Anatomy of a Parlor Room Murder Scene

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Clare Barnett

Staff Writer

Clare Barnett lives in Richmond, Virginia, with her husband and daughter. She delves into all genres but has a soft spot for fantasy, mystery, and memoir. When she’s not working her way through her to-read list, she’s reading and writing about bookish things. Twitter: @clarebar. Inquiries:

I’m so glad you could join us here in the parlor! Please have a seat, right next to the crackling fire. A lesser detective may have been surprised that you accepted my invitation to this little gathering. After all, it was only yesterday that I implied you had a motive to kill the poor victim, which would be a very awkward conversation for anyone. But I happen to be a stellar detective who has read all Agatha Christie’s novels, so I knew you’d be too curious to stay away.

Now that you’re here, take a good look at everyone gathered in this room. You all have something in common! Everyone in this room had good reason to want the victim dead. And most of you are keeping a secret that ranges from embarrassing to tragic that makes you look very guilty indeed. Yes, I suppose it is nerve wracking to be in the presence of so many potential murderers. But don’t worry! As I am about to explain at great length, only one of you actually killed someone.

Gather the Suspects

Now, I am a very literary detective, so I’d like to do this by the book. No laughs at that pun? Tough crowd. Anyway, the first step is getting all the suspects together in one room. Agatha Christie is the godmother of the parlor room mystery, with her most famous sleuths almost always saving the big reveal for when they have an audience. In the 1920s “Golden Age” of Detective fiction, mystery writers usually presented the murder as a mental game for the reader to solve. To keep the game going as long as possible, writers like Christie saved the detective’s brilliant summation for the last possible moment.

Usually, in Ms. Christie’s books, Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple prefer a parlor like this, but Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe often used his office and sometimes a hotel. Parlor room-style scenes are still popular, even outside of the manor house Antony Horowitz recently used as a theater stage in The Twist of a Knife, and of course Rian Johnson inverted the trope in Knives Out. Whatever the venue, what matters is that there’s enough space for about four to six people. That’s about as many suspects as a dedicated reader can keep up with.

The fact that we’re all gathered here today means that, to a less brilliant mind than mine, you all are still equal suspects. We’ve really built up the suspense now! I’ve diligently interviewed each of you about your whereabouts, and asked you all about each other. Means, motive, and opportunity are all still on the table. Some of you hated the victim. Some of you loved the victim, even when you shouldn’t have. They say Mrs. Christie didn’t know who did it until she got to the end either, so you’re in good company.

I, however, as the detective, know better.

Round Robin Recap

This next part will be a little awkward for some of you. Up until now, I’ve kept my thoughts mostly to myself, nodding and frowning at certain clues just like Hercule Poirot, and maybe made a charming quip or two. But now I’m going to go step-by-step through my investigation, starting with the discovery of the body. Readers love this because it’s usually the first time they get to see the investigation through the brilliant detective’s eyes. That green fabric caught in the door jam at the crime scene? That was a huge clue. You can write off the muddy shoe print on the carpet, though. That was just shoddy housekeeping and a red herring.

Let’s go around the room now. I’ll start with the most boring suspect first. Sorry, but no one really thinks you did it, Mr. Milquetoast. I kept you in the mix because you were cagey about your whereabouts the night of the murder, but that’s only because you were passed out drunk.

Moving on, we’ll get a little spicier. Two of you were having an affair and the victim found out about it. That’s a juicy secret and explains why you lied about your alibis. But since you were, ahem, indisposed at the time of the murder, I’m crossing you off the list.

The Final Reveal

Narrowing down the list, we’re at the last two suspects, and I see the tension is high. I’m going to reveal the murderer, who showed extremely poor judgment by sitting through this whole speech instead of making a break for it. Also, you should all brace yourselves, because when I finally out the murderer, they do tend to get a little violent. Even money that they pull a gun or tackle me on their way out the door.

Don’t worry, though. The police are always waiting nearby to slap on the handcuffs.