HOWdunit: The Locked Room Mystery

Keith Chaffee, Librarian, Collection Development,
Collage of HOWdunit books
For as long as writers have been creating fictional detectives, and mysteries for them to solve, they’ve been creating locked room mysteries

A man is alone in a room, locked so that no one else can enter. When the door is opened, he is found dead, murdered in a way that would have required the presence of a killer—he’s been shot, perhaps, or stabbed. Variations on that idea make up a large subgenre of murder mysteries, the locked room mystery.

For as long as writers have been creating fictional detectives, and mysteries for them to solve, they’ve been creating locked room mysteries. Edgar Allan Poe’s 1841 story “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” the first modern detective story, is a locked room mystery in which two people are killed in a fourth-floor room that has been locked from the inside. The Big Bow Mystery, an 1892 novel by Israel Zangwill, is often identified as the first full-length novel to be built around a locked room murder.

Other early examples of the form include Gaston Leroux’s 1907 The Mystery of the Yellow Room, and several of Jacques Futrelle’s stories about a detective known as “The Thinking Machine,” particularly the 1905 “The Problem of Cell 13.”

Book cover for Jacques Futrelle's The Thinking Machine
Jacques Futrelle's The Thinking Machine
Futrelle, Jacques

By the end of the Golden Age of detective fiction, the locked room mystery had become very popular, and many of the genre’s finest works were written in the 1930s and 1940s. The first master of the locked room mystery was John Dickson Carr; he didn’t write locked room stories exclusively, but they made up a large part of his work. In 1981, a group of mystery writers and editors were asked to list the best locked room mysteries of all time; four of their top ten choices were written by Carr, including The Crooked Hinge and, under Carr’s pseudonym, Carter Dickson, The Judas Window.

Among the other novels selected as classics in that 1981 survey were a pair by Ellery Queen, The Chinese Orange Mystery and The King Is Dead; Anthony Boucher’s Nine Times Nine; Clayton Rawson’s Death from a Top Hat; and Randall Garrett’sToo Many Magicians.

The Rawson and Garrett novels both feature magic. Rawson’s detective is a stage magician—who better to solve impossible crimes than someone who performs impossible feats every night?—who appeared in several novels, including another fine locked room case, The Footprints on the Ceiling. Garrett’s novel is set in an alternate history in which magic is real and physics as we know it never developed as a field of study; the murder takes place at a wizarding convention.

Book cover for Footprints on the Ceiling
Footprints on the Ceiling
Rawson, Clayton

American and British writers dominated the locked room mystery in the 1930s and 1940s. Most of the major writers of the period made at least one attempt at a locked room mystery. Agatha Christie’s Murder in Mesopotamia is a solid example, and Dorothy L. Sayers’s Have His Carcase offers a variation on the form, in which a body is found in the middle of a large beach, with no footprints in the sand around it.

In the 1950s and 1960s, many of the best examples were written by French writers, including Noel Vindry and the team of Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac. Sadly, few of the best French locked room mysteries have been translated into English.

Several Japanese writers have also been drawn to the form, and some of their novels are available in English. Seishi Yokomizo’s The Honjin Murders and Akimitsu Takagi’s The Tattoo Murder Case are classics from the 1940s; more recent Japanese novels include Soji Shimada’s The Tokyo Zodiac Murders and Keigo Higashino’s Malice.

A survey of French writers and critics in 2007 selected as classics many of the same novels as the 1981 American survey, but also added a few more recent novels. That panel’s consensus choices included Peter Dickinson’s The Poison Oracle, Richard Forrest’s A Child’s Garden of Death, and Peter Lovesey’s Bloodhounds.

Book cover for A Child's Garden of Death
A Child's Garden of Death
Forrest, Richard

Locked room mysteries can also be written at short-story length, and among the masters of that form was Edward D. Hoch. Hoch was a remarkably prolific writer, who published a new story in every issue of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine from May 1973 through January 2008. He had several different series characters, some of whom specialized in locked-room mysteries. Police detective Captain Leopold and small-town doctor Sam Hawthorne are often called on to solve such impossible crimes; and thief-for-hire Nick Velvet is asked to commit them.

Three of the finest editors in the mystery field have assembled collections of locked room stories: Martin Edwards’s Miraculous Mysteries, Mike Ashley’s The Mammoth Book of Locked-Room Mysteries and Impossible Crimes, and Otto Penzler’s gargantuan The Black Lizard Big Book of Locked-Room Mysteries.