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Locked room mystery

The locked room mystery is a sub-genre of detective fiction wherein a crime such as murder is committed under apparently impossible circumstances—typically involving a crime scene that no intruder could have entered or exited (thus locked room). Following other conventions of classic detective fiction, the reader is normally presented with the puzzle and all of the clues, and is thus encouraged to solve the mystery before the solution is revealed in a dramatic dénouement.

The set up of a locked room typically centers on a room in which a death has occurred under suspicious circumstances which suggest murder. And yet the physical circumstances of the room resist an interpretation of murder due to the apparent impossibility of any perpetrator entering or leaving the room undetected. The concept can be broadened to encompass the "sealed site" where the impossibility derives from the scene's pristine condition, e.g. the ground around the crimes scene is covered with new snow with no trace of human disturbance.

To investigators of the crime, the prima facie impression almost invariably is that the perpetrator has vanished into thin air. The need for a rational explanation for the crime is what drives the protagonist to look beyond the appearances and solve the puzzle.

History

Though the mystery or detective genre was not established until the 19th century, there are notable predecessors in ancient writings. The apocryphal Biblical story of Bel and the Dragon has some similarities to locked room mysteries. In the 5th century BCE, Herodotus told the tale of the robber whose headless body was found in a sealed stone chamber with only one guarded exit. Honoré de Balzac in La Comedie Humaine: Maitre Cornelius (1846) and Alexandre Dumas, père in Les Mohicans de Paris: La Visite Domiciliaire (1854) may also be said to have included locked room elements in their novels, but the earliest full-fledged example of this type of story — indeed the first classic detective story — is generally held to be Edgar Allan Poe's "The Murders in the Rue Morgue," which appeared in 1841. After Poe, a number of authors, including Joseph Conrad and Sheridan Le Fanu, Wilkie Collins and Dick Donovan tried their hand at the new genre, but their ingenuity only extended to secret passages, duplicate keys and diabolical mechanical devices. It was not until 1892, in Israel Zangwill's seminal The Big Bow Mystery that the hallmark of every great impossible crime - misdirection - made its appearance, introducing a murder technique much emulated since. The other great early work, Le Mystère de la Chambre Jaune (The Mystery of the Yellow Room), was written in 1907 by French journalist and author, Gaston Leroux and it, too, has had many imitators.

In the Golden Age of Detective Fiction impossible crimes were mainly solved by brilliant amateur sleuths who were inexplicably given free rein by Scotland Yard and, to a markedly lesser extent, the New York Police Department; puzzling mysteries were solved by sheer reasoning and brain power. Such creators of famous Anglo-Saxon amateur detectives as Jacques Futrelle, Thomas and Mary Hanshew, G. K. Chesterton, Carolyn Wells, John Dickson Carr, C. Daly King and Joseph Commings turned out impossible crimes in vast quantities, as did Christianna Brand, Agatha Christie, Ellery Queen, Clayton Rawson and Hake Talbot to a lesser degree. Authors such as Nigel Morland and Anthony Wynne, whose output leaned more toward science-based detective stories, also tried their hand at impossible mysteries.

In French, Pierre Boileau, Thomas Narcejac, Gaston Boca, Marcel Lanteaume, Pierre Very, Noel Vindry and the Belgian Stanislas-Andre Steeman were other important impossible crime writers, Vindry being the most prolific with 16 novels. Edgar Faure, later to become Prime Minister of France, was a not particularly successful contemporary.

During the Golden Age, English-speaking writers dominated the genre, but after the 1940s there was a general waning of English-language output. French authors continued into the 1950s and early 1960s, notably Martin Meroy and Boileau-Narcejac who joined forces to write several locked-room novels and also the psychological thrillers which brought them international fame, two of which were adapted for the screen as Vertigo and Diabolique. But the most prolific writer during the period immediately following the Golden Age was Japanese: Akimitsu Takagi wrote almost 30 locked-room mysteries, starting in 1949 and continuing to his death in 1995. Regrettably, only one, The Tattoo Murder Case, has so far been translated into English.

