Death Under Lock And Key

Reading & Writing

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.

32 comments on “Death Under Lock And Key”

  1. John Howard says:

    Of all the questions above that I ask myself, none is more shouted at the television than: “Why does nobody ever put the lights on?”
    Especially when watching “The Following”
    Take care, stay safe and have fun everybody.

  2. Andrew Holme says:

    I use Bob Adey’s book ( 2nd edition) a lot with my locked room mystery club students, it’s the bible. I reduce a short story down to its salient points and the students try to come up with the solution. We did ‘Bryant and May in the Field’ last year and they got there in the end. It’s one of my favourite set ups, body found in the snow/ on beach with no footprints. I don’t mind the weird and wacky solutions that you sometimes get, all part of the fun. Once a year we set up a locked room in the school – classrooms are brilliant for this – and get students to try and solve it. My latest was a dead body in a locked room with the key on the inside. Windows shut and locked etc. Solution? Certain Yale keys open a door from the outside with a key still in the inside. Thanks for pointing out the Skupin supplement. My next purchase!

  3. John Griffin says:

    There are a lot of ludicrous staples in detective fiction, especially when transferred to the screen (small or large). My own bugbears are DNA testing and CCTV, both almost useless in everyday crime detection (at least according to my coppering siblings). But then, I don’t read/watch them for that; I love the way a good book/programme evokes the memories and senses. B&M often “smells” of 1970s London, when i worked by Ladbroke Grove; a Poirot on BBC leaves me conjuring up the smell of macassar oil and dusty parlours.

  4. Brooke says:

    ” Ask yourself these questions…” I have and found reasons for my dislike of Christie, Sayers, etc. The older horror stories using locked rooms to terrorize are more interesting, e.g. L.T. Meade/Robert Eustace.
    But I’m put off by locked room mysteries now after reading one in which an icicle was the murderer (assisted by the upstairs maid). No more!

  5. Andrew Holme says:

    I wonder if there is a simple, elegant locked room solution still to be written, or have they all been done.

  6. admin says:

    I think that’s the reason why we still write them. One day there will be a perfect elegance of a solution. ‘The Judas Window’ gets close. BTW, I’m liking the new ‘long format twice a week’ thing already. Hope you are too!

  7. Martin Tolley says:

    Mrs T and I find ourselves shouting at the TV in unison – “Whatever you do. DON’T go down to the basement”. ..They always do.

  8. Bert McCollum says:

    And the woman helping her cop boyfriend investigate the murder always goes into the old dark house, warehouse, disused power station by herself because “it will probably be all right, just this once.” And, of course, her phone is out of range or out of power

  9. snowy says:

    A lot of tropes that mystify modern readers make sense in the world that existed in the ‘Golden Age’ period. [They persist into modern fiction because that is what the audience expects.]

    [Let’s try to keep this short, he might revel in the long form, but I’m no writer.]

    “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?”

    The average rural village would have one or two constables in a police house, dealing with purely local matters. Even if they could be brought readily to a scene, their contributions would be limited to confirming ‘life extinct’ and securing the scene, pending the arrival of the nearest Inspector. This was entirely normal.

    From discovery of the body to the start of any investigation the time elapsed could be 24 hours.

    “Why are private detectives even allowed near corpses?”

    If it is going to be 24-48 hours before specialist police officers arrive on scene from headquarters, there is a gap in which local people can act. Police officers might be in short supply, but there is no shortage of other ex-officio actors knocking about in the countryside.

    To list a few, the doctor called to certify death, the local coroner, [usually a part-time post filled by a solicitor], any number of local magistrates usually comprised of the large landowners. All of which would feel quite entitled to direct the actions of mere constables.

    “Why does nobody ever put the lights on?”

    Within the ‘Golden Age’ electricity was still quite new, most ordinary houses would still not have it, even if they were in reach of the then new ‘National Grid’. It was expensive to install and charged accordingly, so was only fitted into areas of houses in constant use, seldom used areas would require the finding and lighting of a spirit lamp before entering.

    [Other reasons include: not temporarily blinding yourself, loss of dark adjusted acuity and not revealing where you are, the latter two mainly of concern to those portrayed as ex-military types.]

    “Why is there always more than one murder, and why are they always so clinically motivated?”

