Bibliophilia: Locked-Room Mysteries & Perfect Murders

The Devil & Sherlock Holmes
The Devil & Sherlock Holmes

As a rule of thumb, anything going on behind a locked door is far more interesting than anything going on behind an unlocked door. A locked door implies fear, secrecy, and a whole assortment of acts better done in the dark. Just imagine the sound of a door being locked, the slow grind of the gears being turned, and that heavy eminent click of the latch dropping into place.  Of course mystery writers figured this out ages ago and have exploited our fears and fascinations into an entire subgenre of mystery stories; locked-room mysteries.

Locked-room mysteries usually center on a murder in a locked room with no other possible exits. Also the door is usually locked from the inside. From the murder we then find the detective who refuses to believe any fanciful explanations for how and what happened, following the few sparse clues available to their logical yet astonishing end.  These stories combine the absurdity of the impossible with the very tangible fear of death and combine them into a memento mori that investigates death in its most intricate and improbable realizations.

One of my favorite set of scenes in any movie comes from Alfred Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubtwhere two armchair detectives meet daily to discuss the cornucopia of ways in which they’d kill each other. Whether it’s through poison coffee or just a good blunt object to the back of the head the two men go back and forth making play as to how they’d be able to commit the perfect murder. A perfect murder being one in which no negative consequences stem from act. Each locked-room mystery reads like the end result of a perfect murder committed by Rube Goldberg, a very intricate and detailed process in order to achieve a simple result.

There are quite a few famous locked-room mysteries. Edgar All Poe wrote one as “The Murders in the Rue Morgue.” Even Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote a few locked-room mysteries featuring Sherlock Holmes. The locked-room mystery which I’m currently reading is The Three Coffins by John Dickson Carr. Right on the cover it boasts “The most famous locked room mystery!” All of these stories are fantastic examples of the sub-genre but none are so chilling that I’d dare suggest them on Halloween. Instead I’d like to suggest a locked-room mystery that transcends the fright offered by all others for the sole fact that it actually happened.

The story comes from David Gann’s 2010 collection of essays The Devil and Sherlock Holmes: Tales of Murder, Madness, and Obsession.  The essay is entitled Mysterious Circumstance and tells the story of a Sherlock Holmes fanatic whose death, suspected to be a murder, closely resembles one of the many from the stories he so loved. Here is a small excerpt to hopefully peak your interest:

Gibson said that he had attended the coroner’s inquest and taken careful notes, and as he spoke he picked up a magnifying glass beside him and peered through it at several crumpled pieces of paper. “I write everything on scraps,” he said. The police, he said, had found only a few unusual things at the scene. There was the cord around Green’s neck—a black shoelace. There was a wooden spoon near his hand, and several stuffed animals on the bed. And there was a partially empty bottle of gin.

The police found no sign of forced entry and assumed that Green had committed suicide. Yet there was no note, and Sir Colin Berry, the president of the British Academy of Forensic Sciences, testified to the coroner that, in his thirty-year career, he had only seen one suicide by garroting. “One,” Gibson repeated. Self-garroting is extremely difficult to do, he explained; people who attempt it typically pass out before they are asphyxiated. Moreover, in this instance, the cord was not a thick rope but a shoelace, making the feat even more unlikely.

So what do you think? Have you ever read a locked-room mystery before? Do you think you can solve this case? Please leave some comments below so that we can continue our discussions on locked-room mysteries, perfect murders, and self-garroting.

-Jet Fuel Blogger, Lucas Sifuentes

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