Locked rooms and open minds

Recently I attended the Deadly Ink Mystery Conference in New Brunswick, NJ. Like most such gatherings, it was filled with people busily writing mysteries and people busily reading them. At one session, I gave a PowerPoint presentation with the rather dramatic title of “Rooms of Doom: Locked Room Mysteries in Fact and Fiction.” in which I talked about the locked room, or impossible crime story. In such a case, there are two mysteries to solve; who did it, and how did he do it? In these cases, the more jaw-droppingly impossible the crime seems, the better.

It turns out that locked room mysteries have an interesting pedigree. Edgar Allen Poe wrote the first one, The Murders on the Rue Morgue, and a later classic, the Mystery of the Yellow Room was written by Gaston Leroux, who also wrote “The Phantom or the Opera”. Another writer with a French-sounding name, Rupert Furneaux, (who actually lived in Massachusetts) wrote a series of locked room puzzles, including “The Problem of Cell 13” that made him so famous he took a grand tour of Europe. Unfortunately, for the trip home, he booked passage on the Titanic and was last seen standing by the railing calmly  sharing a cigar with John Jacob Astor as the ship went down. You seldom see writers with that kind of style anymore.

Another aspect of the locked room mystery is that they actually sometimes happen in real life, including the case of Eugene Izzi,  a mystery writer who was found hanging outside the window of his locked 14th floor office in downtown Chicago. The case was never solved.

Anyway, several people came up to me afterwards and said they were inspired to write a locked room thriller of their own and asked for advice. This proves that you don’t give talks because you are an expert in a subject, you become an expert because you have given a talk! I was glad to offer what encouragement I could and have since received a couple of short stories with locked room themes, including one set in colonial New England. They were pretty good, too. Maybe the old locked room mystery has some life left in it after all.


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