Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Crime Fiction Alphabet: L is for LOCKED ROOM PUZZLES

The Crime Fiction Alphabet is up to the letter "L" -- and my contribution this week is the anthology Locked Room Puzzles. (To be precise, Academy Mystery Novellas: Vol 3: Locked Room Puzzles.) Editors Martin H. Greenberg and Bill Pronzini have assembled four novellas for the set, including John Dickson Carr's "The Third Bullet," Edward D. Hoch's "Day of the Wizard," Bill Pronzini's "Booktaker," and Clayton Rawson's "From Another World."

One of my favorite variations on the mystery genre, this sub-genre -- "locked room mysteries," "impossible crimes," "unbreakable alibis" and the like  -- are more interested in the how than in the who. (Although, sometimes, figuring out the "how" tells us the "who.") As described by Wikipedia: "The locked room mystery is a sub-genre of detective fiction in which a crime -- usually murder -- is committed under apparently impossible circumstances. The crime in question typically involves a crime scene that no intruder could have entered or left, e.g., a locked room. Following other conventions of classic detective fiction, the reader is normally presented with the puzzle and all of the clues, and is encouraged to solve the mystery before the solution is revealed in a dramatic denouement."

The earliest known example of a locked-room mystery is the apocryphal tale "Bel and the Dragon." When Edgar Allan Poe wrote 1841's "The Murders in the Rue Morgue," the debut of the brilliant detective C. Auguste Dupin, Poe wrote the first official locked-room mystery -- and created modern detective fiction.

In the years since Poe, many of the great classic mystery authors have been forced their sleuths to make sense of the impossible: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (Sherlock Holmes in "The Speckled Band"), G.K. Chesterton (Father Brown in "The Secret Garden"), Dorothy L. Sayers (Lord Peter Wimsey in Have His Carcase), Agatha Christie (Miss Marple in "Miss Marple Tells A Story"), S. S. Van Dine (Philo Vance in The Kennel Murder Case), and others. More recent practitioners include Lawrence Block (Bernie Rhodenbarr in Burglar's Can't Be Choosers), and Christopher Fowler (Bryant & May in The Water Room, Ten Second Staircase, White Corridor, and The Victoria Vanishes).

A more comprehensive list is available at Wikipedia.

Our featured anthology Locked Room Puzzles includes novellas from two of the more prolific authors in the field -- John Dickson Carr (1906-1977) and Edward D. Hoch (1930-2008).

Carr, who wrote under several pen names, was a master of the locked-room mystery. His masterpiece, the 1935 Dr. Gideon Fell mystery The Hollow Man (published in the U.S. as The Three Coffins), includes the famous "locked room lecture," wherein the sleuth stops the action long enough to explain all the ways a person can commit a near-perfect murder in an apparently locked-room or otherwise impossible-crime situation. (Of special note is that, in the course of his lecture, Dr. Fell mentions off-handedly that he and his listeners are, of course, characters in a book.)

Carr's entry in Locked Room Puzzles is the novella "The Third Bullet." A man is found murdered in a room to which no one could have had access.

Edward D. Hoch wrote nearly 1000 short stories in his lifetime, including many of the type discussed here. In fact, his series sleuth Dr. Sam Hawthorne, a retired New England doctor, exclusively solved impossible crimes in the 1920s and '30s.

Hoch's entry in Locked Room Puzzles, the novella "Day of the Wizard," stars another series character, the mysterious Simon Ark (who may be a 2,000-year-old Coptic priest). The inscrutable Ark must solve the mystery of a wrecked plane and its strange cargo, an enigmatic magician, and a drugged blonde.

Previous letters in the Crime Fiction Alphabet:
Crime Fiction Alphabet: H is for Homicide Trinity (Nero Wolfe)
Crime Fiction Alphabet: I is for The Innocence of Father Brown
Crime Fiction Alphabet: J is for P.D. James
Crime Fiction Alphabet: K is for Laurie R. King


Anonymous said...

Thanks for this review and all of this helpful information, Chris! I agree with you that those so-called "impossible mysteries" are fascinating and some of the authors that you mention (I really like Hoch, for instance) do them very well.

Kerrie Smith said...

Thanks for this contribution Chris. Locked room type mysteries and their variants continue to have an attraction for readers don't they- even THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO is a variant, and it is a scenario that PD James, Ruth Rendell, Simon Brett and other authors that I read have played with.

gautami tripathy said...

I remember reading that Poe story long time back! Thanks for posting this. You made me want to explore more of locked room puzzles!

Here is my Crime Fiction Alphabet: L post!

Die Laughing: Funny Crime and Mystery Fiction


A woman with a complicated past returns home to become the small town's new sheriff. Best Mann For The Job is by the writer/artist team of Chris and Erica Well. Read it from the beginning at StudioWell.com. Watch the trailer on YouTube.