06 June 2024

Locked Rooms

Although the narrator of Seishi Yokomizo's The Honjin Murders claims that, "The locked room murder mystery [is] a genre that any self-respecting detective novelist will attempt at some point..." I must confess not only to quite disliking the genre but to have no ambitions whatsoever to attempt one.

Nonetheless, recently I found myself reading three novels that contain locked room mysteries. What was interesting, even to a non-connoisseur ,was how the puzzle was embedded in different sorts of books, and how all three toy with deaths that might be murder that looks like suicide or suicide that might be murder. 

Yokomizo was a great admirer of western golden age mysteries, with a particular fondness for the puzzles of John Dickson Carr, and, it appears, for cerebral detectives of an eccentric nature. The Honjin Murders, published shortly after World War II but set in 1937, was his first to feature what would be his long running amateur sleuth, Kosuke Kindaichi.

Rather than beginning with the detective, Yokomizo uses a crime writer as his narrator ( a tactic that Anthony Horowitz has used to great effect in his Tony & Hawthorne novels) and presents the ghastly murders at the Ichiyanagi family compound in an almost documentary fashion. He describes how he learned of the case, quotes various official documents, and finally gives what he describes as accurate a reconstruction of his sleuth's detecting as possible.

The brutal murder of a couple on their wedding night presents a stiff challenge, and the solution is a masterpiece of ingenuity if scarcely plausible. But this is detection as escapist fiction, a bloodless puzzle despite the many gruesome details. It is only in the aftermath, when Kindaichi ponders the why, rather than the how, of the crime, that we get into the psychology of the characters and the peculiarly Japanese elements of the situation that make The Honjin Murders quite different from some of its prototypes.

I came across this interesting period piece, because Anthony Horowitz mentions a couple of locked room mysteries in Close to Death, a mystery that, yes, incorporates a locked room case. The novel also marks a deviation from the format of the earlier, and to my mind, more successful, Tony and Hawthorne mysteries. 

Close to Death
delays Hawthorne's arrival on the scene by relying on an ambiguous case from several years earlier which involved Hawthorne and Tony's predecessor. This was perhaps a decision taken in the name of realism, as poor Tony has been rather endangered and damaged in prior outings. But just as Sherlock is senior partner to Watson, so Hawthorne is the really key figure in Horowitz's outings.

The switch does, however, enable Horowitz to construct a nicely complicated puzzle set among the well heeled and elegantly housed, a sort of urban Midsomer, with, like the Midsomer Murders series, a good helping of social comedy and satire. Misdirection and red herrings abound, something Yokomizo does nicely as well, and if plausibility is stretched, the book is amusing.

Robert Dugoni, whose many novels include the Tracy Crosswhite series, features a tricky locked house killing in Her Deadly Game, featuring Keera Duggan, an ambitious young lawyer handling her first homicide defense and her first really high profile case. She is also juggling an alcoholic father, a vengeful ex-lover and various difficult siblings– the sorts of personal baggage now almost required of the modern sleuth.

The crime is ingenious and the solution very nearly as complex as the one Kindaichi comes up with in his case. The difference is that this locked room is embedded in a careful and plausible account of police procedures, forensic examinations, and legal strategy. Curiously, though, the resolution of Kerra's personal problems is perhaps less convincing than the rather glum conclusions of the old Japanese mystery.

The Honjin Murders, Close to Death, and Her Deadly Game are all ingenious and, in their own ways, revealing of the attitudes and values of their times and places. What is crucial in each is different and so are the techniques employed, although all rely on close looking and careful listening. Honor, respectability, money, safety, and revenge play out in different ways, but in each story, a powerful motivation leads to an elaborately organized death and a challenging puzzle.


  1. I think my main problem with locked room mysteries (which I, too, dislike) is that most people aren't smart enough to construct one, and those who are smart enough can generally figure out another way to get the outcome that they want / need.

  2. Janice, as you know, I had one locked room mystery published. In theory, I like the notion, kind of the pinnacle of the murder mystery. In practice, I believe many fail due to complicated, nearly impossible means. I stand alone in disliking one of Sherlock Holmes most popular stories, The Speckled Band. Serpents are virtually untrainable. They don't climb ropes. They don't have ears, so they can't hear fetching whistles. And they don't drink milk.

    One of the first locked room mysteries was Asian. The murder device was finely shredded bamboo imbedded in a spicy dish. Liquid in the food expanded the bamboo, killing the victim. I wondered how they tested the theory.

    I wanted my story to be realistic. I was familiar with the physics, so most of the story was spent examining how the prediction of a man's death on exactly 10/10/10 at 10:10 could be accomplished. Dale Andrews made a great suggestion, which prompted me to name the prosecutor Andrew Dale. Janice, I'm glad you liked the oh-so-grumbling victim.


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