‘I will now lecture,’ said Dr Fell, inexorably, ‘on the general mechanics and development of the situation which is known in detective fiction as the “hermetically sealed chamber.” Harrumph. All those opposing can skip this chapter. […]’
John Dickson Carr The Hollow Man (1935)
“Locked Room” mysteries are stories in which the central puzzle involves a crime committed in a locked room—classically, a murder victim is found alone in a room that has been locked from the inside. There are variants that don’t involve murder, and variants that involve some other hermetically isolated location, but all of them have the same narrative roots—an “impossible” crime that generates a howdunnit inside the whodunnit.
In 1981, Edward D. Hoch conducted a small survey of mystery writers, asking them to name and rank their favourite locked-room mystery novels. He reported the results in the preface to All But Impossible!, a collection of mystery stories he had edited.
So I thought I’d read the top three on the list.
In first place, by a considerable margin, was John Dickson Carr’s The Hollow Man (1935), which was published in the USA as The Three Coffins. Carr was a marvellously prolific writer of Golden Age mysteries, and something of a specialist in the locked room. The Hollow Man / The Three Coffins is often considered to be his best work.
It features one of Carr’s several amateur detectives, the morbidly obese Dr Gideon Fell. The nature of Fell’s doctorate is obscure. His affectation of a cane, a cape, a shovel hat and pince-nez spectacles attached to a ribbon seems to be a knowing wink in the direction of fellow mystery writer G.K. Chesterton, who affected similar garb (and was of similar stature).
In this, the sixth of Carr’s novels featuring Fell, there are two interlinked locked room mysteries. In the first, Professor Charles Grimaud receives a mysterious visitor in his study. The study door is then locked from the inside, a shot is heard, and when rescuers manage to open the door they find Grimaud dying of a bullet wound, and no sign of his visitor. An open window suggests a means of escape, but pristine snow lies both below the window and above, on the roof. Nearby, a man is shot in the back at close range with the same gun that killed Grimaud. His body and the gun are found lying in a cul-de-sac by witnesses who respond within seconds to the sound of the gunshot. Again, a fresh fall of snow shows no other tracks but the victim’s own.
Dr Fell wheezes and limps his way through the case, asking seemingly irrelevant questions, chuckling appreciatively as new puzzles arise, and occasionally pausing to explain his latest deduction to the bemused but (in the main) appreciative Superintendent Hadley of Scotland Yard.
The writing is clear (as it must be for any author attempting to construct a water-tight mystery), but shot through with acute observation and wry humour.
Here, Carr tells us a great deal about the daughter of Prof. Grimaud, in just a couple of sentences:
She tried to be efficient and peremptory, even in the way she drew off her gloves; but she could not manage it. She had those decided manners that come in the early twenties from lack of experience and lack of opposition.
And here we are introduced to Gideon Fell’s manner of interrogation:
The doctor, Rampole knew, was firmly under the impression that he was a model of tact. Very often this tact resembled a load of bricks coming through a skylight.
The mystery is carefully constructed—Carr starts out by telling us which characters are reliable witnesses:
Therefore it must be stated that Mr Stuart Mills at Professor Grimaud’s house was not lying, was not omitting or adding anything, but telling the whole business exactly as he saw it in every case. Also it must be stated that the three independent witnesses in Cagliostro Street (Messrs Short and Blackwin, and Police-constable Withers) were telling the exact truth.
And it’s this idea of a dialogue with the reader that Carr takes to new heights in The Hollow Man. Fell delivers a famous dissertation to his associates in Chapter XVII: The Locked-Room Lecture, enumerating the mechanics of locked room mysteries in detective fiction under a series of headings. But at the same time this allows Carr to tell us: I know you also know all this stuff; so now you know I’m not going to be using any of those tricks.
Not content with that, Carr has his character Fell turn towards the reader, dramatically breaking the fourth wall:
‘But, if you’re going to analyze impossible situations,’ interrupted Pettis, ‘why discuss detective fiction?’
‘Because,’ said the doctor, frankly, ‘we’re in a detective story, and we don’t fool the reader by pretending we’re not.[…]’
Isn’t that remarkable? Through Fell, Carr addresses us directly, sharing with us our awareness that this is all a puzzle, posed by the author for the entertainment of the reader.
And Fell isn’t the only character who seems aware that he is embedded in a mystery novel. Later in the book, two minor characters try to piece together a list of suspects. One says to the other:
‘[…] you’re picking him for the reason that he doesn’t seem to have any connection with the case at all; that he’s standing around for no good reason, and that’s always a suspicious sign. Isn’t that so?’
But that’s an awareness that only readers have—and again, Carr is saying: Nope, not going to use that old trope either.
