Miraculous Misdeeds? Locked Room Crimes and Their Significance for Humans
By Vikas Datta
Why do we like crime? Like, that is, in the sense of why we are attracted to reports of lurid incidents in our newspapers and TV bulletins — or WhatsApp forwards or YouTube channels — or, for that matter, the relevance of a steady diet of good vs evil in almost every form of cultural expression — religious or literary — we were/are exposed to, and why for many book readers, mystery fiction is entrancing.
It is only the last facet that falls within the scope of this piece, and let us try to answer it before proceeding further.
There can be a few reasons why mystery fiction — in its depiction, effect, and denouement of crime — appeals to those who would themselves stick to the straight and narrow moral path in their own lives otherwise.
The first is the vicarious pleasure we get from ‘overseeing’ such a legal and/or moral transgression being conducted by someone else, and second, there is more vicarious pleasure from seeing the disorder engendered by a crime being dissipated, order restored, and the violator punished.
The third is more significant — puzzles intrigue the human mind, and what can be more intricate puzzles than the “whodunits” or “howdunits” that make up the most of mystery fiction. For now, let us take up the second one, in its most baffling avatar — the “locked room crime/mystery”.
A staple of the genre, locked room crimes, usually murder, are those committed in circumstances under which it was seemingly impossible for the perpetrator to commit the crime, or evade detection, in entering/exiting the scene — say, in the case of a person found deceased in a windowless room sealed from the inside. Like in other classic detective fiction, the readers are normally presented with all the clues, so as to solve the mystery before the solution is revealed in a dramatic climax.
A good locked room mystery provides pleasure from trying to solve the puzzle before it is revealed, and from a satisfyingly logical solution, but those that are not well thought-of, or properly executed or explained, will only lead to the reader feeling unsatisfied or cheated.
Also, they don’t have to be murders or take place in locked rooms, but just be crimes that seem to be impossible at first glance, and give the impression that they were committed by a dangerous, supernatural entity who can defy natural/physical laws of nature by walking through walls or vanishing into thin air with solid objects like the murder weapon or valuables.
Some examples of the latter span from “King Ottokar’s Sceptre” (1939), where Tintin’s casual amble in front of a toy store makes him realise how the article in question was stolen without any of the suspects having left the area, and it persists right down to Stieg Larsson’s “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” (2005), where a journalist is probing a four-decade-old disappearance of a young woman from an island with only one way of ingress.
The original locked room mystery, which also happens to be the first modern mystery, is Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” (1841), where a corpse is found inside a room locked from the inside. According to the story, several witnesses say they heard the voices of a possible suspect, but the killer is nowhere to be found when the room is opened.
The room has a chimney — but it is too narrow for any human, and the room’s two windows are not just locked, but also held closed by a nail, which is impossible to replace from the outside.
Subsequently, Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes investigated at least three locked room mysteries — in his second novel, “The Sign of Four”, and in stories such as “The Adventure of the Speckled Band”, which raises several key points on agency and observation, and then the seminal “The Adventure of the Empty House”, which announces his reappearance into the world.
Israel Zangwill’s “The Big Bow Mystery” (1892), “The Problem of Cell 13” (1905) by Jacques Futrelle, featuring his redoubtable “Thinking Machine” detective Augustus S.F.X. Van Dusen, and “The Mystery of the Yellow Room” (1907) by French journalist and author Gaston Leroux are also some good examples, as are some of G. K. Chesterton’s Father Brown stories, especially “The Oracle of the Dog”, S. S. Van Dine’s “The Canary Murder Case” (1927), Ellery Queen’s “The Chinese Orange Mystery” (1934), and railway engineer-turned-‘fair play’ mystery practitioner Freeman Wills Crofts in “The End of Andrew Harrison” (1938).
Agatha Christie, who is not only the most-read woman crime fiction author, but possibly the most-read author beyond gender or genre, was also quite enamoured with this plot device but used it more in short stories, eg “The Thirteen Problems/The Tuesday Club Murders” (1931), than in her novels.
It was Anglophile American author John Dickson Carr, however, who is the acknowledged master of this genre with his expertise in chronicling the impossible crime: the locked room murder, with the doors and windows locked and bolted on the inside, the victim struck down or vanishing into thin air in front of startled witnesses, the corpse found in snow or mud, without a single footprint around the body, and so on.
This was with not one but at least three creations — the portly Dr Gideon Fell, who appears in 23 of his long works and several short stories; the choleric Sir Henry Merrivale (22 long works and two short stories); and the saturnine French policeman Henri Bencolin (five long works) — deal with a number of locked room/impossible crimes.
There are many more — Edward Hoch’s mysterious Simon Ark, who says he is a 2,000-year-old Coptic priest, probes a number of inexplicable crimes attributed to Satan but have more mundane or earthly causes; French author Paul Halter is known for his range now available in English, while “impossible/locked room mysteries” can be found in several incongruous places — “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince”, as far as the murder of Amelia Bones is concerned, for the Muggles, that is, and the reader knows better — or one of the initial deaths in Umberto Eco’s medieval thriller “The Name of the Rose” (1983).
It is necessary to return to Carr and his “The Hollow Man/The Three Coffins” (1935), which apart from being a superlative example of the craft, also sees Dr Fell actually give a lecture on the different ways a locked room mystery can be created.
Taking care to avoid spoilers, it can be said that these include a natural event that seems/is made to seem mysterious, or confusion being created deliberately by the perpetrator by misleading the witnesses, or the ingenuity of the human mind in making a contrivance for the crime that suggests human presence, and so on.
And in all this, the fallibility of human senses is one of the three important issues that make locked room/impossible crimes important beyond a mere pleasure for readers.
Second is the importance of taking a holistic view rather than over-reliance on one aspect, no matter how crucial it seems. Carr, in his essay “The Greatest Game in the World” (1946), notes the key to solving the mystery isn’t just one particular clue — a random word somewhere in the beginning, but a system of interlocking clues that allow the reader to arrive at a wider interpretation to give a larger picture of the truth.
And third, also the most important, is the recognition that the incident, no matter how perplexing or supernaturally caused it may seem, needs to have a rational explanation that must be painstakingly searched for.
Don’t these principles seem equally important in life?
Vikas Datta can be contacted at vikas.d@Ians.in