Over the last few decades, Agatha Christie-style whodunnits have gone out of style in favor of modern mysteries that don't ask readers to finger the culprit. Instead, they just tell you that, say, the butler did it.
That might be obvious from the first page or even the title page. But what drove him to it? And how does the killing affect everyone? Call these the whydunnits, spiced with a bit of what-happens-next, in which it's the mystery of the mind that matters most.
Another kind of detective fiction has mostly vanished, too: The howdunnit, as seen in countless short stories about crimes committed in locked rooms. The writers – many of them from the Golden Age of Detective Fiction – dared readers to discover ingenious solutions before the detectives do.
The howdunnit may no longer be in its heyday, but it's now returning for an encore performance. A fantastic new anthology, The Black Lizard Big Book of Locked-Room Mysteries, includes dozens of short stories in the locked-room genre. Otto Penzler, who runs the Mysterious Bookshop in New York City and owns The Mysterious Press, edited the anthology.
In an interview, Penzler talks about the variations on locked rooms, the grand height of the genre, and the surprising answer to how often he figures out the solution.
Q: The first story in the book is the most famous of all: Edgar Allen Poe's grisly "Murders in the Rue Morgue." How influential was he over this genre of mystery?
[Poe] essentially invented not just the locked-room mystery but also the detective short story. In "Murders in the Rue Morgue," all the things we've come to know and accept as part of the detective story show up: the superior intelligence of the detective, his slightly dimmer sidekick who would ask questions so the brilliant detective could answer them, the official police being baffled, a locked room with the windows sealed shut, the doors locked from the inside, and a seemingly impossible crime with suspicion being pointed at someone being totally innocent.
Q: How influential was Poe in bringing detective fiction to life?
Sadly enough, he was not very influential at all. Remember, there were very few detectives in real life in 1841. When he started writing about them, the NYPD was just starting, and Scotland Yard didn't really exist. There was not a history of detectives in the usual way, and there really weren't private detectives at all.
When he created this new form of literature, it turned out to not be very popular, even though everybody liked his horror stories and his poetry. He wrote the last story with detective C. Auguste Dupin in 1845, and then nobody other American wrote another mystery story until 1867, 1868. Then detective fiction in general had no real success until "Sherlock Holmes" in England. Then every publisher was looking for the new Sherlock Holmes, and every writer wanted to write the new Sherlock Holmes.
Q: When did the locked-room mystery reach new heights?
It was really in the Golden Age, between the two world wars, when the pure detective story – of which the locked room mystery is really the ultimate form – became popular.
Q: What's a pure detective story?
Mysteries include so many things: the noir novel, espionage novel, private eye novels, thrillers, police procedurals. But the pure detective story is where there's a detective and a criminal who's committed a murder and leaves clues for the detective and the careful reader to find.
They are real puzzles, not about suspense. It's about who did it and sometimes how.
Q: The title of the anthology refers to locked rooms, but the scenes of the crimes aren't all rooms. They include other types of places, too. But they still qualify, right?
The proper title would be "The Big Book of Impossible Crimes.'" These aren't all rooms. There's a body found in the middle of a tennis court, a body in the middle of a field of snow with no steps leading to it. But I like the term "locked-room mysteries" because it evokes an era and a kind of story.
Q: The mystery short story market has really shrunk over the decades. Are locked-room mysteries still written today?
Very few. This huge book that has close to 70 stories, but you'll see that the vast majority were written between 1915 and 1945. There are only three living writers: Stephen King, Lawrence Block, and John Lutz.
A lot of locked-room mysteries take time for you to pay attention and see the setup. They aren't thrillers, and they don't move along. The modern mystery story is really faster-paced, and I think modern readers tend to prefer seeing something happening on every other page.
Q: How often do you figure out the solution to a locked-room mystery?
Never. I'm pathetic. I'm the most gullible person in the world. You and I both know the most likely suspect is never the person, but I always believe it's the most likely person, and I'm shocked when it's the least likely person.
My wife doesn't bother reading them anymore. She says, "It must be this person." I say, "She's such a nice person. She wasn't even there!" But it's always her.
To this day, I've never figured out a single locked-room mystery.
Q: What kind of locked-room stories did you specifically keep out of this book?
There was a time where people would try things that were so egregiously unfair to the reader. They would have things like a secret door, a secret panel, a false wall that someone could hide in. That's not fair. That's not the spirit of the locked-room story.
Q: What do you think readers should take from reading each story in the anthology?
I'd like them to get an appreciation for an old-fashioned mystery story and find the joys in something that's meticulously plotted and doesn't rely on cheap thrills but on your participation, the reader's participation, in solving an impossible crime.
Randy Dotinga, a Monitor contributor, is president of the American Society of Journalists and Authors.