Musings - Is that a category?

A Spoiler-Filled Look at the Locked-Room Murder in Till Death Do Us Part

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.

9 thoughts on “A Spoiler-Filled Look at the Locked-Room Murder in Till Death Do Us Part”

  1. The locked-room is a magic trick: once revealed the mechanism, the fascination fades away. As in magic, what distingueshes a wonderful trick from a bad one is the setting, the story which surrounds it. If I make disappear a coin in my hands, great, but not so memorable.
    In my opinion the trick is fundamental, yes, but even more is the way you present it. It comes to my mind the clever locked room in “A Room To Die In”, situated in a horrible novel. The method is nice but not fascinating.
    Then there are authors who beside creating astounding atmospheres and settings, can think of simple but ingenious new tricks (or variation of old ones), such as Carr (well, he’s undoubtedly the Master, as he demonstrates with Hollow Man, Constant Suicide, Patience, Red Widow, Plague Court…), Halter, Sladek, Pronzini.

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  2. And now for a bit of sacrilege… While I do regard Till Death Do Us Part to be one of Carr’s top three novels (and possibly his page for page best), I’ve never really thought the solution to the locked room was that great. In fact, that’s what would hold me back from recommending this one to a first timer. The problem is this – for some reason my mind separates the shooting trick from the locked room mechanics. The shooting trick is very clever, but the locked room mechanics were a bit clumsy to follow. I suppose I should appreciate that it’s the combination of the shooting trick with the mechanics that make the solution clever, but I’ve never looked at it that way.

    Anyway, your point still stands.

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    1. I agree with you to an extent, Ben, in that the locked room is a little pedestrian, but I also think the book is great for a first-time Carr reader because of how successful everything else works. There’s a tendency to see Carr as only the impossible stuff, but consider how many amazing impossible ideas are contained in novels that just ever so slightly fall down (Red Widow, Ten Teacups, etc). Here a newby gets prime Carr plotting without the expectation of a watertight brilliant locked room, the perfect combination!

      I also agree with James’ point, though, because the best impossibilities can be made to sound startlingly prosaic when you explain them chronologically rather than contextually (Rim of the Pit, anyone…?)

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      1. I actually though that the solutions to the “big” impossibilities were the one disappointing part of Rim of the Pit.

        And yes, the best impossibilities are so unbelievably simple (White Priory anyone?), but I love James’ point about how it all comes down to how they’re caged. It’s really what the best of these books do well; wrap a simple idea with plot trappings that distort the complexity of the problem. And the confounding thing is, you spend 150 pages wracking your brain about how that problem could be solved. Right, I mean it’s not like you haven’t had adequate time to ponder the solution, you had hours. And yet you’ve somehow been deceived into overblowing the problem, or even focusing on the wrong problem.

        The Judas Window somehow gets a bad rap about the complexity of the solution, but I swear if it were filmed it would look so simple. In fact a recreation of that murder scene could probably be one of the most brilliant things put to film if done well. The quizzical look on the victim’s face as…

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      2. See, now you’ve got me wanting to reread Judas Window, like I don’t already have 2,846 books I’ve not even read the first time yet to be getting on with…

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    2. re: “..the locked room mechanics were a bit clumsy to follow.”

      I love Fell’s line about how it was quicker to accomplish the trick than it was to explain it. Seriously had me laughing.

      I’m the opposite, I cannot separate the shooting trick from the murder. It’s the paper-thin difference between a sealed room and a compromised space. So simple and so effective.

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  3. Yes, locked rooms are limited and that’s the beauty of it. It’s the thrill of trying to fool expert mystery readers by hiding the variant of a known solution beneath huge chunks of sh… manure.
    What I admire about Carr is that the man could write an engaging story even when the impossibility was lousy. I can’t imagine any other writer dealing with something like The Crooked Hinge or Seeing is Believing.
    Imagine him as a magician, cig in hand, facing the audience with authority. He will produce a pigeon from a top hat, that’s it. He has half an hour at his disposal. The man tells a story about a burial ground, scorched earth and a pigeon that always appears perched atop the grave of some Mr. Roland… Everyone listens attentively and just at the end, he produces the bird. They all go crazy.
    Next comes this dude, he has no need for ambiance and mood, he’ll perform five tricks instead of one. Gets the first somewhat right, fumbles the second, he feels the third was executed perfectly but he’s not sure, so he moves quickly to the fourth and then the last one. Some tricks were better than Carr’s and yet people aren’t convinced. The execution (that second trick! ) and the lackluster presentation sealed the deal.
    Now, I’ve seen the multi-trick thing pulled off convincingly. Halter and Talbot among others (I will read your novels once I leave the socialist craphole Argentina became, I’ve heard great things about them ).
    The point is, some might feel insecure and add impossibilities left and right to see what sticks, and yet Carr grabs the worst of the bunch and makes it shine. In the end, it’s all about the entertainment, the shenanigans. He knew how to sell his tricks and he was a great storyteller.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. That’s a fantastic analogy, Andrés. The great idea is not the be-all and end-all of impossible crimes. Much like a salesman creates need in the buyer, Carr and Halter create sinister plotlines in the reader’s head, giving power to the impossibilities.

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