For mystery readers, there are few things better than an unsolvable case. It’s what keeps us turning the page, attempting to deduce what, in the tangled web of clues and testimony, will tell us who did it, and why.
Locked room mysteries are the ultimate unsolvable crime. When it seems like the only possible solution is that the killer walked through the wall, the best writers tease out tiny pieces of evidence until the impossible seems incredibly obvious.
Here, we’ve rounded up some of the best locked-room mysteries that will keep you guessing until the very end.
Ruth Ware’s The Woman in Cabin 10 is a locked-room mystery set on the high seas. Covering an assignment for her boss, reporter Lo Blacklock joins fellow travel reporters, photographers, celebrities, and investors on the maiden voyage of the Aurora, a luxury cruise liner.
Shaken by a break-in at her apartment only days before, Lo is further startled when she wakes in the middle of the night and sees the passenger from Cabin 10 thrown overboard. The only problem: there is no one staying in Cabin 10. Lo combats paranoia, claustrophobia, and a severe case of mansplaining to uncover the truth behind the missing passenger. Ware crafts a nearly perfect locked room mystery, slowly unraveling the case until a disturbing portrait of the crime is revealed. If you haven’t yet, read our full review of The Woman in Cabin 10, then do yourself a favor and add this to your TBR.
John Dickinson Carr, master of the locked room mystery himself, dubbed Leroux’s intriguing tale “the first locked room mystery ever written.” Narrated by the simple yet likable lawyer Sanclair, the mystery tracks the impressive beginnings of Joseph Rouletabille, a young reporter intent on discovering the truth behind an unsolvable assault.
Who could have attacked the studious Mademoiselle Stangerson, when her door was locked and windows were barred, and no one fled the room once it was finally opened? Sanclair and Rouletabille strike up a Holmes/Watson relationship as they finagle their way onto the grand estate of Glandier to track down the disappearing assailant, one you won’t see coming.
Arthur Conan Doyle
In The Speckled Band, Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson tackle a locked-room mystery when they are approached by Helen Stoner to investigate the mysterious death of her twin sister. Two years earlier, Julia Stoner was killed from within her locked bedroom shortly before her wedding. Her final words referenced a speckled band that had been her undoing.
When Helen is forced to stay in her sister’s room one night and hears the same noises that foreshadowed Julia’s death, she hops on the first train to London to enlist Holmes’s help. While not the most shocking of locked room mysteries, the story delivers what one would expect from a Sherlock Holmes story: clues are hidden in plain sight, our favorite crime-solving duo on a stakeout, and jungle animals roaming the English countryside.
Agatha Christie was a huge fan of the locked-room mystery, but And Then There Were None goes down as one of her finest creations. Ten strangers are summoned to a private residence on an island off the coast by a man they’ve never met. They quickly learn that he knows them, and their darkest secrets: they’ve all gotten away with murder.
But as they begin to die in a manner mirroring an old nursery rhyme, the group must band together to find the culprit, before it’s too late for all of them. Christie’s murderer is masterful and completely deranged. You’ll be guessing until the last page.
Soji Shimada; Shika MacKenzie (Translator); John Pugmire (Translator); Ross MacKenzie (Translator)
In 1936, an artist in Tokyo hatches a plan to murder his daughters and stepdaughters and dismember their bodies in order to create Azoth, a Frankenstein-esque being whom he believes will be the ideal women. He details in his journal how he will mutilate and bury the women's remains according to their zodiac sign. The murders are committed, but there’s one problem: the artist died mere days before the women were killed, inside a locked room.
The story really begins in 1979, when amateur sleuths Kazumi Ishioka and Kiyoshi Mitarai (another Holmes and Watson pairing) find themselves with one week to solve the case. Soji Shimada organizes the story into five acts, introducing the reader to the supposed killer and the major actors in the crime before whiplashing the reader on the frenzied journey to catch the killer.
By Act Four, Shimanda inserts himself into the narrative to challenge the reader. He says, at this point, the reader has all the information to solve the case, and throws down the gauntlet: can we solve it before Kazumi and Kiyoshi? I couldn’t, but I wouldn’t have wanted to. Following Kazumi and Kiyoshi across time and space to unravel the decades-old mystery was engrossing, making the reveal all the more powerful.
Elizabeth Venere is a marketing manager at Hachette Book Group. You can usually find her reading (a mystery novel, obviously) or at yoga, trying to re-center after reading about too many murders.