On Monday 21st at 4:00pm on Radio 4 you can hear me talking about locked room mysteries on ‘Miles Jupp in a Locked Room’. The show will also available to listen to again for seven days.
We recorded the show in the basement of St Bride’s Church, where the next Bryant & May book is partially set. I love locked room mysteries, especially those by the master of the form, John Dickson Carr, who is required reading for those interested in this peculiar sub-genre of mystery writing.
Pennsylvania-born John Dickson Carr (1906-1977) hit upon the ultimate mystery, the murder that takes place in a hermitically sealed room, and wrote variations that increased in ornate complexity, with cliffhanger chapter ends and solutions that still have readers slapping their foreheads.
Writing prolifically under a number of pseudonyms including Carter Dickson, Carr became one of the greatest American writers of ‘Golden Age’ mysteries. Although his plots stretch credulity in the extreme, therein lies their great pleasure. His sleuth Dr Gideon Fell, fat and rumpled, with a cape, canes and monocle, was modelled on GK Chesterton, and Sir Henry Merrivale, blustery, noisy, Churchillian, is parodied in the play ‘Sleuth’.
These days people have little patience for barmy sleuths who uncover insanely complex murders, and Dickson Carr wasn’t remotely interested in offering his readers realism or relevance. Instead he provided cases that involved witchcraft, automata, eerie disappearances, snowstorms, impossible footprints, a hangman’s ghost, corpses that walk through walls, a victim who dives into a swimming pool and vanishes. He combined an infectious joy with a powerful sense of the macabre, and once announced ‘Let there be a spice of terror, of dark skies and evil things.’
After marrying an Englishwoman called Clarice Cleaves, he moved to England and produced a string of classics, including ‘The Judas Window’, in which he suggests that every room in London has a window only a murderer can see, and ‘The Hollow Man’, which involves a Transylvanian legend about being buried alive and is generally regarded as his greatest locked room mystery. A murderer kills his victim and literally vanishes, reappearing in the middle of an empty street to strike again, with watchers at either end who see nothing and no footprints appearing in freshly fallen snow. The book has a famously jaw-dropping double-plotted denouement.
Although he is regarded as a pulp writer, most of Carr’s output possesses the graceful reliability of crafted clockwork. His writing is exotic, antiquarian, gruesome, steeped in gothic imagery and yet filled with a sense of Wodehousian slapstick. In 1949 Carr had a great success with the authorised biography of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, then turned to writing historical whodunits. He created legions of fans who have kept his name alive on the internet.
Actually, for the BBC show we should have had ourselves locked into the crypt – missed a trick there, I think!