This is the original edit of my piece on locked room mysteries for the Guardian newspaper that I published in January. I explain how I got hooked on the genre and why I wanted to write one of these in the first place. The piece below is longer than the original newspaper article with a little more exposition on my favourite books and my 'rules' about what makes a good locked-roomer...
My Ten Favourite Locked-Room Mystery Novels
When I was ten years old I remember the first proper mystery novel that I read. It was a paperback of Agatha's Christie early classic Murder on the Orient Express. Orient Express, you’ll recall, is the one where everyone did it, which delighted me no end and I was immediately hooked. I began to work my way through the other Agatha Christies at Belfast Central library and it was probably the sympathetic librarian there who put into my hands The Murders In The Rue Morgue, the first real locked-room mystery that I came across.
Since Rue Morgue I’ve read dozens of locked-roomers (or ‘impossible murders’ as some prefer to call them) and I have developed firm opinions about the genre. I have no truck whatsoever with the ones that have a supernatural solution or where the author doesn’t give you enough information to solve the case for yourself. Some purists don’t like locked-room problems that involve magician’s tricks (a staple of Jonathan Creek for example) but I’m of the opinion that as long as the mechanics of the trick are explained to the reader (or viewer) well before the solution, these can be permissible.
A locked-room problem lies at the heart of my new novel, In The Morning I’ll Be Gone in which an RUC detective has to find out whether a publican’s daughter who fell off a table in a bar that was locked from the inside was in fact murdered and if so how. The first thing I had to do was to assure the reader I was not cheating about the facts: the pub was indeed locked and bolted from the inside, there were no secret passages, no concealed rooms and certainly no supernatural element. Then, of course, I had to give the reader all the necessary information so that she or he could solve the case at the same time or before the detective. And by all the information I mean: facts, psychology and motive. When it works you should be able to read a locked-room mystery twice, the second time spotting the clues and seeing how the whole thing fits together and, hopefully, enjoying the iron logic of the solution.
When a locked-room mystery doesn’t work the solution makes you groan and the book gets hurled across the room. In The Murders In The Rue Morgue an elderly Frenchwoman is killed in a locked room on the fourth floor. The solution – spoiler alert – is that the murder was done by a tame orang-utan who climbed in through the open window with a straight razor. Even at the age of ten I wasn’t happy with that. (I think it was George Orwell who said that the even more ridiculous plot point in Rue Morgue was the idea that an edlerly Parisian lady would go to bed with the window open). More recently The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo found itself flying across my kitchen when I realised that the locked-room problem at its heart (actually a locked island) was a cheat because the reader had been clumsily misinformed about the essential facts.
The golden age of the locked-room mystery in Anglo-American detective fiction has largely passed but in France Paul Halter has been churning out original impossible murder novels since the mid 1980’s and In Japan the great Soji Shimada virtually invented the Shinhonkaku “logic problem” sub-genre which is still extremely popular today.
I think there are four elements that make a really good locked-room mystery novel: 1. An original puzzle. 2. An interesting detective and supporting characters. 3. Lively prose. 4. An elegant solution to the puzzle. Mixing classic and contemporary with no supernatural activity allowed these are my ten favourite locked-room/impossible murder novels:
10. The Moonstone (1868) – Wilkie Collins. Rachel Verinder’s cursed Indian diamond ‘The Moonstone’ disappears from her room after her birthday party. This is only a rudimentary locked-roomer, but as the first and still one of the best detective novels it had to be on my list.
9. The Case of the Constant Suicides (1941) – John Dickson Carr. Dr. Gideon Fell investigates an alarming number of ‘suicides’ at a remote Scottish castle. The deaths have taken place in locked or completely inaccessible rooms. Dickson Carr was rightly known as the “master of the locked-room mystery” and this entire list could, with some justification, have been made solely from JDC books.
8. And Then There Were None (1939) – Agatha Christie. (Originally published under two equally unfortunate titles.) Eight people with guilty secrets are invited to an isolated island off the coast of Devon where they begin to be murdered one by one. When there are only two of them left the fun really begins.
7. Suddenly At His Residence (1946) – Christianna Brand. In another part of Devon Sir Richard March has been found poisoned in his lodge. A sand covered pathway leading to the lodge is rolled daily by the gardener. Only one set of footprints is found leading to the lodge and they belong to Claire, who discovered the body. A witty and engaging mystery from a writer who was another locked room specialist.
6. The Big Bow Mystery (1892) – Israel Zangwill. Mrs Drabdump’s lodger is discovered with his throat cut, no trace of a murder weapon and no way a murderer could have got in or out. Arguably the first proper locked-roomer and still a classic of the form.
5. The Mystery of the Yellow Room (1908) – Gaston Leroux. Miss Stangerson is found severely injured, attacked in a locked room at the Chateau du Glandier. Leroux provides maps and floor plans showing that a presumptive murderer could not possibly have entered or escaped. Amateur sleuth Joseph Rouletabille has to figure out how the attack was done. Another early classic.
4. The King Is Dead (1951) – Ellery Queen (Frederic Dannay & Manfred Lee). King Bendigo, a wealthy munitions magnate, has been threatened by his brother Judah, who announces that he will shoot King at exactly midnight on June 21st at his private island residence. King locks himself in a hermetically sealed office accompanied only by his wife, Karla. Judah is under Ellery Queen's constant observation. At midnight, Judah lifts an empty gun and pulls the trigger and at the same moment, in the sealed room, King falls back, wounded with a bullet. No gun is found on Karla or anywhere in the sealed room. Furthermore the bullet that wounds King came from Judah’s gun which didn’t actually fire. Good, huh?
3. La Septième hypothèse (1991) – Paul Halter. In pre War London Dr. Alan Twist and Inspector Archie Hurst are visited by a man named Peter Moore, secretary to Sir Gordon Miller, a mystery author. According to Moore, Sir Gordon had a strange visitor who gave him a murder challenge. The two men tossed a coin and whoever lost had to commit a murder and try to pin the blame on the other. Peter Moore is subsequently found dead. There are only two possible suspects and both have ironclad alibis. Seven solutions present themselves in this ultra twisty novel.
2. The Tokyo Zodiac Murders (1981) – Soji Shimada. The book begins on a snowy evening in the Shōwa period of pre war Japan. A wealthy artist, Heikichi Umezawa, is finishing up his great cycle of paintings: 12 large canvases on Zodiacal subjects. As he works on the last one his head is smashed in with a blunt object. The studio is locked from the inside and the suspects have alibis. Over the next four decades many of Umezawa’s family members are also gruesomely killed, most in ‘impossible’ ways. In a series of postmodern asides Soji Shimada repeatedly taunts the reader explaining that all the clues are there for an astute observer.
1. The Hollow Man (1935) – John Dickson Carr. Someone breaks into Professor Grimaud's study, kills him and leaves, with the only door to the room locked from the inside, and with people present in the hall outside the room. The ground below the window is covered with unbroken snow. All the elements are balanced just right in this, the best of Dickson Carr’s many locked-room problems.