The recent first episode of a new BBC TV series, Death in Paradise, was striking not so much for its Caribbean setting, or the casting of comedian Ben Miller as a grumpy Scotland Yard detective as for the fact that the story revolved around a classic device of detective fiction. Stripped of its modern trimmings, it was an old-fashioned locked room mystery.
A British cup was found shot to death in a sealed “panic room” in the opulent house owned by a dodgy millionaire and his glamorous wife. The question was not only whodunit, but how the crime could have been committed. Sure enough, Ben Miller’s character came up with the solution, which was in fact a variation of an often-used plot. But it was good to see that the locked room mystery can still have a prominent place in contemporary entertainment.
Famously, the very first detective story, “The Murders in the Rue Morgue”, by Edgar Allan Poe, was a locked room puzzle. But a few years earlier, Sheridan Le Fanu, the gifted Irish writer, had written a thriller featuring a murder in a locked room, and he used the same concept a couple of times afterwards, most notably in his classic novel Uncle Silas.
Wilkie Collins and Arthur Conan Doyle were among the Victorians who dabbled in impossible crime stories, and later G.K. Chesterton contrived several to be solved by his unassuming sleuth Father Brown. However, the sub-genre really enjoyed its heyday in the Golden Age of detective fiction between the two world wars. Countless writers – Agatha Christie among them – tried their hand at constructing locked room puzzles, but the undoubted master of the form was John Dickson Carr, an American who fell in love with England (as well as an Englishwoman who became his wife) and set most of his ingenious mysteries on this side of the Atlantic.
Robert Adey, the world’s foremost expert on locked room mysteries, has pointed out in his book on the subject that Dickson Carr’s success derived not only from his ability to ring new changes on a familiar theme but also from his sense of the dramatic, his humour, his ability to create atmosphere, and his flair for the macabre. His finest achievements, including the novel The Crooked Hinge and the short story “The House in Goblin Wood”, are memorable not just because of their cleverness but also because Carr excels at conveying sinister and sustained suspense.
The difficulty with locked room mysteries is that, if they become over-dependent on far-fetched contrivance, the reader’s patience, as well as credulity, becomes strained. From the 1950s onwards, the sub-genre began to fall out of fashion, and its inherent lack of realism seemed out of tune with the times. A few writers, notably the short story king Edward D. Hoch, produced excellent and original examples of impossible crime story, but the consensus was that they were swimming against the tide.
The arrival on the television screens of Jonathan Creek changed perceptions. Thanks to the skill of writer David Renwick, several series of impossible crime stories enjoyed enviable viewing figures. Renwick combined clever plotting with agreeable characterisation and sharp wit to splendid effect. And this success prompted a new generation of crime writers to tackle the locked room challenge. I’ve written a few impossible crime stories myself, and although the plotting can be tricky, when it works, it’s highly satisfying.
So although I had some reservations about the opening episode of Death in Paradise, I was delighted to see that the locked room is still in vogue. Of course, not everyone is an impossible crime mystery fan. The most churlish response came from A.A. Gill in The Sunday Times, whose review was savage in the extreme. But since Gill admits that he does not like TV mysteries, perhaps his opinions don’t count for much. My view, for what it is worth, is that a well-crafted locked room story can offer readers – and viewers – a great deal of pleasure. So what is the secret of success? Simple. It’s not really about elaborate mechanics – as the comedian Frank Carson used to say, “It’s the way you tell ‘em.”
(This article first appeared at www.bookdagger.com)