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Locked Room/Closed Circle Mysteries (part 1)

A group of friends on a holiday retreat. A crime nobody could have committed. Sarah and Brook discuss closed circle and locked room mysteries and the links between the two.

Short stories, novels, authors, shows, and films discussed

“The Murders in the Rue Morgue” (1841) Edgar Allan Poe

“A Terribly Strange Bed” (1852) Wilkie Collins

Murder on the Orient Express (1934) Agatha Christie

And Then There Were None (1939) Agatha Christie Death on the Nile (1937) Agatha Christie

The Woman in Cabin 10 (2016) Ruth Ware

One by One (2020) Ruth Ware

A Dark Dark Wood (2015) Ruth Ware

The Hunting Party (2018) Lucy Foley

The Guest List (2020) Lucy Foley

Death in Paradise (2011-present)

The Mysterious Affair at Styles (1920) Agatha Christie

John Dixon Carr

The Black Lizard Book of Locked Room Mysteries (2014)

The Mystery of the Yellow Room (1907) Gaston Leroux

The Invitation (2022)

Knives Out (2019)

Knives Out 2 (2022)



For more information

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Music: Signs To Nowhere by Shane Ivers – www.silvermansound.com

Venn diagram of locked room and closed circle mysteries.


Sarah Welcome to Clued in Mystery. I’m Sarah.

Brook And I’m Brook, and we both love mystery 

Sarah Hi Brook.

Brook Hi Sarah. I’m so excited to talk to you today about this really fun topic.

Sarah Yeah, we’re going to talk about locked room mysteries. I’m looking forward to this.

Brook All right I’ll start us off with just a little background on locked room mystery and a sister trope, closed circle mystery. And I like to think about these two like sisters. Those sisters that are so similar and related that they often get confused with one another. 

Both of these mystery tropes have been around literally since the beginning of the genre. You’ll remember that we spoke of “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” in our episode about Edgar Allan Poe as being a seminal piece in the beginnings of detective fiction. And not too far behind, we find closed room mysteries being a key component in many of the Golden Age favorites. 

So, let’s take a look at each one of them separately in order to understand their differences and similarities. The locked room mystery is a term used to describe a story in which a crime takes place in a literal locked setting making the committal of the crime seem impossible. It typically involves fewer characters. Perhaps just the victim, the killer, and a patsy. These puzzle stories are often howdunnits rather than whodunnits because the sleuth has a good idea who the murderer is but must prove how the killer managed it in order to ascertain guilt.

Other names for this type of mystery is an impossible crime or a miracle problem. The term miracle problem is the idea that there is no earthly way for the crime to have been committed. This opens up the possibility for characters in the story to suspect a spiritual or supernatural explanation for the crime, until the savvy sleuth comes in to crack the case that is.

Then the sister trope of closed circle mystery, on the other hand, includes a number of people isolated together when the crime occurs in their midst. They are somehow cut off from the rest of the world. Perhaps by an avalanche, a plane crash, or being stuck on an island together. It becomes clear very quickly that one of them must be the perpetrator. 

No doubt many Agatha Christie novels are springing to mind. That’s because this was a very popular setup in the Golden Age of mystery and heavily used by Christie and other writers of the time.  And so, we have locked room mysteries in which a crime takes place in a closed location. And a closed circle mystery involving a limited number of suspects confined together. Confusing, right? 

For me examples really help. I’ve already mentioned “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” as a great example of a locked room mystery in it. Two horrific murders are committed in a locked bedroom on the fourth floor of a Paris home. It seems completely impossible that a murderer could have gotten in and gotten out because the doors are locked from the inside. 

Another early example is “A Terribly Strange Bed” by Wilkie Collins where an English visitor to a gambling house in Paris stays overnight in the building and is nearly killed by a specially constructed bed.

For examples of closed circle mysteries, we must look no further than Dame Agatha herself whether a train car in Murder on the Orient Express, a creepy house on a private island in And Then There Were None, or a Nile cruise in Death on the Nile, the Queen of Crime knew how to put together an interesting cast of characters, isolate them, have a body drop, and let the fun begin. 

It’s easy to see why these two related tropes get confused and also why the catchier term “locked room” has become short for both styles of story. And maybe in the end, it’s all just semantics and we should simply enjoy the stories. But this is what we’ll discuss together next.

Sarah Great. Thanks for that introduction, Brook. There’s definitely some overlap. I really love that analogy of two sisters who get mixed up. 

When you were researching this, did you come across anything about why they are so often confused for each other or referred to together?

