery reader, as a person familiar with the conventions of the genre he inaugurated interprets stories in a fundamentally different way. (Naturally, then, the stories which set up those conventions for the first time appear, ahem, less than innovative today.) For an example, he goes through the opening of Don Quixote, parsing it as a reader of mysteries would — the result is pretty damn funny.

Further on Poe, I'm reading a locked room book now, The Clue of the New Pin by Edgar Wallace. It's on the wikipedia list you referenced earlier. Anyway, this book was written in 1923, and includes the following passage, after the detective and a reporter have investigated the ventilation leading to the locked room, an underground vault:

"Still, if we could suppose that the ventilator was removable, we might have taken a leaf from Edgar Allen Poe and thought seriously of a trained monkey being introduced"

Eighty-five years ago, the animal thing was already passe. No big deal, I just thought it was timely.

You're probably right. I may have misread what Jason was saying. The first time I read it, it sounded dismissive. But now that I go back and read it, with your comment in mind, I realize it isn't really that bad.

Borges is awesome. One of my favorite professors turned me onto him when I was an undergrad (and writing a thesis on Poe, actually). Since then I've tried loaning out his books to friends to get them interested, but unfortunately they always handed it back to me shortly thereafter and said they didn't "get" it. Sigh.

Oh, yeah, now that Leni mentions it, both Clarke and Asimov made forays into mystery stories. Clarke wrote several short stories, and Asimov's The Caves Of Steel and subsequent novels are detective stories set in his Robots universe... also the Susan Calvin stories, which often posed a mystery based around the Three Laws.

As one who nearly flunked out of grad school as a result of hopeless addiction to John Dickson Carr/Carter Dickson mysteries I thank you for your wonderful posts. Now that I'm safely retired I can reread those books without guilt.

Okay, I'm back. Thanks for all the comments.

Michael -

Glad your impressed! That particular list was done mostly from memory, and, yes, it would be fair to say I have a fetish for locked room mysteries. On the other hand, perusing the Wikipedia list made me realize that I'm actually not especially well read in the genre.

Doug -

Guess we'll have to agree to disagree about Mr. Banacek. To me it seemed like he was only in it for the money, was insufferably arrogant towards his chauffeur and fellow insurance investigators, and was especially unpleasant towards that female colleague that was brought it for a few episodes as a potential love interest. But as I said in the post, I still enjoyed the show despite its weaknesses.

Leni -

I saw The Cube. It was OK, but as I recall no explanation was given for how they all got into the cube. The main thing I remember about the movie was a character said to be mathematically gifted struggling to determine whether a four digit number that ended in 5 was prime. Ugh.

Wes -

As Chris pointed out, it was not my intention to slight Poe. Quite the contrary, I consider myself a great admirer of his. Rereading what I wrote, I did not mean to imply that using an animal killer was unimaginative when he wrote it. Simply that to use such a trick today would be considered rather unimpressive.

wazza -

I'm a huge fan of everything Asimov, and I have read most of his mysteries. The Black Widower Stories certainly had their moments. I was a bit disappointed with Murder at the ABA, however.

fyreflye -

LOL! I did most of my Carr reading in graduate school too.

Jason wrote:

I saw The Cube. It was OK, but as I recall no explanation was given for how they all got into the cube. The main thing I remember about the movie was a character said to be mathematically gifted struggling to determine whether a four digit number that ended in 5 was prime. Ugh.

As far as I remember there was no explanation for why they were chosen. But that was part of the mystery. There was no rational explanation for why they were there. Forrest Gump + The Trial + pointless engineering busywork that ultimately results in a vast web (or cube) of unfathomable nihilism.

Nevertheless, the characters did the best they could with with they had. Overall, I think the message could be worse, silly plot device involving an improbable savant and prime numbers notwithstanding.

Leni, don't you mean unfathomable nihilistic motherfuckers?

I recently saw the remake of _The Thomas Crown Affair_; the insurance investigator reminded me quite a bit of Banacek. The original was 1968--I wouldn't be too surprised if Banacek borrowed quite a bit from it (I probably saw the original on tv; I don't remember much from it other than the theme song).

I remember thinking Banacek was incredibly cool back when the show was first on the air--I wasn't nearly as impressed when A&E was showing the repeats a few years back. Times change; I guess people do, too.

By david rickel (not verified) on 22 Jul 2008 #permalink

Thanks for the listings and reviews. I'm a reader of mysteries that have the flavor and depth of novels, and look forward to some of the titles you mention. On my blog is a short story by an anonymous source that explores the social setting of an elderly apartment building...in which two residents are found together, murdered, in a locked room, in a building isolated by a storm. It features Inspector Boss Van Aken and His Canaan Dog Nerek...