Sunday, February 2, 2014

My 10 Favourite Locked Room Mysteries

This is the original edit of my piece on locked room mysteries from last week's Guardian, it's longer than the original newspaper article with a little more exposition on the books and my 'rules' about what make a good locked-roomer...

My Ten Favourite Locked-Room Mystery Novels
Adrian McKinty

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.


Alan said...

Adrian,Halter,Carr and Shimada San look fascinating,More readings ahead as all three have stood the tests of both time and Intelligence,Which first? thank you .Best Alan

lil Gluckstern said...

I'm about to reserve some of these. When will I read them all? This was an interesting post, and as always you teach me something. You must have been a hell of a teacher.

adrian mckinty said...


All the books are good on the list if you can find any of them you'll have a good read.

adrian mckinty said...


I LOVED teaching. I miss it.

seana graham said...

I'd really like to finally get to Carr.

If you have to choose, I prefer you write, obviously, but I do hope you get a chance to teach again.

Peter Rozovsky said...

The weirdest locked-room story I have ever read was a short set in Austalia 37,000 years ago. That's right, 37,000.

I think your embrace of the form is one of the odder and more interesting things to happen in crime fiction in recent years. You could make locked-room stories cool again. You could initiate a wave of neo-locked-room stories.

adrian mckinty said...


He's good. A bit forumlaic after one or two but who isnt? Except me of course.

adrian mckinty said...


I like the sound of that one.

Yeah I love the old forms. Alas I'm not going to be the one who brings them back as almost nobody is going to a) hear about my book or b) buy it.

Maybe if Jo Nesbo encountered a locked room...

Peter Rozovsky said...

How about a story in which a Scandinavian crime writer, based loosely on Jo Nesbø, is locked in a room with no way to get out or for anyone to get in, and with no possible way of communicating with the outside world, but he manages to make best-seller lists anyway.

Or a reverse locked-room story, in which a Swedish crime writer, based loosely on Stieg Larsson, is thrown in a locked room after he's already dead, but manages to write at least one more book.

Cary Watson said...

I'll tell you what's a mystery to me: why haven't any John Dickson Carr mysteries been done for TV? The BBC can't stop itself from filming and re-filming stuff by Christie, Sayers, and a dozen other writers, but I don't think a JDC has ever been filmed by anyone, anywhere. The Jonathan Creek mysteries are a bit like JDC in terms of tone, but, as you say, the magicians' tricks aspect devalues them as locked room mysteries.

adrian mckinty said...



Or they both could be in it together somehow.

The author of the Hitmans Guide to Housekeeping might want to think of that as a potential sequel...

adrian mckinty said...


Yes! Fell is such a great character too and there are at least dozen really good mysteries he wrote under his various pseudonyms.

seana graham said...

Although this isn't about locked room mysteries, I was actually wondering the same thing about Edmund Crispin's Gervase Fen mysteries.

TomCat said...

I'm a huge impossible crime enthusiast and labeled nearly 150 posts on my Golden Age Detective blog with "locked room mysteries," which should vouch for how much I enjoy them.

They're the most stimulating form of detective fiction, because figuring out how everyone was fooled into believing the laws of physics were by-passed has an appeal that even the best put together whodunits lack.

That is, however, if the author remembers s/he hasn't the same luxury as a stage magician, who isn't obliged to explain the audience how it was done. The writer has to foreshadow the solution with clues and avoid the trap of hoary, outdated explanations relaying on hidden passages, untraceable poisons, venomous animals and the supernatural. The levitation murder from John Sladek's Black Aura is a great example of how it should be done.

I have two extensive lists of my favorite locked room novels (here) and impossible short stories (here), if anyone here wants any more titles for their wish list/TBR-pile. You can ignore the hacky, sloppily written introductions and skip right to the lists.

Anne said...

My husband prefers the novels of Carter Dickson (written under the pseudonym of John Dickson Carr). He finds Sir Henry Merrivale less irritating than Dr. Gideon Fell. On the subject of the TV disinterest in Carr's books, he is puzzled why the work of the greatest of the Golden Age detective story writers (in his opinion) has been dramatised only once. He is referring to Margery Allingham.

seana graham said...

Thanks for those lists, TomCat.

Anne, I love Margery Allingham, although the later books are better than the early ones.

adrian mckinty said...


Thanks for the lists! Glad to see that we overlap on some of our favourites!

adrian mckinty said...


He had at least four pseudonyms the prolific so and so. I too like Allingham.

adrian mckinty said...


Yeah I've read a few of those and they were pretty good.

adrian mckinty said...


I dont think either Jonathan Creek or Sherlock can be considered true locked room mysteries because all the information is not always available to the viewer.

Gavin said...

It's funny, And Then There Were None is my go-to book for examples of how Christie doesn't play fair with the reader.

adrian mckinty said...


She does cheat a bit doesnt she? And those original titles...yikes!

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