Brook Well, I think it’s just a lot because of the similarities and also, because when that they were both popular, they kind of rose in popularity at the same time. And they do, like you said, have a lot of similarities. I actually think another one of your great Venn diagrams might be in order once we discuss this because there are a lot of things that are the same. And I also find that sometimes in a closed circle mystery, where of course sometimes there’s multiple murders that happen, there are sometimes a series of locked room mysteries within the closed circle mystery making it even more complicated.

Sarah Yeah, I can give some thought to a Venn diagram about these. I think that might help figure out where the differences are.  I see you mentioned “A Terribly Strange Bed.” I read that to prepare for this episode and I actually really enjoyed it. But I found it interesting that—and maybe it was just the way that I was researching—I couldn’t find a lot of examples of modern or more recently published locked room mysteries. Did you find any that were that were more recent because like you said they were really popular in the Golden Age of crime and before that, but did you find any that were more modern?

Brook No, and oddly enough it’s kind of what we’re saying. Now if you look up locked room mystery you’re going to find for instance, Ruth Ware writes a lot. We just recently discussed The Woman in Cabin 10. One by One is a group of people cut off by an avalanche. In A Dark Dark Wood she’s confined to a home but there again we’re referring to them as that catchier locked room, but in a sense if you look at the true definition they’re probably more closed circle mysteries. I think that maybe we’re dealing with just an issue of semantics where the definition of that term has morphed to incorporate both kinds.

Sarah I can definitely think of modern day, or more recent releases that are the close circle type. Lucy Foley’s books The Hunting Party and The Guest List are both a group of friends who go to a remote location and then and then there’s a couple of deaths and it’s got to be someone in that group of friends who did it. I can think of some TV episodes that are locked room. I think Death in Paradise has a lot of episodes that are locked room style murders. And I’m sure there’s some other examples of television programs that use that trope as the mystery. I wonder why we see more of that on screen than we than we do in the books that are being released now.

Brook It dawned on me in this exact same way, that I see those stories the locked room. For instance, the person gets on the elevator, the doors close, and when it shows up on the next floor, they’re dead. I think that they are stories that are easy to translate visually and maybe they’re harder to tell. It’s also I think maybe our contemporary reading preferences because they are such a puzzle mystery. You know The Mysterious Affair at Styles is a locked room mystery and sometimes those puzzle mystery stories when reading are very intricate and didactic and you kind of have to follow along. There may not be a lot of dialogue. It’s difficult to portray visually I think and our tastes in reading maybe have changed to where we want more of that interaction between people. I don’t know that’s just a theory.

Sarah Yeah, I wondered the same thing if it was just a shift in reader preference. I did read a number of locked room short stories. There’s definitely more of those stories that I read that were written by authors writing fifty years ago, seventy years ago, a hundred years ago. And yeah, I wonder if you’re right. If it’s partly a shift just in terms of what the readers are preferring to pick up and so that’s just reflected in in what gets written and what gets published.

Brook I learned through my research that the critics consider the master of the locked room mystery John Dixon Carr who wrote apparently one after another of these stories in the 1930s and 1940s. So that’s something that I’ve put on my list to look into. And as an interesting side note, he is one of only two Americans to have been inducted into the prestigious detection club, so he definitely did a good job with those locked room mysteries.

Sarah Yeah, I read one of his short stories to prepare for this, and I definitely want to read a couple more because you know I thought I thought it was quite good. There is, you know, some of the Sherlock Holmes stories that are locked room puzzles that he comes up with that brilliant solution.  And you mentioned Agatha Christie. Several of her novels. But also she wrote some short stories that were that were locked room puzzles. And they’re great as well. I read The Mystery of the Yellow Room by Gaston Leroux who wrote The Phantom of the Opera.

Brook Oh I didn’t know that.

Sarah Yeah, but I think The Mystery of the Yellow Room, I think that was written and published before Phantom of the Opera. I might actually check out The Phantom of the Opera because apparently it is different than the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical that most people would be would be familiar with. Anyway, it was an interesting book to read. And definitely one that I would put in the locked room category.

Brook Another point I wanted to bring up today about the differences between the two is that in the closed circle mystery, there’s a lot of high emotion in the characters. There’s a lot of suspense and fear and tension. So, it’s a high emotion story and in the locked room, it’s usually not very emotional, or a pretty low emotion story. It’s a lot of times post-crime like we don’t see what has see the crime or aren’t in fear of another crime happening, which is pretty typical of those puzzle stories. It’s more intellectual the sleuths going through and looking at the clues and so we have the maybe that’s another way to, differentiate a story is there is there a lot of suspense. Or is it more of like a detection story.

Sarah Yeah, that’s a really great observation, Brook because you know when I think about reading And Then There Were None that is very suspenseful. Like who’s going to be next? Who’s doing this? Same thing when we read The Woman in Cabin 10 or Lucy Foley’s books.

