This blog is devoted to remembrances and essays on general topics, including literature and writing. It has evolved over time, and some older posts on this site might reflect a different perspective and purpose.

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Wednesday, June 18, 2014

The Locked-Room Mystery

            One of the pleasant surprises I’ve experienced since my second mystery novel, Wash Her Guilt Away, went live several weeks ago has been the response to the mystery itself. Several people have commented that they found the puzzle puzzling and the solution and explanation of it interesting and entertaining.
            Seventy five years ago, the puzzle or mystery was why people read mystery novels. Some authors (early Ellery Queen comes to mind) would even issue a challenge to the reader at the point where the detective was about to unmask the killer and explain the crime. The challenge was, essentially, you know everything the detective knows; all the clues have been laid before you fairly and openly; can you deduce who the killer was and how the crime was committed?
            There’s a certain pleasure to be had from this sort of matching wits with the detective/author, but the genre has largely gotten away from that sort of story. Instead, we tend to have police procedurals, where we follow the cops as they collect one piece of information after another until the picture comes into play, or we have books where the killer is known and the suspense is in catching him or her.

Doing It Backwards

            In my book, the puzzle is a locked-room mystery, an old chestnut that goes back nearly a century and a half. For all that, modern practitioners have still tried their hands at it. I’m thinking of Peter Lovesey in The Circle and Sjowall and Wahloo in The Locked Room. And why not? It’s a nifty gimmick.
            I originally conceived my book, years ago, as a social-tension mystery, where a group of people are cooped up in a remote place and things start getting a bit chippy. Somewhere along the way, it occurred to me that having the murder occur in a locked-room setting would be a nice touch, so I worked that into the outline and used it as a selling point in the book description I put up on Amazon.
            That sort of device is fun, but there are two things that have to be understood. The first is that there is no mystery involved for the author. He essentially does the story backwards, figuring out how to create the locked-room situation, then writing it in such a way as to misdirect the reader and sow confusion. The second is that the solution is always a bit disappointing, since it has to be more prosaic than the situation as presented.

Underestimating the Mystery

            Perhaps because I approached the locked-room mystery in the way described, I wasn’t all that impressed by my own creation. In fact, I went through moments of angst in which I was telling myself the solution was so obvious as to be cringe-worthy and subject to ridicule by readers.
            I was emboldened, however, by the fact that neither my wife nor my editor figured it out, which was an indication that I had pulled off the literary shell game with at least some degree of competence. And, after all, it was a good tease for the book, so I went ahead with it, and that’s looking as if it was the right decision.
            In the handful of reviews now up on Kindle, most comment on the quality of the puzzle as being something the reader liked in the book, and I’ve received several comments from people who said they were baffled until the mystery was explained by the detective at the end. I suppose it goes to show that the old pleasures never die; they’re simply reinvented over and over.