Reclaim The Locked Room Mystery! #notalockedroom

I’ve written drafts of this post a few times in the past, but deleted them, as my annoyance subsided, but I think that it’s time to finally get this off my chest. The term “Locked Room Mystery” has long been used to describe a genre of mystery fiction but in recent years, it has been used by publishers and reviewers to describe a different sort of story. A number of classic mystery fans have let me know their annoyance about this, so I’m writing this to educate and inform. Strap in…

What Is A Locked Room Mystery?

The phrase “Locked Room Mystery”, or “Locked Room or Impossible Mystery” refers to a crime – usually murder – that on the face of it, could not have happened, usually due to the body being found inside a room that has been sealed somehow from the inside. There are many, many example of this sort of plot – most of the works of John Dickson Carr would be a good place to start. Some good places to start (that are readily available) are:

The Case Of The Constant Suicides by John Dickson Carr

What causes everyone who stays in the top room of a castle tower, locked from the inside, to apparently throw themselves to their death?

Murder En Route by Brian Flynn

Not a room, per se, but how did a solitary passenger on the top deck of a moving bus manage to be strangled without anyone going up or down the stairs?

Anthrax Island by D L Marshall

There’s all sorts going on in this action thriller, but the central puzzle is a classic locked room mystery – a man shot dead inside a room, only for there to be no escape because the window has been nailed shut and the door was watched once the victim entered. So where did the killer go?

Jack In The Box – Jonathan Creek, Series 1

An old-school comedian seals himself into his underground bunker and shoots himself. Except his hands were so arthritic, he couldn’t peel a banana, let alone shoot a gun…

Death In Paradise, Series 5, Episode 8

A backpacker is found shot dead inside a hostel’s showerblock, her body slumped against the only door, meaning that nobody could have left after shooting her.

That’s a tiny example of the sort of thing we are talking about.

Within the classic genre, there is some debate as to whether some stories would count. The television series Monk is often cited as a purveyor of impossible crimes, but these tend to be “unbreakable alibi” mysteries – we know the villain but we don’t know how they did it (because, for example, they were in a coma at the time). Even in books, there is debate – I don’t count a particular book by Ellery Queen, as the room is “locked” for all but a handful of people, one of whom, surprisingly, ends up being the killer. But generally speaking, the definition is clear.

What Is NOT A Locked Room Mystery?

There has become an annoying tendency to label mysteries where there is a finite defined set of suspects as Locked Room mysteries. You could make a case that under that definition, any classic mystery worth its salt would be a locked room mystery, as we need to know who all the suspects are. But the modern definition seems to mostly cover books where the suspects are all locked in together in some manner. An extreme example would be Guess Who? by Chris McGeorge where five people wake up together, sealed inside an hotel suite, with a dead body in the bathtub – a really fun book, just not a locked room, as the author freely admits. The example that is most often cited (by the author among others) is The Hunting Party by Lucy Foley, where a bunch of friends find themselves cut off in their cabin by a snowstorm and, yes, one of them gets murdered.

Where Did This Misuse Come From?

I’ve no evidence for this, but I do have a theory. One of the first times I remember seeing this was when I saw And Then There Were None described as an impossible mystery, presumably based on the final few chapters where we appear to have run out of people who could be the killer as, well, almost everyone is dead. I’m guessing this was the cause of the use of the term and the subsequent misuse.

What Is The Problem?

There are plenty of people who buy books based on reviews, blurbs and the quotes on the backs of books. I’ve bought a number of books cited as “Locked Room Mysteries” only to find they are nothing of the sort. I’ve actually tweeted a couple of reviewers and authors asking whether the book is an actual locked room mystery – in the cases of authors, they’ve been very happy to explain, but to be fair, in these cases, they’d never used the term themselves.

You wouldn’t start using – and I’m struggling for a good example here – Gothic Romance to describe love stories set in Gotham City, because it has a fixed definition. We need to reclaim this term – in a polite way, of course. May I suggest #notalockedroom?

To be clear, I’m not dismissing these books as not worth reading – they are perfectly entertaining reads, just not locked room mysteries that a reader might expect from the cover. So, dear reader, is it just me ranting into the ether or does this bother you too? Do you have any examples of books that you’ve read or bought due to them being cited as “locked room mysteries” but were nothing of the sort? Or are you a writer who wants to make the opposite argument? Please, all opinions are welcome.

32 comments

  1. I appreciate your doing this. Perhaps we bloggers must all rise up together and shout this misuse to the world, but you do probably have the largest readership, and we could all simply . . . retweet!

    I don’t buy your theory for how it started, however, and here’s why: we bridle, and rightfully so, at a “closed circle” mystery being called a LRM. It’s false advertising, to say the least, and it proves that either the author or the marketing department has no knowledge of classic mystery tropes and/or bets that modern readers don’t. In short, it’s cynical.

    However, we don’t all seem to mind if any old impossible crime mystery is called a locked room mystery. No, some use those terms interchangeably, and I think that fuzzes things up a bit. And Then There Were None is every bit an impossible crime mystery, but because of the order in which the facts are presented, some people forget this. It’s not until the end when the police – and the reader – are presented with the fact that Vera Claythorne, the final victim, could not have committed suicide because the only chair in the room was set nicely against the door!!!

    This is one of the great shockers of the book for us! We saw Vera kill herself! How did that chair get put back? This creates an impossible crime situation. Everybody is dead! Nobody that we met on that island could be the killer. It’s . . . impossible.

    But . . . it is not a case of a locked room. There should be a distinction. And while I’m not faulting your explication above or asking you to complicate matters further by making this distinction, PD, I think it might go a ways toward explaining the misunderstanding modern folks have. Because ATTWN is the ultimate “closed circle” mystery that also happens to become an impossible crime mystery.

    The “unbreakable alibi” mystery is another kettle of red herrings, I agree, but it can also be a fuzzy distinction. If EVERYONE on the suspect list has an unbreakable alibi, then nobody could have killed the victim . . . so why is that not an impossible crime mystery? (But we agree: it’s NOT a locked room mystery.)

    Now, if suddenly after your post, everyone in publishing apologizes and Lucy Foley takes it all back, could you do something about all these idiots describing new mysteries as “the second coming of Agatha Christie”????

    I thank you.

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    • I think everyone has an unbreakable alibi makes it an impossible crime and I happily used Locked Room as shorthand for “Locked Room and Impossible Crime”. After all, not that many of Carr’s books are actual locked rooms, and one of the best has someone (who only the reader is sure is innocent) locked in with the victim.

      As I said in the post, I think the original reference to ATTWN might have referred to it being impossible in hindsight, so to speak, but that it has been misunderstood by modern authors to describe the initial set up.I’m not convinced it is the Vera situation that the description refers to – although it could be, I suppose.

      The reason I’m suggesting this as the source is that I genuinely believe that it is a misunderstanding of the definition, otherwise the book is being deliberately mis-sold. I may well have the source wrong, or even that there is only one such source. There is an argument that the term has now been co-opted so that it now has that definition as well (not an argument I agree with) but it must have originated as a mistake.

      All I can suggest is that we call it out whenever we see it. Perhaps I need to compile a #notalockedroom page on my blog, listing all the erroneously advertised titles?

      And as for the Agatha problem, there’s an easy way to check that one. Unlike the locked room label, a new book is never the new Agatha Christie. Accept no substitutes!

      OK, maybe Janice Hallett comes close…

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  2. “We need to reclaim this term…”

    I agree. It’s time for a cleansing! Let’s get the breaking wheel out of storage, polish our broadswords and erect a few gallows!

    “…in a polite way, of course.”

    This is why we never get things done. But fine. Let’s do it your way. I don’t think this problem is going away anytime soon, because the locked room/impossible crime has become a specialized sub-category in the West. Even the people who obsess over them (hi) don’t always agree over what makes a locked room/impossible crime. For example, Brad’s comment mentioning the unbreakable alibi. A discussion that pops up every other year without ever getting settled. There is, however, no excuse for keeping labeling every new female mystery writer as the next Agatha Christie.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. It’s all about the marketing, but I agree with you. I also generally haven’t been impressed with the modern writers purporting to write in the “classic” tradition. Modern writers seem to think that “realistic” characters are all miserable, terrible people, and I come away from their books wondering if London (because many of them seem to be British) is really exclusively populated by loathsome entitled individuals. I am sure, in my heart, that London contains many very wonderful and kind people, but you wouldn’t know it from reading Lucy Foley.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Excellent! I agree that locked room mysteries and impossible crimes can be bracketed together, but to describe a closed circle mystery as a locked room mystery strikes me as weird. Publishers are, I suggest, the main culprits

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  5. To my mind, the closest thing to a true locked-room murder is the kind in which no one (apparently) could have put the cyanide in the cocktail — are these ever called locked-room cases?