Since the 1970s Bill Pronzini's Nameless detective has solved many a locked-room puzzle, but the prize for the most prolific creator of impossible crimes must be Edward D. Hoch, whose signature detective is a country physician, Dr. Sam Hawthorne; one Ed Hoch story has appeared in EQMM every month since May 1973 the majority of which are impossible crimes. Even today, the current occidental masters of the genre, Hoch and the Frenchman Paul Halter, still feature gifted amateur detectives who use pure brainpower to solve their cases.

The Japanese writer Soji Shimada has been writing impossible crime stories since 1981 and has created 13 to date. The first, The Tokyo Zodiac Murders, is the only one to have been translated into English so far. From the limited sample available to English readers, the Japanese themes are far more grisly than those of the genteel Anglo-Saxons. Dismemberment is the preferred method in the aforementioned two stories, with, in one case, the incomplete bodies of six girls being scattered across Japan. Despite the gore, the norms of the classic detective fiction novel are strictly followed.

The French writer Paul Halter, whose output of over 30 novels is almost exclusively locked room, has been hailed as the natural successor to John Dickson Carr. Although strongly influenced by Carr and Christie, his style is his own and he can stand comparison with anyone for the originality of his plots and puzzles and his atmospheric writing. A collection of ten of his short stories entitled The Night of the Wolf is now available in English.

Locked room mysteries have now also seen success on TV; for example, in the UK TV series Jonathan Creek, the eponymous detective (whose regular job is designing conjuring tricks) regularly solves apparently impossible murders.

Examples

The following are examples of "impossible" or "locked-room" crimes:

  • Edgar Allan Poe's "The Murders in the Rue Morgue"
  • A British secretary is blackmailed. Investigations commence, newspapers report, Scotland Yard offers protection. Even though the assassins precisely predict the secretary's death, the vast police force protecting him at the time and place announced by the assassins cannot prevent the murder. The secretary is alone in a room, locked from within and protected from without. The room is empty of all but the murdered man and even upon finding the corpse, it cannot be determined what the man died of. ( The Four Just Men, first in a series of novels by Edgar Wallace)
  • The victim is walking alone in the middle of a snow-covered street. A voice is heard to threaten him, and a shot rings out. An examination of his body shows the shot was fired from close range, but no killer is to be seen and no other footprints are found on the scene. The Hollow Man (U.S. title: The Three Coffins), a novel by John Dickson Carr)
  • A man is found on a rock with his throat cut in the middle of a footprint-free stretch of sand wet from the receding tide. The crime is so recent that the victim's blood has not yet clotted, yet the occupants of a fishing boat less than away swear they saw nobody approach the rock for hours. (Have His Carcase. a novel by Dorothy L. Sayers)
  • A man is seen committing a crime by several witnesses, and is found dead later. Examination of the body indicates he was already dead before the crime was committed. (The Amorous Corpse, a short story by Peter Lovesey;Captain Leopold and the Ghost-Killer, a short story by Edward D. Hoch)
  • A man dies in a room at the top of a tower in a Scottish castle that is believed to be haunted. Despite evidence showing the people had no reason to kill themselves, they are shown to have been alone at the time of the murder. (The Case of the Constant Suicides, a novel by John Dickson Carr)
  • A man is shot and disfigured beyond recognition with a sawed-off shotgun in an impregnable castle, to which the only entrance is sealed. (Arthur Conan Doyle's The Valley of Fear, the third novel featuring Sherlock Holmes. Other Holmes "Locked Room" mysteries are The Adventure of the Speckled Band;The Adventure of the Crooked Man; The Adventure of the Resident Patient)
  • A man is shot in a guarded room, and the still-smoking gun was delivered next door in a sealed envelope prior to the shots being fired. (The X Street Murders, a short story by Joseph Commings)
  • The murderer is seen entering a room by a witness, but when the room is opened only the corpse of the victim is to be found. (The Hollow Man)
  • A man volunteers to spend the night in an attic room reputedly haunted by the spirit of a woman stabbed to death there in impossible circumstances. The door is sealed. When the seals are broken, a complete stranger lies there dead from stab wounds and the other man has vanished. (La Quatrieme Porte)
  • A man is found dead, and his wife dying, in a room locked from the inside. She had been able to call for help after shots were heard. There is no gun in the room and a search reveals no other person present. (Six Crimes Sans Assassin)
  • A woman is found dead in a room with her ex-husband, with the gun that killed her in his hand. Although the gun is proven to have killed her, her ex-husband is a detective whom the reader has grown to trust over a long series of short stories featuring him as the explainer of locked room mysteries. (The Leopold Locked Room, a short story by Edward D. Hoch)
  • A man is stabbed to death in a summer house to which every access route is guarded and in which no weapon is to be found. (The Oracle of the Dog, a short story by G. K. Chesterton)
  • A horse and buggy vanish in a covered bridge. Their tracks can be seen going in to the bridge, but none come out on the other side. (The Problem of the Covered Bridge, a short story by Edward D. Hoch)
  • The audience is allowed to inspect the magician's cabinet from all sides before he steps inside to perform his vanishing trick and the curtain descends. When the curtain goes up again, the magician is still in the cabinet – strangled. (Death by Black Magic, a short story by Joseph Commings)
  • The drunken brother of a billionaire industrialist fires an empty gun in the direction of his brother, who is some distance away sealed inside a safe-room. At that precise moment, the industrialist is shot, and no gun can be found in the sealed and guarded room. (The King is Dead, a novel by Ellery Queen.)
  • Two people are found shot to death at point-blank range inside a room locked on the inside. No gun is found in the room, and no bullets are found in either body. See the True Crime section.

