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Locked Room Mysteries (part 2)

Jane Kalmes, The Fiction Technician, joins Brook and Sarah to break down locked room mysteries and their solutions. Please note: This episode contains spoilers of two episodes of Monk and one of Murder She Wrote.

We Discuss

“Mr. Monk Goes to the Carnival” Monk

“Death Casts a Spell” Murder She Wrote

“Mr. Monk and the Panic Room” Monk

“The Terribly Strange Bed” (1852) Wilkie Collins

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

For more about Jane


Jane Kalmes

For more information

Instagram: @cluedinmystery

Contact us: hello@cluedinmystery.com

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


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

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

Hi Sarah. We have a real treat today. We are interviewing Jane Kalmes, who is known online as the Fiction Technician.

Sarah Hi Brook. I know I’m so excited.

Brook Jane is a mystery writer who loves to simplify the genre for her fellow writers. On her YouTube channel she digs into motive plot twists clues and more giving clear actionable advice for constructing a killer plot learn more at fictiontechnician.com. And welcome, Jane we’re so pleased to have you on the show today.

Jane Thank you I’m so excited to be here.

Sarah Welcome, Jane. We’ve invited you to talk to us a little bit about locked room mysteries. Brook and I recently discussed the difference between a locked room mystery and a closed circle mystery. I wonder if we could start with you just giving your definitions of each and what you see as the differences between those.

Jane Okay, cool. So, my definition of a locked room mystery would be a mystery where the murder occurs in a location where nobody else can enter or leave without being seen. So that’s our locked room. It might be a literal locked room, a room with a key. But it could also be a gazebo sitting out in the middle of the lawn or it could be a car or just any location where nobody can get into without being seen.

And then I would say that a closed circle mystery is a mystery where we have a defined group of characters in a location that is inaccessible to others. So, we might think of some classic closed circle mysteries as taking place on an island or inside a plane or a cruise boat or perhaps at a snowed in mountain chalet. In fact, sometimes I like to call these mysteries snowbound mysteries because it gives you that wonderful feel of being cut off from the rest of the world. But a locked room mystery doesn’t really have to have a literal locked room, I think that with the closed circle mystery you don’t necessarily have to have a location that is 100 percent inaccessible.

I think you can write these sort of mysteries with any community that is incredibly insular and that has a murder happening at the heart of it that they don’t want to expose to other people. So, we can imagine for example a close circle mystery that takes place in a group of hotel suites being occupied by the members of a political campaign. And the election is looming, and a murder takes place. And people have been in and out of rooms. We don’t know who the killer is, but we do know that we don’t want to bring in the police because the campaign has a secret about the candidate that they’ve managed to keep under wraps thus far. So, they want to find out who the murderer is so they can present the victim and villain to the police as a package deal and avoid any unnecessary investigation.

So, I love both of these tropes. I feel like they give you so many opportunities to put your characters under pressure and to put you under pressure a little bit to come up with a really ingenious solution.

Sarah That’s great; thank you. I love the plot idea that you just shared.

Brook Me too.

Sarah My mind is running with that. So that’s yeah, wonderful.

Jane Cool. I thought it would be fun.

Sarah So just talking a little bit more about the locked room mysteries on your YouTube channel, in one of your videos you propose that there are really only four solutions to a locked room mystery. Could you walk us through each of those?

Jane Yeah, absolutely. So, I can’t say that the solutions are one hundred percent limited to these four. But, these are the four that I tend to see and I think that they all make a really great plot. So, I always find it easier to explain these things with an example of a real plot from fiction. So, for the first one I’d like to take us to an episode of Monk called “Mr. Monk Goes to the Carnival”.

In this plot, two men, a policeman and an informant go to the carnival together and they go up on the Ferris wheel, supposedly so that the informant can have privacy to spill his story. And that is our locked room. Nobody can get into or out of the Ferris wheel car without being seen. But the minute they go up the informant starts thrashing around and yelling “he’s going to kill me. He’s going to kill me.” So the ride operator stops the ride, she puts up the bar and the policeman, eager to remove himself from the situation, staggers away. And that’s when the right operator shouts, “he’s been stabbed” and she’s right. The informant has been stabbed and quickly dies. So, the policeman obviously looks very guilty, and he is the character in a locked room mystery who I like to call the patsy. He is obviously being framed because he’s the only person who seems to have access to the victim.

But in fact, our villain is the ride operator the minute the policeman left the scene she quickly stabbed the informant then pretended that she had only discovered his injury. This is what I call a time shifted murder. And time shifting is just one of the most amazing tricks I think that mystery writers can play on their readers.