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I totally agree and best of luck with your crusade! I put up a post on Reddit arguing the same thing. I was told it didn’t matter and that I was pretentious to make the distinction. Some people didn’t believe there were enough actual mysteries that took place in a locked room for it to be a thing (!). I have a feeling it’s a losing battle, but we’ll keep trying

    Liked by 1 person

    • We must never give up, Ryan! These are idiots who have stolen a time-honored term, appropriated for their own misguided use, and then called YOU pretentious because they aren’t grown up enough to admit they’re wrong. Stop the steal! Stop the steal!

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Well, I support the idea, but I’m not sure how successful you’re gonna be… I have no idea where this usage came from. I think the locked room/impossible crime subgenre may never have been popular enough to be a selling point, at least not in recent times, so it being picked up as a selling point but used incorrectly is just confusing.
    The history of phrases everywhere has shown that no one cares if a phrase makes no sense whatsoever. I think that 1) the phrase just sounds cooler than “closed circle” and 2) the people writing these descriptions probably have no idea they’re doing it wrong.
    Nevertheless, I would love it if this worked out and will continue to do my part!

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  8. I object against the term “closed circle” (of suspects). It is ambiguous. The other meaning is coveyed by the title of Frank Arnau’s “Der geschlossene Ring” (The closed circle – no idea whether it has ever been translated into English). For those who do not know it: It represents an unbroken chain of evidence, in such a manner that it suffices to find a suspect guilty.

    Furthermore, the fact that the number of suspects is limited, is (as remarked by Puzzle Doctor) in itself hardly relevant. The interest is when their number is limited by spatial confinement: A train, a ship, an airplane, an island, a remote country house, etcetera. An author chooses this set-up to avoid unknown outsiders, to let readers identify with those present, to increase suspense (suspects suspecting each other), and/or for whatever other reasons.

    I can understand that both types of spatial confinement have been mixed up conceptually – outside the hard core of Impossible Crime fans. The differences between the two are rather subtle.
    Physically, it is between the inner “box”, where the victim is locked in, and the outer “box”, where all suspects, accessories, witnesses and sleuths are.
    Genre-wise, the Locked Room Mystery (proper) is a subset of the Impossible Crime genre, just as the Unbreakable Alibi Mystery is; the Confined Setting Mystery on the other hand may or may not be an Impossible Crime, and if it is, it may or may not by a Locked Room Mystery. The two concepts are not disjunct – they overlap.

    And there’s another reason why the term Locked Room Mystery is applied where it shouldn’t: It sounds swell. Confined Setting Mystery doesn’t. The term Quarantaine Mystery sprang to my mind, but somehow I feel it will not catch on.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I don’t think “closed circle” is tight enough to describe the books that are generally misusing the term. The books tend to be “isolated group one of whom is the killer” rather than just “one of a set of individuals must be the killer” so yes, we need something else for these books. “Locked In With The Killer” is the best I can come up with.

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  9. As someone who loves both locked-room/impossible-crime mysteries plotted with the rigor seen in Carr, Penny, and Halter; and the closed-circle-of-suspects trope of the kind which Christianna Brand is best known for (i.e. 4-9 suspects connected in some way that isn’t necessarily a secluded location), this problem has long hit close to home.

    It gets very frustrating when I’m trying to explain one or the other to someone not versed in the world of GAD, whether or not they have that common misconception (or simply don’t recognize the terms in the first place). Where it gets really fun is when you want to discuss a book, like Death of Jezebel, which has a locked-room problem on top of giving a set cast of 6 suspects. Both terms apply to one work, and while each aspect is unique they are also inseparable from the whole plot… definitional analysis, beware! Perhaps this doesn’t really matter because I have never found anyone who isn’t a GAD fanatic to talk about Brand to.

    I will say that when it comes to contemporary mysteries, in my experience, you have a sure bet of getting what you paid for if the term “impossible crime” is used rather than “locked room mystery”, such as James Scott Byrnside has done with all of his novels thus far (albeit Goodnight Irene uses “locked room” as well, as it does have one of those,) and this is refreshing whenever I see it. Of course Locked Room International is also a pantheon of correct term usage, although I suppose some of their releases are only impossible-crime mysteries, and one might be of the persuasion that Decagon House Murders isn’t even a retrospective impossibility… gah, I’m getting too far into specifics! It gets mind-bending after a while.

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  10. “a gripping locked room mystery with a killer twist”

    It’s not awful (like the one above, which truly is imo) but its NOT A LOCKED ROOM MYSTERY.

    It’s sort of closed-circley.

    Like

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