Monday, December 7, 2009

Locked Rooms and Other Impossible Mysteries

Well-written crime fiction offers the reader more than just engaging characters and a suspenseful plot. High-quality mystery novels also offer the reader an intellectual challenge. Sometimes that challenge is figuring out who, among the many suspects, killed the victim. Many police procedurals present that kind of challenge. The police look for evidence that leads them to the murderer, and the reader’s challenge is to put the clues together before the police do. Another kind of challenge, though, is figuring out how a crime could have been committed. There are several variations on what’s sometimes called the “locked room” motif, and they provide both the sleuth and the reader with a fascinating kind of challenge. How, exactly, could the murder have been committed? Since all of the suspects (if there are any) are accounted for, how did one of them manage the crime?

Sometimes, the victim appears to have been alone, sometimes even literally, in a locked room, when the crime is committed. That’s what happens in Agatha Christie’s Dead Man’s Mirror, a short story that appears in her Murder in the Mews collection. Sir Gervase Chevenix-Gore, an eccentric and very family-proud patriarch, is afraid that someone in his family may be cheating him. He summons Hercule Poirot to his family home for the week-end to find out if his suspicions are correct. On the night Poirot arrives, Sir Gervase is found in his study, the apparent victim of suicide. The study is locked, and the key to the door is found in Sir Gervase’s pocket, so the murderer couldn’t have used the door. The French windows that give on the garden are also locked, so the murderer couldn’t have used the window, either. Chevenix-Gore’s family and friends agree, too, that while it’s highly unlikely, given Sir Gervase’s high opinion of himself, that he would have committed suicide, he was also slightly mad, so everyone believes that Sir Gervase has committed suicide. Two clues, though, lead Poirot to the conclusion that Sir Gervase was murdered.

Ellery Queen’s The King is Dead has a similar “locked room” motif. In that novel, Queen and his father, Inspector Richard Queen, are brought to Bendigo Island, the private property of munitions tycoon “King” Bendigo. Bendigo’s received threatening letters, and he wants the Queens to find out who’s been sending them. One night, Bendigo is shot while he and his wife, Karla, are alone in his hermetically-sealed private office. The room is locked, and a thorough search of both it and the two Bendigos yields no sign of the gun. Moreover, Karla claims that her husband didn’t shoot himself, and the evidence shows that he didn’t. There’s no gunpowder on Karla’s hands or clothes, so she couldn’t have fired the gun, either. Bendigo’s brother Judah had threatened his brother’s life, and actually fired a gun at the same moment that Bendigo was shot. However, Judah was with Queen in another room the entire evening, including the time of the murder, so Queen knows that he didn’t enter his brother’s office. As if that weren’t enough, Judah’s gun had no bullets in it. This intellectual puzzle is almost as interesting as the truth behind why Bendigo was threatened and shot.

Edward D. Hoch’s short story The Oblong Room is another classic example of a locked-room mystery. Again, this story features a victim found within a room that is literally locked up. In that story, Captain Leopold, a Connecticut police chief, is called to the local university campus, where the body of Ralph Rollings has been found with stab wounds. His roommate, Tom McBern, is found in the room, too, and has apparently been there with the body for two days. Captain Leopold tries to unravel the mystery behind McBern’s odd behavior, but at first, nobody’s talking, including a girl they both liked, and friends of both young men. When Leopold finally unravels this “locked-room” mystery, the motive for the murder, and the story behind it, provide the real surprise.

