In a Locked Room

In a locked room

By Steven Poole, 2011

You know that in a locked room, anything can happen: art, apparition, assassination. Edgar Allen Poe’s story, The Murders in the Rue Morgue, initiated the locked-room mystery, a genre of apparently impossible crime. How did the killer get in and then out again? Along with the detective, you become a scientist of hypothetical ingress and egress.

You are ignorant about what is in a locked room, and also curious, perhaps dangerously so. It will not make you happy to learn what is behind the locked door in Bluebeard’s castle. You are a cat trapped in a box with a radioactive pellet: Schrödinger says that, according to one interpretation of quantum theory, you are neither alive nor dead but in a superposition of both states, as long as no one opens the box to look. You know an eerie result in probability theory, the Monty Hall Problem, which says that looking behind one door ought to make you change your mind about what you think is behind another.

You want to get in to a locked room when you’re outside it. You want to get out of a locked room when you’re inside it. You wake up and find yourself in a sealed chamber, amnesiac, your imprisonment accomplished out of the blue. Conceptualists of this scenario include the makers of the film Cube, whose protagonists must negotiate a three-dimensional maze of interconnected trap rooms, the collection of rooms itself being a giant locked room. The field of meaning extends to the interactive digital form, especially a cult series of “room escape” puzzle games by Toshimitsu Takagi: Crimson RoomViridian RoomBlue Chamber, and White Chamber. You are warned: “A person cannot escape from oneself.”

You recognize that a locked room implies the possibility of unlocking. Where there is a lock, there must be a key. A locked room that cannot in principle be unlocked is not a locked room but an immuring, a walling-up, a brick coffin. While no one looks inside, are you alive or dead, or both?

You realise that a locked room need not be a physical structure of plaster, wood and brass. It can be built from language itself. You remember that the word “stanza”, for a unit of verse, comes from the Italian for “room”, a fact that encouraged punning by metaphysical poets. “Love [...] makes one little room an everywhere,” wrote John Donne in The Good-Morrow. To be locked in a room, whether actual or conjured from poetry, is no hardship if you are locked in with the right person. But what if you are locked out?

You suspect that the most impregnable locked room might be another human being. We can only guess at what goes on inside you, the rotoscope of interior art scrolling before your mind’s eye. Some people leave more clues than others. What is the breadcrumb trail you are leaving right now? Who is the unknown detective behind you, watching, looking for the key?

Steven Poole is the author of Unspeak and Trigger Happy, and writes for the Guardian and other publications.