In this case, the murder seemed to happen while the room was locked while the Ferris wheel was in motion. But in fact, it happened just after the room was opened, that is after other characters were able to access the locked room.
I just love time shifting because when we time shift, what we do is we change the perceived time of the murder and thereby we change the perceived pool of suspects. The pool of suspects is now changed to those people who did not have an alibi at the perceived time of the murder.

During this mystery, the only person who does not have an alibi at the perceived time of murder is that police officer. Everyone else has what I call a “no access alibi” meaning regardless of whether their whereabouts are accounted for, they have no access to the victim and therefore can’t kill him. And there are just so many fun ways to time shift a murder, but in a locked room often the most effective is to use a false attack. That is a moment when witnesses are certain that the victim is being murdered. So, in this plot, the false attack happens when the victim starts claiming that he’s being murdered and thrashing around in the Ferris wheel car. It turns out that he was paid to do this.

There’s a third party who is romantically involved with the ride operator and who wants to discredit this particular policeman. So, he paid the victim to pretend he was being attacked. So that the policeman would look like a violent cop whose testimony could not be trusted at trial. Unfortunately, the victim didn’t know just how deadly this attack was meant to be in the end.

So that’s time shifted murder. For our next solution we might go to a plot of Monk called “Mr. Monk and the Panic Room”. In this plot a man and his pet monkey enter the panic room at his house because it seems that there’s an intruder on the estate. The next day the police open the panic room and the man is dead and the monkey is holding a gun. So, the man is our victim obviously and the monkey is the patsy.

The sleuth begins investigating and he eventually learns that the man who installed the panic room in the first place put an extra entrance into it hidden in the back of a refrigerator that’s up against the panic room wall.

This is what I call a “gains access murder.” Somebody gains access to the locked room and the twist here is that that that locked room isn’t quite as locked as we initially perceived it to be.

For my third solution, we’re going to go over to Murder She Wrote for a bit and we’re going to look at an episode called “Death Casts a Spell” and this this is absolutely such a fun setup for a mystery. There’s a hypnotist who has become very famous but he’s being hounded by a reporter who wants to uncover certain secrets about his past. Finally, he announces that he’ll invite several reporters up to his room to hear the sordid details of his past and anything they can remember they are welcome to print. You see his plan is to hypnotize them first then tell them the story of his past, and then take them out of their trance. And he’s so confident in his abilities. He thinks no one will be able to remember while the performance is going on people outside hear screams and when they break down the door, there are six reporters sitting there in a trance and the hypnotist has been killed. The police help the police have to hire a new hypnotist just to get these people out of their trance. And sadly although they all witnessed the crime, none of them are able to provide any evidence for a while.

This whole performance took place in a hotel and so for a while this plot concentrates on the possibility of a gains access murder. Perhaps somebody managed to enter the balcony and there is a cracked pain on the door that suggests perhaps somebody gained access. But in fact, what happened is that one of the reporters put earplugs in his ears so that he would not be hypnotized then while everyone was in a trance. He was able to murder the hypnotist then resume his seat and pretend to be entranced just like they were so this is what I call “an extra people murder”. In an extra people murder there are extra people in the locked room who are either completely concealed or they are discounted for some reason in this plot. The villain was discounted because he seemed to be entranced or perhaps your villain could seem to be unconscious or immobile but generally the villain in this kind of plot is going to have what I call “an incompetence alibi”. They seem to be incapable of committing the murder.

And my last solution is still kind of a little bit mysterious to me in that I only know one way to make it work. So, for this one, we’re going to go back to Monk for an episode called “Mr. Monk and the Playboy”.

In this episode in this episode a man dies while lifting weights his neck is crushed by the bar of a large pair of barbells. And this is truly a locked room. It was locked from the inside and nobody was able to enter it at all. Finally, our sleuth learns that the villain used an incredibly powerful electromagnet to pull the barbell onto his victim’s neck from the floor below.

So, this is what I call “an exterior forces murder” and like I said I don’t know a lot of ways to make this one work, except for magnets. But I’m confident that there may be some out there for clever mystery writers to uncover.

There is actually one solution that I don’t talk about on YouTube because YouTube doesn’t like this word, which is suicide. Sometimes, the murder can actually be a suicide that was set up to look like a murder.

Brook Interesting, yes.

Sarah Yeah, I recently actually read a book where that was the premise. I won’t reveal which it is so that I’m not I’m not spoiling it for readers.

But yeah, and the exterior forces murder made me think of “The Incredibly Strange Bed” by Wilkie Collins, which where there’s this mechanical… is it the ceiling? No, it’s the bed that moves right, Brook? Yeah so this mechanical bed gets lifted into the ceiling and crushes the person who’s on it.

Jane I’m going to have to look that one up.

Brook Yeah, it would definitely fall into that category.

