Monday, June 25, 2012

Give Me A Nice Locked Room

After the last week, a padded, soundproof cell sounds heavenly.  But actually, this blog is about locked room mysteries.

Mystery fans know I mean the kind of story where the corpse is found alone in a room with limited access, and that access has been cut off from the outside with a lock or other means. The fun of solving this kind of enigma is figuring out how the murderer got in and back out again.

Back in the 5th century, Herodotus told of a headless robber whose body was found in a sealed chamber. What we think of as the first "modern" detective story came from the pen of Edgar Allan Poe: The Murders in The Rue Morgue, published in 1841. This was also a locked room mystery and no doubt inspired variations on the plot that followed--Collins' The Moonstone, Leroux's The Mystery of the Yellow Room, and several Sherlock Holmes tales such as The Sign of Four and "The Speckled Band."

During the Golden Age of detective fiction, locked room mysteries were some of the most popular, and it seems like nearly every author of the genre tried their hand at this kind of plot. Dorothy Sayers set one outdoors--a recent corpse found in the middle of a wet beach, yet with no footprints in sight (Have His
). Agatha Christie used a whole island as her locked room (And Then There Were None). Christie used the technique in other works as well. One of my favorites is her short story, "The Blue Geranium."

Authors are still writing locked room mysteries, but they're hard to find these days. Maybe the pressure put on authors to churn out novels in a hurry discourages the creation of intricate plots. Or perhaps the trend toward action-oriented thrillers discourages plots based on mental puzzles. It seems a shame, now that we have all kinds of technology--surveillance cameras, motion detectors, ID card, fingerprint and retina-scan door openers--that could make for the ultimate locked room.

So, to kick off the next locked-room renaissance, I wrote the novel TWO-FACED (available only (for now) on Kindle and Nook). Any authors out there wiling to give it a try?

Do you have a favorite locked room mystery?


Thursday, June 7, 2012

Getting Cozy with Poisons

Anytime a group of mystery fiction lovers get together eventually the discussion will get around to hard-boiled vs. cozy novels.

The former is the grittier type of novel, taking place on mean city streets, as told by policemen or private detectives. The novels have more physical action, more violence, and more gore. The bad guys tend to be organized crime, serial killers, even terrorists.

Cozy mysteries are named after the tea cozy, used for keeping a pot of tea warm. These stories usually take place in small towns, with bodies often found already dead, and not too messy. The protagonists tend to be amateur sleuths (though not always--think of Christie's Poirot). The bad guys are usually amateurs as well--cases involving domestic murder, embezzlement, secrets that need to be kept quiet.

In hard-boiled mysteries, you'll likely find guns, bombs, knives, and blunt instruments like lead pipes. The bigger the weapons, the better, so big powerful cars are also to be expected. No one in a hard-boiled drives a Smart Car or a Mini Cooper.

Cozy murder victims typically succumb to more genteel methods. Oh, guns aren't out of the question, but they won't be assault rifles or police specials. Maybe an antique musket, or a lady's derringer (I used a Brownie in my last book). A blunt force weapon is more apt to be a fireplace poker or a bust of George Bernard Shaw. If the victim is drowned, it's in the garden pond instead of the East River.

Poisons, though, have always had their place in classic cozy mysteries. One of the experiences that shaped Agatha Christie's career was learning about toxins when she worked in a medical dispensary during World War I. The traditional mysteries are chock full of arsenic, strychnine, and cyanide.

I love garden settings: all someone has to do is mention the foxgloves or oleander in the yard and you know Cousin Horace isn't long for this earth. And certainly the shed out back contains a container or two of rat poison or pesticide.

Like food? Beware of the mushrooms or special herbs Aunt Betsy added to the soup. Or the berries in the tart. Or even certain shellfish harvested in the wrong month.

And let's not forget the exotic poisons--the venom of certain snakes and spiders, the excretions of certain frogs, even poisonous gases that leave no trace. And everyone's favorite, the untraceable poison discovered by a primitive tribe somewhere in the Amazon.

Poisons, somehow, aren't seen as macho enough for tough guys in hard-boiled crime novels. I'm not sure why. The Borgias were the Sopranos of the Italian Renaissance. No one called them wimpy for using poisons. Not to their faces, at least.

So give me a nice un-gritty mystery any day, where you never know what might have been added to the liquid in that pot under the cozy.



Member, Delaware Valley Mystery Authors