Authors and works

The acknowledged master of the locked-room sub-genre was John Dickson Carr, who also wrote as Carter Dickson. His novel The Hollow Man is considered by many to be the finest locked room mystery novel of all time — although Carr himself names Gaston Leroux's The Mystery of the Yellow Room as his favourite. The Hollow Man gives an explicatory recipe for crime writers: Chapter 17 of the book consists of a theoretical digression entitled "The Locked-Room Lecture". In it, Dr Gideon Fell (the detective) gives an extensive explanation of how the murderer is able to deceive everyone else (at least until the riddle is finally solved). How, for example, Fell asks, can the perpetrator create the impression of a hermetically sealed chamber when in fact it is not? What means are there of tampering with a door so that it seems to be locked on the inside? This is just one of the answers — and, as it happens, the most simple one — given by Fell:

... An illusion, simple but effective. The murderer, after committing his crime, has locked the door from the outside and kept the key. It is assumed, however, that the key is still in the lock on the inside. The murderer, who is first to raise a scare and find the body, smashes the upper glass panel of the door, puts his hand through with the key concealed in it, and finds the key in the lock inside, by which he opens the door. This device has also been used with the breaking of a panel out of an ordinary wooden door.

There are six other categories of locked room as expounded by Dr. Fell. Clayton Rawson in Death from a Top Hat describes nine. Anthony Boucher in Nine Times Nine and Derek Smith in Whistle Up the Devil are two other authors to offer a comprehensive overview of locked-room methods. The reader is warned: while these lectures may well be erudite and educational in their own right, their true purpose in each case is to divert attention from the method actually used in the book.