    Multiples were relatively rare until the fashion for serial murder became de rigueur. Outside of a serial killer they are mostly narrative devices, sub-tropes of various forms. [I would invite other readers to fill the gap till the weekend by listing any sub-tropes they recognise that explain secondary deaths, like ‘The vital witness silenced’, ‘It can only have been… Oh – they’ve been dead since Wednesday!’ etc.]

    “Why do the victims know at least five people who wish them dead?”

    Certainly old, but not a constant, usually the victim has to be an ‘Ogre’, perhaps disguised and is used for various forms of misdirection.

    “And why does a victim who falls out of a window always land on a car?”

    If a victim lands on a car and there is no-one around to hear it, does it make a noise?

    Modern trope from Film/TV, the dummy drop is just a very loud version of the ‘Corpse in the Cupboard’ scare.

  10. snowy says:

    Remembered one!

    ‘Hiding a Tree in a Forest’

    Killing extra victims to disguise the death of one person as part of another pattern.

  11. Jan says:

    Depends what you mean by DNA testing Mr. Griffin.

    Quite some time ago – well over a decade – the number of crimes where the perpetrators were identified by their DNA outstripped those “solved” by Fingerprinting.

    Identification results largely depend on the type of crime you are thinking about way back in the day we took samples from rape victims and these samples have been retained.. As testing techniques have become more sophisticated many historical IDs have been made. ‘Historical’ crime units largely deal with DNA identifications. As with any crime the late emerging ID evidence it doesn’t follow that your victim and or witnesses still availiable.

    Sometimes large scale operations designed to tackle problems like fare evasions at certain tube stations or for example kerbcrawling within red light areas where DNA samples and fingerprints from people accused of offences have identified “suspects” from many years previously.

    CCTV is not routinely accessed for minor crimes but has become a standard and vital part of serious crime investigations. As you say though quality of evidence can be very variable. No one would argue with that!

    The above info is only really an aside as far as this thread goes these locked room mysteries which I just see as being basically the most TEDIOUS EFFING tales anyway are really just Sudoku puzzles with casualties. Intricate conundrums elegant, rarely clumsy often very clever but just puzzles really.

  12. Peter Dixon says:

    Some of the best locked room stories were performed in the excellent Jonathan Creek TV series.

    The locked room is essentially a stage magic device; the magician sets up a story in order to frame the illusion – the audience is directed as to how to view it, its all about expectation and people listening to guidance. The trick is revealed and everyone is astonished and mystified because they have been led down a prepared path. Its still being used by people like Dynamo and Derren Brown where they mix ‘magic’ with everyday urban life.

    Dynamo did a televised trick with a London radio station where he sketched out a page from a newspaper, put it in a sealed, dated envelope and left it with them. He instructed them to open it in a month’s time and then, I think, left the country.
    On the given date, live and on air, they opened the envelope and looked at the sketch which showed a page layout, a headline or two and an advert in the bottom left hand corner – they were instructed to go to that days edition of a local newspaper and view a certain page – sure enough the layout was exactly as Dynamo predicted, amazement to all concerned and a ‘How did he do it?’ . The simple answer was that he supplied the page to the newspaper and booked and paid for the space in advance. The newspaper editor was probably in on the hoax. People think that a newspaper is somehow sacrosanct, so the whole thing seems like magic, but its only magic because you don’t see the whole picture.
    The locked room story is all about what is left out or referred to in passing – the clues are there but you’re forced to look through a particular frame.

  13. snowy says:

    ‘All dwarfs smell the same in the dark’

    One of many mistaken identity devices, where the first victim is not the one intended.

    [See also: ‘Ooops! Wrong twin’, ‘Uniforms are confusing’, ‘Never borrow a distinctive hat’.]

    ‘One, Two, Testing, One Two’

    The method of dispatch is so complicated it has to be tested out on a random victim first.

    ‘Oh… Now you tell me!’

    In the fallout after the first murder, it is revealed that the victim was really innocent of any wrong-doing, but was taking the blame to protect someone else.

  14. admin says:

    This is why I try to break out from traditional tropes – I don’t always succeed – but I’m trying to wed the best of the old with the best of the new.