Sarah Yeah, like I like you I can’t think of too many others that fit that but, I can think of others that fit the gains access murder, and um, the extra people murder as well as the time-shifting one.

So, thank you so much for breaking all of those down. I was saying to Brook that you know, as a reader I don’t know how I feel about knowing what all of those potential solutions are.

As a writer, it’s great to know what they are. But I don’t think it actually ruins the viewing or reading experience because for a couple of reasons for me. One I just really like mystery and I try not to I tend not to be very good at solving the mystery before the author does the big reveal or before the show does the big reveal. I don’t know if that makes me a good mystery fan or not but I’m just never very good at solving the crime.

But I also think that when I want to watch something with a more critical lens and try and figure out “Okay, how did this happen?” I’ll be able now to think about if it’s a locked room story, I’ll be able to think about those and think about okay, “which one did the author use here? which one is the is the TV show showing?”

And actually, that’s something that Brook and I talked about that there seemed to be more television programs or movies that have the locked room trope. We couldn’t think of very many more modern pieces of writing that contain those. Can you think of any, Jane? Have we just totally missed the mark on that?

Jane No, to me, most of the modern examples are from TV shows. Monk particularly has a lot of them. I’m working through Murder She Wrote right now and just in the first season I’ve found a couple. But the prose locked room murders that I can think of are the older murders like “The Murders in the Rue Morgue”. I can’t think of a lot of new locked room murders. But I actually I am getting close to finishing one up. So hopefully that will be something out there on the market.

Brook Oh good. Yes.

Sarah Oh wonderful. Yeah, that’s great news.

With such limited options for solutions, how do you think writers or television writers keep locked room mysteries interesting enough that they continue to engage in audiences?

Jane I have I have so much to say about this. Okay, so first the thing I want to say is that these solutions, in particular the three solutions that we see used a lot, these are just structures. They’re not really plots.

So, you know, Craftsman Bungalow is a structure. It is a structure for a house. But if you take that Craftsman Bungalow and you paint the door blue, and you put begonias in the flower boxes and family photos on the walls. Well then suddenly, walking into this house doesn’t feel like walking into craftsman bungalow, it feels like walking into this family’s unique home. And I think that’s the same with a mystery. I think there are so many details you can apply to these structures to really make them your own, make them unique, make them say something that comes from your heart.

So, the first place I would start as a writer is trying to come up with a clever way to make that structure work. And all of these plots we’ve talked about, people had clever ways of making them work. Our hypnotist villain had a clever way of preventing himself from being entranced so that he was able to commit the murder while still looking innocent and our panic room villain had a clever way of sneaking into the panic room. So that’s a great way that you can make these plots really surprising, really exciting.

And then there’s just everything else that goes into the book. The suspects, the environment, what’s going on in your sleuth’s life. Will there be humor? Will your sleuth be forced to change and grow?

And to me, the structures are a nice, clear cut way of approaching the planning of a novel, but they are not the novel. They are just kind of the beginning.

And then another thing I wanted to say is that we mystery writers, we often have kind of a horror of people guessing our solutions and I think that sometimes that is a little misplaced. Yes, being surprised is definitely a great experience for mystery readers. But honestly, for savvy mystery readers, that feeling of having your suspicions validated can also be a really great emotional experience. You know you think of reading to the end of a story in Encyclopedia Brown and there’s that page that tells you that “if you want you can ah take some time to figure out the solution and then find out who done it”. And that was always a great feeling when you managed to get the solution.

So, my point here isn’t that you shouldn’t try to make your plot surprising, but that you can count on your readers to enjoy a lot of experiences, as long as you are trying to cleverly execute that lock term structure.

Sarah That’s such a great point, Jane, about the experience and the satisfaction from figuring out who did it.

Jane Cool. And I think that that is one of the things that’s really special about locked room is often that moment of satisfaction at the end that “aha moment” is not from “whodunit” or “whydunit” but it’s from “howdunit” and it’s just kind of such a fun change from the usual mystery genre.

Sarah You as the Fiction Technician you carefully unravel the secrets of different mystery plots. Can you tell us a little bit about when you started doing this like what why you started doing this.

Jane Yeah, I guess it was a couple of things that kind of came into synchronicity. I was writing a locked room murder and so I was looking around for resources on how to do this. And I was like “well there shouldn’t be that many possible solutions. I should be able to find just a nice clear-cut list.”

And I found this very difficult to find. And that’s a thing that I was often wanting at the time. Clear-cut lists of ways to hide clues, clear-cut lists of motives that work in mystery novels, why might an amateur sleuth reasonably decide to investigate a crime.

