Oh, just go buy this.
Those people that can engage with their fiction by way of its characters are my tribe. That’s what fiction is for, in fact, and where its life-changing power lies. I can dig in deeply with inspiring ideas and themes too, even if the characters are a little thin. That’s where well crafted science fiction lights me up, in fact. If a lingering image sticks with me, or some slick twist on technology, I’m all good with a book and will likely re-read it just for that experience.
But there’s always got to be a hook. Right? Something that keeps you with it because you have a question or want to see how something turns out. That’s why the pages keep turning.
My dad has always been a fan of murder mysteries – the ‘Who-done-it’ genre. It’s an old tradition going way back; and I’m sure you’ve read plenty of those yourself. No need to get into that here because it’s the original Immersive Storytelling Engine. We know it well.
Recently, my wife and I watched Season One of something on Netflix called “The Sinner“. It’s based on the work of German crime novelist, Petra Hammesfahr. You should probably go watch that too, actually. The lead detective is a bit broken; and Bill Pullman is fantastic in that role. I’m not usually into his acting; but he’s perfect here. You’ll get why I mention it here is you’re intrigued by this question:
Instead of a ‘who-done-it’, what exactly would a ‘why-done-it’ look like?
Amazing, actually. Season 1 is a lady carving fruit on a beach with her kid and husband suddenly slashes someone to pieces – the whole season unwinds to spell out why she did that. Season 2 is a kid poisoning the folks you assume are his parents in a hotel room.
Then there’s the little collection that appears in the header above. Here, read this from Amazon:
“The Most Complete Collection of Impossible Crime Stories Ever Assembled, with puzzling mysteries by Stephen King, Dashiell Hammett, Lawrence Block, Agatha Christie, Georges Simenon, Dorothy L. Sayers, P. G. Wodehouse, Erle Stanley Gardner, and many, many more
THE BLACK LIZARD BIG BOOK OF LOCKED-ROOM MYSTERIES: An empty desert, a lonely ski slope, a gentleman’s study, an elevator car—nowhere is a crime completely impossible.
Edgar Award–winning editor Otto Penzler has collected sixty-eight of the all-time best impossible-crime stories from almost two hundred years of the genre. In addition to the many classic examples of the form—a case of murder in a locked room or otherwise inaccessible place, solved by a brilliant sleuth—this collection expands the definition of the locked room to include tales of unbelievable thefts and incredible disappearances.”
You’ll recognize many of the authors, even if you didn’t know they’d taken a stab at writing a locked-room mystery (“stab”, see what I did there?). Definitely worth your time as a heightened way of engaging with your fiction, at least in these short doses.
So what we have here is the ‘how-done-it’. You’ll not always know the culprit, but you’ll certainly be puzzled at how the murder or theft occurred given the conditions the stories lay out for you.
I’ll tell you this – read enough of these and it starts to feel like reading zen koans or something from Jorge Luis Borges where your whole idea of what is happening has to be turned around to make the pieces fit. You’re intentionally stuck into a paradox, fed biases and tricks that look like clues, and it’s up to you to pull back and ask some fundamental questions.
Seriously, give it a try. Less than $20. Worth it.
Let me know what you think, and also if you know of any other good collections of locked room mysteries. I’d be interested in a novel-length version if you think it’s well written.
See you later, guys.