One of the most popular sub-genres of detective fiction, the locked room mystery, takes place in a situation where it would seem to be impossible for somebody to commit the crime. The most popular example being a dead body found in a room, locked from the inside. Several possibilities about how the victim was killed must be eliminated, including the use of poison, trap doors leading into the room, the person committing suicide and the killer setting up any device to eliminate them.
To qualify as a locked room mystery, the murder must appear to have been executed behind closed doors by an unknown suspect. The killer also disappears in a way that defies logic, appearing to have simply vanished into thin air. Readers are normally presented with the crime, and the clues, and challenged to solve the mystery. As with most detective fiction, there is always an unexpected twist at the end of the story. Most other novels in the detective fiction genre, place their focus on the ‘whodunit,’ while locked-room mysteries must first determine the ‘howdunit.’
A History of the Locked Room Mystery
The inspiration behind locked room mysteries goes back thousands of years, and includes the biblical story of Bel and the Dragon. Many people were worshipping an idol that was locked in a room, and would reportedly eat offerings left for it here. The hero, Daniel, proved that the idol was a false god by revealing the existence of a secret entrance into the room.
The origin of the sub-genre, however, is credited to 19th century authors, such as Edgar Allan Poe who wrote The Murders in the Rue Morgue in 1841. The key feature of the locked room mystery expanded to include ‘misdirection,’ after Israel Zangwill published The Big Bow Mystery in 1892. During the same era, Sherlock Holmes became the leading detective in locked room mysteries, cementing the sub-genre in readers’ hearts forever.
In the Golden Age of detective fiction, many popular authors experimented with locked room mystery stories, including Agatha Christie. There were other writers that specialized in the sub-genre, including John Dickson Carr (Carter Dickson), who created some of the most intriguing locked room mysteries to date. Stories in the sub-genre appealed not only to English-speaking audiences, but also flourished in France and Japan. These countries continued to enjoy their mystique, after WWII caused a decline in its popularity in Britain.
Locked room mysteries began to regain their popularity in the 1970s, and their publication continues to fluctuate. There are many written specifically for younger audiences, where the crimes are not as gruesome as murder. Enid Blyton has been one of the most prolific authors of these, and helped develop greater cognitive abilities in a generation of children.
The sub-genre has also been adapted for the film and television industry. Many books have been turned into films, including Sherlock Holmes episodes. There are also several television series that feature a sarcastic detective, who finds himself in the middle of a locked room mystery regularly.