I just finished reading The Black Lizard Big Book of Locked-Room Mysteries: the Most Complete Collection of Impossible-crime Stories Ever Assembled, edited by Otto Penzler. Many of these short stories, many of which were published in magazines, are fairly old. According to a very interesting article on locked-room mysteries posted at Bodies From the Library, 1920-1940 was the Golden Age for this sort of mystery.
As a result, many of the stories have a dated feel to them, in some ways a bit similar to old science fiction stories. However, they are not as overweighted with male characters as old science-fiction, given that jealousy and infidelity make good murder motives and require wives and girlfriends (at least in this period’s writing). At the same time, the old mystery short stories seem heavier in unreflective prejudice against non-WASP characters and those of lower classes (and in the case of English writers, anyone not English.) Probably science-fiction simply left those characters out most of the time.
Still, it was a really fun read because I love a puzzle. I like stories where I can try to solve the mystery before the detective does. I loved the Ellery Queen television series for that reason—Ellery pauses at the crucial point to face the camera and say, “I know who did it. Do you? I’ll give you a hint. Remember----.” (Or something very like that.) The mystery novels I like best are usually those where I find myself flipping back in the book to recheck the details of a scene or remind myself who said what.
And I really like a clever trick. There were a lot of clever tricks in these stories, though I found myself figuring some out as instances of a particular category of locked-room crime. Sometimes I recognized tricks that I had seen fairly recently on mystery TV shows or in novels, such as the murder that takes place upon discovery of the body, not at the earlier time supposed, and the murder that is mysterious because it starts out as a trick on the part of the victim. There was at least one story in the collection where I thought I had a solution, turned out to be wrong, and ended up liking my solution better. (Must keep it in mind.)
Reading so many stories in succession left me wondering how one could further categorize locked-room mysteries, and the article I mentioned earlier offers a couple of attempts at categorization. What interests me about this, I guess, is the hope of finding a gap—a category that has been under-exploited or which can be further divided into subcategories that haven’t all been used before. I’m looking for a trick to use in my own writing, and so please the reader with its (relative) originality.
Till next post.