As a subgenre of an exceedingly artificial fiction genre, namely the “impossible crime”, the perhaps most peculiar form of detective story is the so-called “locked-room mystery”. Why artificial? you might ask. Simply because we know that it is in the nature of crime fiction for some sleuth to come by and solve the problem. Hence the “impossible” must have a possible, if not necessarily plausible, explanation, and it will invariably turn out that the “locked room” wasn’t a hermetically sealed chamber to which nobody but the victim had access.
Yet writing such stories has been a favourite sport among writers who, through the centuries, challenged each other into creating more and more bizarre cases—jogging the minds of generations of mystery lovers. Historians have pointed out that already Daniel of the Old Testament, especially in apocryphal stories, solves impossible cases almost amounting to locked-room mysteries, and as we know, the New Testament features a locked-room murder in reverse—resurrection inside a blocked cave. The Gospels narrate furthermore how Jesus entered a room that was locked.
Spy games: Sherlock Holmes grappled with locked rooms in many of his adventures. AFP
But since this is my column, we shall agree that the first proper locked-room mystery was published in April 1841 by Edgar Allan Poe, and it was his seminal story The Murders in the Rue Morgue. This is coincidentally also accepted as the very genesis of crime fiction. Although 18th century Gothic fiction had featured mysteries in locked rooms, Poe is the first writer to let a detective use logic and brainpower to crack a case in which murders have been committed in a room locked from the inside.
Since then, virtually the who’s who of fictional detectives have grappled with locked rooms. Sherlock Holmes did so, famously, in The Adventure of the Speckled Band (1892) which, as you probably recall, has a striking Indian connection and does away with the secret panels, concealed roof hatches and trapdoors that provided the standard solutions in earlier Gothic and Victorian mysteries.
The big specialist in the field, however, was John Dickson Carr. In his 1935 novel The Hollow Man—sometimes voted as the “Best Ever Locked Room”—he provides a textbook essay on the subject, The Locked Room Lecture, featured as a detective’s monologue in a pub and taking up an entire chapter—the 17th if I’m not mistaken. In it we are told all the possible ways an impossible murder can take place, at least in theory. Interestingly, he makes it a point to mention that a self-respecting author shouldn’t stoop to the low trick of having a secret passage, but I won’t go into the many other methods he does approve of—lest I spoil the ending to a mystery that any book lover might be in the middle of reading.
With the gritty noir of hard-boiled American writing in the 1940s, where all locked doors were kicked down by gun-toting tough guys, followed by the reality-based police collective taking over in the 1950s, as in the procedurals of Ed McBain, and the 1960s’ true crime non-fiction of Truman Capote In Cold Blood, “locked rooms” began to seem somewhat obsolete and fabricated. Real criminals simply killed their victims and didn’t bother to close the door behind them.
Still, the husband-wife team Sjöwall-Wahlöö used it as the basis for one of their cop novels, The Locked Room (1973), in which, almost as homage to Chapter 17 of The Hollow Man, the policeman Martin Beck is made to study a catalogue of locked-room permutations. Needless to say, his case ends up having a realistic, almost mundane, if yet surprising, solution.
Perhaps because the locked room represents the detective story in its most intellectual form, a decade later the experimental Paul Auster, in his very postmodern The Locked Room (1986), uses the classical mystery in a metaphorical sense. And so it lives on, as a kind of Sudoku-puzzle-shaped appendage in the brains of writers. The master of Hindi pulp, Surender Mohan Pathak, has written at least two locked-room stories, and from what I hear it is a popular genre among Japanese authors. As I don’t read the language I can’t confirm it, but considering how Sudoku and such mind-puzzles are a rage in Japan, I wouldn’t be surprised.
Finally, those who are dying to read something right away can have a look at Jasper Fforde’s weird locked-room murder: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2007/dec/24/extract.originalwriting
Zac O’Yeah is a Bangalore- based Swedish writer of crime fiction. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org