Friday, October 9, 2020

THE UNMASKING and the Locked-Room Mystery


The Unmasking and the Locked-Room Mystery 

Characters, all with motives––a secret affair, a lust for revenge of an old slight, a desire to inherit large sums––are confined together in a remote setting. One by one each person is mysteriously killed. How was someone able to enter the space where the crime occurred, murder his or her victim, and exit without seemingly leaving a clue? From popular examples such as Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None to the recent movie Knives Out, the formula of the locked-room mystery has had staying power for decades. 

I play with the conventions of the locked-room mystery in my new novel The Unmasking. Three close friends, Bettina, Miriam, and Fiona, journey from Austin, Texas to Silver City, New Mexico to attend a women’s festival where they and others perform famous women from history. Each of the characters’ presentations reveals aspects of her era that resonate in our own today: Victoria Woodhull, the first woman to run for US president in 1872, raised issues of class and misogyny that pervaded the election of 2016. In her writing, Gertrude Stein explored lesbian sexuality and her long union with Alice B. Toklas. Edith Wharton and Virginia Woolf wrote brilliantly about the constraints of women’s lives. The three stay in a secluded lodge, Oso Grande, in the Gila Wilderness of southwest New Mexico along with the lodge’s staff and four other participants of the event. Their university dean, Alec Martin, has just died in a one-car crash after it comes to light that he’s been embezzling funds. 

The three women suspect murder, particularly when it is revealed that his widow, Barbara, has inherited millions of dollars upon his death. But how might the crash have been orchestrated? 

The reader knows early on who will die––the novel is less of a “whodunnit” than a “how-and-why-dunnit.” In the process of discovery, the form of the mystery novel itself is unraveled and put back together: random clues, the increasing isolation in the country, the friction between the faces the characters show in the novel’s present vs. the lives they play in history, the ongoing excavation of assignations and loyalties all add to the layers of action. The actual locked room inside the lodge, a small storage room with no windows, holds something utterly unexpected when it is opened. 

Over the course of the novel, the lodge itself becomes an extension of the locked room. It serves as an incubator for motives and desires, including love and revenge. For example, Barbara becomes lovers with Jane, the festival’s Gertrude Stein whose career was negatively impacted by Alec Martin. In history, Gertrude Stein and the arts patron Mabel Dodge Luhan (whom Barbara portrays) were attracted to each other but kept apart by Stein’s lover Alice B. Toklas. Accidents begin to happen around the performances and one of the performers disappears. The police arrive to investigate the disappearance making the festival itself a psychological locked room, keeping the participants together until answers are found. A small shed on the grounds, another locked room, holds clues that are key to the final crisis of the novel. 

Miriam, in her keynote on the locked-room mystery, puzzles through the murder of Alec Martin that on the surface seemed like an accident yet which was carefully orchestrated: “I ask you to contemplate a mind facile and arrogant enough to predict that an act of premeditated violence would appear, one hundred times out of one hundred, as just a bad break. Casual, unfortunate, just one of life’s little surprises. Like a slip on a slick staircase, or a skid in the shower, or a burst vessel in the brain, it was something that could happen to anyone. At any time. But Alec’s death would not have happened at any time. Just at one: on a Friday morning, at rush hour, in the one mile drive from the victim’s home to his neighborhood grocery. Call it designer’s delight. Call it devil’s play. Call it the perfect crime.” 


Lynn C. Miller is the author and coauthor of several books, including The Unmasking: A Novel and The Day after Death: A Novel. She has performed a number of solo performance pieces and plays about Edith Wharton, Gertrude Stein, Katherine Anne Porter, and Victoria Woodhull.

No comments: