Thursday 31 August 2023

J L Blackhurst on Locked Room Mysteries

There’s been a murder. But before you can figure out whodunnit, the more pressing question is… how?

The door to the murder scene is locked from the inside. The victim is in the middle of a snowy field with only one set of footprints. A body is discovered burning inside a bonfire effigy that everyone watched being assembled. Congratulations, you’ve stumbled upon an impossible crime. 

Much to the chagrin of true fans, the definition of ‘locked room mystery’ has been used recently to describe a murder with a finite set of suspects. Any murder on an island or in a country manor cut off by a storm, a hotel on the top of a hill and even one set in space, have all been tossed under the locked room umbrella. While these settings offer us a perfect opportunity for a fun and intriguing ‘closed circle mystery’, if you are going to call yourself a true locked room writer, you need just one thing. And no, it’s not necessarily a locked room. You need an impossible crime. Okay, actually, you need two things - an impossible crime and a satisfying solution. We don’t want secret passageways unless they were guarded at both ends, thank you. 

The locked room mystery goes back to the middle of the nineteenth century, a fact that weighs heavy when you sit down to write your first one. When you set out to write a locked room mystery, if you are like me you will probably sit at your desk and imagine the critical eyes of the forerunners of the genre watching your every attempt to perfect the impossibility of the murder. You picture writers like John Dickson Carr, Clayton Rawson and Ed Hoch shaking their heads and tutting at solutions that have been used before, or scoffing that you’ve made it far too obvious. And did you know you left a window ajar on page four? Let me tell you, as a voracious reader of the genre, they have all been done before. The good, the bad, and the downright silly (I’m looking at you, Mr Poe). The key to this particular mystery is to use what these masters of the art form gave you, and to spin the tale in a way it’s never been told before. And as for the window being left open – that’s what editors are for.

The first locked room murder in my book (because I chose to have not one, but three) sees a man with his throat slashed pushed from the balcony of an empty room, boarded from the inside. While the solution maybe somewhat Carr-esque, the detective sent to solve the case is the daughter of Brighton’s most elusive con artist, and the dead man is someone from her less than innocent past. She needs the skills of her estranged half-sister to figure out how this murder was committed before she becomes the main suspect. And there’s not a snake or orangutang in sight. Yes, even impossible crime fans have in-jokes. I found this out when I was the only one in my family who understood half of the references in our Sunday night Jonathan Creek episodes. 

Whether you want to write impossible crime, or just settle down and read them, there are some modern day writers who are on a mission to revive what was once an immensely popular genre. Some are reviving the golden age, such as Tom Mead with his recent book Death and the Conjurer, and some such as myself with Three Card Murder, Gigi Pandian with her Jaya Jones treasure hunter series and James Scott Byrnside with The Opening Night Murders are bringing locked rooms and disappearing killers into the modern age as we try to get away with murder. 

Three Card Murder by J L Blackhurst (HQ) Out Now.

One sister is a cop. The other a con artist. Both are suspects. DI Tess Fox's first murder scene has two big problems. One, the victim was thrown from the balcony of a flat locked from the inside. Two, Tess knows him. But the biggest problem of all is Tess's half-sister, Sarah. She has links to the deceased and has the skills and criminal background to mastermind a locked-room murder. But she's a con-artist, not a killer. When two more bodies turn up, Tess now has three locked room mysteries to solve and even more reason to be suspicious of Sarah. Can she trust someone who breaks the law for a living, even if she is family?

You can find her on X @JennyBlackhurst and on Instagram @jennyblackhurstauthor.

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