“Keys to the Kingdom: Unlocking the Locked Room” (by Tom Mead)

British fiction writer and playwright Tom Mead has placed short stories with a variety of publications, including International Short Story Magazine, Lighthouse, Flame Tree Press, Mystery Weekly, and Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine. He makes his EQMM debut in our current issue, with the story “The Indian Rope Trick.” Like much of the rest of his work, the story belongs to the “impossible crime” subgenre of crime fiction. A longtime fan of impossible crimes and especially of locked-room mysteries, Tom shares some of his favorite books and stories from that category with us in this post. We expect to have another post on this insufficiently discussed topic soon. —Janet Hutchings

It will come as no surprise that I’m here because I love mysteries. But more than that, my passion is impossibilities. There is something about a locked-room mystery that speaks to me in a way that no other genre does. It’s the intricacy of it; the meticulousness; the literary legerdemain. I tend to use “locked room” as an umbrella term for all impossible crime stories; stories where the question is not simply whodunit but how. (Not to be confused— though it often is—with a “closed circle” mystery such as Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express or the movie Knives Out, where only a handful of suspects could conceivably have committed the crime.)

A supposed failing of the Golden Age puzzle plot is its lack of psychological verisimilitude. For a good while it was fashionable for critics to disparage the old guard for a perceived lack of interest in their murderers’ inner lives. Critiquing any mystery on that basis misses the point entirely. While encountering a real life locked-room scenario is certainly fanciful (no more so than encountering a serial killer, of course), it is also a very potent piece of psychological symbolism. Perhaps that’s why some of the most remarkable poets of the twentieth century took an interest in the genre. I’m thinking in particular of Poet Laureate Cecil Day-Lewis, who wrote mysteries—including impossible crimes—as “Nicholas Blake,” and Nobel Prize winner W.H. Auden, who was the first to point out the correlation between the archetypal Golden Age mystery and the Aristotelian concept of tragedy in his essay “The Guilty Vicarage.”

From the very beginning of a locked-room mystery, we are told that we are about to be tricked. And then we are tricked. It is a game or a challenge, but it is also an intimate psychological bond that can tell us a great deal about ourselves. It is similar to watching a horror movie: we do not want to be frightened, and yet, at the same time, we do.

But even this description is somewhat reductive. It is not simply the challenge that makes the subgenre great—otherwise a locked-room mystery novel would be no more engaging than a crossword or Sudoku puzzle. Another key component is atmosphere. At its best, the locked-room mystery entices the reader with its intrigue and unease—nothing is as it seems, after all. Often the works that I love the most are the ones that flirt with the uncanny or the supernatural. Mysteries which revel in the Gothic tradition. When done right, believe me, it is like magic.

In fact, there are plenty of correlations between constructing a fair-play puzzle plot and constructing a magic trick. That’s why I have made my own fictional detective a magician. In most respects he fits the Golden Age archetype. He is an aging retired conjuror with a knack for unravelling mysteries. A perfect foil for whatever weird and wonderful scenarios I can come up with!

It might seem like a paradox, but I think one of the best ways to gain an understanding of the human condition is by deceiving people. That’s why I love writing locked-room stories. You have to second and even third-guess your reader. You have to perceive your clues and suspects as your reader is going to perceive them. You have to lay traps. In essence, you need to get inside other people’s heads. That’s the challenge but also the thrill of crafting an impossible crime.

The pleasure also lies in coming up with new and startling impossible scenarios . . . then explaining them away. I have written a story where a woman appears to spontaneously combust while travelling alone in a cable car. One where a girl vanishes in broad daylight walking through a revolving door. One where a man is found decapitated in a locked tower room, lying on the bare floorboards in the centre of a pentagram. I hope that my own writing fits somewhere into the grand tradition I have described, but I freely acknowledge that it could not exist without the works and the authors I love.

Most readers with a superficial awareness of the subgenre know John Dickson Carr, the acknowledged maestro of the locked room. It’s fair to say that his body of work has influenced me more than anybody else’s. He is a virtuoso of misdirection, as well as an effortless conjuror of atmosphere. I don’t think it would be hyperbole to call him a genius. And there is a core crowd of EQMM favourites like Edward D. Hoch, Bill Pronzini and Clayton Rawson who have produced work of startling quality.

But as a student of the locked room, it has been a pleasure discovering how immensely diverse it is. There are hundreds of unsung heroes and heroines (past and present) whose work deserves attention. Matt Ingwalson’s hardboiled Owl & Raccoon novellas, for instance, or Hal White’s ingenious Reverend Dean mysteries; Gigi Pandian’s brilliant The Cambodian Curse, Orania Papazoglou’s Sweet, Savage Death or Barbara D’Amato’s seafaring Hard Tack. If you fancy heading back in time, there is Rupert Penny’s astonishing oeuvre waiting to delight you, or Clyde B. Clason’s, or Hake Talbot’s utterly remarkable Rim of the Pit. Then there are the scientific machinations of Arthur Porges or John Russell Fearn. Or French-language masterpieces like Pierre Boileau’s Six Crimes Sans Assassinand Stanislas-André Steeman’s L’Infaillible Silas Lord (which, incidentally, I am working to translate into English). Or the blood-spattered Daedalian tapestries of honkaku kings Soji Shimada and Seishi Yokomizo.

Looking at a list like that, it is almost hard to believe they all fit in such an apparently narrow subgenre. But they do. Though the tropes of the locked-room mystery are so well established, there is still plenty of scope for innovation. After all, the best are those which leave you breathless at their invention, but which also slot together so neatly that there could be no other conceivable solution. The only real “locked room” is a reader’s imagination. And ingenuity is the key.

If you are new to the subgenre and wondering where is best to begin, here are five titles I admire greatly to get you started. This is not a “top 5” by any means, just a selection of gems in dire need of mainstream rediscovery:

John Dickson Carr, He Who Whispers

He Who Whispers is the maestro at his most unabashedly gothic. A man found dead at the top of an inaccessible tower—could it be the work of a vampire?

John Dickson Carr, It Walks By Night

JDC’s early novels positively see the with malevolent atmosphere and this one, his very first in fact, borrows a particularly macabre motif from Edgar Allan Poe.

Paul Halter, The Picture From The Past

Paul Halter’s commitment to the traditional impossible-crime story is astonishing. He is certainly one of the most prolific contemporary authors in the subgenre, as well as one of the most creative. The John Pugmire translations from Locked Room International are a constant joy.

Helen McCloy, Through A Glass Darkly

This is a hauntingly surreal mystery with a neat and satisfying conclusion which, at the same time, does not quite dispel its atmosphere of creeping disquiet. McCloy had a fascination with uncanny doubles, and this novel is arguably her masterpiece.

Soji Shimada, The Tokyo Zodiac Murders

An utterly macabre triumph which defies description. It really must be read to be believed; fortunately, it is now readily available in English. Hopefully the first of many.

And since EQMM is a great bastion of short fiction, here are a few stories for good measure:

John Dickson Carr, “The Wrong Problem”

Carter Dickson (a.k.a. John Dickson Carr), “The House in Goblin Wood”

Paul Halter, “The Cleaver”

Edward D. Hoch, “The Problem of the Old Oak Tree”

Clayton Rawson, “From Another World” 

Happy reading, and welcome to the realm of the impossible.

This entry was posted in Books, Characters, Classic Mystery, Fiction, Genre, Guest, Novels, Story, Writers and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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