The Locked-Room Murder
If at all there was anything hopelessly morbid which one actually could look forward to in these times, it had to be a murder mystery. This is an episode which doffs its hat to that killer of a genre of crime fiction – the murder mystery. And it especially commits itself to talking about a specific sub-genre of the murder mystery, the impossible murder, widely considered to be the great grandmother of all mystery genres. Book lovers should love this, mystery lovers should love this and mystery book lovers should devour this. Happy listening!
Music Credits & Reading Suggestions – https://bit.ly/IWBTS01E02CreditsAndSuggestions
Episode Transcript – https://bit.ly/IWBTS01E02Transcript
(c) Copyright 2020 MotorMouth Media Pvt Ltd
Long Live The Murder (Mystery)!
Hello and welcome to another episode of “I went back To” brought to you by Motor Mouth Media. A podcast that celebrates the human pursuit of knowledge about things they like or didn’t know they liked. And what sweeter excuse to do that than revisiting something from your own past?
So what did I go back to this time? I’ll probably say how first.
It was a conversation I had some weeks ago with an absolutely rattled friend of mine. It was amazing how the virus was playing havoc with the minds of perfectly sensible people. It didn’t help matters that he was living alone in a city and a neighbourhood that was one of the biggest Covid hubs in the country.
He said he had locked himself in with an arsenal of sanitizers, hadn’t stepped out in days or come in contact with anyone and had practically been living on instant noodles and black tea for days on end. I didn’t even know how to begin to pacify him. He had ended the call with a dramatic “Hope we get to speak again”. But as I speak now, I know he is safe and back with his family.
Anyway, after talking to him, it struck me that if despite all his efforts, he did get infected, the virus had to be no less wily and diabolical than the villains in John Dickson Carr’s locked room murder mysteries.
Wait a minute. John Dickson Who? Locked Room What? Don’t worry. We will get to them in a bit.
Meanwhile this episode will be about murder mysteries with an emphasis on impossible murders. Thanks to my friend, the fictional murder, which had died on me, had now been revived and I had re-read many mysteries since my chat with him.
You may wonder what’s the fun in re-reading a murder mystery? Once when the killer is revealed, and his motives and methods are known hasn’t the mystery already fulfilled its destiny?
Well, the simple answer to this is, and I am sure mystery lovers will agree, that good murder mysteries also grow on you like any good art does. Their repeat value lies in their intelligence, their integrity, their rigour for fairplay, their scholarship and their deep understanding of human psychology. Reading a mystery again is like going back to a jigsaw puzzle you had undone. You negotiate the mystery and relish the clues all over again, you deconstruct it and look for things you might have missed before. And above all, every good mystery writer creates a world, which, by repetitive use of motifs, language and stock characters, becomes a comfortably familiar place for the reader, a place which can be constantly revisited for reassurance and security.
No wonder, then, that the murder mystery is considered the mother of all crime fiction genres. It should be interesting to see what all it covers. But a small caveat before we proceed with that. The ambit of my reading and knowledge on murder mysteries is not much beyond what is called the Golden Age of Detective Fiction which, on the one hand, refers to the period in time when detective fiction reached its pinnacle which is the first half of 20th century and on the other hand also refers to a genre or a tradition of mystery writing itself which is sporadically in practice even today. The biggest contributions to this genre have come from English language writers most of whom were British. That will also explain my multiple references to English settings in this episode.
Alright. Let’s move on with our categories.
There isn’t any academic work that I have read which defines the sub-genres of the murder mystery. Which is not to say that such a work doesn’t exist at all. It probably does. However, based on my own readings and interactions that I have had with fellow fanatics, I will say there are about 10-12 kinds of murder mysteries or let us say murder mystery plots. These categories, mind you, are all not mutually exclusive and there may often be conceptual overlaps where one type freely intersects with another. But in my opinion, they are still quite distinct and require specific skills and expertise to be plotted successfully.
I will list them out in no particular order of preference but save my absolute favourites for the end. I will also include in the transcript of this episode reading suggestions for each of these sub-genres.
- The police procedural a work which involves the sleuth to be a part of the police force who uses established police protocols and procedures to solve the murder. So, this is the kind which doesn’t need a Holmes because Lestrade is just as good. And moreover, it is closer to life and more gratifying. The police are real and everywhere, the genius private detective, not so much.