  15. Peter T says:

    For CCTV, a house a few streets away was burgled and the police visited all the neighbors to ask if their cameras might have a view of the unfortunate household. I guess they use it and don’t care much about privacy.

    Why, in TV crime, when the police go to make an arrest, they either turn up in a pair and neither goes around the back of the building or a whole multitude arrive in 20 cars, all with sirens blaring. In both cases, the perp has a fair opportunity to escape.

  16. Janet says:

    And why do TV detectives, when spotting a suspect in a crowd, not just approach unobserved and slap the handcuffs on, rather that shouting ‘Oi’ from a distance and necessitating a chase across roofs and fire escapes?

  17. Helen Martin says:

    Janet, I’ve often wondered that, too. Are we giving them an opportunity to make an escape?
    Basements. No matter how intelligent you are you’ll fall for this one at some time. Note that even Bryant does, although he does find the painting down there.

  18. Jan says:

    Think it must be that the teccy programme is running just a bit short day say by about 3 or maybe 4 minutes!

  19. admin says:

    New post tomorrow, by the way…this gives me so much more time to write lengthier articles.

  20. Ian Luck says:

    Why are so very many ‘Golden Age’ crimes committed in the large homes of ‘Sir William This’, or ‘Sir Richard That’? Or, ‘Here’s a corpse – Oh, no, it’s ‘Sir Peter This’, or the mistress of ‘Sir Reginald That’? Furthermore, it’s unusual to have a brilliant scientist called something like ‘Ray Jarvis’. They always have to be called something on the lines of ‘Sir Esmond Napier’. I know that, in the 20’s and 30’s, nobility were fascinating to a lot of people, but it does get tiring after a while. Interesting (fictional) crime wasn’t the privilege of the entitled. I very much enjoy Gil North’s ‘Sergeant Cluff’ stories for that reason. A bit later than most ‘Golden Age’ stories, but gritty and clever, nonetheless. And nastiness happening to normal folk, who know what graft is.

  21. Martin Tolley says:

    And when the two tecs arrive to arrest the villain – there’s always a parking space right outside the building.

  22. Helen Martin says:

    A lot of that has to do with program time, Martin. It’s frustrating for those of us in the real world but you can’t take up precious minutes with the detectives settling for double parking or parking two streets away just to be realistic. The whole thing gives us a totally false impression of police work, though. And weather. Does it match the mood of the program? How often does that happen? Still, you are creating a mood as well as presenting events and people so we go along with it even if we are presented with rain and mist during a period when we know there was nothing but bright sunlight for days on end.

  23. Jan says:

    Surely the “Golden age” stuff virtually HAS to be set in big posh manor type houses doesn’t it Ian?

    Or in a posh hotel like the one on Burgh island which ended up being relocated to the Med for the successful 1970s/80s film with Diana Rigg as the victim.( The Poirot film.)

    1/ To accommodate the cast list of suspects which of necessity must be quite large.

    2/ To fix relationships some very long term and cross generational which seems is easiest done with lords and ladies.

    3/ To provide a dramatic backdrop with a touch of glamour. OK you could do this in a large factory or office setting but it would it be so entertaining the story being about two blokes rivalry for a specific role or job creating lifelong animosity which can only end in murder. Refers back to point 2. as does the two tea ladies in an office not getting on at work isn’t quite the same as an enmity between two ancient matriarchs. Dunno why but it isn’t really.
    A big beautiful house is lovely backdrop before all the property programmes arrived these novels were about the best way to nosey into houses you could never hope to afford!

    Plus in real life murder is often pretty meaningless, which only adds to the tragedy, the bloody futility of folks lives. This Golden Age stuff as far as I understand it (which admittedly probably ain’t that far at all) is elegant puzzle solving as I’ve called it before sudoku with casualties. Not about a world where vagrants housed in half way reasonable accommodation to avoid their freezing to death in artic winter conditions kick one of their number to death because of an argument about which t.v. Station to watch. Or some 15 years old loses his life over some low level drug dealing dispute. Or when domestic violence or marital jealousy spirals into murder.
    This is a crappy crazy world that often makes little sense at all.

    Which rather goes against the ethos that the crime is solved the righteous and blameless live on in safe peaceful lives. Wrongs are righted – things make more sense. If only…..

