The delights of the “closed room” mystery
My latest Cait Morgan Mystery – number six in the series – finds Cait and her new-ish husband, Bud Anderson, taking a belated honeymoon cruise around the Hawaiian Islands. Two days out from Hawaii, and two days away from their destination port of Vancouver, Canada, they (inevitably) find themselves with a puzzling murder to help solve. This is a classic “closed room” mystery. So what’s that…and how does it differ from a “locked room” mystery? It’s an interesting question, and I think I can help with that one.
A “locked room” mystery is one where the victim is locked away from everyone else, inside a room (or bank vault etc) into which no one could have possibly entered to commit the murder. It’s the device used in the first ever “modern” detective short story, Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Murders in the Rue Morgue”, as well as Agatha Christie’s “Lord Edgware Dies”. It was a very popular format in the Golden Age of Detection, with many authors coming up with interesting ways for the killer to get into and out of the “un-enterable space”. I haven’t written a “locked room” mystery yet (though I came pretty close to it in THE CORPSE WITH THE EMERALD THUMB, Cait Morgan Mystery #3), but I plan to do so one day.
A “closed room” mystery is one where the victim and all the suspects are in a room – or other small-ish space – together…either for the entire book, or we discover the killer must have been in that small space when the crime took place. Agatha Christie used the purest form of this device in “And Then there Were None” – where all the victims are stuck on an island together for the entire book. It was the inspiration for my own fourth Cait Morgan Mystery, THE CORPSE WITH THE PLATINUM HAIR, where the initial victim – and the ones who follow – are locked in a private dining room in Las Vegas together with the dwindling number of suspects and the killer. I was delighted when that book won the Bony Blithe Award for Best Canadian Light Mystery in 2015 (the Bony Blithe is the Agatha’s Canadian cousin!). It goes to show this format is still popular.
Another style of the “closed room” set-up is when the killer can only be one of a small number of people who, due to various circumstances surrounding the killing, provide the only possible pool of suspects because the killer must have been “in the room” at the time of the crime, or close to it. In THE CORPSE WITH THE DIAMOND HAND the focus is upon all those inside a games room onboard a luxury liner at a certain point in time. It’s the device Agatha Christie used most often, and is still one of the the most popular today.
Beyond that there’s the “closed circle” format – the principle is the same as the “closed room” above, but this time the “closed circle” might encompass a large geographic area (maybe an entire village, or a sparsely populated, larger area, or everyone who was related to, or knew, the victim) and might begin with a large number of suspects. Often the detective/sleuth’s first task is to whittle down the number of true suspects. It’s the format we often see in police procedurals, where the suspects’ connections with the victim, and location at the time of the crime, is critical, and often lied about.
I enjoy writing about a not-so-amateur sleuth with a retired homicide cop as her partner, and hope the popularity of the “closed room” and “closed circle” mystery doesn’t wane. What’s your favorite set-up for a mystery?
Find out more about Cathy Ace (and Cait Morgan) at Cathy’s website: http://cathyace.com/
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