The closed circle of suspects is a simple plot element in detective fiction, especially in whodunits. When a crime is committed, a limited amount of suspects are quickly identified, each with their own motives, means, and opportunities.
It is then up to the detective in the story to eliminate the innocents from this pool of suspects. The advantage here is that rather than searching for a completely unknown killer, they’re able to quickly narrow the crime down to only a few people.
The Closed Circle Mystery
A crime fiction story that relies on a closed circle of suspects is also referred to as a closed circle mystery, though it’s a loosely used name. It’s mostly associated with “traditional” detective fiction, mainly those that came from the Golden Age of Detective Fiction.
Agatha Christie is credited with starting this trend when she published The Mysterious Affair at Styles. The book details Hercule Poirot’s investigation into the murder of a wealthy Englishwoman who helped him begin a new life. The narrative limits the suspects to the members of the woman’s household.
Commonly associated with the closed circle is an isolated setting. During the Golden Age, stories mostly took place in British country houses, though other locations such as islands and ships were also used.
The remote locations provide the perfect excuse for the narrative to limit the available suspects. To further lock in the idea that no one else could have possibly done the crime, these locations are also rendered inescapable. Weather conditions worsen, structures such as bridges collapse, or communication methods become useless.
The conditions to create this closed circle of suspects can limit the storytelling and sometimes make the narrative predictable. Settings with restricted access, upper-class characters, and cat-and-mouse games between the hero and villain are regularly used.
Books With Closed Circles of Suspects
A lot of crime fiction novels have used the closed circle of suspects to establish their mysteries. And while this genre convention has become less common, it still pops up now and then in modern fiction.
Below are some of the best novels that use this plot element, from the classics to the contemporary.
1. The Hunting Party by Lucy Foley
The year is about to end and a group of friends meet to continue their yearly tradition of vacationing together. For this year, they’ve chosen the remote Scottish Highlands as their place of relaxation.
But their decades of fragile nostalgia finally shatter when one of them is found dead on New Year’s Day. With no one else miles around, there’s no doubt the killer is still among them.
2. An Unwanted Guest by Shari LaPena
Mitchell’s Inn, with its wine cellars, fireplaces, and spacious rooms, is the perfect location for a romantic getaway. So when worsening weather cuts off power and communication, the guests are more than willing to settle down and wait things out.
Then one of them dies. While it looks like an accident, another one of them quickly follows. With no doubt that someone’s out to get them all, the guests can only lock themselves in and hope to survive.
3. Death on the Nile by Agatha Christie
Linnett Ridgeway is beautiful, rich, and very much dead. While on a luxurious cruise across the Nile, someone among the passengers shot her through the head.
A former best friend seems like the most likely suspect but her alibi says otherwise. With the killer still on the loose, Hercule Poirot must deduce who of the passengers is the real culprit before they strike again.
4. The Mystery of the Yellow Room by Gaston Leroux
Amateur sleuth and reporter Joseph Rouletabille is sent to investigate an impossible crime. A woman is found nearly battered to death in a locked room, with the culprit nowhere in sight.
As more attempts on the woman’s life are made, Rouletabille races to learn who the culprit is and why they’re desperate to end her life.
5. The Woman in Cabin 10 by Ruth Ware
Journalist Lo Blacklock has just been handed the assignment of a lifetime. For an entire week, she’ll be aboard a luxury cruise in the beautiful North Sea. The best part? She only has to share the entire cruise with a handful of passengers.
Then she witnesses a woman being thrown overboard. But everyone is accounted for and the ship sails on as if nothing has happened. Lo knows something’s going on, and she’s not afraid to prove it.
Reading Closed Circle Mysteries
The closed circle of suspects is still used today because, despite its limitations in storytelling, it also offers a lot of flexibility. While isolated settings and stock characters are predictable elements, they’re also easy to play around with.
A secluded British mansion can easily be swapped with a ship, a train, a village, and so on. Expanding the pool of suspects also creates opportunities to plant red herrings and other false clues. And of course, the characters’ occupations and skills are easily changed to fit whatever shape the narrative takes form.
For an experienced writer, anything can go in a closed-circle mystery. If you wanted to, you could blend other genres into the story. Make the detective an android, the killer an actual ghost, or the location somewhere in space. The variations are limitless.
A closed circle mystery then offers readers a story that is familiar enough to comfortably dig into, but different enough to surprise you.