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This week, I wanted to take a few minutes to discuss briefly 3 “locked-room” mysteries I read. In basic terms, a “locked-room” mystery is exactly what it sounds like: a crime (usually a murder, but sometimes a theft) takes place in a room that appears to be locked from the inside or otherwise inaccessible, and it’s up to the clever sleuth (or in some cases, observant travelling salesman?) to discover who is responsible and how the crime was committed.
I’ll confess that my commentary is going to be pretty light this time–not because I enjoyed the stories any less than others, but because, by this point, I think we’re familiar with the ins and outs of mystery stories. Also, there isn’t a great deal of subtext, so these were easy, quick, fun reads.
All three of today’s tales came from Otto Penzler’s Black Lizard Big Book of Locked-Room Mysteries, borrowed from my local library. This volume is HUGE, so if this type of story is your bag, you should definitely pick it up. (Penzler also edited a volume of stories about villains and rogues, which I’ll mention in a later post!) I appreciated the fact that this collection was actually organized by crime committed and/or weapon used, which is a neat approach.
Okay, I won’t keep you in suspense any longer. Let’s pop open the lock and dive in!
#27: “The Murders at the Rue Morgue” by Edgar Allan Poe (1841)
The brilliant C. Auguste Dupin involves himself in the investigation of a grisly murder scene to repay a service performed by the man accused of the crime.
I both enjoyed and endured this story. It was written nearly 50 years before Sir Arthur Conan Doyle first published “A Study in Scarlet,” and it’s undeniably how much ACD borrowed/stole from Poe’s 3 “Dupin” stories. While the set-up in this story was pure Sherlockian goodness, the ending left…well, a LOT to be desired. Nevertheless, without Dupin, we would likely not have a Holmes (or at least not one in any way recognizable). For that, I am very grateful.
Here are some story observations for your consideration–and spoilers forthcoming, so go find the story for yourself if you have any interest in reading a proto-Sherlock mystery.
- Poe spends several hundred words describing the power of deductive reasoning (or as Poe described it, “ratiocination,” the creative imagination and logical prowess that Dupin employs to work out the mystery). The miniature essay itself was heavy reading but instructive–I had to remind myself that this narration/prologue was the invention of Poe, instead of a nonfiction treatise by an actual investigative professional. That alone is noteworthy.
- If you’re at all familiar with Doyle’s tropes, this story feels paint-by-numbers, to the point at which you begin to resent Doyle’s acclaim for what is transparently a ripped-off character. (Hold that ire a moment, reader.) The narrator is an anonymous “Watson” type who meets the Detective at the library, where they are seeking the same book and become friends. Technically, Dupin isn’t a detective but a former man of means whose family fell on hard times. He does a bit of “Sherlocking” early on, appearing to be able to read his friend’s thoughts before explaining in a perfectly logical way how he came to that conclusion. You almost don’t even need to read this first section of the narrative; just imagine a Holmes and Watson meet-cute and you’ve got it nailed.
- The mystery presents itself: gruesome murders, shouting in foreign tongues, a locked room. Much of the story’s length is spent in newspaper accounts of incredible and grisly detail of the crime, or detailed recounting of the witness statements (must have been the late edition of the Exposition Times). Dupin involves himself in the case because he owes one of the suspects a favor. He’s not a detective; he’s just smart.
- The path to the resolution is copied wholesale in Doyle’s stories: interviews, latching on to a random-seeming detail, an action by the “detective” that makes no sense in the moment but eventually becomes the spring to set off the trap for the guilty party.
- Aaaaaaaand it’s an orangutan. That’s the killer: an orangutan. I nearly dropped the book at this point. The resolution is so silly, so stupid, you could almost wonder if this was meant to be a farce. However, this is where my opinion of the Dupin-Sherlock connection changed. In the end, it isn’t merely that Doyle ripped off Poe wholesale (though he very, very much did). Doyle took the parts of the Dupin stories that worked and improved them substantially. The brilliant hero *should* be a detective. The sidekick isn’t just a cipher, but an actual character whose history can play into the story. Don’t lead off with a treatise on the detective’s methods; show rather than tell. Flesh out the Detective’s story a bit more. Give just enough exposition to give the characters something to do and then let them dig. Doyle takes the formula and remixes it to create literary magic.