    Oh and R.I.P Diana Rigg she seemed to have a very good life and a good attitude to it.
    A generous woman.

  24. snowy says:

    Ian has ‘Lent on the Scenery’ and uncovered part of the story ‘mechanics’. Usually referred to as ‘The Bottle’, it is a narrative convenience, the author doesn’t have to deal with having the investigator criss-crossing the country trying to collect clues from remote suspects. It helps keep the pace brisk. [It’s also a lot easier to convert these stories for Radio/TV/Film, which is why they seem to occur so frequently.]

    But the country house isn’t the only/main form, even Aggy managed: a Boat [on the Nile], a Train, an Aeroplane and at least two Islands. But when it is a country house, the bottle isn’t closed until somebody says: “Nobody is to leave….”

    The country house party was already a bit of an anachronism even at the time, the heyday of grand Edwardian house parties had gone, external events through the 20s and 30s were taking their toll on the finances of the owners of country estates and such gatherings would be almost completely extinct by the end of the 40s.

    One reason the protagonists are posh is that they were at the time just on the edge of most readers experience. Close enough that they can be recognised as objects of slightly distant glamour, but far enough away that nobody cares if a few get knocked off. Even more the more horrible the characters reveal themselves to be the more the reader ‘enjoys’ watching them being picked off.

  25. snowy says:


    American forms run on almost exactly similar lines, but they are not usually thick with ‘Toffs’.

    My recollection is a bit hazy, but the usual cast for an American country house party is generally a ‘pick-and-mix’ from: Crooked Tycoon, Bent Judge/Policeman, Movie Producer/Star(let), Sportsman/Bookie, Heiress/Matriarch, Scientist/Doctor.

    [Correction/additions from readers with a better grip on US tropes welcome.]

  26. Jan says:

    Here yes very interesting this murder puzzle malarkey BUT

    I’ve just watched one of the new animated “Thunderbirds” episode the one set on Moonbase Alpha (which again was the moonbase which drifted off on the moon in space 1999 wasn’t it?)
    The premise behind this episode being that some old astronaut stayed in board Alpha even though it had outlived its useful life and in the end the structures systems started to give way and it became vulnerable to amongst other things meteor strikes. The Leonids arrive for their seasonal visit and start to rip the place apart. Despite Scott ( T3 )and the old astronut (!) Who happens to be an old mate of Geoff Tracey sort of playing this sort of computer game in a scene where they just fire at the arriving meteor showers. Quite well done really, quite exciting.

    The scenes were really very variable from some beautiful animated backgrounds to the absolutely useless bit when the moon buggy tries to get out of the crater which was pretty awful….

    For some reason in this episode I really noticed the tributes paid to the puppet series because of the stark, off planet dark backgrounds I think. Never noticed how much their eyes really copied the light reflecting glass eyes of the puppet characters in looks or how the eye movements copied the motorised puppet eye movement sequences.

    Noticeable in the closing scene how grandma’s walk really copied the original puppet’s gait she was no longer an old dear wearing her hair in a bun with a long skirt and apron but the gait was the same as the 1st grandma!

    My real question here though IS :-
    Would /do seasonal meteor showers or individual strikes have a discernible effect on the moons surface?

    I make a point of watching the Leonids, the Perseids all the seasonal showers even in freezing January and can say that when a meteor lands reasonably close to your viewing point it “whites out” the sky for a moment. I couldn’t work out what I ‘d seen initially when I first saw this. Only ever experienced this effect a couple of times over a decade or more but on the moon or in near space satellite and space station teritory would actual surface damage be liable to occur? Google’s not being very forthcoming ‘re this I just wondered.

  27. Jan says:

    Shadowbase Moonbase Alpha

  28. snowy says:

    What you need to search for is ‘Impact Event’, eg. ‘Chelyabinsk meteor’ and ‘Tunguska event’.

    Most disintegrate in the upper atmosphere, they heat up and fracture, but a very few get through, brighter people that I have done the maths for earth impact events:

    A 10m object exploding in the Earth’s atmosphere releases energy equivalent to 19 kilo tonnes.

    A 100m object hitting the Earth’s releases energy equivalent to 3.4 mega tonnes and creates a crater 1.2 km in diameter.

