Final Destination: "The Locked Roomette" (1990) by William Bankier

William Bankier was a Canadian mystery writer from Belleville, Ontario, who specialized in short fiction with over 200 short stories published in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine and Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine from 1962 to 2010 – chiefly focusing on standalone stories with two exceptions. Firstly, there's a pair of short stories, "The Big Bunco" (1974) and "Real Bullets This Time?" (1997), featuring the detective duo of Joe Huck and Stan Percival. Secondly, Bankier penned some twenty stories with Baytown, Canada, as a series-character. Having a city or small town as the central "character" with the inhabitants acting as an ensemble cast is a rarity in detective fiction, but not unheard of. Theodore Roscoe wrote a series for Argosy about all the criminal activity, big and small, in the town of Four Corners and Japanese mystery writer Tokuya Higashigawa did the same in his Ikagawa City series. I would certainly be interested in a Baytown collection or track down a couple of stories to sample and compare to Roscoe and Higashigawa. But that's for another time.

The story under examination today is one of Bankier's numerous standalones, "The Locked Roomette," which was published in the November, 1990, issue of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine. You can probably gather from the title how and why it turned up on my radar. "The Locked Roomette" is listed in Robert Adey's Locked Room Murders (1991) and described the impossible crime as "death by poison in a locked roomette on a moving train." A train-bound locked room mystery? Punch my ticket, I'm on board! 

"The Locked Roomette" opens with Bernie Loyola, Dean Parish and Penni Dandridge, employees of the R&B Advertising Agency, climbing aboard the Montreal-Toronto train en route to meet with an important client. But there's trouble ahead. Parish, a copywriter, is known around the agency as a manic depressive and has a mood on the down turn, which means he has gone to his roomette with four bottles of booze – one of them already empty when the train departed. Loyola drops in on him to check and tell him he has been forgiven. Loyola and Parish write songs as a sideline and Parish gave award winning lyrics, "one that won the CBC contest," to someone else. So the stage is set for the following morning, when they find Parish's compartment door securely locked from the inside and him unresponsive to their knocking. When the door is opened, they find Parish's body lying on the floor next to a syringe, a dose bottle and suicide note ("It's gone gone on far too long. It's time for me to end it").

Detective Sergeant Peter Cleary arrives to take charge of the case and the premise suggests he has to figure out whom of Parish's two colleagues, Loyola or Dandridge, cunningly staged his suicide. Clearly is prepared to accept Parish "injected himself with something lethal" and dismiss the case as a simple suicide, but Dandridge has her doubts and turns amateur detective to prove it was murder. That suddenly changed "The Locked Roomette" into an inverted detective story with an how-did-he-do-it angle as there is only one person left who could have done it. As we learned earlier this year from E.G. Cousins' Death by Marriage (1959), these type of stories can stand or fall on how that how-did-he-do-it is handled. I'm glad to report Bankier's "The Locked Roomette" passed that test a lot better than Death by Marriage.

I feared the locked room-trick might turn out to be routine in nature, like Parish getting drugged first and injected after the door was unlocked, but the trick proved to be a new wrinkle on a very particular locked room technique belonging to the category of (ROT13) whqnf jvaqbjf, hathneqrq cnguf naq nyvpr-qbbef – which incidentally is also the only real smudge on the solution. The trick is incredibly difficult to hide or camouflage in short story format and think most seasoned locked room fans will immediately zoom in on a particular detail. A detail that could have been better hidden in a novel-length story as emphasizing the state of the body and method of death would certainly would help draw some suspicious away from that very small, but mightily suspicious, detail. Nevertheless, I liked it and liked how the planted suicide note worked as an unintentional dying message.

So "The Locked Roomette" is a very good, solidly-plotted detective story, but I would be amiss if I didn't pointed out that, while being a classically-styled locked room mystery, the story also had some decidedly modern touches to the characterization and storytelling. Most notably, Clearly's brief backstory explaining why he's not eager on hunches without hard evidence backing it ("you could be too intense about this crime-solving business") and a bitter twist at the end making what happened on the train more of a senseless drama than an old-fashioned murder mystery. The plot perhaps needed a larger canvas to do it fully justice, but regardless of the story-length, Bankier's "The Locked Roomette" is a fine example of the inverted locked room mystery and worth considering for any potential future locked room-themed anthologies.

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