- The historical murder mystery where the entire plot is set in the past sometimes in 17th century London or in the ancient Egyptian city of Thebes in 2000 BC. The setting is so authentic and true to its times that it feels like a historian moonlighting as a mystery writer. These plots take you to a world where many things that we take for granted about crime detection don’t exist. And that is what makes it captivating. This sub-genre, though, should not be confused with what I call murder in the past which refers to a murder committed several years ago and which is solved in the present day by piecing together scraps of evidence and accounts from the past to nail the real murderer.
- Murder by chemistry: A sub-genre where the sleuth concocts her insight into the criminal mind with her knowledge of chemicals and poisons to create a sublime solution, pun intended. This is the stuff that talks about poisons and other such things in details. Sherlock Holmes himself, for instance, was supposed to have possessed profound knowledge of chemistry and its applications in crime.
- Murder in a Theatre: Imagine. It’s a production of Othello, its Act V and Othello has just smothered Desdemona to death for her supposed adultery. He is then made to realise that she was indeed innocent. Overcome by guilt he takes out a knife hidden in his person and is supposed to stab himself to death. Only it turns out that the dummy knife the actor playing Othello had, was swapped for a real one and the greatest known Othello onstage had just killed himself to thunderous applause and in full view of an elite London audience. Now what do you think of that plot? There is something quite literally dramatic about murder in the theatre, isn’t there, where art and evil coexist to create a truly extraordinary narrative. These kinds of stories are about as scholarly as they are sinister.
- The Poison Pen Murder: Usually set in a village or a smaller community like a university campus where the inhabitants receive vile anonymous letters often painstakingly written by cutting newspaper prints. Letters that supposedly make startling revelations about one and all creating panic, fear and mistrust among the people. And before we know, one of them commits suicide after receiving one such letter or is murdered because she may have seen or heard too much. The fun in these mysteries is truly indelible. Where the pen is again mightier than the sword but in a very different way.
- The serial murder: Another super sub-genre of murder mysteries. Murders apparently happening at random where the victims don’t seem to have a visible connection. The killer leaves a message and a cyptic clue at each murder scene teasing and daring the detective or the police to catch him if they can. When done well this is one ripper (pun intended) of a murder genre.
- The Cryptic Dying Message: A profusely bleeding man stutters his way up to a lone stranger in a tube station awaiting the last train of the day and says “The leopard…The leopard”. And before the stranger could hear more, the man collapses never to wake up again. And ff there had been a leopard in that London station, it was long gone. These plots can be one hell of a ride but the detective unfailingly prevails each time.
- The supernatural murder: The haunted house, the resurrection of witches or legends of werewolves, the macabre atmosphere and to top it all a murder which has to have an objective and deductive basis to it because rules of detective fiction do not allow for supernatural elements. This genre always arouses the spirits in more ways than one. Even an average murder mystery is not unworthy of reading if it manages to create a good atmosphere of spook.
- The Paradoxical Murder: This involves circumstances that are bizarre and basically things in them just don’t add up. For example, why was there a loaded gun with one bullet less right next to the corpse when the victim had actually been stabbed? Or why was the fireplace in the crime scene lit in the middle of the summer heat? These stories, more than anything, reflect the writer’s sleight of hand and are a wonderful exercise in self-condemnation for the reader. By the end of it, we invariably go, “Shoot! Wasn’t that so obvious! How could I miss it?”.
- The impossible murder: Errm, how do I put it. Ok, an analogy, cricket lovers will relate to. The impossible murder is the on-drive of cricket. The on-drive, if the batter gets it right, is perhaps the finest and most difficult of all cricketing shots, an utterly delightful thing to watch like poetry in motion. And if it goes wrong it makes you look like a clumsy fool and invariably gets you out. The on-drive needs extreme precision of balance, footwork, weight and timing and has very little or no margin for error. Like a juggling act that enthralls when done well or disappoints terribly when it goes wrong. Impossible murders are also like that. Multiple parts uniting impeccably to form a spectacular whole. The absolute stuff of dreams and arguably the toughest one to plot.
There, with so many murder plots I hope it wasn’t an overkill. And if at all there could be any more room for excitement in murder mysteries, it will most emphatically have to be the locked room, a subset of the impossible murder. So, let’s open our doors to it, shall we? (a logical break)
In an ancestral mansion somewhere in England there exists a room locked and heavily sealed. The reason? This room had claimed 4 lives over a period of 70 years. People who got inexplicably killed while spending time alone there. The room became the stuff of legends as the killer room and aptly came to be known as The Red Widow Chamber.
