Imagine you’re trapped in a locked room, forced to use your deductive reasoning, cunning, and wit to escape. Now up the ante with a ticking time bomb set to detonate in less than a minute. To make things worse, each incorrect solution speeds up the countdown clock. Finally, throw in some cutthroat competitors, and only one of you is allowed to make it out alive.
If this sounds like the makings of a great read, you’re not alone. Locked room mysteries have made a comeback, but with an added twist of grisly consequences and diabolical machinations on the part of the one pulling the strings.
People are hard-wired to seek answers. Since ancient times, humans have been forced to extrapolate from clues in their environment and solve problems to survive. Those who had no ability to think creatively or interpret hidden dangers in their environment did not live to pass on their genes.
For that reason, humans are predisposed to solve puzzles. There is an overwhelming impulse to fill in the blanks when presented with incomplete information. This penchant is lifelong, from small children learning to fit shapes into the proper openings on a toy to seniors working the daily crossword. If you like your codes, puzzles, and locked rooms to be high-octane, here’s a list of stories that will have your brain working while your heart is pounding:
Look no further than the #1 internationally bestselling author People Magazine called “The master of ticking-bomb suspense” for a prime example. The Never Game by Jeffery Deaver features Colter Shaw, an expert tracker and son of a survivalist father who raised him to constantly strategize. When Shaw is hired to find a missing woman, he learns she’s trapped in the real-life version of a video game. Each level requires players to spot clues and solve riddles to survive…but only until they find themselves at the next level. No wonder this story will soon be a CBS series.
This debut novel by Megan Goldin features four corporate climbers who are told they’re headed for a team-building exercise. Instead, they’re trapped in a high-rise building’s elevator. Fiercely competitive, the foursome must work together in pitch darkness to escape their claustrophobic prison. As their past misdeeds are revealed, the puzzles turn deadly. In the end, they must decide which one of them is willing to kill to survive.
Leaning more toward the locked room feel, Lucy Foley’s The Hunting Party evokes the classic Christie-esque tale with a group of people with secrets who are gathered at an obscure location, in this case, an estate in the Scottish Highlands. Soon they are deciphering clues to figure out which of them is the killer.
Douglas Preston crafted a twisted premise in The Codex. An eccentric billionaire vanishes, leaving his potential heirs with a challenge: He’s buried himself in a sealed tomb with his vast collection of earthly treasures. Whoever finds him first will inherit everything. Soon, others hear of the challenge and his three sons are not the only ones racing to find not only the tomb, but an ancient Mayan codex that—if cracked—may prove more priceless than any treasure.
Kiersten White’s bestselling HIDE has a slightly different take on the premise. Fourteen competitors are offered a large cash prize to spend a week in a creepy abandoned amusement park for a game of hide-and-seek. The catch: They must avoid being found without leaving the park. The bigger catch: The contest soon turns deadly. White creates an interesting and sympathetic main character in Mack, who is an expert at hiding for dark and disturbing reasons from her past.
No list of deadly clues and codes would be complete without Dan Brown’s #1 worldwide bestseller, The Da Vinci Code, but many forget that Angels & Demons came first.
As a springboard for a character who discerns meaning in obscure texts and images, Brown had to invent a program at Harvard University called “symbology.” Professor Robert Langdon’s unique skills wouldn’t normally have him solving murders and stopping time bombs, but this particular plot calls for someone who can break codes, ciphers, and riddles before time runs out. Underneath the breathless race through crypts, catacombs, and cathedrals is a conspiracy hatched by the sinister Illuminati. This is a case where the movie lives up to the book, thanks to excellent screenwriting and a fantastic performance by Tom Hanks.
Why should adults have all the fun? Gretchen McNeil’s YA novel #noescape traps 17-year-old Persey in an escape room with seven others competing for a multi-million-dollar prize. When the contestants start dying, Persey works through gruesome puzzles, bizarre riddles, and deadly games to make it out alive. Gradually, she discovers the underlying connection between the contestants—and the revenge plot underneath it all.
And here’s another YA thriller with a deadly locked room scenario. In her debut, All Your Twisted Secrets, Diana Urban brings us back to high school, where several classmates are invited to a scholarship dinner that turns out to be a trap. Inside the room is a bomb, a syringe filled with poison, and instructions giving them an hour to choose someone to kill, or everyone will die when the bomb detonates. Much dirty laundry is aired as the teens struggle to learn the identity of their captor—and to select a sacrificial lamb for the slaughter.
When you mix in life-and-death stakes, cracking a code becomes a dopamine hit mixed with an adrenaline rush. This was the experience I wanted to create for readers with my new thriller, A Killer’s Game, which features an FBI agent with a background as a military codebreaker who goes undercover and finds herself trapped in an all-too-deadly escape room.
Do you enjoy puzzles, games, or brainteasers? What are your favorites?