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The Locked Room Mystery Genre
What is a Locked Room Mystery?
The locked room mystery, also known as the impossible crime mystery, is a murder case where the murder could not have taken place given the facts known to the police and the detective. In the classic locked room mystery, the victim is trapped inside a room that is locked on the inside with no visible means of entrance or egress.
Hence, the murderer could not have left the room and therefore the murder could not have taken place. Over the years, the locked room mystery has been tied with the impossible crime mystery. In an impossible crime, the murder could not have been done. In one example, the bullet had to have passed through walls, yet the walls have no holes in them. In another case the bullet seems to have made a right turn at some point to hit its target. The means or method of the crime mean that it was impossible for the crime to have happened as such.
Locked Room Mystery Characteristics
- Level of Characterization
The characters are of secondary importance here. They have to move in a certain way to be at a particular place at a particular time to drive the plot forward. So they cannot be independent or fully realized.
- Level of Plot
Plot is everything in a locked room mystery. This is not something that Johnny or Sue Writer takes on. This requires an idea and a plausible way of explaining the locked room. Only a few writers typically use this type of plot as it requires such an eye to details.
- Level of Mystery
Indeed, the mystery runs high in these books. The mystery needs to be solved in order to move on. The desire to solve it is overwhelming.
- Level of Suspense
There can be some suspense if other events depend on a solution. A character may go to jail or the electric chair if the real killer isn't revealed, but it's not the key element of the book.
- Level of Thriller
The crimes are usually more personal ones, and therefore there's not much in the way of thriller here.
- Level of Strangeness
By definition, an impossible crime has an element of strangeness to it. The surreal qualities of a crime that couldn't' have happened open up the possibility for strangeness.
- Level of Violence
Typically not as much violence, because at heart this is a cerebral crime. The characters are thinking about how to find a solution to the problem.
- Level of Action
Typically not as much action, because at heart this is a cerebral crime. There's more discussion than action.
- Degree of Thriller, Suspense, Crime, or Mystery in this the Locked Room Subgenre
The locked room subgenre definitely falls into the mystery genre. It's a puzzle plot at its best. There can be some elements of thriller or suspense, based on the book, but it comes in second to learning how the crime was committed. Given that the plot is foremost, it's not likely to fall into the crime novel category either.
Related MYSTERY Subgenres
Golden Age Mystery. Many of the locked room books were written during the Golden Age. John Dickson Carr is the king of this subgenre.
Puzzle Mysteries. Of course, there's a puzzle to be solved beyond the whodunit, which in this case is howdunit.
Locked Room Mystery isn't for you IF...
If you don't like books where you have to think or cross wits with the detective or if you are just wanting a summer beach read, these books are probably not for you.
- 1 The Case of the Constant Suicides
By John Dickson Carr. The king of the locked room mystery writes one of his best book.
- 2 And Then There Were None
By Agatha Christie. Ten corpses on an island. No survivors, but all were murdered including the very last one.
- 3 The Case of the Solid Key
By Anthony Boucher. Boucher who was later the reviewer for the New York Times was an incredible plotter, though the impossible crime angles are quickly resolved in this book.
- 4 The Big Bow Mystery
By Israel Zangwill. The very first locked room mysteries and still a great example of the subgenre.
- 5 Case for Three Detectives
By Leo Bruce. It's literally a case for three different detectives who try to solve an impossible crime.
- 6 The King is Dead
By Ellery Queen. Ellery Queen lived for plots and this one does not fail. One man shoots a gun in one room and another man dies in a second room from a bullet wound with no gun. Yet there are no bullet holes in the walls.
- 7 Death from a Top Hat
By Clayton Rawson. Rawson and his detective characters were both magicians, and they use misdirection to surprise the readers in this impossible crime.
- 8 Killed on the Rocks
By WIllaim DeAndrea. A variation on the locked room, a man is found dead with no tracks in the snow that surround the crime scene. Nine Times Nine, HH Holmes – Boucher's pseudonym wrote impossible crime stories, and this is his best.
- 9 Bloodhounds
By Peter Lovesey. Though he didn't write novels, Ed Hoch deserves a hat tip for his impossible crime shorts stories. Collections of his stories from Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine are available from Crippen & Landru.