Lest this all give the impression that Carr is too clever by half, I report that the resolution to the mystery, when it comes, is satisfying and had been fairly signposted in the narrative—though Dr Fell only reveals the clinching evidence in the denouement.
Second was Hake Talbot’s Rim Of The Pit (1944). Talbot wrote only two mystery novels, and this is the second. Both featured his character Rogan Kincaid—a gambler who finds himself accidentally involved in solving mysterious crimes. (Kincaid also appeared in two short stories.) “Hake Talbot” was the improbable pseudonym of stage magician Henning Nelms—which, as Anthony Boucher points out in his preface to the Bantam edition of Rim Of The Pit, “somehow sounds even more like a pseudonym”.
The set-up here is that of a classic “country-house” mystery. A group of people have assembled in an isolated house in the northern woods, close to the US border with Canada. One of them is killed—someone in the group must be the murderer. As with The Hollow Man, above, a fresh fall of snow fails to reveal footprints where footprints should be (and, in this case, shows footprints where no footprints should be).
But there is a thread of the supernatural weaving through this one from the outset. The group has assembled to conduct a séance, in order to contact the spirit of Grimaud Désanat, a Frenchman who died under slightly mysterious circumstances on a hunting trip near Hudson Bay, several years previously. There is now contention over lucrative logging rights in woodland owned by Désanat. Désanat’s widow, a spiritualist medium of slightly dubious credentials, who is also at the focus of the logging dispute, has agreed to conduct the séance to solicit the views of the deceased Désanat himself:
In the past, Rogan had found the aberrations of his spiritualist friends mildly amusing. This was different. Calling back the dead to clear up a commonplace business arrangement was like trading in a second-hand magic carpet on the price of a new Ford. Nevertheless, if the spiritualist premise were granted, the idea was as logical as a demonstration in geometry. The thought was unwelcome. In Mr. Kincaid’s experience, logic applied to fantasy meant danger for someone.
The spirit of Désanat duly appears to the assembled group, but in an unexpected way, and the widow is later killed in her locked bedroom.
There are in fact three linked locations in this novel—the house in which the murder takes place, a hunting lodge nearby, and a cabin inhabited by the Native American who had guided Désanat on his final disastrous hunting trip. The characters spend a lot of time moving back and forth between these three locations, finding mysterious trails of footprints that either start or stop in the middle of otherwise pristine snowfields. A flying demon of some kind is sighted, which the Native American guide identifies as a windigo. One of the characters appears to become possessed by the spirit of Désanat, and circumstantial evidence suggest that he is able to levitate when so possessed.
The atmosphere of oppressive supernatural threat is well maintained as one impossible event follows another, and the characters begin to flip-flop between “there is a monstrously ingenious murderer among us” and “Désanat has become an evil spirit and we need to find a way to destroy him”.
Unusually, Kincaid seems to be pretty much along for the ride most of the time. He is the point-of-view character, and we are privy to his various ruminations and experiments, but many of the other characters make observations or deductions that help drive the story forward. Instead, Kincaid provides a sort of wry, rational commentary throughout, including what must be a nod to Sherlock Holmes:
“I’ve saved myself a good deal of worry at one time and another by putting off my thinking until I’ve gathered my facts. […]” *
Another character, the Czech stage magician Svetozar Vok, provides a guide to mystery-solving, aimed as much at the reader as at his fellow characters:
Ambler looked at him in surprise. “You speak as if there were a formula for solving problems of this kind.”
“But there is.”
“I should like to learn it.”
The Czech spread his hands. “I can put it in one sentence: Look for the unnecessary.”
As well as being a general principle for readers of mystery novels (story elements that are unnecessary to the characters will always turn out to be necessary to the plot), that advice has specific relevance to this story.
As the story drew near its conclusion, I started glancing uneasily at the slim sheaf of unread pages. Things seemed to be wrapping up in a distinctly unsatisfactory away, though one character made a fine observation that has frequently occurred to me at the end of novels and films:
“Do you realize,” the professor answered, “that we have two dead bodies on our hands, and that we can’t possibly give the police a reasonable explanation of how they were killed?”
The reasonable explanation for the reader is withheld until the last 15 pages, when Kincaid finally stirs himself to reveal the plot underlying the multiple impossibilities of the story. All is accounted for, and Talbot has played fair with his readers—almost all of the elements of the solution were presented, in hints and casual observations, as the narrative progressed.
My only complaint is the absence of a map. Both the other novels reviewed here provided useful crime scene maps to guide the reader’s imagination, and this one would have profited from two—one of the house in which the murder took place, and one of the exterior with all those vexatious trails of footprints.
