From Academic Kids

A whodunit or whodunnit (for "Who done it?" and sometimes referred to as a Golden Age Mystery novel) is a complex, plot-driven variety of the detective story in which the puzzle is paramount. The reader is provided with clues from which the identity of the perpetrator of the crime may be deduced before the solution is revealed in the final pages of the book. The investigation is usually conducted by an eccentric amateur or semi-professional detective. The locked-room mystery is a specialized kind of a whodunit.

The whodunit flourished during the so-called "Golden Age" of detective fiction, during the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s, when it was the predominant mode of crime writing. Many of the best writers of whodunits in this period were British -- notably Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, Josephine Tey, Michael Innes, Nicholas Blake, Christianna Brand and Edmund Crispin. Others -- S. S. Van Dine, John Dickson Carr, and Ellery Queen -- were American, but imitated the "English" style. Still others, such as Rex Stout, Clayton Rawson, and Earl Derr Biggers, aimed for a more "American" style.

Over time, certain conventions and clichés developed that limited any surprises on the part of the reader to the twists and turns within the plot and of course to the identity of the murderer. Several authors excelled, after successfully leading their readers on the wrong track, in convincingly revealing to them the least likely suspect as the real villain of the story. What is more, they had a predilection for certain casts of characters and settings, with the secluded English country house at the top of the list.

A U.S. reaction to the cozy conventionality of British murder mysteries was the American hard-boiled school of crime writing of Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, Mickey Spillane, and others.


Some representative examples of whodunits in chronological order

Finally, recent additions to the subgenre of the whodunit include the novels of Simon Brett, the Thackery Phin novels of John Sladek, Lawrence Block's The Burglar in the Library (1997), which is a spoof set in the present in an English-style country house, Kinky Friedman's Road Kill (1997), and Ben Elton's Dead Famous (2001).

An important variation on the whodunit is the inverted detective story (also referred to as "howshecatchem") where the guilty party and the crime are openly revealed to the reader/audience and the story follows the investigator's efforts to find out the truth while the criminal attempts to prevent it. The Columbo TV movie series is the classic example of this kind of detective story. This tradition dates back to the inverted detective stories of R. Austin Freeman, and reached an apotheosis of sorts in Malice Aforethought written by Francis Iles (a pseudonym of Anthony Berkeley). In the same vein is Iles' Before the Fact (1932), which became the Hitchcock movie Suspicion. Today, these novels are seen as the predecessors of the psychological suspense novel (Patricia Highsmith's This Sweet Sickness, 1960; Simon Brett's A Shock to the System, 1984; Stephen Dobyns's The Church of Dead Girls, 1997; and many more).

Humour in whodunits

Whodunits -- no matter what their content or when, where and by whom they were written -- are never completely serious. Even if their authors refuse to admit it, they are games: games played between author and reader, or even between different authors. How else can one accept murder and mayhem without shedding a tear? How else could one react in a pleasantly thrilled way to violent death most cruelly executed? How else could he be made to read on?

In whodunits, the humorous element is sometimes there, coming in different shapes and sizes. In some whodunits, it is a Watson clumsily deducing the wrong things; in hard-boiled fiction, it is usually the one-liners delivered by a wisecracking private eye; in more recent novels, it may be the complicated love life of a lesbian sleuth.

The humour displayed in many crime novels can be best described as tongue-in-cheek. Nothing is ever meant absolutely seriously, there is always a slightly humorous undercurrent suggesting to the reader that what they are doing just now is having a good time. Through this kind of humour, the reader is constantly reminded that it is a fictional world he is reading about, a world that has little in common with the real world outside his own doorstep.

Parody and spoof

In addition to standard humor, parody, spoof, and pastiche have had a long tradition within the field of crime fiction. (A pastiche is a piece of writing in which the style is patterned completely upon the original work and no humor is involved. Examples are the Sherlock Holmes stories written by John Dickson Carr and Arthur Conan Doyle.) Shortly after Conan Doyle had published his first stories, Sherlock Holmes spoofs appeared. Similarly, there have been innumerable Agatha Christie send-ups. The idea is always to exaggerate and mock the most noticeable features of the original and, by doing so, amuse especially those readers who are also familiar with that original.

One of the earliest parodies of a whodunit is Englishman E.C. Bentley's (1875 - 1956) novel Trent's Last Case (1913), which introduced (!) Philip Trent, a detective who gets everything wrong right from the start: Assigned to investigate the murder of English millionaire Sigsbee Manderson, who is found shot in the library of his country house, Trent makes his first major mistake when he falls head over heels in love with the main suspect. In the course of his investigation he jumps at the wrong clues, in his reasoning he carefully eliminates the wrong suspects, and finally he arrives at a conclusion concerning the identity of Manderson's murderer which turns out to be completely false. At the end of the novel, the real perpetrator casually informs him during dinner that he/she has shot Manderson. These are Trent's final words to the murderer:

'[...] I'm cured. I will never touch a crime-mystery again. The Manderson affair shall be Philip Trent's last case. His high-blown pride at length breaks under him.' Trent's smile suddenly returned. 'I could have borne everything but that last revelation of the impotence of human reason. [...] I have absolutely nothing left to say, except this: you have beaten me. I drink your health in a spirit of self-abasement. And you shall pay for the dinner.'

A more recent example of a spoof, which at the same time shows that the borderline between "serious" mystery (if there is any such thing) and its parody is necessarily blurred, is U.S. mystery writer Lawrence Block's (born 1938) novel The Burglar in the Library (1997). The burglar of the title is Bernie Rhodenbarr, who has booked a weekend at an English-style country house just to steal a signed, and therefore very valuable, first edition of Chandler's The Big Sleep which he knows has been sitting there on one of the shelves for more than half a century. But, alas, immediately after his arrival a dead body turns up in the library, the room is sealed off, and Rhodenbarr has to track down the murderer before he can enter the library again and start hunting for the precious book.

Murder by Death is Neil Simon's spoof of many of the best-known whodunit sleuths. In the 1976 film, Sam Spade (from The Maltese Falcon) becomes Sam Diamond, Hercule Poirot becomes Milo Perrier, etc. The film makes particular fun of the relationship between each detective and his or her sidekick. The characters are all gathered in a large country house, given meaningless clues, and all of them fail to solve the mystery.

Another example is the Lord Darcy stories by Randall Garrett. Despite their fantasy fiction setting, they are "straight" whodunits. However the names of many of the supporting characters are puns, suggesting Garrett's friends, or the lead characters in other detective stories. Often, the personality of the character also reflects this.

See also

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