In the present day a reckless kin of the family decides to put this legend to test. He proposes a sinister experiment in the presence of 8 other people, a group which amongst others, consists of the Scotland Yard Chief Inspector Humphrey Masters and the amateur sleuth, the eminent Sir Henry Merrivale, the man who has solved some of the most baffling murders in England.
Each member of the group will draw a playing card from a freshly opened pack. Whoever picks the highest card is to go into the Red Widow Chamber and spend 2 hours there with the only door to it locked from the outside and guarded by the remaining members of the group and with no other way in or out of it. This room, earlier that day has been opened and examined with a fine-tooth comb by no less than Sir Merrivale who has certified the room to be absolutely safe and bereft of any traps.
A small, inoffensive man from the group draws the Ace of Spades and is escorted solemnly into the room. It is decided that they will call out to the man every quarter hour and await his response to ensure that he is fine. This calling out ritual is completed satisfactorily with the man responding each time without fail. At the end of the two hours, when they call out for him and no one answers, the door is opened and the man is seen lying on his back, murdered. And he has been dead for more than an hour.
What you just heard is the plot to a lesser known mystery John Dickson Carr wrote. And this is how a locked-room murder works. A murder which is committed inside an impregnable sealed room under seemingly impossible circumstances which the cerebral detective has to prove as possible, if not probable.
Carr was the true master and ultimate plotter of impossible murders. Big fans of mysteries will probably say he was to impossible murders what Steffi Graf was to the forehand or Groucho Marx was to comedy.
An American who spent long years in England, Carr was the first and only one of 2 Americans ever to be admitted into the illustrious and allegedly British chauvinistic Detection Club. He created two legendary detectives – Dr. Gideon Fell and Sir Henry Merrivale, both larger than life and brilliant and whose personalities seemed almost incongruous to the morbid goings-on around them.
Carr’s writings on the impossible murder genre are influenced a lot, firstly by the works of Gaston Leroux, a French mystery writer and the author of the first accomplished locked room murder ever written – Le mystère de la chambre jaune or The Mystery Of the Yellow Room, which was also Carr’s personal favourite and secondly by G K Chesterton’s Father Brown Mysteries. In fact, Carr is said to have physically modelled his detective Dr. Fell on G K Chesterton.
The way Carr made his villains vanish into thin air in one work after the other, it was like a magician enchanting his audience with grand illusions. Only, Carr’s job was much tougher, for the audience were happy never to know the magician’s secret. But Carr, in his denouement, had to reveal the method as being reasonable and scientifically tenable, expose the trick and demystify the miracle. The illusionist could perform the same miracle repeatedly and still remain the greatest ever, while Carr had to invent a new one with every opening chapter. And boy did he do it well! He truly and emphatically went for the kill in his impossible murders.
Well, imagine this. You are a lover of mysteries. You are suffering from a sense of ennui induced by the lockdown; you have no appointments to keep or pubs to hop; you have a long weekend ahead of you when the first monsoon rains are supposed to hit, an unending supply of coffee or tea or whatever else you drink, a corner in your home cozy enough to embrace and, to top it all a copy of the Red Widow Murders.
What do you say? Have I managed to paint a picture and arouse a desire? If I have, then try and grab a copy of some great impossible murders mysteries I will list out in the transcript of this episode. But if I haven’t, then do it anyway because the mystery will then speak for itself. I promise.
One might, of course, question the very need of locked room murders and argue, why create or conjure such a murder in the first place when there may be easier means of achieving the same result and attracting less attention? I suppose this is murder for the academician’s sake. Where the beastly act of taking someone’s life is practiced like some kind of an art form, bringing an element of beauty and sophistication to it. It’s the murder the esthetician looks for, the connoisseur appreciates.
Something that can never be said enough is, murder is the most despicable and vilest of crimes. So even when it takes place in a fictional world, it is not our place to glorify it. In an impossible murder story, what the reader actually celebrates is not the murder itself but the fact that even if criminality and evil assume a more potent, evolved and a near invincible character in it, the forces of goodness, truth and justice will only become more formidable and still triumph over them.
So folks, whilst a murder mystery may or may not be one to die for, the truth is it can never quite be done to death.
Thank you for tuning in, ladies and gentlemen. Hope you enjoyed this episode. I shall see you in the next one with yet another thing I went back to. Until then stay healthy and stay safe! Case closed!
