Any UK readers will be aware that recently the comedy/ murder mystery series Death in Paradise returned to screens. The show is set on a fictional Caribbean island and depicts a range of disparate, bumbling British detectives, played by comic actors Ben Miller, then Kris Marshall followed by the current incumbent, Ardal O’Hanlon. Each week the detective is faced with an almost impossible murder, which he always solves within the final ten minutes of the show, having spent the entire rest of the hour long running time blundering about finding various silly clues.
However, the main issue here is that, despite the improbability of this happening every time, the island’s murders are all contrived so that they can only have been committed by a limited number of people. Often, there is no means by which the perpetrator could have left the room in the state it was without having been seen, which they invariably are not. This is a unique take on the classic locked room mystery, made famous during the Golden Age but used by many before and afterwards.
The return of this hit show reminded me of the on going debate about whether or not ITV should kill off Midsomer Murders, the show which seems to have been around forever, with a similar premise; the murderer must be one of a limited number of villagers connected to the victim in some, often obscure, way. Again, it is set in a small, supposedly isolated place, the fictional village of Midsomer, and the suspect list is always limited to allow for the writer to create a convoluted solution. Often, the plot runs along similar lines to that of the BBC’s Death in Paradise, with the perpetrator seemingly unable to leave either the crime scene or the village undetected.
The ultimate locked room mystery is of course Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express, which, as I am sure you are already aware, was recently made into a big budget Hollywood film. The end of this novel paved the way for many other plots, as it had more than one of the characters band together to create a truly improbable conclusion that kept the reader guessing right to the end.
That, in my opinion, is the entire point of the locked room mystery format. Popularised by Christie and Sayers and the like, it has been used for years across all forms of media to confuse the reader and throw them off the scent. When writing mysteries the key is to make the ending something that is bordering on the impossible, so that the reader is completely unable to guess it ahead of time but it would still, in theory, be doable. Locked room mysteries provide this as the reader knows that it can only be one of a limited number of suspects, which gives the narrative tension, whilst also they are then bamboozled by the end, which usually reveals the killer to be either the person that it had been previously proven could not possibly have committed the crime, or else a team of the suspects working together to divert suspicion and confuse the detective.
It is this combination of tense narrative and the incorporable conclusions that writers can create using the form that has led the locked room mystery to remain a success for so long, and it will undoubtedly continue on in TV shows, films and books for many years to come.