Locked room mystery

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The locked room mystery is a sub-genre of detective fiction in which a crime—almost always murder—is committed under apparently impossible circumstances. The crime in question typically involves a crime scene that no intruder could have entered or left, e.g., 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[edit]

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: 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, which appeared in 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 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, inspired by 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 and Diabolique. 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.

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 a country physician. One Hoch story, the majority of which feature impossible crimes, appeared in EQMM every month since May 1973 and even beyond his death in January 2008. Hoch's protagonist is a gifted amateur detective who uses pure brainpower to solve his 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. 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.

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.

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

Children's literature[edit]

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.

King Ottokar's Sceptre 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.

Examples[edit]

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

Authors and works[edit]

The acknowledged master of the locked-room sub-genre was John Dickson Carr, who also wrote as Carter Dickson.

His novel The Hollow Man was voted the best locked room mystery novel of all time by 17 authors and reviewers,[1] although Carr himself names Gaston Leroux's The Mystery of the Yellow Room as his favorite.

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.

Examples[edit]

English-language novels[edit]

English-language short stories and novellas[edit]

French-language novels[edit]

French-language short stories[edit]

Japanese-language novels[edit]

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[edit]

Pulp magazines[edit]

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.

Comic books/graphic novels[edit]

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. The popular Belgian comic book hero Tintin 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 and finally the series Q.E.D. features many original locked-room mystery as well.

Graphic novels also use this as a motif. For example, the series Umineko no Naku Koro ni by 07th Expansion has used the locked room mystery as the basis of the novel and also denying any possible answer the player comes to during the novel.

True crimes[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ http://mysteryfile.com/Locked_Rooms/Library.html
  2. ^ http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0645124/
  3. ^ Caspole, Dave (2004), NU grad's family traces roots to school's founder, retrieved 2008-03-03 
  4. ^ Fort, Charles (1975), The Complete Books of Charles Fort, p. 916 
  5. ^ Finley-Croswhite, Annette; Brunelle, Gayle K. (2006), Murder in the Metro, retrieved 2008-03-03 

External links[edit]

Literature[edit]