IWBTS01E02 – The Locked Room Murder
Theme music – Freestylah by Alexander Nakarada (www.serpentsoundstudios.com)
Licensed under Creative Commons BY Attribution 4.0 License
Jimmy Free @ www.jimmyfree.club
Into The Void
A Mad Mission
Grime Rap 140bpm
Invasion by Sascha Ende
Blockbuster Atmosphere 6 (Horror) by Sascha Ende
Misty Lights by Rafael Krux
Time Is Now by Sascha Ende
Blockbuster Atmosphere 6 (Horror) by Sascha Ende
Dawn Of The Apocalypse by Rafael Krux
Blockbuster Atmosphere 9 (Sadness) by Sascha Ende
- The Police Procedural
- All Kurt Wallander Mysteries by Henning Mankell (Translated from Swedish into English)
- All Martin Beck Mysteries by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö (Translated from Swedish into English
- Inspector Allyn Mysteries by Ngaio Marsh
- Inspector Wexford Mysteries by Ruth Rendell
- Superintenden Hannasyde & Seargent Hemmingeway Mysteries by Georgette Heyer
- Thomas Lynley Mysteries by Elizabeth George
- Inspector Cockrill Mysteries by Christianna Brand
- The Historical Murder Mystery
- Brother Cadfael Mysteries by Edith Pargeter better known as Ellis Peters
- Judge Dee Mysteries set in Medieval China by Robert van Gulik
- Death Comes as The End by Agatha Christie
- Fire, Burn! by John Dickson Carr
- The Devil in Velvet By John Dickson Carr
- Murder By Chemistry
- The Footprints on The Ceiling by Clayton Rawson
- Agatha Christie
- Strychnine Poisoning in Mysterious Affair At Styles
- Cyanide Poisoning in And Then there Were None, A Pocketful of Rye and, of course, Sparkling Cyanide
iii. Arsenic Poisoning in 4:50 From Paddingtom
- Belladona Poisoning in The Carribean Mystery and The Big Four
- Coniine in Five Little Pigs
- Bacillus Anthracis in Cards On The Table
- Murder In a Theatre
- Pahntom Of The Opera by Gastom Leroux
- Full Dark House By Christopher Fowler
- The Case Of The Gilded Fly by Edmund Crispin
- Opening Night by Ngaio Marsh
- Vintage Murder by Ngaio Marsh
- Death At The Dolphin by Ngaio marsh
- Final Curtain by Ngaio Marsh
- Poison Pen Murder
- The Moving Finger by Agatha Christie
- Gaudy Night by Dorothy L Sayers
- The Serial Murder
- ABC Murders by Agatha Christie
- Cat Of Many Tails by Ellery Queen
- Ten Second Staircase by Christopher Fowler
- The Monkeewrench 1 & 2 by P J Tracy
- Psycho by Robert Bloch
- The Cryptic Dying Message
- The Siamese Twin Mystery by Ellery Queen
- The Tragedy of X by Barnaby Ross (Ellery Queen)
- Why Didn’t They Ask Evans by Agatha Christie
- The Supernatural Murder
- The Hound of Baskervilles by Arthur Conan Doyle
- The Burning Court By John Dickson Carr
- The House At Satan’s Elbow By John Dickson Carr
- The Pale Horse by Agatha Christie
- The Case Of The Gilded Fly by Edmund Crispin
- Black Aura by John Sladek
- The Paradoxical Murder
- Many of Father Brown Stories by G K Chesterton
- The Four False Weapons by John Dickson Carr
- The Clocks By Agatha Christie
- Ten Second Staircase by Christopher Fowler
- The Impossible & Locked Room Murder
- The Mystery Of The Yellow Room by Gaston Leroux
- The Hollow Man by John Dickson Carr
- The Burning Court by John Dickson Carr
- He Who Whispers by John Dickson Carr
- The Plague Court Murders by Carter Dickson (John Dickson Carr)
- The Red Widow Murders by Carter Dickson (John Dickson Carr)
- She Died A Lady by Carter Dickson (John Dickson Carr)
- The Judas Window by Carter Dickson (John Dickson Carr)
- The Case of Constant Suicides by John Dickson Carr
- The Crooked Hinge by John Dickson Carr
- Death of Jezebel by Christianna Brand
- Spies of Sobeck By Paul Doherty
- The Seventh Hypothesis by Paul Halter
- The Demon of Dartmoor by Paul Halter
- The Rim Of the Pit by Hake Talbot
- Death From a Top Hat by Clayton Rawson
- The Tokyo Zodiac Murder by Soji Shimada
- The Tattoo Murder Case by Akimitsu Takagi
- The Locked Room by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö
- The Chinese Orange Mystery by Ellery Queen