(Spoiler alert: Key plot details revealed below)
Locked room mysteries – featuring seemingly impossible murders – have intrigued crime fans since the golden age of detective fiction. What’s their appeal, and how many ingenious solutions can writers devise, asks Miles Jupp.
Four walls, a door, a ceiling and floor.
As crime scenes go, it doesn’t seem particularly promising. Yet for over a century, some of the most ingenious detective writers in the world have been wringing suspense and excitement from locked room murders.
Last month, I found myself locked in a freezing cell in the Tower of London.
With me was Paul Doherty, a history mystery writer, who detailed the myriad ways in which he could easily kill me in just such an environment, with disconcerting relish.
Doherty, who has written more than 90 novels, calmly ran through a long list of macabre possibilities of how one might be done away with – by means of snakes or poison or even felled by arrows fired in through a slit.
The locked room genre is littered with examples of seemingly impossible murders. Perhaps a bloodied corpse is found in a room which had been locked for months. Or a victim, paranoid for his safely, concealed alone in a bank vault, is murdered nonetheless.
As crime novels go, such stories are a world away from contemporary, grimy police procedurals or Ruth Rendell-style tales of psychopaths and loners. Locked room murder mysteries do not aim to shine a light on the darker and more brutal realities of our existence. Each one is a puzzle.
This is a world in which detectives, often posh or whimsical, grapple to solve crimes that should not have been achievable in the first place.
Writers of locked room mysteries are not interested in the psychology of the killer, or the drink problem of the detective. What fascinates them is the thrill of setting up a fiendish crime, and challenging the reader to solve it.
Mild-mannered Robert Adey has an encyclopaedic knowledge of the locked room murder genre. In his 1991 bibliography he lists more than 2,000 of them, and at home has a bulging file bringing his research up to date.
Within the covers of his innocent-looking book is a resource that could launch the career of any would-be crime novelist, or indeed serial killer. The volume contains page after page describing bodies found dead in castles, lighthouses, submarines and deserted houses.
What they have in common is that their being killed should have been inconceivable. And yet they are all stone dead. (Apart from a very few who were pretending in order that they might fool a detective or be switched at the last minute for the body of their identical twin brother. Or a waxwork – over the years these writers have tried almost everything.)
But if the list of puzzles at the front of the book are intriguing, it is at the back of Adey’s book where things get even more interesting. Here one can peruse the solutions to these crimes which have bamboozled the most wily of readers and tested the powers of the most perceptive of detectives.
Within this list of solutions can be found bats who dislodge ceremonial daggers so that they plunge into the heart of the victim, or vicious cats whose claws have been dipped in poison, sliding doors, hidden panels and gas-filled glass vials crushed under heel. Each one reveals something of the extraordinary ingenuity of writers of locked room mysteries.