From the moment I read The Murders in the Rue Morgue by Edgar Allen Poe many years ago, I wanted to write a locked room mystery. There’s only one problem with that. It’s fiendishly difficult. It’s frustrating. It sometimes even goes by the name an ‘impossible crime.’ Yet it is utterly enthralling. Readers become obsessive over these stories. The locked room mystery is the fidget spinner of detective fiction. In its heyday, it was compared to crossword puzzles, something Agatha Christie adored. It’s the clever arm of crime fiction. As such, it lends itself to the absolute cream of the detective crop. Sherlock had to have a locked room. One of his best is The Adventure of the Speckled Band. Murders in a bedroom with seemingly no way out and, most importantly, no way in. This calls for the greatest mind.
Agatha Christie has some masterpieces. The dramatic and bloody death of the unpleasant Simeon Lee in Hercule Poirot’s Christmas is fabulous in its simplicity and almost unguessability. But it’s the almost that is the key. This book is brilliantly clued so that the answer is there, you just have to work it out. The locked room addict feverishly analyses every nuance, searching for that tiny little pinhole where the answer lies, before the author gets to the denouement first.
This subsection of the crime fiction genre is the author pitching themselves against the reader more so than in any other branch. It’s not just whodunnit but howdunnit. It has to be absolutely perfect though. If the reader goes back and finds even the smallest hole in the plot, everything falls apart, something I was painfully aware of.
Writing my own locked room mystery has taken me many months of careful clueing and plotting. I’ve used all manner of weird and wonderful resources. There are countless drawings, diagrams and photographs of every angle. These are all gathered on my ever expanding Murder Boards where maps and plans are carefully placed and joined with the inevitable red string. To the neighbours passing my study window, it can often look like I’m planning a murder.
My trawling of strange and unusual YouTube channels has gone on for weeks. My Google search history is a bizarre combination of ducking stools, survival courses, armour and safari supper clubs. This time, I even resorted to actual models to ensure the core of the story works. My son’s Lego has been very usefully employed to create a castle with the relevant structures to perform the trick of the murder in my latest book. The only problem, of course, is when pieces have been ‘played with’ or ‘replaced.’ It’s not unheard of for Chewbacca to appear overnight as the murderer or for Harry Potter put in an appearance as the victim. I’ve used everything I could think of to ensure the locked room element works like clockwork. It has to.
Many writers have been shot down in flames for having even the tiniest flaw in the plot. It may be fiendishly difficult for the reader to work it out but it’s even more painstaking for the writer. Every single thread, every bit of red string has to be in exactly the right place and at the right time. I have notebooks filled with each character’s exact movements in parallel to the others at every relevant minute. It is intricate work that often ends in going back to the Murder Board. So why do it? I think the answer is, for me at least, that it’s the Everest of crime writing. Because it’s there. I adore reading them and, like all readers, attempting to work it out. I never do! But I still keep going back for more.
One of my favourites that I’ve read many times, is John Dickson Carr’s The Hollow Man (or The Three Coffins in America). It is still held by many to be the foundation stone of all locked room mysteries, although others vehemently disagree! In this book, there is the infamous locked room lecture in chapter seventeen. It’s an extraordinary chapter to put in any book and would doubtless be edited out today. It goes on for almost twenty pages, cataloguing in detail the various ways in which a locked room story can be constructed. From accident to mechanical engineering, suicide dressed up to look like murder to illusion and impersonation, this chapter envisages every conceivable variation on the locked room mystery. But, as crime readers know, there’s always scope for something new.
Like so many readers, I have an abiding love of the locked room. Part of this is the reassuring nature of it. However difficult or seemingly impossible it is, if the rules have been adhered to, we know the answer is there. It has to be fair play, of course. It can’t turn out to have been some supernatural agency all along. Although, as Agatha Christie showed us in The Pale Horse and many other places, the strong suggestion that it might be is not precluded. There is nothing irrational about the locked room. It doesn’t turn out to be a ghost, alien or homicidal maniac without reason. The reason is everything.
However, it’s not just older novels where this is employed. Recently, writers have embraced a take on the locked room mystery known as the ‘closed circle.’ Some crime aficionados see this as a separate arm of the genre, others see it as locked from the outside world and that the sealed environment simply takes the concept to a different level. This is the classic isolated setting, an old house, an island or some other fixed location cut off from the outside world. Sarah Pearse sealed off her guests in The Sanatorium to great effect. Ruth Ware and Lucy Foley also use it very successfully. Hanna Jameson in The Last goes even further and employs a nuclear war to isolate her guests. There is a great resurgence of the whodunnit and in particular this style of isolated closed circle book. The locked room mystery is no longer trapped in the Golden Age. It is still very much alive.
(c) Victoria Dowd
About The Supper Club Murders:
The phones are out.
The roads have flooded.
There’s no way in or out.
And the murders have begun.
Ursula Smart and her mother, Pandora, are invited to a supper safari at Greystone Castle, with their ever-adventurous book club.
Their hosts are Lord and Lady Black, who bought their titles and have taken up residence in the castle at the edge of a picturesque Dartmoor village.
But the quaint, idyllic façade soon fades as festering resentments begin to surface. Ursula and Pandora sense all is not well at Greystone. And when the Midnight Gun fires, their suspicions are proved right.
Death is all around them in this ancient castle — in the priest hole, the murder hole, on the ducking stool.
The Smart women race to solve a seemingly impossible murder, even as the body count rises.
Who will be next?
A DARK, COMEDY WITH AN IMPOSSIBLE LOCKED-ROOM MURDER MYSTERY AT THE CENTRE.
Victoria Dowd’s brilliant whodunnit is perfect for fans of Richard Osman, Robert Thorogood, Agatha Christie, Anthony Horowitz, Faith Martin and Sophie Hannah.
Order your copy online here.