Classic specimens of the genre are listed below, alphabetically by category

This is not intended to be exhaustive, but a selection of each listed author's best. For a complete list consult Locked Room Murders or Chambres Closes, Crimes Impossibles

English-language novels

English-language short stories and novellas

French-language novels

  • Jean Alessandrini's La Quadrature de meurtre (2006)
  • Gaston Boca's L'Ombre sur le jardin (1933)
  • Pierre Boileau's Le Repos de Bacchus (1938) and Six crimes sans assassin (1939) - which contains no less than 6 impossible murders
  • Boileau-Narcejac's Les Magiciennes (1957) and L'Ingenieur Aimait Trop Les Chiffres (1959)
  • Gensoul, A. & Grenier, C.'s La Mort vient de nulle part (1945)
  • Paul Halter's La Quatrieme Porte (1987); Le Cercle Invisible (1996); and Les Sept Merveilles du Crime (1997) in which Monsieur Halter baffles his readers with an astonishing 7 impossible crimes.
  • Herbert, M. & Wyl, E.'s La Maison interdite
  • Marcel Lanteaume's La Treizieme balle (1942) and Trompe l'oeil (1946)
  • Gaston Leroux's The Mystery of the Yellow Room (1907)
  • Thomas Narcejac's L'Assassin de Minuit (1945) and La Mort est du Voyage (1948)
  • Noel Vindry's La Maison Qui Tue (1932), La Bete Hurlante (1934) and A Travers les Murailles (1937)

French-language short stories

  • Pierre Boileau's "La Main qui referma la porte" (1956)
  • Boileau-Narcejac's "Au Bois Dormant" (1956)
  • Paul Halter's The Night of the Wolf(2006) collection, three of which short stories: "The Call of the Lorelei," "The Tunnel of Death," "The Night of the Wolf," have been published in English in EQMM, together with a fourth: "The Robber's Grave" (2007)
  • Maurice Leblanc's Therese and Germaine (1922)

Japanese-language novels

  • NISIOISIN's Death Note: Another Note - The Los Angeles BB Murder Cases a.k.a. The L.A. Serial Locked Room Killings (2008)
  • Soji Shimada's The Tokyo Zodiac Murders (1981)
  • Akimitsu Takagi's The Tattoo Murder Case (1948)

For a detailed and comprehensive historical review of the field, together with descriptions of over 2000 novels and short stories featuring impossible crimes, consult Robert Adey's exhaustive bibliography Locked Room Murders (1979 and 1991) which is the definitive work on the subgenre.

French-speaking readers may consult Chambres Closes, Crimes Impossibles(1997), edited by Soupart, Fooz and Bourgeois or, for a more detailed analysis of a more limited number of works, Roland Lacourbe's 99 Chambres Closes.

Japanese-speaking enthusiasts may enjoy An Illustrated Guide to the Locked Room 1891-1998 (text by Alice Arisugawa and illustrations by Kazuichi Isoda) which contains summaries of 40 novels and short stories, 20 of which are Anglo-Saxon classics – the other 20 being Japanese classics from 1924 to the present day. A striking feature of the book is the double-page graphic explanation of each problem.

In early 2007 Roland Lacourbe formed a panel of like-minded enthusiasts to recommend a list of the best 99 novels to form the nucleus of a locked room library. The results can be found via the external link A Locked Room Library.

