The Resurgence of
By Dawn Ius
A locked door. A sealed room. A deserted island. These are some of the popular confinements in sleight-of-hand mysteries, a puzzle-box subgenre of thrillers made famous back in 1841 with Edgar Allan Poe’s classic short story “The Murders in the Rue Morgue.”
No question the height of the locked-room mystery came during the reign of the Golden Age of Detection, with everyone from Agatha Christie to John Dickson Carr dabbling in the “impossible crime”—but after a decade or so of psychological thrillers and unreliable narrators dominating the genre, the locked-room mystery appears to be making a comeback.
In the last year alone, we’ve seen books by debut authors and bestselling favorites raise the thriller ante by confining a group of potential victims and a psychopath in isolation with a ticking time bomb. Think New York Times bestselling author Liane Moriarty’s Nine Perfect Strangers, which takes place in a remote health spa setting, or Shari Lapena’s An Unwanted Guest and Taylor Adams’s chilling No Exit, both making use of Mother Nature to confine their cast of characters to a single locale—a snowbound mountain lodge, a highway rest stop.
Theories abound as to why these types of thrillers are experiencing a resurgence. Some see it as a manifestation of cultural anxiety, while others point to real-life conspiracy theories or the emergence of “locked-room” events and computer games. But for Megan Goldin, author of last year’s The Escape Room, the allure of a locked-room mystery stemmed from her desire to solve a problem facing the genre as a whole.
“Cellphones, the internet, and social media are the absolute kiss of death for suspense stories,” she says. “We have no mystery left in our 21st century world. We live in a world of instant gratification and almost real-time knowledge. That makes it really hard for writers of contemporary thrillers and mystery stories to create suspense.”
Technology, with its ever-increasing prevalence and rapid advancements, has long been touted as a problem for the spy and military genres, prompting authors in all of the sub-genres to temporarily turn back the clock; Lee Child’s 2018 Jack Reacher installment, Past Tense, was set in the ’80s, for example.
But if going back in time isn’t an option, the locked-room concept will do the trick.
“Once cellphones are out of range, or not working, then there is suddenly a huge opportunity to create suspense and anticipation in storytelling,” Goldin says, noting that the “location” plays a big part in how that tension unfurls.
In the case of The Escape Room, it’s an elevator—perhaps the “starkest and most limiting type of locked-room setting,” according to Goldin. “It is small. It is claustrophobic. It is windowless. An elevator is potentially hanging hundreds of feet off the ground.”
Admittedly, there are only so many ways Goldin could describe an elevator—and in large sections of the book, she turns out the lights, amping the suspense even further. A challenge, for sure, but one Goldin relished.
“I’m not much of a planner, and as I embarked on the journey of writing The Escape Room, I began to develop a second narrative that explained the backstory of how the characters ended up in the elevator,” she says. “That allowed me to take the reader out of the claustrophobia of the elevator and to explore the characters’ stories and relationships before their ordeal.”
That backstory is critical to a locked-room thriller’s success—without the ability to change the setting and with limited action, the characters are the focus. For Diana Urban’s highly anticipated young adult locked-room mystery All Your Twisted Secrets—set at an invite-only dinner party for teens at a sealed restaurant—the cast make-up came quickly but it took a bit longer for her to iron out the logistics.
Could an entire book take place in just fifteen minutes? she and her husband wondered. No, not enough time to accomplish anything. What about an hour? What if they were locked in a room for an hour and someone died at the end—at the hands of one of the trapped teens? And better still, what if they had to choose someone to kill or else they’d all die?
“The challenge with All Your Twisted Secrets wasn’t so much the locale, but the time constraints,” Urban says. “Most of the action in the locked room spans one hour—such a limited time to get to know each character. I thought interspersing flashbacks in the locked-room narrative would kill the tension as they confront this impossible choice, so instead I alternated real-time chapters with flashback chapters.”
Of course, this type of structure created additional challenges since each character’s arc stretches across two timelines and each real-time chapter-ending cliffhanger feeds into the next flashback chapter, which spills into the next real-time chapter’s reveals and twists. Confused? Urban admits it took some intense plotting to hash out the details.
“Let’s just say, I learned the hard way that I should outline first,” she says.
All Your Twisted Secrets comes out next February, but readers who have been captivated by the revival of the locked-room trend have plenty to keep them up at night. In the young adult arena, One of Us Is Lying by Karen McManus continues to dominate the bestseller charts, and Chelsea Pitcher’s This Lie Will Kill You also features a group of trapped teens.
And for adults, be on the lookout for Rachel Howzell Hall’s forthcoming They All Fall Down, featuring seven sinners, a private island—and a reckoning.