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.
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.
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.
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.
The following are examples of "impossible" or "locked-room" crimes:
A woman and her daughter are murdered in an inaccessible room, which is locked from the inside. The mother's throat is cut so badly that her head is barely attached, and the daughter is found strangled and stuffed into a chimney. ("The Murders in the Rue Morgue", a short story by Edgar Allan Poe)
A British minister is threatened. Investigations commence, newspapers report, Scotland Yard offers protection. Even though the assassins precisely predict the minister's death, the vast police force protecting him at the time and place announced by the assassins cannot prevent the murder. The minister 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 100 yards (90 m) 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. Similar deaths occur. 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 in a guarded room, while 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 by Paul Halter)
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 by Pierre Boileau)
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)
Authors and works
The acknowledged master of the locked-room sub-genre was John Dickson Carr, who also wrote as Carter Dickson.
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.
Jon L. Breen's "The Number 12 Jinx" (1978), "Streak to Death" (1987), "Insider Trading" (2003)
Leo Bruce's "Into Thin Air", "Holiday Task" and "Person or Persons"
John Dickson Carr's "The Shadow of the Goat" (1926), "The Third Bullet" (1937),"The Silver Curtain" (1940)," "The House in Goblin Wood" (1947), "Invisible Hands" (1958) and many, many others
Many of G. K. Chesterton's Father Brown stories, notably "The Secret Garden", "The Invisible Man," "The Wrong Shape," "The Oracle of the Dog," "The Dagger with Wings" and "The Miracle of Moon Crescent"
Agatha Christie's "The Dream" (1937), "The Idol House of Astarte" (1928) and many others.
Most of C. Daly King's 11 Trevis Tarrant stories, including The Episode of The Tangible Illusion, The Episode of the Nail and The Requiem, The Episode of The Torment VI and The Episode of the Absent Fish, in the volume "The Complete Curious Mr. Tarrant".
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)
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 1950s 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 (many of them locked room mysteries).
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, such as a Navy lieutenant shot dead in his cabin on a submarine (Mr. Monk Is Underwater), when the gunshot was heard by witnesses outside, or a monkey that supposedly shot its master when he barricaded himself in his panic room during a burglary (Mr. Monk and the Panic Room).
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).
Death in Paradise, TV series in which almost every episode featured an 'impossible' crime (many of them locked room mysteries). The plot centres on the character of strait-laced British policeman Richard Poole (Ben Miller), a detective from London's Metropolitan Police. He is sent to the fictional Caribbean island of Saint-Marie to solve the case of the death of a fellow British policeman. After solving the death of his predecessor, he ends up becoming the local police force's new detective.
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.
In the McMillan & 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.
The pilot episode of the science fiction series, Alphas, contains a locked room mystery.
The 2nd episode of BBC's Sherlock, "The Blind Banker", features a variant of this scenario. A code is left painted on the wall of an office in a bank, the perpetrator vanishing seemingly without a trace as the only door into the office is remotely locked and nobody had opened it on the night of the incident. This is also used on the two murder victims, both of whom were shot and killed in their seemingly impenetrable apartments.
The Japanese TV drama Kagi no Kakatta Heya (The Locked Room Murders) is based on the Yusuke Kishi novel of the same name. Each episode follows a pair of attorneys and a lock enthusiast from a security company as they solve locked room mysteries.
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
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.
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.
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, 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 May 16, 1937, Laetitia Toureaux was found stabbed to death in an otherwise empty first-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 or her disposal. Neither the murderer nor the method of his or her escape was ever discovered.