A brand new study of the locked room mystery has just been published – the first of its kind. The title is Narratives of Enclosure in Detective Fiction, the author Michael Cook, and the publisher Palgrave Macmillan. It’s an expensive book, like so many academic texts, but I decided to treat myself.
In fact, the book is not quite what I expected, for a number of reasons. The author’s starting point is interesting. He suggests that Poe’s “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” set a pattern for detective fiction with an emphasis on “enclosures, death and references to sequestered lives”. So although there is quite a bit of focus on Golden Age fiction, when – most people would accept, I think – the locked room mystery was in its hey-day, the book includes extensive discussion of some stories that one wouldn’t really associate with the locked room sub-genre. A key example is that splendid Charles Dickens story, “The Signalman”.
Seven of the eight chapters focus predominantly on specific authors. The obvious candidates, G.K. Chesterton and John Dickson Carr, are among them. But so too are Dickens, Anna Katherine Green, Jorge Luis Borges and Paul Auster. This eclectic and surprising mix offers much food for thought.
A possible criticism of the book is that, at times, there seems to be almost as much discussion of academic studies of crime fiction as there is about individual locked room mysteries. Some excellent locked room mysteries are not even mentioned – for instance, Rim of the Pit, by Hake Talbot.
However, perhaps it is unfair to focus too much on omissions. All books of this kind have to be selective; there is no alternative. This is a thought-provoking book, and although I don’t see it as truly definitive as a study of its subject, it’s well worth a look if you are keen on studies of crime fiction.