For a while now, I’ve been working on a series of murder mystery dinner party games for Hic Dragones, and am reading a lot of locked room mysteries for inspiration. For me the locked room mystery – or other variations of the ‘impossible crime’ mystery – is one of the most satisfying types of puzzle in detective fiction, and so most of the games I have been creating are based on this formula. My partner and I ran a Twitter-based locked room mystery last year, entitled ‘Death Stalks the Stage‘, which a lot of people attempted but no one solved!
So I thought it would be cool to do an episode of Hannah’s Bookshelf devoted to locked room mysteries. This went out on Saturday 22nd August, and you can catch up with the show on the player below. The books I chose to talk about are all ‘classics’, rather than more obscure titles, but they are all favourites of mine. This is all subjective, of course, and I as I said on the show I have quite a strict set of personal rules about what makes a good locked room mystery. And I was very careful not to give any spoilers on air!
As always, here are the details of the books I discussed in the show. If you have any recommendations – or if you disagree with any of my choices – let me know in the comments section.
First published in Graham’s Magazine in 1841, Poe’s short story is one of the first modern detective stories, and introduces the character of C. Auguste Dupin – the first of the brilliantly rational fictional detectives that we know and love. And the eponymous murders do indeed take place in a room that is inaccessible and locked from the inside. I did express some dissatisfaction with the story’s reveal (NO SPOILERS!) and likened it to the explanation given in Arthur Conan Doyle’s ‘The Speckled Band’, but this is just my own opinion, of course.
The Queen of Crime’s huge body of work includes a wider variety of mental puzzles, tricks and twists than any other, so it’s no surprise that she often presented ‘impossible’ scenarios for her detectives (and readers) to ponder. While many of her books contain seemingly impossible crimes, I chose the novels that use a literal locked room for this list. So my recommendations would be: Murder in Mesopotamia (1936), Hercule Poirot’s Christmas (1938), And Then There Were None (1938) and the Poirot short story ‘The Dream’, in The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding and a Selection of Entrées (1960).
If Agatha Christie is the Queen of Crime, then John Dickson Carr (who also wrote under a variety of pseudonyms) is the King of the Locked Room. Impossible crimes were such a common feature of his work that it’s actually quite hard to narrow down my recommendations… but here goes… The Hollow Man (1935) is a must-read, not just for the plot (with not one, but two ‘impossible’ crimes and a series of apparently incongruous clues), but for Dr Gideon Fell’s ‘locked room lecture’ in Chapter 17. The Plague Court Murders (writing as Carter Dickson, 1934) is also excellent, and marks the first appearance of Sir Henry Merrivale, Carr’s barrister detective. Speaking of whom, The Judas Window (1938) is also a personal favourite, as I particularly enjoyed the way Merrivale taunts a jury (and the reader) with just how obvious the solution is.
I discovered Rawson’s books after a bit of a Jonathan Creek binge. I always loved Jonathan Creek, but was quite disappointed when rewatching the old series back-to-back. Don’t get me wrong, there are some excellent episodes (‘Danse Macabre’, the first episode of the second series has, for me, a near-perfect solution for a locked room mystery), but some of the plots were rather far-fetched and the solutions were often overly-contrived. But I love the use of stage magic as a backdrop (and I talked a lot in the show about my love of stage magic and conjuring), so was really pleased to discover the Great Merlini novels, which also draw heavily on the tricks of the magician’s trade but in a far more extended way. Death from a Top Hat (1938) is the first (and arguably the best) of the series, and it was followed by The Footprints on the Ceiling (1939), The Headless Lady (1940) and No Coffin for the Corpse (1942). These books were available as eBooks for a while, but at the time of writing this only seem to be available as audio books or secondhand paperbacks.
This was a rare non-recommendation from me. First published in 1905, and found in the collection The Thinking Machine, ‘The Problem of Cell 13’ regularly crops up on lists of the ‘greatest locked room mysteries’ – but I really can’t see the appeal! In fact, I’m not sure it should even be counted alongside the other detective stories listed here, as the premise is really quite different. Augustus S.F.X. Van Dusen – the eponymous ‘thinking machine’ – wagers that he will be able to escape from an infamously secure prison cell… and then he does. The mystery lies in the method used for the escape, which, for me, was a huge disappointment and more than a bit silly. For me, the difference between ‘The Problem of Cell 13’ and the other books on this list is like the difference between watching an escapologist and watching a conjuror. And I have to admit I prefer the latter!
For more information about these books and why I chose them, and to hear me talk more about the relationship between stage magic and locked room mysteries, you can catch the show again here: