Robert Goddard: step inside the panic room
There’s a long tradition of locked room murder mysteries in crime fiction. The plot of my new novel, Panic Room, is a contemporary twist on that. It hinges, at least apparently, on an extrapolation of the tradition into our present day era of high tech security in the home.
Panic rooms have become must-have accessories for those with enough wealth both to acquire large and often remote properties and to attract the wrong kind of attention to themselves. The criminal kind of attention, that is.
In the event of a break‐in, the owner can retreat to their panic room, which can only be locked from inside and can’t be opened from outside once it is secured. Steel‐reinforced doors and walls, video cameras feeding images from all other rooms in the house, dedicated power and telephone lines and a store of food and water make it seemingly impregnable.
But a hiding-place can become, under certain circumstances, a prison, or worse. A famous example is the death of the Lebanese banker Edmond Safra at his apartment in Monte Carlo in December 1999, killed by smoke inhalation while sheltering from a fire and supposed intruders. The case has become a magnet for conspiracy theories because of various bizarre circumstances, but what’s not in doubt is that the secure room to which Safra retreated from a perceived threat became his tomb.
The panic room as a danger in its own right is the essence of the idea I had for this story. What is a householder to think if, one day, they find their panic room locked? This can surely only mean someone is inside. But who? And why? And what do they intend to do? They can see you, but you can’t see them. They can emerge at a time of their choosing, but you can’t enter. Where did they come from? When did they arrive? Are they dead or alive? And what will happen next?
There are no easy or obvious answers. And you can’t force your way in to learn the truth. So, what are your options? Optimistically write the whole thing off as a weird technical fault? Or… get out of the house and stay out?
For the character in my book who confronts this dilemma, the situation is even more complicated. Flight isn’t much of an option when you have nowhere to flee to. It’s not actually your house. But the owner has allowed you to take refuge there from problems of your own. You didn’t even know there was a panic room. Until you found it locked.
If it really is a panic room, of course. But, then, what else could it be? A panic room is designed to be a hiding‐place. But that means it could be hiding more than just its occupants. What exactly is the secret that lies within its impenetrably thick steel walls?
All will be revealed in the pages of Panic Room. Just step inside.
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