Shelly Reuben’s Spent Matches is another interesting example of a “locked room” or impossible mystery. This novel focuses on Zigfield’s Folly, a New York art gallery. Wegman Zigfield, the gallery’s owner, is upset when his son arranges for the gallery to display the work of Sarkin Zahedi, an artist for whom Zigfield has nothing but contempt. One night, five of Zahedi’s pieces go up in flames in the gallery, and arson investigator Wylie Nolan is called in to investigate the crime. What he finds is that the paintings were destroyed, but the frames were left more or less intact. Moreover, despite the fire, the smoke and fire sensors were never activated. To make matters more challenging, the state-of-the-art security system shows that no-one entered the gallery that night. This novel also features two other fire investigations, but this is the one that’s the most challenging for Wylie. He’s got several suspects, including Zigfield, Jiri Hozda, the Zigfield's associate director, and Jiri Hozda, the Zigfield's associate director, and museum assistant Camden Kimcannon. All three have reasons for objecting to Zahedi’s show.

Sometimes, the “locked room” scenario is more figurative than literal. In those cases, there’s a limited number of suspects and the circumstances of the murder make it hard to see how the murder could have been committed without someone seeing. That’s the case in several Agatha Christie novels. I’ll just mention three of them. In Death in the Clouds (AKA Death in the Air), Hercule Poirot is on a flight en route from Paris to London. During the flight, one of his fellow passengers, French moneylender Madame Giselle, is murdered by what turns out to be poisoned thorn. The only possible suspects are the other passengers in the cabin, and none of them was seen aiming a dart at Madame Giselle, nor even approaching her. The method that the killer used, and the way in which Poirot finds out how and by whom the murder was committed are both fascinating.

That’s also true in Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express, in which a wealthy American businessman is murdered while traveling to London on the famous Orient Express train. Because the cars are locked at night, and because the conductors are on twenty-four hour duty, the only suspects are the other people traveling in the same coach as the murdered man. What’s particularly complex about this puzzle is that each of the suspects has an alibi that’s corroborated by at least one other person, and many of the suspects are complete strangers to each other. So at first, it seems that some outsider must have gotten on board the train at one of its stops. However, since the murder occurs while the train is snowbound between stations, that doesn’t seem possible, either. This is one of Christie’s most challenging puzzles, and still one of her most popular works.

There’s a similar challenge in Christie’s And Then There Were None (AKA Ten Little Indians). That novel takes place on Indian Island, a bleak island off the Devon coast. Ten people have been lured to the island through different means. Shortly after they arrive, the guests realize that they’ve been brought to the island for another purpose. When, one by one, the guests are killed, it becomes clear that one of them is a murderer. Since they’re marooned on an island, there are very few places to hide, and it’s very unlikely that an outsider is doing the killing. Figuring out which one of the people on the island is the killer is one of Christie’s most challenging puzzles, and in fact, this story is said to have been Christie’s favorite of her novels.

My own B-Very Flat also takes up the question of how a murder could have been committed. In that novel, violin virtuosa Serena Brinkman dies suddenly of anaphylaxis on the night of a major music competition. Former police detective-turned-professor Joel Williams works with the local police to find out how and why Serena died. What they find is that there are only a few people who could have had the opportunity to poison Serena, and even fewer who could have removed the epinephrine she always carried.

There are, of course, many other "impossible" mysteries; I've only had space to mention a few. What’s your opinion of the “near impossible” or “locked room” scenario? Do you enjoy the intellectual challenge? Or do you find them too implausible?


  1. I offer you this variation on the locked room mystery puzzle: Council of the Cursed, which I reviewed at my blog (Novels, Stories, and More).

    Such puzzles are almost always entertaining, especially the ones you have cited and discussed. I rather suspect that mystery-crime writers will never abandon the locked room plot challenge.

  2. R.T. - Thank you for that suggestion! I'll be certain to read your review and check the book out. I agree completely that this type of mystery is enjoyable to read and write, and you're probably exactly right that it's always going to be an important variation on the mystery plot.

  3. Margot - what is B-Very Flat? Is that your new book?

  4. I love locked room mysteries! They are implausible, I guess, but so much fun. I haven't tried to write one, though--and I don't think I could, in a cozy.

