An Introduction to Locked Room Mysteries
Locked room mysteries have found a new resurgence in pop culture thanks to blockbusters like Knives Out and new adaptations of Agatha Christie novels. And even if you know the basics of what locked room mysteries are, you may have wondered where exactly the term came from, how they grew in popularity, or even where to look for the best locked room mysteries beyond the classics that everyone knows.
What Are Locked Room Mysteries?
Locked room mysteries, also called “impossible mysteries,” is fairly simple on the surface: a crime is committed with no possible way for a murderer to get in or out of an area, or, a locked room. But the beauty of the genre is in the details, and the writer provides the reader all the clues they need to solve the case at the very beginning, layering in evidence and red herrings in expertly plotted mysteries that keep readers guessing.
One of the most well-known writers of locked room mysteries is Agatha Christie; the device can be seen in her books Murder on the Orient Express and And Then There Were None, to name just two. These crimes take place in “locked rooms” of sorts, as there is a set cast of characters in a set place where the crime is committed, and no one exits or arrives after the narrative has begun.
But Christie wasn’t the inventor of the genre; many credit the first locked room mystery to Edgar Allan Poe’s story “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” (1841), and other early instances include The Mystery of the Yellow Room by Gaston Leroux (1907) and The Chinese Orange Mystery by Ellery Queen (1934).
By the early 1920s, the literature scene entered the Golden Age of Detective Fiction, which spans the 1920s through the 1930s. The era featured many breakout and prolific writers who specialized in locked room mysteries, like John Dickson Carr, who was known as the “master of the locked room mystery.” Eventually the genre grew to include additional sub-genres, like honkaku and shin honkaku mysteries, which also usually feature a locked room element.
Locked room mysteries continued their popularity through the 20th and into the 21st centuries, finding new readers with new books and more familiarity with the concept with the introduction of locked room movies and entertainment like escape rooms.
Best Locked Room Mysteries: The Classics
Whether you’re a newbie to the genre or a seasoned pro, having a go-to list for your next locked room book is a must. Here are some classics if you want to go old-school and read some of the original masters of the genre.
And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie
This is likely the most well-known locked room mystery out there even though it wasn’t technically the first. It’s also a must-read in my opinion because so many writers were inspired by this book and have written retellings and new takes on this one — it’s fun to see where they all began. Ten strangers are assembled as guests on an island by a strange host who won’t name himself and is nowhere to be found. A famous nursery rhyme hangs in each room of the mansion, and soon the guests realize they are being killed, one by one, according to the rhyme.
The Decagon House Murders by Yukito Ayatsuji
Originally published in Japanese in 1987, this book is largely credited with beginning the shin honkaku movement. It follows university students in a mystery club who take a trip to an island that was the site of a grisly murder scene. As the students begin dying one by one, the questions pile up as the survivors race to discover the truth behind the murders happening now and the ones that happened all those years ago.
The Three Coffins by John Dickson Carr
As mentioned earlier, Carr is deemed the master of the genre, and this is likely the most famous of those locked room mysteries, even containing a famous monologue in which the detective details the types of impossible crimes that can occur in locked rooms and how one might solve them. This was published in 1935 and so the language is dated at times, but it’s worth the read because of its introduction to the type of book and its expert plotting of a man being murdered in a locked room surrounded by snow, where there aren’t even footprints left behind to give a clue as to how the murder occurred.
Best Locked Room Mysteries: Newer Releases
Of course there are tons of modern locked room books out, and the genre doesn’t seem to be slowing down any time soon. Here are a few standouts in the space.
The Dying Game by Åsa Avdic
It’s 2037 (not as far in the future as it once seemed), and the world is in a sort of Orwellian state. Jobs are scarce, so when a rare one opens up for a top-secret government position, the competition is fierce. It’s narrowed to seven candidates, who are brought to a remote island for a 48-hour test for the job. Anna, one of the candidates, is not actually a candidate at all, but is hired to stage her own death and observe the others as they try to solve the case under pressure.
Malice by Keigo Higashino
A famous bestselling writer is found dead in his locked home, inside a locked room, and his closest loved ones have totally solid alibis. As the detective on the case tries to uncover what really happened with so little to go on, it becomes clear someone is lying — but who? This technically is the fourth in the series featuring Detective Kaga, but each book can be read as a standalone novel and tells the full story within the one book.
Death in the Family by Tessa Wegert
The first book in a series, this is a mystery that doesn’t take place inside a locked room, but rather on an isolated island where no one can arrive or leave, making it a locked room mystery. The Sinclair family makes a frantic call to their small local police station with startling news — someone has been murdered. When Shana and her partner Tim arrive on the remote island, no one can leave, and they realize the Sinclairs are the only ones there, meaning someone murdered one of their own. They just have to find out who.
The Psychology of Time Travel by Kate Mascarenhas
Locked room mysteries can also be combined with other genres, as seen in this blend with science fiction. In 1967, four women team up to invent and master time travel, building the world’s first time machine. As they near completion, one woman suffers a breakdown, and rather than halt the project, the women decide to release her from the group and move forward without her. Decades later, Ruby receives a strange news clipping from the future in which the body of an unidentified woman is found inside a locked room. Ruby has to know more and sets out to figure out who this woman is, how she could have died, and what exactly she has to do with time travel in the first place.
Marion Lane and the Midnight Murder by T.A. Willberg
Miss Brickett’s Investigations & Inquiries is a secretive and mysterious group of young detectives, recruited for their cunning minds and use of modern and advanced tools, to solve seemingly impossible murders. Late one night, a young filing assistant for the company receives an ominous message warning that something terrible will happen. The woman makes her way to the room she’s instructed to go, and she’s murdered inside the room with zero trace of evidence and zero witnesses.
They All Fall Down by Rachel Howzell Hall
Miriam receives an invitation of a lifetime — a surprise luxury trip to a private island. But once she arrives and meets the other strangers who were also summoned, they realize they were all told lies to get them to the resort, and now they don’t know why they’re there. Cell phone service is spotty at best, they’re cut off from the mainland, and when accidents begin to occur, it seems like there’s something dark and sinister under the surface of their relaxing vacation.
Whether you’re just starting out or you’re a seasoned pro at the genre, locked room mysteries are some of the best the mystery genre has to offer. And if you’ve already read everything on this list, try more locked room books if you love escape rooms or take this quiz to find out exactly which one to read next.