The "locked-room" or "impossible crime" mystery is a subgenre of detective fiction in which a crime (almost always murder) is committed in circumstances under which it was seemingly impossible for the perpetrator to commit the crime 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, for example: 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
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). Robert Adey credits Sheridan Le Fanu for A Passage in the Secret History of an Irish Countess which was published three years before Poe's “Rue Morgue”. Other early locked-room mysteries include Israel Zangwill's The Big Bow Mystery (1892), Le Mystère de la Chambre Jaune (The Mystery of the Yellow Room) written in 1907 by French journalist and author Gaston Leroux and "The Problem of Cell 13" by Jacques Futrelle and featuring "The Thinking Machine" Augustus S. F. X. Van Dusen.
G. K. Chesterton's Father Brown novels often featured locked-room mysteries and other mystery authors dabbled in the genre such as S. S. Van Dine in The Canary Murder Case, Ellery Queen in The Chinese Orange Mystery and Freeman Wills Crofts in such novels as Sudden Death and The End of Andrew Harrison.
John Dickson Carr, who also wrote as Carter Dickson, was known as "master of the locked-room mystery". His 1935 novel The Hollow Man (US title: The Three Coffins) was in 1981 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.) Three other Carr/Dickson novels were in the top ten of the 1981 list: The Crooked Hinge (1938), The Judas Window (1938), and The Peacock Feather Murders (1937).
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.
The genre continued into the 1970s and beyond. 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. The first, The Tokyo Zodiac Murders (1981) and the second, Murder in the Crooked House (1982) are the only ones 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 a guest 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 also appears in 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.
The TV series Jonathan Creek has a particular 'speciality' for locked-room-murder style mysteries; Creek designs magic tricks for stage magicians, and is often called on to solve cases where the mystery is clearly how the crime was committed as the most important element, such as a man who allegedly shot himself in a sealed bunker when he had crippling arthritis in his hands, how a woman was shot in a sealed room with no gun and without the window being opened or broken, how a dead body could have vanished from a locked room when the only door was in full view of someone else, etc.
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.
In the 21st century, examples of popular detective series novels that include locked-room type puzzles are The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (2005) by Stieg Larssen, Bloodhounds (2004) by Peter Lovesey and In the Morning I'll Be Gone (2014) by Adrian McKinty.
- 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.
- In 2010, the body of Gareth Williams, a MI6 employee, was found in a bag that was zipped up and padlocked from the outside, with a key inside. There was no forensic evidence of anyone else's involvement. Despite suggestions that he may somehow have locked himself inside the bag, two escapologists failed to replicate the feat despite 400 attempts, though one would not rule it out.
- Closed circle of suspects (genre)
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