Death Under Lock And Key
Meet the king of the keys…
He was the bard of the barred, the lord of the locked-up, the king of the keys. Robert Adey worked what I could only call an extreme niche of the murder mystery writing trade. Throughout his life (he died in 2015) he had collected notes on his particular area of interest in Golden Age detective stories, the locked room mystery. In 1979 the first UK hardback edition of his masterwork finally appeared, culled from a lifetime of reading.
The format of this book makes it very clear that this is not for the casual reader, but a reference book for the demented. In the first half, the title, date and name of investigating detective appear next to a brief summary of the kind of locked room mystery that occurs, ie. ‘Death by blunt instrument in a sealed chamber’. In the second half a solution is summarised; ie. ‘Poison was in ice cube that melted’.
Here’s a situation and solution from the book;
Problem: ‘Death by gassing in a locked room with all the edges of the doors and windows sealed by gummed paper.’
Solution: ‘Gummed paper was drawn into position by use of vacuum cleaner on the outside.’
We’ll come back to that. One wants each entry to be at least a paragraph long, but no such luck. The result is a book that looks like a railway timetable. Adey was reluctant to add his own opinions of the books, which is a great shame.
One quickly sees that locked room mysteries are like magic tricks; their explanations are mundane and often disappointing. However, the term ‘locked room’ expands to other locations; airplanes, telephone boxes, moving taxis, ski-lifts, snow covered fields, anything that can be enclosed. And the methods are often preposterous; curare fired from a hollow walking stick, knives jettisoned on springs from inside statues, arrows through keyholes, and so many bits of string and cables. If only murderers were really so imaginative!
The Worcestershire-based collector died before his grand project was complete – although of course it could never be complete. Adey’s book, much sought after by crime writers, soared in value (I have hung onto a first edition, which I bought at the time of publication), and happily the mantle has been taken up by Brian Skupin, who has delivered a sequel, or supplement. What’s more, the first book has been revised and reprinted in a much larger second edition. They still look like telephone directories.
These days crime novels are valued more for their psychology than their booby-trapped rooms, but the world was once a simpler place, and all those hidden passages, secret trap-doors and doctored jam pots never quite made up for the fact that there was a fundamental flaw with the locked room mystery, to whit; Why?
Why would a killer go to the trouble of sucking sticky paper over cracks with a vacuum cleaner when surely the only important action is to disguise who the killer is? But the genre has never allowed such trivial concerns to stop it. Besides, if you pick at the thread of the crime novel it quickly unravels. Ask yourself these questions;
Why are private detectives even allowed near corpses?
Why are grisly murder scenes only attended by one or two officers when it takes at least half a dozen modern day police to even get a door open?
Why does nobody ever put the lights on?
Why is there always more than one murder, and why are they always so clinically motivated?
Why do the victims know at least five people who wish them dead?
And why does a victim who falls out of a window always land on a car?
There are over 3,000 locked room solutions ranged across the two books, so this could be regarded as the Holy Grail of all crime reference literature, although it’s not much help to budding writers hoping for a quick leg-up into the bestseller charts. There are, however, a number of terrific anthologies collecting together the maddest of the locked room mysteries. The ever-ingenious Ottor Penzler produced one of the best.
I’ve tackled quite a few locked room puzzles in my time, from short stories (‘Locked’) to novels with side-mysteries inserted in them (missing jewels in ‘Calabash’) to out-and-out locked room puzzles in Bryant & May (‘The Memory of Blood’, in which a victim is strangled by a puppet, and in ‘Bryant & May in the Field’, in which there victim is killed in an empty field). They’re great fun to write, but are inevitably more about physics and engineering than character. I had the idea for ‘Bryant & May in the Field’ in India – you know why if you’ve read it.
There’s another form of ‘locked room’ that I mess about with, too, moving characters across books to create little rooms which contain the wrong people. In my comedy-thriller ‘Disturbia’, Maggie Armitage and quite a few of Arthur Bryant’s Irregulars crop up to have their say on the proceedings, even though they shouldn’t really be there. How did they get there?
The locked room mystery continues to confound, and still has its place in modern crime writing. The popularity of locked room video games and actual full-sized escape rooms – a cheap way of renting out empty high street properties – continues. Perhaps the pleasure in these restrictive fantasies lies in knowing that you can always get out, a form of locked-roomatherapy.