And then at the same time I was developing my channel and the reason that it was originally called “Fiction Technician” and it’s now just “Jane Kalmes”. But originally it was called Fiction Technician because it was intended to be a general writing channel. I had a lot to say about story structure. I had a lot to say about character. I started putting together a little bit of mystery specific content and it really pushed me to come up with those clear cut lists that I was craving. And it felt really exciting because I would get comments that told me that I was really unlocking things for people that I was helping them build their plots. And that was just an incredible feeling to feel that I was adding something to the wealth of knowledge on this topic.

So, I have just kind of stuck with that and I’ve gotten deeper and deeper into trying to systematize. So, I have just kind of stuck with that and I have gotten deeper and deeper into trying to give people actionable tips on how to create suspects and how to create plot twist and all the rest.

Sarah Well, I have to say I really appreciate that you spend so much time doing this because I think your videos are wonderful and you know they’ve been helpful for me and I’m sure for other people as well.

Jane Oh my goodness. Thank you so much.

Sarah So, can you suggest some of your favorite locked room mysteries, either books, movies, or TV shows that some of our listeners might want to check out?

Jane So, again I’m going to have to come back to TV shows and the two I know that really delve into locked room murders a lot are Murder She Wrote and especially Monk. Almost every episode of Monk, whether it’s a locked room murder or not, it’s generally a “howdunit.” Something where the primary mystery revolves around how somebody did it and not who.

And Monk also has a lot of perfect alibi murders, which are kind of the close cousin of locked room murders. And those are always really fun to check out. Monk was kind of the first show that really helped me unlock these ideas and figure out how these mysteries could be constructed.

Sarah I have to admit, I don’t think I’ve seen any episodes of Monk, so I am going to have to check that out particularly after the conversation that we’ve had today and after watching some of your videos. I’m probably going to watch it with a notebook so I can take notes and see if I can come to the come to the conclusion.

Jane Cool. Awesome. I think the other thing that it really excels at was just great premises. Every episode is like Monk goes to jail, Monk has to be in a play, Monk does something to put him out of his element and put him in a wacky situation that’s going to really test him and that was just a really fun thing about the show as well.

Brook And as a detective. He’s such a unique person right, Jane? He’s a germaphobe. I’ve watched a little bit of Monk. But I think that also lends to being able to keep the storyline fresh is because of his special skills and maybe his quirks. So could you share a little bit about that as a detective, how that plays into keeping the storylines fresh?

Jane So, absolutely. I think there are a few things that you can give your detective to really lift them up to the level of an iconic detective, where they are beloved by readers. And readers love to see them solve the case. And one of those I think is the unique investigative talent and for Monk that is, honestly, it’s related to his OCD. He has very strong OCD, which is often crippling in his personal life. But it forces him to be extremely attentive to detail and so he is always zeroing in on details that the other police officers miss.

And then another thing I think they need is just a really strong unique perspective. So again, Monk’s unique perspective is just totally wrapped up in his obsessive compulsive disorder. And the wonderful thing about a unique perspective, a strong perspective for your character, is that it kind of gives the character a certain logic. There’s a logic to the way Monk moves through a scene. There’s a logic to all of his humor. And the same thing is true of say Sherlock Holmes. Sherlock Holmes’ unique perspective is arrogant disdain and because of that, there’s just a logic to the way he interacts with Watson the way he interacts with Lestrade. And readers come to feel like they really know him. They know what he’s going to do and that’s kind of a great feeling. It’s kind of the feeling that we have about our family members and friends. We don’t like them so much because we admire them but because we know who they are.

The other thing I really like to give a detective is a redeeming virtue. So, Monk’s unique talent and his unique perspective that they kind of make him a slightly unlikeable character. He’s just very difficult to be around. He causes a lot of problems for the people in his life. But his redeeming virtue, I feel like, is that he has this moral courage while he is often very cowardly about things like germs and heights and even milk. He is brave when he’s going mano a mano with a villain. He never hides what he knows. He lets the guy know that he’s coming for him and this redemptive virtue that makes you root for him and feel like this guy is really bringing a lot to the table.

Sarah Thank you. That’s so great.

So, Jane, this has been a really wonderful conversation and we really appreciate you taking the time to join us. Can you share a little bit about where our listeners can find more about you? Your YouTube channel and your books?

Jane Yeah, and thank both of you as well, Brook and Sarah. I have so enjoyed this conversation. So, everyone can find me on YouTube just by looking at my name Jane Kalmes.

And my website is just www.fictiontechnician.com and that’s where you can find out all about my books and a few secret projects that I’ve got coming up in the works.

Sarah Thank you so much for joining us, Jane. I think this has been a really great conversation.

Jane Yeah, I agree this has been so fun. Thank you for having me.

Brook And thank you, listeners for tuning in today on Clued in Mystery. I’m Brook.

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