The locked room whodunnit is a stalwart of the mystery genre—the seemingly impossible crime committed inside a sealed-off room. Agatha Christie had several famous locked-room mysteries, including Murder on the Orient Express, the latest cinematic adaptation of which is currently chugging through a successful theatrical run. But locked room mysteries aren’t just Poirot’s home turf—more than a few SFF authors haven’t been able to resist the lure of the format, crafting fiendish puzzles in science-fictional contexts (locked rooms beget locked spaceships easily enough). The 10 books listed here offer fantastic sci-fi mysteries that rival anything in Christie’s oeuvre.
Six Wakes, by Mur Lafferty
A locked-room mystery nestled comfortably inside a big-idea sci-fi premise, Lafferty’s latest is a interstellar page-turner that puts an innovative twist on cloning tropes. Societal and climate collapse drives humanity to send 2,000 cryo-frozen people to a distant, Earth-like planet on a ship crewed by six criminals who volunteer to be cloned again and again as they shepherd their precious cargo to its final destination. Every time the crew is cloned, they maintain their collective memories. When they wake up at the beginning of the novel, however, their former bodies are dead—brutally murdered in various ways. The ship is in shambles (the gravity is off, the controlling artificial intelligence is offline, and they’re off-course); and their memories (and all other records) have been erased. The six have to clean up the mess—but they also have to figure out who killed them and why, and how to survive within a paranoid pressure-cooker of a ship.
Places in the Darkness, by Chris Brookmyre
The space station Ciudad de Cielo (the City in the Sky) hangs in orbit hundreds of miles above the Earth, and for many, represents humanity’s aspirations of escaping the clutches of gravity once and for all. For the people on the station, it’s something else entirely—a claustrophobic prison where drug-running and prostitution fuel endless gang wars and implantable memories offer both the opportunity for limitless knowledge and the potential for horrifying manipulation. These criminal elements are tolerated until a body shows up, bringing Nikki “Fix” Freeman on board to investigate, accompanied by straight-laced government rep Alice Blake. Nikki isn’t thrilled to be hobbled by Alice, but as more dead bodies show up on the station, they both realize they may not be able to trust their own memories—and that a gang war may be the least dangerous problem in the City in the Sky. Brookmyre has written armloads of crime novels, so it’s no surprise the mystery here comes off well—but it turns out he’s also just as sharp at the sci-fi stuff.
Station, by Johanna Stokes and Leno Carvalho
This awesome graphic novel is set on the International Space Station. Dyson Wales arrives as one of eight scientists sent by countries around the world, and it’s the culmination of all of his ambitions as a scientist. His dream quickly sours when he realizes that tensions between his fellow brainiacs are high, and the greater good of mankind seem far from everyone’s mind. When the Russian cosmonaut goes on an untethered spacewalk to make some repairs, he discovers his thrusters won’t function, so instead of returning to the station, he begins to drift away into space—with just eight hours of air. The specter of sabotage and murder quickly rises, and Dyson navigates increasing chaos inside the station to solve the mystery in a satisfying and logical way. It’s all detailed in Carvalho’s spectacular art.
Hadrian’s Wall, by Kyle Higgins, Alec Siegel, Rod Reis, and Troy Peteri
Another gorgeous graphic novel. In the late 21st century, a cold war rages between Earth and its biggest colony planet, Theta. Thew crew of the space station Hadrian’s Wall are shaken when one of their own is murdered while engaged in a space walk, and Simon Moore is sent from Earth to investigate. Simon’s a classic noir detective, self-medicating recklessly to quiet his sharp, racing mind—a mind sent into overdrive by the fact that the victim’s widow is also his ex-wife. Their messy history, combined with the claustrophobic setting, make this a slow-boil of tension with the sort of worldbuilding you find in the best sci-fi writing.
Killer Advice, by Kristine Kathryn Rusch
Vaadum Resort is a space station-casino, the sort of place no one actually intends to go—people just find themselves there. When a spaceship arrives already on fire, with two crew members murdered, Vaadum is happy to take them in. But Vaadum’s owner, Hunsaker, soon regrets his welcoming attitude as the murders continue, and he’s forced into the role of detective for his own self-preservation. The setting is appropriately seedy and isolated, with the twist of a locked-room mystery infecting a slightly larger locked room like a virus.
The Ark, by Patrick S. Tomlinson
The ark of the title is a generation ship transporting a population away from the doomed Earth. As it finally approaches a livable planet to colonize, a scientist is reported missing—a difficult accomplishment on a closed ship. Bryan Benson is assigned to the investigation, which leads him to the unseen dark side of The Ark—a place replete with secrets. What Benson uncovers leads him to doubt his very reality, as everything he’s believed turns out to be untrue in the most painful of ways. What he learns reveals an effort to transform humanity’s last hope into humanity’s last gasp.
Johannes Cabal the Detective, by Jonathan Howard
The sequel to Johannes Cabal the Necromancer kicks off with Cabal arrested and thrown into prison to await execution. A sticky situation, but Cabal uses his wit, his powers, and his decidedly off-brand set of ethics to impersonate a high-ranking official and make his escape on board the aeroship Princess Hortense. Once in the air, however, a passenger disappears, and Cabal realizes he has enemies sharing the ride. Bodies begin to pile up, and Howard slowly crafts a locked-ship mystery using Murder on the Orient Express as his template—except imagine Hercule Poirot with the ability to raise and speak with the dead.
The Big Time, by Fritz Leiber
Leiber’s 1958 novel is filled with big ideas about time travel and a “time war” that’s been raging for as long as the combatants can remember. The war is fought by altering events in the past in order to change the present in ways disadvantageous to the enemy. Time soldiers go to Recuperation Stations to recover from the stress of their exploits, where people like Greta work to ease their suffering and heal them (among other less savory things). Greta’s discovery of a time bomb in her Recuperation Station is the central mystery, as efforts to defuse it coincide with the investigation into how it was smuggled in, and who is responsible. Leiber crams a lot into this story, including a riff on how momentous changes in the timeline of our world are regarded as minor collateral damage.
Tea from an Empty Cup, by Pat Cadigan
Cadigan weaves an original twist on the locked-room mystery in this post-apocalyptic story, set in Japan some decades after an unspecified disaster has destroyed the world we know. What’s left is harsh and unhappy, driving many into the expensive worlds of artificial reality parlors, where you can strap in and have all sorts of adventures without consequence—if you die in AR, you wake up in the real world ready to have another go. Except suddenly people are dying—in locked rooms, in the same ways they die in AR. Dore Konstantin is a homicide cop with no AR experience who realizes that solving these locked-room murders will mean entering the AR world and cobbling together clues, grafting a welcome extra dimension to the puzzle.
Lightless, by C.A. Higgins
On board the ship Ananke, computer scientist Althea has a relationship with the ship’s artificial intelligence—and the AI is evolving into a sentient personality, complicating her work. As are the intruders, including handsome Ivan, who have somehow tricked the ship into letting them on board. One of them escapes into the ship while Ivan is being interrogated, but what worries Althea is how they got onboard in the first place—and what they’ve done to the AI’s code. What ensues is a pressure-cooker story, a locked-room mystery in which the room itself cannot be trusted to play fair.
What’s your favorite SF locked room mystery?