Radio, television and film

  • In the 1940s and '50s John Dickson Carr wrote a series of radio plays for the BBC's Appointment with Fear, and subsequently for CBS' Suspense series. Recordings of these plays are readily available on CD and the transcripts of many can be found in two collections: The Door to Doom and The Dead Sleep Lightly, both edited by Douglas G. Greene.
  • Blacke's Magic featured a magician who used his skills to solve seemingly magical events.
  • Jonathan Creek, not a magician himself but a designer of magic tricks, featured in a BBC UK television series in which almost every episode featured an impossible crime.
  • Banacek was an American television series about an investigator specializing in locked-room thefts and other seemingly impossible mysteries.
  • The TV series Monk (starring Tony Shalhoub) featured several locked room puzzles.
  • The most recent television-based incarnation of Ellery Queen contained a number of locked room puzzles and impossible crimes (including The Adventure of Caesar's Last Sleep).
  • Other television series have contained locked-room episodes:
  • The movies Flightplan and Fracture both contain variations on the locked room mystery. In the former, a child disappears from an airplane in the middle of a flight; in the latter, the killer manages to make the murder weapon disappear despite his house being entirely surrounded by police.
  • Ayatsuri Sakon is an Japanese anime series about Tachibana Sakon, a student and a traditional bunraku performer (a style of traditional Japanese theatre employing very detailed life-sized puppets). In his spare time, though, he is an amateur sleuth. And his partner in his investigations is his red-haired, loud-mouthed puppet, Ukon. Together they run into locked room murders and solve them.
  • Tantei Gakuen Q/Detective Academy Q is the story of a group of young students from Class Q of Dan Detective School (DDS), a prestigious and renowned detective academy founded by Morihiko Dan, the most famous detective in Japan, and the adventures and mysteries they unfold and solve together. Almost every case has a locked room mystery or other type of impossible crime. (episodes 33 and 34 are an homage to John Dickson Carr and two of his Carter Dickson novels are mentioned.)
  • Ayumu Narumi solves a locked room mystery in the second episode of Spiral: The Bonds of Reasoning.
  • In the McMillan and Wife episode, Guilt by Association, the chief must solve the murder of a jury member sequestered in a guarded room of a high-rise hotel.

Pulp magazines

The pulp magazines in the 1930s often contained impossible crime tales, dubbed weird menace, in which a series of supernatural or science-fictional looking events is eventually explained rationally. Notable practitioners of the period were Fredric Brown, Paul Chadwick and, to a certain extent, Cornell Woolrich, although these writers tended to avoid the private eyes that many readers today associate with pulp fiction. For further information on the subject, consult Mike Grost's Guide to Classic Mystery and Detection.

Comic books/graphic novels

Quite a few comic book impossible crimes seem to draw on the 'weird menace' tradition of the pulps. However, celebrated writers such as G. K. Chesterton, Arthur Conan Doyle, Clayton Rawson and Sax Rohmer have had their works adapted to comic book form. In 1934, Dashiell Hammett created the comic strip Secret Agent X9, illustrated by Alex Raymond, which contained a locked-room episode, albeit a rather feeble one. One American comic book that made good use of locked room mysteries is Mike W. Barr's Maze Agency.

French-speaking culture has long respected the comic book as a form of art in its own right, and it should come as no surprise that there are many comic books which feature impossible crimes. No less a figure than Tintin himself has tackled a locked-room mystery in Le Sceptre d'Ottokar. The many adventures of the journalist Ric Hochet are replete with impossible crimes, for example: L'Assassin Fantome, Les Spectres de la Nuit, and La Nuit des Vampires.

Manga also has its locked-room adherents, such as the series Detective Conan written by Gosho Aoyama, which appears in English as Case Closed; notable locked-room issues are #3, #6, #7. A similar series, Kindaichi Case Files, features a locked room mystery in almost every story. Many of these are original, ingenious and meticulously explained; early examples are The Opera House Murders, Death TV and Smoke and Mirrors.