    [Because the Moon lacks any atmosphere to slow things down/cause destructive heating more will land and they will hit faster and harder.]

  29. Helen Martin says:

    But you won’t have the light because it’s the friction with the atmosphere that causes them to burn.
    Back to the fancy house thing. There seem to be two views on the matter in Australia. One view takes the have a gorgeous background view as in Phrynie Fisher, but it’s set in Melbourne so you have lots of range in the society, and then in Dr. Blake you have working to middle class in a much smaller city (Ballarat) so things are much simpler. Both of these series are post war in time (Fisher in the early 1920s and Blake in the late1940s/early 50s) but the real difference is the location. MS Fisher can swoop down filthy dark alleyways near the docks in her designer velvet coats and feather trimmed cloches but Dr. Blake’s female assistant is a district nurse, often in uniform and if not then blouse and skirt plus cardigan. We’re dealing with a limited number of site types – the Colonial Club, small town shops, the hospital (smaller than Melbourne’s) and small free standing houses where Melbourne has the full range from “mansion” types like Phrynie’s and her aunt’s down through suburban houses to inner city slums and dockside industrial. The closest Ballarat can offer is the airport where pilots and planes can be chartered and flying lessons given. We have had railways as well for Phrynie and abandoned mines in Blake.

  30. snowy says:

    ‘Bottles’ can vary quite considerably in size, Herc solves a crime in a 24 seat aeroplane only 30 yards long. Miss M usually has the run of an entire village. Some authors prefer a little more elbow room and use an entire city, well they appear to, but they seldom stray far from the particular areas they know well.

    [Alien is a ‘bottle’ as is ‘Twelve Angry Men’, the smallest one I can recall is ‘Devil’ [2010], [but that is firmly in the supernatural horror category, the title is a bit of a clue], it has been referred to as ‘And Then There Were None’ in an lift/elevator. Not an outstanding film, but technically interesting for how it is structured and shot.]

    As to limited locations, this has been picked up as a something common in ‘Noir’:

    One of characters in Robert Rankin’s universe is Lazlo Woodbine, (some call him Laz).

    “Laz is the undisputed master of the 50’s era American detective genre. With him you always get what you pay for, he doesn’t come cheap, but with him you can expect a lot of gratuitous sex and violence, a corpse strewn alley and a final rooftop showdown. No loose endings, no spin-offs and all strictly in the first person.

    Laz only works the four locations, his office, where his clients come to engage his services. A bar where he talks a load of old toot and the ‘dame who does him wrong’ bops him on the head at the beginning of the case. An alleyway where he gets into sticky situations and a rooftop where he has his final confrontation with the villain. No master of the genre ever needed more.”

  31. Jan says:

    Cheers Snowy looking at those two impact events.

    It’s an odd thing that as Helen says there will be no lights on the moon with these meteor impacts where here it’s the “side effect” of the lights which makes the meteor showers so memorable. From prehistoric times folk have looked out for the various meteor showers throughout the calendar and followed them they have been really important. It’s only with the advent of widespread lighting and the transference of people into city living (which might just about to undergo a significant reversal for a year or two) that has made the meteor showers become largely forgotten.


    As a bit of an aside to this discussion about settings for mysteries in one of the later “Poirots” the country house setting used was actually Christies own house set above the River Dart in South Devon it lies between Dartmouth and Totnes.
    Now her home has been acquired by the National Trust and opened to the general public. I have never visited the actual property but have taken the boat trip between Totnes- Dartmouth and around Dartmouth a few times and this house is in one of the most beautiful settings imaginable. A really wonderful place.

    I do honestly reckon that much of the appeal of these detective shows, particularly the Christies and Father Brown type mysteries IS the glimpse into a earlier glamour. The beautiful places whether it’s idealised villages, large sumptuous dwellings or the Orient Express, Nile cruises, ocean going liners. You can watch these programmes without much of a clue about the problem to be solved (like me!) and still enjoy them. The mystery is a sort of side issue in way.

  32. Helen Martin says:

    I also watch Miss Fisher for the clothes and the fancy houses. Her house has a rather nice stencil in the entryway and her kitchen is a nice comfortable place to sit and talk over cocoa (!) and Mr. Butler’s “biscuits”. There is such a mixture of classes in those stories.

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