It’s undeniable that without Dupin, the world would have missed out on Sherlock Holmes. But it should be equally without question that, without the mind of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the next generation’s “August Dupin” would have quickly faded from memory, rather than having the cultural staying power that he still enjoys.
In summary, good writers steal ideas; truly great writers steal and masterfully improve ideas.
#28: “The Dream” by Agatha Christie
The venerable Hercule Poirot is summoned to meet an eccentric tycoon, who tells of a recurring dream of suicide–a dream that comes true the next day.
Until now, my familiarity with Hercule Poirot has been mostly the book-length mysteries (or the Masterpiece Theater teleplays, which I suspect may be based on shorter works). This bite-sized Poirot mystery works, but feels very quick and thin. In my experience, Poirot needs time to chew on a puzzle before working it out. This story was almost over before it began, and while the ending was satisfactory, it wasn’t resonant.
A few scattered thoughts on this one (from memory, since I failed to take notes):
- I have to admit, as I read this story, I kept thinking back to one of the Thin Man films (either the second or the third), in which Nick Charles is threatened by a man who has dreams of his enemies dying in horrible ways, but always has an alibi when one of them dies. (Sidenote: if you’ve never watched the Thin Man movies [the original being an adaptation of a Dashiell Hammett novel], I cannot recommend them strongly enough. Truly great stories, both as detective/mystery stories and as 1930’s comedies. Nick and Nora Charles are one of my all-time favorite screen couples, and it’s just a delight to watch them solve cases together.)
- A point in the story’s favor is that Christie makes it easy for the reader to accept everything as presented at first. The whole situation feels a bit unusual, and the author noting that even Poirot is bemused by some of the theatricality helps the reader ease in and take things as they come.
- I think what I like best about Poirot stories is that you can watch him slowly work out the answer to the mystery. He’s methodical, asking careful questions and keeping his cards close to his vest. That’s where the short story length starts to lose me as a reader. It happens so quickly, there doesn’t seem to be time for Poirot to figure the mystery out. On the other hand, the list of suspects is short, and the action and dialogue are pretty pared down, so it suits the format better.
In the end, the puzzle is solved and the death is proven to be murder, not suicide. Some of the details seemed like a bit of stretch, but the main twist worked for me. I think I’d like to read more of Christie’s shorter Poirot tales before making a decision about whether or not I prefer the novel-length to the short-story format. It’s hard to judge them all by just reading one.
#29: “The Poisoned Dow ’08” by Dorothy Sayers
A travelling salesman revisits a former customer to discover his wares may have been involved in the man’s murder.
This one…worked, I suppose. I think I had the most trouble connecting because the protagonist was a random door-to-door salesman. It was tricky to get a bead on his character, so when he provided perceptive commentary and insight, I was more confused than intrigued.
A few comments on this one as well, bereft of detail but capturing the essence:
- As I noted, the main character seems to be a one-off (and if I’m wrong, you Sayers fans should certainly correct me in the comments!), providing no connection points for the reader. While the level of “Sherlocking” this character does is kept to a minimum (and makes sense, given his particular expertise), it just seems out of place. The police inspectors give him entirely too much leeway in these conversations, making the whole thing feel a bit convenient and taking me out of the moment.
- The resolution does seem a bit rushed and was tricky to visualize as I read. The final clue that the salesman says tipped him off still sailed right past me, even upon re-reading his explanation. The whole venture seems a bit rushed, as if Sayers had a good idea but was murky on the details and just wanted to push through to the end. While there’s something to be said for trimming unnecessary detail down to the bare bones of the plot, the atmosphere and location seemed like sketches rather than settings.
- If I had my druthers, a much stronger ending might have been for the salesman to actually have been the killer, who uses his quick thinking and on-the-spot explanations to dispel the detective’s suspicions and put him on the wrong track. Obviously, that’s a bit off-brand for Sayers, from what I know of her work. Nevertheless, I would have found that a bit more interesting.
That’s all I’ve got for you this week. Check back tomorrow for either a #FridayFeed post or perhaps some current-events commentary (depending on how feisty I feel).