In the subset of literature that, for no lack of you-pick-it labels, goes by “detective fiction” or “crime fiction” or “mystery novels” or a half-dozen others, one of the classic amuse-bouches is that of the locked-room story. Depending on which absolutist promontory you stand on – my foothold, quite securely, is on the peak of crime fiction / police procedural, leaning more to the American hard-boiled than the Christie drawing-room mechanical – the locked room is either the epitome of brilliant writing and detection, or a slippery trope of gimmickry and trickery. I kind of like them, the way I like any good, clever puzzle, although they are often devoid of real characters in their slavish concentration on a narrative that is less whodunit or whydunit than howdunit.
To explain: While a locked-room mystery needn’t involve a murder, it usually does, just to up the ante. The story usually goes like this: Someone is noticeably missing, or an apartment-building neighbor detects “that smell,” or a landlord can’t get into a rented room, or the door to the den in an ancestral blue-blood manse can’t be opened and the key is nowhere to be found and Lord Grosvenor hasn’t been seen since dinner, or the high-tech computerized keypad (with iris ID) can’t be activated because nobody knows the PIN number. In all these cases, the door is broken down and, alas, a body is found, slumped over a desk, or at the center of the floor, or someplace instantly discoverable. But here’s the hump: the room was locked from the inside, yet the culprit is not inside, and somehow got out – but how? There are no signs of forced entry, or exit. How does one commit a murder (and sometimes in exotic, arcane fashion) in a locked room – often trying to make it look like suicide? How’d the killer get in, then get out? And what is it about the scene – or absent from the scene – that solves the mystery? (I’ve just finished one, an early Martin Beck procedural by the excellent Scandinavian team of Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo, titled, appropriately enough, The Locked Room, an airier-than-usual foray for the writers, more in an 87th Precinct vein, especially one of those Ed McBain corkers involving the Isola cops’ devilish Moriarty, the Deaf Man. The Beck locked-room story has a less baroque solution than most, but, as with most, is far-fetched; many are just brain-twizzlers stretched to 200 pages, and many of them cheat a little by not giving you a pertinent detail, or by basing it all on facts or motivations that are, essentially, unrealistic. Still, the Beck is the one that got me to thinking.)
What hit me this time around, in my reading, is that far beyond being just an entertainment form – a disposable diversion that we read quickly, are engaged and entertained by and then almost immediately forget – it is clear that locked-room mysteries are, in fact, metaphors. Actually, that realization merits a “duh.” But, while some or most will see the metaphor as one of an existentialist expression of life, I see it, for the purposes of our explorations here, as a metaphor for placeness and art, and of art-making, and even of art criticism. For years now, I’ve thought of the act of creating, whether it be writing or fine arts or even performance, as a painting of oneself into a corner and then finding one’s way out (or not); it used to be that it was important to find the exit path without leaving footprints in the wet paint, but these days that is no longer a necessity: some of the best art leaves tell-tale tread marks, and gladly and purposely smooshes the perfectly coated surface, in attempts at modern or post-modern “transparency.”
But, really, isn’t being an artist a lot more like finding oneself in the placeness of a room locked from the inside, alone, committing the “crime,” keeping the culprit world outside, and, in a sense, waiting for the curious and interest-piqued “detectives” to break down the door and discover you and your work, and your stage-posed ingenuity? And doesn’t the locked-room describe the art lover, who enters that mysterious place and finds a scene that needs “solving,” that demands an understanding of not only its methods but its meaning? Is not art appreciation, on its highest level, standing in a now-unlocked room – one opened by you – and through not just looking but seeing, not just inventorying but empathizing, not just looking for the weapon but also both superficial and deep-rooted motives, finding the answer? The resonance of this placeness is both in the locking and the unlocking of a room we need to be in.