6 Fiendish “Locked Room” Mysteries

Everyone loves a good mystery, but a with everything else in life, there’s a hierarchy to the genre, ranging from thrillers who make no effort to hide the identity of the killer, to the most hardcore of all mystery types: the locked-room whodunnit. What is a locked-room mystery? Exactly what it sounds like: a crime (usually a murder) is committed in a locked room or other inaccessible area, or  more abstractly, in another recognizably impossible way. After all, if the room was locked from the inside, how could the murderer have gotten out? Here are six unputdownable locked-room mysteries ever written.

The Murders in the Rue Morgue, by Edgar Allen Poe
Often recognized as the pioneering story in the sub-genre (which isn’t surprising, as Poe pioneered detective fiction in general, among a dozen other things), The Murders in the Rue Morgue sports the classic setup: two women are brutally murdered in a room locked from the inside. Witnesses report a plethora of odd clues, including someone talking in a language that everyone describes differently. Modern readers might find the ultimate solution a little odd, but Poe’s work to outline the detective’s investigative method is one of the most influential pieces of writing of all time.

The Woman in Cabin 10, by Ruth Ware
Ware’s latest is a classic locked-room mystery with a Hitchkockian flare: Laura “Lo” Blacklock is a tightly-wound writer for a travel magazine, assigned to cover a luxury cruise while suffering from PTSD after a break-in at her apartment. She observes a woman in the cabin next to her and one night hears what sounds like a body splashing into the water. The next day, there is no record of the woman, Cabin 10 is locked up tight, and everyone thinks Lo is imagining things. That’s the sort of premise mystery writers have been working with for decades, and Ware manages a perfect balance between a classic and modern approach, resulting in a fantastic read.

The Adventure of the Speckled Band, by Arthur Conan Doyle
Doyle’s iconic Sherlock Holmes still defines much of the mystery genre today, especially when it comes to short fiction. Holmes investigated locked rooms four times in Doyle’s original stories, but The Adventure of the Speckled Band is probably the best known. Holmes is contacted by a woman living with her spiteful, unpleasant stepfather at their dilapidated estate. About to be married, the woman is haunted by the mysterious death of her sister, whose last words referred to “the speckled band;” now, she is being forced to sleep in her sister’s old room because of repairs to the house. Holmes does his thing, and the story resolves with a bit of the graceful action Doyle was so good at writing (but which often gets overlooked in favor of Holmes’ brainy deductions).

The King is Dead, by Ellery Queen
Ellery Queen was for a time the most famous fictional detective (and literary pseudonym) in the world, and this classic novel is a prime example of him at his best. A man makes a public threat that he will shoot his father at midnight; his father retreats to a secure room alone with his wife, while Queen, hired on, sits in another location with the son, who has an unloaded weapon. At midnight the son raises the empty gun and pulls the trigger—and the father is shot dead, seemingly impossibly. Queen eventually gets to the bottom of it, and the novels were always presented as a fair-play “challenge to the reader,” stating that all the clues necessary to solve the mystery were in the story, and if you paused before reading the explanation you would have a fair chance of figuring it out.

The Mystery of the Yellow Room, by Gaston Leroux
Another “fair-play” story, The Mystery of the Yellow Room is not only a cracking locked-room mystery, but also distinctive in its inclusion of detailed floor plans and other information for to the reader, inviting them to “play along” and try to solve the case before the fictional detective Joseph Rouletabille. A woman is found in her locked bedroom, severely beaten and confused. As the investigation proceeds, the perpetrator is spotted several times—but each time seems to vanish into thin air when pursued. As with any good mystery, the solution is more practical than sensational, but is still making people feel foolish to this day.

Almost Every Book by John Dickson Carr
Carr was more or less the King of Locked Rooms—his hard-to-find novel The Hollow Man was once selected as the best locked-room mystery of all time. Inspired by writers like Gaston Leroux and G.K. Chesterton, Carr plotted intricate puzzles for his readers, usually involving an “impossible” crime, and then followed the investigation to its inevitable conclusion. In fact, an entire chapter of The Hollow Man is dedicated to the detective Dr. Gideon Fell discussing locked-room mysteries in general, one of the greatest meta-moments in detective fiction of all time.

 

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