Locked Rooms

Each Tuesday of the Twenty Weeks of Buzz, I’ll be posting about a different one of my books, with remarks, reflections, and bits of information about how the book came to be. This week I discuss Locked Rooms, published in 2005.

It started with a dream.

I was giving a tour of a house—my house, a dark, wooded, many-leveled house among trees. I showed my guests one room and another, the open spaces between them, and all the while I knew that there rooms I was not showing them, large, lovely, dust-soft rooms that remained hidden behind invisible doors.

The dream is not the book. That dream is not even in the book, although Russell has a similar dream, but it came to me as I was planning the story, and the images of hidden rooms worked itself into the fabric of the novel.

The story is about a young woman who hides the truth from herself, most efficiently.

The Russell books are told in the first person, which seems like it ought to be the most intimate form of storytelling, but in fact, first person can be oddly distancing: How do you get to know a person when you’re looking through their eyes? How do you know if what you’re seeing is the truth, when even a mirror reverses reality?

The challenge of an unreliable narrator always keeps things lively for a writer—if the reader knows only what the narrator chooses to tell, and the narrator is either inadvertently or deliberately keeping things hidden, how then does the writer reach past the blockade to the reader? How does the poor author communicate through a deluded or duplicitous mouthpiece?
The Winchester Mystery House.

One way is to drop clues in the narrator’s voice, clues only the reader hears. Another is to offer an alternative version of the narrator’s story, one that echoes the central version, but in another key. Russell sees an event and describes it; Holmes sees the same event and describes it differently; the reader begins to suspect some trouble deep within the young woman even before Russell herself does.

By doing this, I could also build a multi-layered story set in a multi-layered town: As cities go, San Francisco is young, yet there are a lot of levels to its history before one reaches the shell middens of the Native Americans. Setting the story there, and working around a narrator who cannot be trusted, enabled me to write more or less simultaneously about the Jazz Age and the 1906 fire; about Russell and Holmes and how they saw each other; about the white community and that of Chinatown; about English visitors and the native-born; about Sherlock Holmes coming face to face with Dashiell Hammett; about the slippery boundaries between fiction and fact.


  1. Chris on April 13, 2010 at 1:50 am

    This is my all-time favourite of the Russells – two readings under my belt, so far… Even the title resonates for me, with the immediate secrecy of those two words. Wonderful.


  2. Sara on April 13, 2010 at 3:34 am

    This one had me wanting to slap Russell upside the head and scream ‘WAKE UP!’ which may have been part of the point….it was so gratifying when she finally comes to her senses and sees the truth. It also makes me want to go to San Francisco immediately upon reading. I can just smell the food at the little chinese restaurant and the sea by the docks and the dust in the house….a multi-sensory experience, as all LRK books tend to be.

  3. Kerry on April 13, 2010 at 5:57 am

    This is a favorite with me, too. Everything about the book simply sang to me. The scene that sticks in my mind is of Russell bursting on on Holmes and Hammett, and Holmes’ response. It kind of says everything about their relationship, at least to me.

  4. Laidee Marjorie on April 13, 2010 at 6:04 am

    I also love the extra bonus of having “The Art of Detection” as a companion piece to this book. Bringing Russell and Martinelli together in this way is extraordinary.


  5. Laraine on April 13, 2010 at 8:46 am

    Was the Winchester Mystery House inspiration for Russell’s home in SF?

  6. Merrily on April 13, 2010 at 9:56 am

    I agree with Marjorie that the pairing of “Locked Rooms” and “The Art of Detection” is particularly delicious. And indeed, Russell is in such a fog throughout this book, I always feel lighter myself when I get to the end and she is coming to herself again.
    I visited the Winchester Mystery House eons ago, it is indeed a great metaphor for this book. I believe they still aren’t sure of how many rooms it has, and as I recall the lady who built it was actually trapped in her room for awhile after the San Francisco earthquake as the servants didn’t know in which room she had chosen to sleep!

  7. Anna Elliott on April 13, 2010 at 10:30 am

    I’m going to echo everyone else and say that this was my very favorite of the Russell books, too, and for all the reasons you mentioned–the multiple layers, the richness of the setting, Russell’s faulty memories, and the fact that in this book for the first time we got a look at Russell through Holmes’ eyes. Just a fabulous, perfect read.

    Do you think sometime you might post a bit more about including Dashiell Hammett as a character in the book? I absolutely loved him and I’d love to know more about how you came to pair him up with Holmes.

  8. gary on June 3, 2010 at 9:05 pm

    fyi, I added images of the book covers to my website…



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