In third place was Gaston Leroux’s The Mystery Of The Yellow Room, first published in French as Le Mystère De La Chambre Jaune (1907). Leroux is perhaps the least famous author of an extremely famous work—few people would nowadays be able to identify him as the author of the novel The Phantom Of The Opera (1909). And The Mystery Of The Yellow Room is a real classic of the “locked room” genre—John Dickson Carr has his sleuth, Gideon Fell, mention the work approvingly during his locked-room lecture, described above. Fell credits it with being “the best detective tale ever written”.
The original English translation was done anonymously, and leaves something to be desired—there are odd turns of phrase and strange word choices. But it has the advantage of being in the public domain, so you can find it freely available at Project Gutenberg, among other places. My copy uses the public domain text, but there’s a more modern translation, published as Rouletabille And The Mystery Of The Yellow Room (2009), which may be worth seeking out.
Almost all fictional detectives in mystery novels are unusual in some way, but Leroux’s is more unusual than most. This is the first of a series of novels featuring his sleuth Joseph Rouletabille, an 18-year-old reporter for the Epoque newspaper, whose editor sends him to cover (and of course solve) newsworthy and mysterious crimes. He is blessed with a remarkably round head and bulbous forehead, which were well portrayed on the cover of the original French edition, and he frequently smokes a pipe—something that seems slightly alarming in a teenager, to the modern reader.
His trusty companion is the narrator, Sainclair, a lawyer who sometimes accompanies Rouletabille during his investigations, sometimes transcribes witness statements, and sometimes runs errands—the accompanying frequent shifts in style make for a slightly choppy narrative. The representative of mainstream law enforcement is the famous Sûreté detective, Frédéric Larsan, known as “The Great Fred”, whom Rouletabille treats with a mixture of respect and disdain, according to whether Larsan’s deductions accord or conflict with Rouletabille’s own.
There are two mysteries to drive the narrative. In the first, Mademoiselle Mathilde Stangerson retires to her bedroom, immediately adjacent to her father’s laboratory, and locks the door behind her. Two witnesses remain in the laboratory. Shortly after midnight, she cries “Murder! Murder! Help!” two shots are fired, the door is broken down, and she is found lying on the floor with a severe head injury. No-one else is in the room, though it contains a plethora of confusing clues—a bloody handprint, a cap, a pair of boots, and a mutton bone which had apparently been used as a club.
Perhaps unusually for a locked-room mystery, Mlle Stangerson survives this attack, but can recall only hazy details. This sets the stage for the second mystery, which is another “locked room without the room” puzzle. Stangerson’s attacker makes an another attempt on her life, but is then apparently trapped as he flees into a T-shaped gallery with pursuers converging on him from the ends of all three limbs of the T, blocking all possible escape routes. He reaches the T-junction, turns the corner—and within a few seconds the three pursuers meet at the same junction, with no sign of the assailant on whom they had been converging.
The book is monumentally complicated, with multiple side-plots branching off from these two mysteries, with clue piled on conflicting clue until it seems it should be impossible to draw everything together. In the midst of all this, Rouletabille is given to strange utterances which seem to strike fear into the person addressed, but make no sense to Sainclair:
‘The presbytery has lost nothing of its charm, nor the garden its brightness.’
The words had no sooner left the lips of Rouletabille than I saw Robert Darzac quail. Pale as he was, he became paler. His eyes were fixed on the young man in terror, and he immediately descended from the vehicle in an inexpressible state of agitation.
Like Talbot and Carr, Leroux occasionally seems to address the reader through his characters, though not as directly as Carr. Here’s Rouletabille expounding a truth that is only true in detective fiction:
‘If they had been accomplices,’ said Rouletabille, ‘they would not have been there at all. When people throw themselves into the arms of justice with the proofs of complicity on them, you can be sure they are not accomplices. […]’
And after Sainclair has drawn a diagram of the locked room, we can almost hear Leroux taunting us:
With the lines of this plan and the description of its parts before them, my readers will know as much as Rouletabille knew when he entered the pavilion for the first time.
The first mystery is resolved admirably, and I presume this novel’s legendary status rests primarily on that plot. The second mystery, of the assailant who vanishes at a corridor junction, requires for its set-up and resolution a sudden onset of uncharacteristic vagueness in both the narrator and Rouletabille. Indeed, by the standard of later mystery writers, Leroux does not “play fair” with his readers, and withholds or obscures several important details while making an elaborate show of openness and honesty. But, given that he was pretty much inventing the genre, we can probably forgive him that.
So. I enjoyed Leroux’s novel least—in part because of the clumsy translation and the “unfair” narrative structure, but mainly because I found Rouletabille just plain annoying most of the time. Carr’s was the most polished offering, with a satisfying structure and an interesting and engaging detective. And Talbot’s was a madly eccentric, head-clutching firework display of a mystery—but his protagonist, Kincaid, was too thinly sketched to make me feel one way or another about him.
* Compare Holmes’s “It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data,” from “A Scandal In Bohemia” (1891)