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Identity Crisis: The Locked-Room Mystery

Mystery stories may be classified along a spectrum of emphasis placed on puzzle-solving in the plot. In some stories—the Sherlock Holmes stories, e.g.—much of the narrative consists of an investigation in which clues to the solution of the mystery are presented to both the protagonist detective and the reader, and the reader is encouraged to try and solve the mystery before the detective does. In other stories, the puzzle-solving aspects of the investigation are downplayed. (As an extreme example, Raymond Chandler was so disinterested in puzzle-solving in his detective fiction that he was famously incapable of keeping straight the plots of his own books.) Puzzle mysteries are usually concerned with who committed the crime, and sometimes moreover with how the criminal pulled off a seemingly physically impossible crime. The latter are generally called “locked-room mysteries.” The basic puzzle is, how did a murderer get into and out of a room whose entrance was locked from the inside, without breaking in or unlocking the door? Although the puzzle doesn’t necessarily involve a locked room—the puzzle might be something like figuring out how somebody was shot to death even though nobody in hearing distance heard a gunshot.

With that brief explanation of locked-room mysteries behind us, we may now establish that Identity Crisis appears to be a locked-room mystery. Solving the mystery hasn’t been the sole focus, but the investigation—complete with clue-gathering and encouragement of the reader to solve the puzzle—has been prominent enough that I think we can say the logical procedure of solving the puzzle is an important part of the story. The heroes investigate, they gather clues, they narrow the list of suspects. Author Brad Meltzer seems to be putting some effort into making the mystery soluble. Or maybe only apparently soluble? Let’s see.

There are two major questions involved in the puzzle:

  1. Who is the killer—and why is the killer impersonating other villains?
  2. How does the killer bypass the JLA’s amazing security measures to get to his (or her, or [giving Hal Jordan the grammatical benefit of the doubt in issue #4] their) victims?

Now let’s see how the superheroes’ investigation is going so far…

From Identity Crisis #2 (unfortunately, this book’s pages are not numbered):

Dr. Mid-Nite
The bad news is that, two days ago, Sue Dibny supposedly died by carbon monoxide poisoning brought on by her third-degree burns.
Dr. Mid-Nite
And under that scenario—beyond what else the autopsy’s showing—she would’ve breathed so much soot into her lungs, he bronchi and trachea should be black.
They’re not?
Dr. Mid-Nite
I’m staring at them right now. They’re pink.
Wait—so Sue’s lungs…
Dr. Mid-Nite
…Didn’t have a black spot on them. I know it sounds insane—I ran other tests too—but by the time those flames hit her skin, Sue was already dead.
Oh, god—so you think the League…
Dr. Mid-Nite
I’m telling right now, they’re going after the wrong person. Sue Dibny wasn’t killed by Dr. Light.

Assuming Dr. Mid-Nite’s rejection of the previously assumed cause of Sue Dibny’s death based on his autopsy results is valid (but see Identity Crisis #2: A Medical Review on Polite Dissent for why it’s not), does his new information and the conclusions he draws from it discount Dr. Light as a suspect in the investigation? Only if we make the extremely arbitrary assumption that Dr. Light cannot kill people without using his powers.

From, issue #4, as Mr. Miracle, Green Arrow and Superman investigate the scene of Jean Loring’s attempted murder:

He used a bowline knot.
Green Arrow
A what?
A bowline knot—to tie the end of the noose to the door. They call it a bowline knot, though he added a Dutch marine twist.
Green Arrow
And you recognized that?
It’s a common boy scout knot.
Green Arrow (narrating)
I love him and hate him in the same breath.
Green Arrow
Boy scout. Right. Oracle, can you—?
Already on it. Bowline knot with a Dutch marine twist.

It’s not entirely clear, but Oracle apparently then finds the suspect, Sliptnot, in her Database o’ Villains by searching for former boy scouts known to use bowline knots with Dutch marine twists when he hangs people. I say “he” because the heroes are convinced the killer is male—Jean saw the killer’s boots, which were brown work boots. Women never wear brown work boots, right?

The investigation has proceeded so far as follows:

  1. Sue Dibny appears to have been murdered by Dr. Light. Dr. Light has a motive: he’s unconsciously seeking revenge because some superheroes magically lobotomized him after he raped Sue. The apparent method fits Dr. Light: Sue was burnt to a crisp. But Dr. Light cannot have been the murderer, because Sue’s longs carry no trace of carbon monoxide.
  2. Jean Loring appears to have been almost murdered by Slipknot. She was hanged, and Slipknot is known to have hanged his victims. He is also a former boy scout who invariably used a bowline with a Dutch marine twist to anchor his nooses—the very knot used to anchor Jean’s noose. but Slipknot cannot have been the murderer, because he was in prison at the time of the murder attempt.
  3. The killer was male, because he wore large brown work boots.
  4. Dr. Light and Slipknot are both associated with the Suicide Squad. Some JLA members want to investigate the Suicide Squad, but Batman knows this is a waste of time: the Suicide Squad has no motive.