True crimes

  • Alfred Russel Wallace described events occurring in the Baltic in 1844: "During the disturbances at the Cemetery of Ahrensburg in the island of Oesel, where coffins were overturned in locked vaults, and the case was investigated by an official commission, the horses of country people visiting the cemetery were often so alarmed and excited that they became covered with sweat and foam. Sometimes they threw themselves on the ground where they struggled in apparent agony, and, notwithstanding the immediate resort to remedial measures, several died within a day or two. In this case, as in so many others, although the commission made a most rigid investigation and applied the strictest tests, no natural cause for the disturbances was ever discovered.
  • George Colvocoresses, captain of the USS Saratoga during the American Civil War was, according to his biography, mysteriously murdered in Bridgeport, Connecticut on June 3, 1872 while on his way to New York. According to his great-great-granddaughter, however, his insurers later alleged that his death was a suicide, as the bullet wound he suffered was conveyed at close range through his heart, without the bullet penetrating his outer garments. It remains unexplained why, if this were the case, he would choose the busiest time of day on a busy street, nor why his shirt remained tucked in his trousers after death.
  • Herr Konrad was a merchant in Berlin in the 1880s. His wife and five children were found dead in their cellar. The ponderous cellar door had no keyhole or any space around the molding, and was securely bolted on the inside. There was not the slightest aperture anywhere and the door fitted so tightly around the frame that a piece of paper could not have been passed through any crevice. However, the examining magistrate, using a powerful lens, eventually found a barely discernible hole just above the bolt on the inside of the door. There was no corresponding hole on the outside, but he found a small spot where the paint seemed fresher. Inserting a heated hatpin through the hole on the inside, he pushed out a hole in the exact centre of the painted spot. A piece of horsehair and a slight film of wax were found attached to the hatpin. Konrad had bored a tiny hole through the door above the bolt, looped a piece of horsehair over the bolt's knob, and slipped the two ends through the hole. By pulling upwards on the bolt-knob until the horsehair loop was disengaged, he was able to withdraw the horsehair through the hole, which he then filled up with wax and painted over. Konrad was executed; it was said he got the idea from a mystery novel. (K. Bernstein, "Der Merkwürdige Fall Konrad.") The murderer in Edgar Wallace's The Clue of the New Pin uses Konrad's technique.
  • In 1898, Elisabeth, Empress of Austria-Hungary, was on the quay at Lake Geneva awaiting the steam ferry to Montreux when, without warning or apparent motive, the anarchist Luigi Lucheni plunged a needle file into her heart. Because of the very thin nature of the wound, the Empress did not realise that she had been fatally injured and walked unaided to her cabin, where she collapsed and soon died. It is not known whether she locked the cabin door behind her - which would have created the appearance of a locked room murder. At least one prominent French locked room expert, Roland Lacourbe, believes that this notorious event was the inspiration for Gaston Leroux's The Mystery of the Yellow Room and it also bears an unmistakable resemblance to the central crime in Maurice Leblanc's Therese and Germaine. In Georgette Heyer's Envious Casca, the villain took his inspiration directly from an account of Empress Elizabeth's death.
  • According to a report in the The New York Times, March 10 and 11, 1929, Isidore Fink, of 4 East 132nd Street, New York City, was in his Fifth Avenue Laundry on the night of March 9, 1929 with the windows closed and door of the room bolted. A neighbor heard screams and the sound of blows (but no shots) and called the police who were unable to get in. A young boy was lifted through the transom and was able to unbolt the door. On the floor lay Fink with two bullet wounds in his chest and one in his left wrist, which was powder-marked. He was dead. There was money in his pockets, and the cash register had not been touched. No weapon was found. The man had died instantly, or almost instantly. There was a theory that the murderer had crawled through the transom. But to do so he would have had to be no bigger than a small boy and would have had to leave the same way, as the door was bolted. Another theory had the murderer firing through the transom, but Fink's wrist was powder-burned, indicating that he had not been fired at from a distance. More than two years later, Police Commissioner Mulrooney, in a radio-talk, called this murder, in a closed room, an "insoluble mystery." The crime was said to have inspired William March's "The Bird House" and Ben Hecht's "The Mystery of the Fabulous Laundryman."
  • On the 16th of May 1937, Laetitia Toureaux was found stabbed to death in an otherwise empty 1st class compartment of the Paris Metro. The subway train had left the terminus, Porte de Charenton, at 6:27 p.m. and had arrived at the next station, Porte Dorée, at 6:28 p.m. Witnesses at both stations swore nobody was seen getting in or out of the compartment, and witnesses in both adjacent compartments swore that nobody had tried to enter the one where Mlle. Toureaux's body was found. The murderer had one minute and twenty seconds at his disposal. Neither the method nor the murderer was ever discovered.

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