My newest novel, The Magic Bullet, is a member in good standing, I hope, of one of the more intriguing subgenres of detective fiction – the locked-room mystery. Locked-room tales are whodunits with an added twist: how in God’s name did he (or she) manage to do it. Mysteries of this type have been around for at least 170 years. In fact, the first true locked-room mystery also happens to be among the earliest of all detective stories – Edgar Allan Poe’s “Murders in the Rue Morgue,” published in 1841. I won’t spoil the story’s trick for those of you who’ve never read it, but I will say that as locked-room mysteries go, it remains one of the best of all time.
In his delightful history of mystery fiction, Mortal Consequences, crime author Julian Symons describes Poe’s story as “the first in those hundreds of locked-room mysteries which proposed the puzzle of a dead body found in a room which seems to be effectively sealed.” Symons goes on to say: “Sometimes the problem in such stories concerns the murder method (how was X stabbed, shot, poisoned, when nobody could have entered the room and there is no trace of a weapon or the poison), and sometimes the means of entry or exit. One common form of solution is that in which the murder was committed before the door was locked or after it had been reopened; another depends upon some mechanical device, like a murder weapon which will operate at a particular time; and another still is related to some possible means of entry which is not apparent.”
The locked-room format is actually much more expansive than its name suggests. Over the years, writers have staged so-called “impossible” crimes in all manner of settings, from streets to country estates to the middle of a public parks. Many fictional detectives have been called upon to solve locked-room puzzles, among them no less a figure than Sherlock Holmes, in one of the most famous of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories, “The Adventure of the Speckled Band.”
Locked-room mischief, however popular it may be with mystery writers, is unusual in the real world, if only because very few murderers are willing or able to stage the elaborate carnivals of deceit, often dependent on perfect timing, that such crimes require. A big part of the fun in locked-room mysteries is seeing to what devious and at times absurdly complicated lengths the murderer will go in order to commit a crime. The results can sometimes be far-fetched, but then again I don’t really expect locked-room mysteries to be eminently plausible; all I ask is that they be situated somewhere within the realm of possibility, no matter how remote. Locked-room mysteries really are, at heart, elaborate fantasies, designed to entertain but not to be taken too seriously.
When I set out to write The Magic Bullet, I looked for inspiration to the greatest master of locked-room mysteries – John Dickson Carr (who also wrote under the name Carter Dickson). Aficionados will find numerous references to Carr throughout my book, the most obvious being in the form of a character named J. D. Carr. Although Carr’s name sounds British (and many of his books were in fact set in England), he was an American, born in Pennsylvania in 1906. He began publishing mystery novels in the late 1920s and by the 1930s was turning out as many as four books a year – a phenomenal output considering the intricacy of his locked-room puzzles.
The 1920s and 1930s are sometimes referred to as the Golden Age of mystery fiction, when writers like Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, and Ellery Queen were in full flower, and Carr certainly earned a high place in that particular pantheon. Although Carr was never quite as popular as, say, Christie, many of his novels remain in print or can readily be found in used editions. If you’ve never sampled Carr’s work, consider starting with almost any of his atmospheric mysteries from the 1930s. Among my personal favorites are The Three Coffins (1935), The Arabian Nights Murder (1936) and the Judas Window (a Carter Dickson from 1938). The Three Coffins, also published as The Hollow Man, is especially noteworthy because it includes, as a sort of bonus, a discussion of the various types of locked-room mysteries. I include a similar device in The Magic Bullet as part of my homage to Carr. Incidentally, a group called the John Dickson Carr Society maintains an excellent website that includes a complete list of his works as well as much other information.
I started reading Carr’s mysteries back in the 1970s, when virtually all of them were readily available in cheap paperback editions. I found them charming, more often than not baffling and highly addictive. Carr was a magician at heart, a master of misdirection, and also a highly engaging writer who knew how to tell a good story. His books typically feature one of three detectives – Henri Bencolin, Sir Henry Merrivale or, most famously, Dr. Gideon Fell, a great harrumphing mound of a man who bears at least some resemblance to my own favorite investigator, Shadwell Rafferty.
So how does a writer go about creating a locked-room puzzle that, hopefully, will keep readers guessing to the very end? In the case of The Magic Bullet, I decided to go back to the basics by conjuring up a murder committed not just in any locked room but in a vault-like office atop a thirty-story skyscraper. My idea was to make the murder look utterly impossible, so much so that it seems almost to be a “miracle,” as one character described it. Obviously, my first task in writing The Magic Bullet was to figure out how the murder could be accomplished. I went through quiet a few scenarios before everything finally fell into place. It was actually one of Carr’s novels (I won’t say which one) that led me toward the solution, and I hope readers will find The Magic Bullet a worthy addition to the canon of locked-room mysteries.