With the exception of Slipknot’s innocence (his alibi is really airtight), this investigation is an absurd collection of arbitrary conclusions drawn from ridiculous data. All the characters involved, including the so-called World’s Greatest Detective, demonstrate the worst possible investigatory behavior. These superhero detectives don’t suspect anything—they know. As soon as they get a clue that contradicts what they know, they know something else.

It’s generally considered bad form for a locked-room mystery to have a supernatural solution—it’s a cheat, and it’s only fair to the reader trying to solve the puzzle that the puzzle follow clear rules. If the answer is that the killer used a magic spell to teleport into and out of the locked room, that’s a bad puzzle. Setting a mystery story in a superhero universe is like the apotheosis of bad form. Superhero universes (by which I mean the huge universes best represented by the properties of DC and Marvel) have no rules—anything can happen at any time, for whatever bullshit reason the author of a story can come up with. This causes basic rules systems like logic and causation to break down or explode messily when they come into contact with a superhero universe. Solving a mystery in the DC universe is impossible, because there is an effectively infinite number of possible explanations for anything. Green Arrow is right to dismiss the investigation as a waste of time, and Batman is right to focus on motive in his investigtation: in the absence of a riddling villain who deliberately leaves clues to lead the heroes’ investigation, motive is the only aspect of a mystery that might not have infinite possible solutions. But Batman is still guilty of the sin of expressing undeserved certainty.

Ian Brill, writing about audience expectations, reminded me of something I should say in this post. I expect that Identity Crisis is a spectacularly failed attempt to set a soluble puzzle mystery in the DC universe, but maybe something else is going on. Absurdity, arbitrariness and lack of elegance are violations of a puzzle-mystery aesthetic. But is Identity Crisis’s corruption of its apparently attempted aesthetic a failure—or is it a springboard for some tricky thing that has yet to be revealed? We’ll see.


  1. David says:

    Thanks for that great summary of how the book functions as a mystery. I’ve been reading a lot of “fair play” mystery manga lately, and the recurring theme seems to be that bad detectives look at motive, good detectives look at evidence and let motive make itself known in due time. It’s an interesting counterpoint that motive is pretty much all the super-hero can look to in cases like this.

    — 22 September 2004 at 4:15 pm (Permalink)

  2. Jamesmith3 says:

    What’s interesting, though, is that the classic superhero “universes” have, as a core concept, the utter knowability of a character. They turn on the predictability of the stories, and of the characters that people them.

    So maybe for a mystery to work in that environment, you have to accept that cosmic consistency– the same way you accept the success of Clark Kent’s disguise.

    — 22 September 2004 at 7:12 pm (Permalink)

  3. J.W. Hastings says:


    Interesting post.

    There’s a fairly long tradition “dual genre” super-hero stories, and, as in this case, they’re often written by people who come from outside mainstream super-hero publishing. Sometimes the genre combination works quite well. Bruce Jones’s recent run on Hulk is a pretty good example: Jones successfully melded the book’s super-hero trappings onto a paranoid X-Files-style conspiracy thriller.

    However, more often, it seems that the combination of genres creates problems that neither would have on its own. Astro City’s attempt to combine the super-hero genre with the “slice-of-life” genre seems to fall flat about 2/3 of the time. Stories about the “everyday” problems of super-heroes don’t quite work because these kinds of characters exist on an extraordinary scale. Likewise, stories about “normal” people who live in a world populated by super-beings tend to turn into lessons about heroism or resentment.

    Identity Crisis seems to fall into the “problem” category. However, I do think it is possible to do super-hero/detective stories, or, specifically, Grant Morrison is able to do them: the “Murder in the Mansion” storyline from X-Men is a successful super-hero whodunit. The trick is that Morrison doesn’t simply plop the X-Men into the middle of a murder mystery type story, but rather has the mystery itself grow out of the already existing super-hero elements of the story. In other words, it’s not just CSI with super-powers standing in for faux forensics.


    — 22 September 2004 at 9:58 pm (Permalink)

  4. Steven says:

    “Murder at the Mansion” is a good example of a way of doing it right, yes. I think an important difference is that that story sidelines the procedural, clue-gathering investigation—which is openly acknowledged as somewhat irrelevant, given that nobody seems clear on the identity of the murderer, let alone the identity of whoever seemed to be mind-controlling the murderer—in favor of delving into the muck of motivating corruption and passion surrounding the murder. It’s more in line with Raymond Chandler’s detective fiction than Arthur Conan Doyle’s. The former combines much better with superheroes, I think.

    — 25 September 2004 at 2:30 pm (Permalink)