The rules of fair play mysteries are clear: the reader must be just as capable of solving the crime as the central detective. All clues must be on the page, the hows and whos must be logical and rational, and the final explanation must not be supernatural sleight of hand.
But even fair play mystery writers like to play around. And sometimes that takes on a special, fun form: the mystery of the locked room. Part of a category known as impossible crimes or sometimes miracle problems, these mysteries usually involve a corpse, obviously murdered, in a room or space that is locked from the inside. There’s no obvious way a killer could have gotten in or out, maybe even no obvious weapon – so how was the crime committed?
The nice thing about mysteries in a locked room is of course that they to be is part of the fair play genre: the reader knows that there is evidence that the crime was committed by a real person. The seemingly impossible nature of the crime adds an extra challenge to our armchair quest.
Mystery readers and writers have been fascinated by impossible crimes for nearly two centuries. The first is generally considered to be that of Edgar Allan Poe The murders in the Rue Morgue, which is also often considered the first detective story because the main character’s investigation is the key to unraveling the mystery. It was published more than 180 years ago, in 1841. In the nearly two centuries since, locked rooms and impossible crimes have continued to amaze and delight mystery lovers.
In 1892 Arthur Conan Doyle . published The Speckled Band, in which Sherlock Holmes unravels the seemingly impossible murder of a woman in a locked and locked room. Although it is less well known, 1892 also saw the publication of: The Mystery of the Great Arch by Israel Zangwill. This one not only had an impossible crime; it also introduced a false solution, in which the first statement seems to fit the facts, but in the final reveal is gradually debunked piece by piece until the true solution is revealed. Other countries also saw writers publish impossible crimes in the late 19th centurye and early 20e centuries, like that of Gaston Leroux The mystery of the yellow room (1907) in France.
Impossible Crimes Remained Popular in the Early 20’se century, edited by authors such as Edgar Wallace and Jacques Futrelle. But you might be a little disappointed if you pick up one of their novels today. Their solutions don’t seem so impossible to an audience that has a decent understanding of science, medicine and the technology of the time.
That’s a common theme in many locked room mysteries: Before the fair play genre was firmly established, many of them relied on surprise revelations, illogical inventions (such as hidden locks or doors that would have no reason to be part of a regular room), or intentionally unreliable witnesses.
However, as the genre developed, the writers became more meticulous about their clues and solutions. The horror in the round room by A. Demain Grange (1911), for example, was notable for including a map of the location where the crime took place. This was because the location of each element in the room, and the distances between them, were the key to finding the solution to his impossible problem.
And then came the Golden Age of crime fiction. In the 1920s and 1930s, fair play mysteries exploded in popularity with the writing of such authors as Margery Allingham, Anthony Berkeley, ECR Lorac, Dorothy L. Sayers and, of course, Agatha Christie.
Agatha Christie wrote many famously impossible crimes, including: Murder in Mesopotamia (1936) and And then there were none (1939). Known less for her detective novels than for her children’s books, Christianna Brand was also an accomplished writer of closed-room mysteries, including her 1946 mystery, Suddenly in his residence.
But no one can talk about the closed-off room genre without mentioning John Dickson Carr. Carr was an American writer, but he lived in Britain for many years and is often grouped with British mystery writers of the Golden Age. He began publishing in 1933 and wrote dozens of crime novels, many of them secret chamber mysteries such as: The Plague Murders (1934) or The problem of the green capsule (1939). Carr is often considered the master of the impossible crime, and a panel of mystery critics and writers once selected his 1935 mystery the hollow man as the greatest locked room mystery of all time.
But mysteries in a locked room weren’t all in the past. Numerous modern writers of mystery and suspense play with impossible crimes, and the puzzles they create are just as complicated to unravel as those of their predecessors. If you’re looking for a locked room mystery to solve, try one of these newer releases:
Behind lock and skeleton key
by Gigi Pandian
Tempest Raj resists the urge to get involved in her father’s company, Secret Staircase Construction, which specializes in building sliding bookcases, nostalgic tree houses, complex locks and hidden corners. But then a corpse is discovered in a wall of her father’s latest project – and the victim of this seemingly impossible crime is Tempest’s former stage doppelganger.
Death and the Magician
by Tom Mead
It’s 1930s London and a famous psychologist has just been found dead in his locked office. There are no witnesses, no leads and no sign of the murder weapon. Stumped enlists Scotland Yard’s help from an expert in the impossible: stage magician Joseph Spector, who must help out not one, not two, but three impossible crimes.
Death in the family
by Tessa Weger
In a sleepy town in upstate New York, researcher Shana Merchant is called upon to locate a man who has disappeared on a wealthy family’s private island. The disappearance seems impossible and Shana is convinced that a murderer is in their midst. All the while, a nor’easter strikes the island, further isolating Shana from the man’s increasingly distrustful family and friends.
And if you’ll forgive a little blatant self-promotion, I’m going to add my own most recent Lily Adler mystery:
Death on the mansion
by Katharine Schellman
Regency widow Lily Adler visits a reportedly haunted mansion, only to find that the owner was murdered overnight, in a locked room where no one had a key to open. The dead woman’s family is convinced the ghost is responsible, but Lily is determined to uncover the truth before another victim shows up.
Whether you’re brand new to the world of impossible crimes or already a fan of what John Dickson Carr called “the greatest game in the world,” you won’t run out of reading material anytime soon. After nearly two centuries, there are plenty of locked room puzzles to explore.
You may even get inspired to create an impossible crime of your own.