It’s very “who’s telling the truth here”? Everybody has secrets, but they’re not necessarily secrets that have led to the murder. But you have to kind of figure out which is the most relevant. Whereas with the locked room, the murder has happened and it’s less suspenseful and more observations that the detective is making, and I would say it is also that there’s a detective. In several of the other books that we’ve been talking about, it’s not a not necessarily a police investigation that’s happening. It’s just a regular person who’s trying to figure out what’s going on.

Brook True.

Sarah Whereas with a lot of the locked room, certainly the earlier examples a lot of those, it’s you know a detective that is doing the investigation. I wonder if that contributes to some of the difference between those types of stories.

Brook I think it definitely does and I have a true confession to make. It’s true confession time, Sarah. Until this week I had never read And Then There Were None. I know! I had watched movies, seen film adaptations and I just kind of felt like “oh yeah”. I loved it. Don’t get me wrong, but I thought, “Okay this is the right time.” And it was so good. It was just fantastic as I knew it would be right?  But that’s where the notion came that it is sort of locked room within closed circle. I mean, it’s so masterful, as anyone who has read it or seen it knows. I like that that comparison or that point that you made that there is no detective in this story. It’s just the people that are put in the situation. And many I can think of that’s the case for a closed room. So, I like that. It’s another point for our Venn diagram. Sarah Yeah, I’m just writing that down.

Sarah Do you have a preference, Brook for if you had an option of reading a closed circle or a locked room mysteries? Do you think there’s one that you would choose over the other?

Brook I really like the close circle concept. I love the personal interactions and you want to know you know who maybe has a secret alliance or who’s telling the truth and I really, really enjoy that. But you know if you want to throw in some of those other elements I’m all for it. What about you?

Sarah Yeah, I think I’m the same I think I there’s I enjoy reading the locked room mysteries but sometimes the solutions are a little far fetched. Whereas with the closed circle, I don’t find. Maybe that the reason behind the murder is a little bit like I’m not sure that that would bring me to kill someone. The method isn’t often as convoluted as it sometimes seems in some of the locked room mysteries that I’ve read.

Brook Definitely. Well, you know I think we’re in good company and the closed circle mystery got so popular in the 1930s and 40s and it’s actually the reason—not surprising—where the game Clue or Cluedo came from. I looked into this, and Anthony Pratt is the inventor. He’s a Brit who in 19—I believe 43 actually, invented the game while he was holed up in his home during the air raids of World War Two and largely because of everyone’s love for reading Christie novels. He was like, “Well it would be really fun to play this game” and so he created it and in 1944 it was released in the UK and then in 1947. And of course in in the UK it’s Cluedo and in ‘47 it became Clue in the US. And I know it’s still one of the family favorite board games at my house.

Sarah Oh here too. I actually have two versions of it.

Brook So do we. So Sarah, do you play Clue or Cluedo in Canada?

Sarah Clue I think are both of my versions. Yeah, it’s known as Clue here.

Brook Yeah I would love to get my hands on one of the earlier editions that Anthony Pratt made because some of the weapons included a syringe and a bomb, a walking stick, a fireplace poker. Yeah, really fun murder weapons there in the original version.

Sarah That’s such a great piece of mystery trivia, Brook. I love it.

Brook And I think it’s fun. You know lately, at this recording, it’s fall of 2022 and we’ve seen kind of a resurgence of especially mystery film and there’s a great release coming up next called The Invitation. In fact, it may have already been released at this recording. It is a closed circle mystery, so a number of people get invited to come to a swanky party at a house and when they get there it’s not at all what they expected. So, I was really happy to see that and know that this trope is still popular. We still love to watch that story play out.

Sarah Your comment makes me think of Knives Out, which you know I think is a good example of that. It’s actually a combination because there is a detective who comes to figure it out.

Brook Yes.

Sarah But it’s definitely a closed circle. Is it a locked room as well? 

Brook I believe so I believe so it’s like the it’s the culmination of it all great reference. Sarah.

Sarah Yeah, I have to rewatch it because they just announced the release date for the second Knives Out movie right? I think it’s coming in in February.

Brook Oh that’s great.

Sarah Brook, I think this was a really great conversation and I think there’s definitely some really great books and stories for people to check out if they’re interested in either locked room or closed circle mysteries. And they can find something that is a combination of the two and get the best of both of those great subgenres.

Brook Absolutely and we will include some links to some articles that I’ve referenced and resources if you’re interested in learning more. But for today. Thank you so much for joining us on Clued In Mystery. I’m Brook.

Sarah And I’m Sarah. And we both love mystery.