    Mystery Writing is Murder

  5. The Swedish crime writing duo Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo produced a masterly book The Locked Room that is one of my favourites in the series. While Martin Beck solves the locked room mystery on his own, the rest of Stockholms's police are charging round after a pair of bank robbers.
    The book written in 1973 is full of brilliant passages including this one that I think summed up Sjowall and Wahloo's view of Sweden's socialist utopia :

    From this ultramodern colossus in the heart of Stockholm the police would extend their tentacles in every direction and hold the dispirited citizens of Sweden in an iron grip.
    At least some of them.
    After all, they couldn't all emigrate or commit suicide.

  6. Kerrie - Yes, B-Very Flat is my second Joel Williams mystery, and it's coming out in the early part of 2010 ('though I don't have a release date yet).

    Elizabeth - I enjoy "locked room" mysteries, too; they can, indeed, be really fun. I've never tried to write a literal "locked room" story, either; I imagine they're very difficult to write well. There are so many little details that have to be taken into consideration. Still, It's a really interesting and intellectually challenging kind of plot.

    Norman - Thanks for sharing that passage! That really is brilliantly written! I'm not really familiar with much Sjowall and Wahloo, but the title itself is intriguing and the plot sounds fascinating. I'm going to have to look for this book.

  7. Ah, Norman got here before me! I was going to suggest The Locked Room by Sjowall and Wahloo, which I read recently and enjoyed tremendously. I think my review is in the submitted queue at Euro Crime.

    And in a variant, "The second book in Martin Edwards's Lake District series is a variant on the classic "locked room" mystery, although events take place in the beauty of the north-west of England rather than in any dark cellars." (The first sentence of my Euro Crime review).

    I'm looking forward to your next book, Margot. Be sure to let us know when you get that pub date.

  8. I suppose I'm writing a figurative locked-room mystery; all the suspects are in one house and one of them manages to do the dreadful deed. The only creature who sees the murderer leaving the scene is a cat (whose tail forms a shadow of a question mark on the wall). Hence, my title of "Spy My Shadow" takes on yet another meaning! (trust me, there are several!)


  9. Maxine - You are absolutely right about The Cipher Garden. I'm glad you brought it up : ). Yet another case of me thinking of an example only after I'd posted. There's definitely a sense of a limited number of suspects and a "how could this have been managed" crime.

    Folks, Maxine's excellent review of Martin Edwards' The Cipher Garden is here. In a side note, I heartily recommend this novel myself. Edwards' entire Lake District series is well-written and compelling.

    Norman's excellent review of The Locked Room is here.

    Thanks also, Maxine, for your interest in B-Very Flat. As soon as I know when the book will be out, I'll let you know.

    Elspeth - Oh, how interesting that your novel is a variant on this theme! Now I'm more intrigued than ever (as though I weren't already!) to read it. May I please hover over your shoulder, urging you to finish so it can be published and I can read it? ; )

  10. I'm grateful for the generous words about my Lakes books; thank you. As for locked room mysteries, I'm a great fan of them. John Dickson Carr wrote many fine examples, and more recently the Jonathan Creek tv series has been crammed with great locked room scenarios.

  11. Martin - My pleasure; your Lakes books really are fabulous. Thanks for bringing up Carr's works; they're truly classics, and have such wonderful intellectual puzzles in them. I have to admit I've not seen the Jonathan Creek series, but it sounds intriguing : ).

  12. I enjoy locked room mysteries, in small doses. I couldn't exist on a steady diet of this type of scenario. I haven't seen one in a very long time, not since I finished my second or third read of all the Agatha Christie novels. So I'm ready for a new one. When do we get to read "B-Very Flat"? I can't wait!

  13. Bobbi - How kind of you! B-Very Flat should come out early in 2010. I don't have a publication date yet, but when I do, I'll let you know.

    I agree with you that there are so many other excellent kinds of mysteries that reading just "locked room" mysteries is a bit much. They can be intriguing, though, and Christie could certainly do them well.