As a murder mystery aficionado, there is nothing quite like a locked room murder mystery to truly excite me. For those new to the mystery genre, it’s a mystery that takes place in a seemingly impossible situation—typically a locked room where there’s no obvious exit or entry. Often times it involves a murder but it can also be a theft or another crime like vandalism. Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Murders of the Rue Morgue” is not only considered the first murder mystery story, it is also considered a locked room mystery. Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None is probably the most famous locked room murder mystery. I will argue here that the sub-genre is the best that murder mysteries have to offer.
Getting to Know You
Like many readers of the genre, I read for two things: the mystery itself and the characters. Rarely do you have a good mystery without great characters. Sometimes those characters might be exemplified by a detective like a Hercule Poirot or Lord Peter Wimsey or a cast of characters without a star detective. With a locked room mystery, typically the cast stays together and is delimited by the circumstances—whether it’s the inhabitants of the house during the theft or a freak blizzard that keeps everyone contained.
Close proximity allows the reader to really focus on the characters. The suspects get to be fleshed out; backstories, quirks, hatreds, and loves really come to the foreground with these mysteries. Occasionally, an outside character may come in, usually in the form of a detective or police officer, but usually it’s self-contained.
Setting the Scene
Part of the benefit of locked room murder mysteries is that the location of the crime is critical. The writer has to really delve into the details of the location, and sometimes a map will accompany the book. Every room, every detail can matter to the story. So beautiful evocative descriptions are part and parcel for these works.
It doesn’t hurt that many locked room murders take place in palatial homes. That trend is likely a product of the 1930s Golden Age that so many mysteries hail from and approach to. There’s certainly something appealing about watching the high and mighty have all their dirty secrets come tumbling out. That’s a topic worthy of its own Book Riot post.
Most important, locked room mysteries need to be clever. Just as I have argued with a prior post on poison and murder mysteries, writers have to plot a locked room mystery so it is believable and, most importantly, solvable. No one likes to read a mystery where the solution is impossible to guess. The reader will be unhappy to learn that there was a secret door that there was no way that they could have known about; it’s better if the clues are all in front of you but you just didn’t think the right way about them. While it’s not a book, the BBC show Jonathan Creek does a great job with this. A magician’s trick inventor, Mr. Creek, is brought into impossible crimes and shows how the crimes, usually murder, were done, often in very mundane ways. It’s brilliant for those who are television inclined.
Writers have to think of clever ways of committing the crime in unusual circumstances that push and pull on people’s perceptions. We want things to see magical but actually possible. So instead of mysteries being whodunits, we’ve added the element of howdunit to the mix as well. It’s in many ways a riddle wrapped in crime. Which is perfect.
For folks who want some great suggestions of locked room mysteries, we have classic recommendations for you here and some more recent picks here. For folks who want some help in choosing their next one, check out this Locked Room Mystery Quiz.