Though Dick Markham and Lesley Grant are blissfully in love, they have the misfortune of being the main characters in a John Dickson Carr novel. Those ominous clouds above them in chapter one threaten a lot more than rain. The couple…
But I’m beginning to discuss the plot, which is not my intention. (There are plenty of reviews out in the blogosphere that do that sort of thing better than I.) Instead, I’d like to focus on the locked-room murder. If you haven’t read the book, you shouldn’t go any further. Suffice it to say, Till Death Do Us Part is a masterpiece. The final pursuit is among the most skillfully tense the man ever accomplished, the opening set piece is stunning, Fell’s mannerisms are as entertaining as ever, yadda yadda yadda.
Here is one description of the locked-room murder: A man is found dead inside a room. The door is bolted, the windows are locked…do I need to go any further–the thing is sealed shut. Our main character has received a phone call telling him shit’s about to go down and he needs to get to this house. Dick Markham rushes down the lane, but is stopped by a noise about 100 yards from the window. He sees a rifle over a stone wall. A shot is fired into the window, and the mysterious gunman/gunwoman/gunperson flees.
Dick immediately runs to the window. Inside is the dead man, but he has not been killed by the bullet. The bullet, in fact, has hit a painting. What killed the dead man? It was an injection of prussic acid. Oh, suicide. Unfortunately, Dick Markham’s fiancé has a bad history with prussic acid, as in three of her former lovers were found dead from the stuff in locked rooms. Of course, there are other details in our crime scene — the pins used to hold up the screens are important — but we have the basic elements of a damned fine locked-room murder.
Let me describe the same murder again. The killer had shot out the window the night before. After he injected the victim with prussic acid, he slipped out the window and jimmied the lock through the bullet hole. Then, he made a ruckus with the gun, firing a blank toward the window. Dick Markham thought the window had just been shot out.
Wow, that’s a disappointing way of describing things, isn’t it? The great locked-room murders are rarely based on method. There are only 20 or so after all. Anyone claiming to have a new method is usually full of it. Most “new” methods are simply combinations of two or more of these basic methods.
No, what makes a great locked-room murder is the incorporation of details from the story. Lesley Grant’s history and her shenanigans during the opening scene are what make this locked-room murder so brilliant. IMHO, writers should not waste time devising a new way to kill someone in a locked room. They should be working like hell to obfuscate what everyone already knows. The details will make murder great again. Now that’s a hat I’d wear!
I’ve done 2 locked-room murders. My first one was fairly obvious, but hopefully entertaining. So far, it seems my second one (in The Strange Case of the Barrington Hills Vampire — out now — hint, hint, nudge nudge) is far more successful in obfuscation. Regardless, they both (at least) attempt to use the characters and plot to hide the trick rather than relying on the trick itself.
I’ll never forget the following exchange I had with a potential customer at a book fair.
ME: I write impossible-crime mysteries.
HER: What is an impossible crime?
ME: In Goodnight Irene, two people go into a room and lock the door. Later, the door is broken down, and the man is found beheaded in a suit of armor while the woman has disappeared. The key is in the lock. There are no windows or secret passages in the room.
HER: But that’s impossible.
I didn’t have a mirror, so I couldn’t see my own face, but I’m pretty sure it would have made for a good profile picture or a Leonardo DiCaprio-style meme. And, of course, if I had described it in a spoiler-filled way, it wouldn’t nearly have sounded so exciting. It might have even sounded like a terrible idea, one I shouldn’t have wasted my time with.
When it comes to locked rooms, the devil is not only in the details, he’s building condominiums and raising his children there. The coin trick in The Fourth Door, the motivation in Whistle Up the Devil, the mirror in The Hollow Man–all of it is the addition of details to very simple ideas.