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The locked-room mystery is a subgenre of detective fiction in which a crime—almost always murder—is committed under circumstances which it was seemingly impossible for the perpetrator to commit the crime and/or evade detection in the course of getting in and out of the crime scene. The crime in question typically involves a crime scene with no indication as to how the intruder could have entered or left, i.e., a locked room. Following other conventions of classic detective fiction, the reader is normally presented with the puzzle and all of the clues, and is encouraged to solve the mystery before the solution is revealed in a dramatic climax.
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 these appearances and solve the puzzle.
History of the genre
Though the mystery or detective genre was not established until the 19th century, there are notable predecessors in ancient writings. The deuterocanonical Old Testament story "Bel and the Dragon" has some similarities to locked-room mysteries; the hero Daniel debunks the worship of an idol that supposedly eats food offerings left for it in a sealed room, by exposing the secret entrance used by the priests who take the food for themselves. In the 5th century BC, 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 (1799–1850): Maitre Cornelius (1846) and Alexandre Dumas, père in Les Mohicans de Paris: La Visite Domiciliaire (1854) included locked-room elements in their novels.
The earliest fully-fledged example of this type of story is generally held to be Edgar Allan Poe's "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" (1841). Wilkie Collins' The Moonstone (1868) features a rudimentary locked-room murder. A number of authors, including Joseph Conrad, Sheridan Le Fanu, and Dick Donovan, tried their hand at the new genre, but their ingenuity extended only to secret passages, duplicate keys, and diabolical mechanical devices. It was not until publication of Israel Zangwill's work The Big Bow Mystery (1892) 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; it, too, has had many imitators.
In the Golden Age of Detective Fiction impossible crimes were mainly solved by brilliant amateur sleuths, inspired by Arthur Conan Doyle's creation Sherlock Holmes, who were inexplicably given free rein by Scotland Yard and, to a markedly lesser extent in their American equivalents, 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 novels featuring impossible crimes in vast quantities. To a lesser degree, Christianna Brand, Agatha Christie, Ellery Queen, Clayton Rawson, and Hake Talbot did the same. 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 of Detective Fiction, English-speaking writers dominated the genre, but after the 1940s there was a general waning of English-language output. French authors continued writing into the 1950s and early 1960s, notably Martin Meroy and Boileau-Narcejac, who joined forces to write several locked-room novels. They also co-authored the psychological thrillers which brought them international fame, two of which were adapted for the screen as Vertigo (1954 novel; 1958 film) and Diabolique (1955 film). 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. A number have been translated into English.
John Dickson Carr, who also wrote as Carter Dickson, wrote the novel The Hollow Man (1935) was voted the best locked-room mystery novel of all time by 17 authors and reviewers, although Carr himself names Gaston Leroux's The Mystery of the Yellow Room (1907-1908) as his favorite. (Leroux's novel was named third in that same poll; Hake Talbot's Rim of the Pit (1944) was named second.)
The genre continued into the 1970s. Bill Pronzini's Nameless Detective novels feature locked-room puzzles. The most prolific creator of impossible crimes is Edward D. Hoch, whose short stories feature a detective, Dr. Sam Hawthorne, whose main role is as a country physician. The majority of Hoch stories feature impossible crimes; one appeared in EQMM every month from May 1973 through January 2008. Hoch's protagonist is a gifted amateur detective who uses pure brainpower to solve his cases.
The French writer Paul Halter, whose output of over 30 novels is almost exclusively of the locked-room genre, has been described as the natural successor to John Dickson Carr. Although strongly influenced by Carr and Agatha Christie, he has a unique writing style featuring original plots and puzzles. A collection of ten of his short stories, entitled The Night of the Wolf, has been translated into English.
The Japanese writer Soji Shimada has been writing impossible crime stories since 1981 and has created 13 to date.[when?] The first, The Tokyo Zodiac Murders (1981), is the only one to have been translated into English. The themes of the Japanese novels are far more grisly and violent than those of the more genteel Anglo-Saxons. Dismemberment is a preferred murder method. Despite the gore, the norms of the classic detective fiction novel are strictly followed.
Umberto Eco, in the 2000 novel Baudolino, takes the locked-room theme into medieval times. The book's plot suggests that Emperor Frederick I had not drowned in a river, as history records, but died mysteriously at night while hosted at the castle of a sinister Armenian noble. The book features various suspects, each of whom had a clever means of killing the Emperor without entering the room where he slept - all these means having been available in medieval times.
The locked-room genre has also been translated into children's detective fiction, although the crime committed is usually less severe than murder. One notable example would be Enid Blyton, who wrote several juvenile detective series, often featuring seemingly impossible crimes that her young amateur detectives set out to solve.
The Hardy Boys novel "While the Clock Ticked" was (originally) about a locked and isolated room where a man seeks privacy, but receives mysterious threatening messages there. The messages are delivered by a mechanical device lowered into the room through a chimney.
King Ottokar's Sceptre (1938–1939) is the only Tintin adventure that is a locked-room mystery. No homicide is involved. The crime is the disappearance of the royal sceptre that is bound to have disastrous consequences for the king.
Pulp magazines in the 1930s often contained impossible crime tales, dubbed weird menace, in which a series of supernatural or science-fiction type 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 rarely use the Private Eye protagonists that many associate with pulp fiction.
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 series that made good use of locked-room mysteries is Mike W. Barr's Maze Agency.
Real world examples
- 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's penetrating of his outer garments.
- According to a report in 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. He was dead. There was money in his pockets, and the cash register had not been touched. No weapon was found. There was a theory that the murderer had crawled through the transom, but to do so he or she would had to have been no bigger than a small child 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".
- On May 16, 1937, Laetitia Toureaux was found stabbed to death in an otherwise empty first-class compartment of the Paris Métro. 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 did not see anyone else enter or leave the compartment where Mlle. Toureaux's body was found. The murderer had one minute and twenty seconds at his or her disposal. Neither the murderer nor the method of his or her escape was ever discovered.
- "Ranking of Impossible Crimes by Experts". Mysteryfile.com.
- Caspole, Dave (2004), NU grad's family traces roots to school's founder, Norwich University, retrieved 2008-03-03
- Fort, Charles (1975), The Complete Books of Charles Fort, p. 916
- Finley-Croswhite, Annette; Brunelle, Gayle K. (2006), Murder in the Metro, Old Dominion University, retrieved 2008-03-03
- "The Locked Room". Donald E. Westlake. Murderous Schemes: An Anthology of Classic Detective Stories. Oxford University Press, 1996.
- Chapters 19,20,22. John T. Irwin. The Mystery to a Solution: Poe, Borges, and the Analytic Detective Story. JHU Press, 1996. 482 pages.
- Crime Fiction by John Scaggs. Routledge, 2005. 184 pages.
- Michael Cook. Narratives of Enclosure in Detective Fiction: The Locked Room Mystery. Palgrave Macmillan, 2011. 210 pages.