For all the talk about its upcoming demise or unlikely resurrection, the Whodunit is actually alive and well, and has been for the better part of the mystery genre’s history. What I just said may seem counter-intuitive at best but makes sense if you regard Whodunit not as a genre, but as a template. Most mystery fiction, now matter how it brands itself, is about finding who did something wrong. There are books of course that mostly or completely dispense with the Big Question but the great majority have some whodunit element, whatever attention the writer and their readers actually pay to it. One might even say that the Whodunit is the only mystery trope to have survived the massive paradigm shift that followed the end of the Golden Age – amateur detectives are nearly extinct, impossible crimes are as rare in fiction as they are in real life, and no one cares about fair-play anymore – but people still care who killed Roger Ackroyd or whatever other person(s) that prematurely met their fate at the hands of person or persons unknown.
This is not necessarily good news, however.
Many of my recent posts have been about challenging orthodoxy so it was perhaps unavoidable that I came to question the importance of the Who in mystery fiction but it doesn’t mean that I have renounced it overnight. I still believe a good mystery is one that asks who did it and give the answer in the end; I just happen to think that it isn’t the only crucial question and that it is a mistake to focus exclusively on it the way most mysteries past and present do.
I’ve been reading mysteries for most of my adolescence and all of my adult life, which means that I have come to know the genre’s idiom, rules and tricks very well and as a result it has become extremely difficult if not impossible to fool me. One of the least frequently discussed features of the genre is its influence upon the reader’s mindset. The mystery fan is quite aware of the author trying to deceive them, which leads them to question everything they are told. The great James Thurber wrote a wonderful send-up of this « Trust No One » mentality, The Macbeth Murder Case, whose last line – « [I suspect] Everybody » – describes quite well the mystery reader’s suspicious mind. It also points to a limitation of the Whodunit genre. The least-likely-person gambit on which it is predicated no longer works once the reader has become paranoid enough to treat every character in sight as a potential murderer. It takes amazing skill to fool someone who expects to be fooled – amazing and rare. This is why a good mystery shouldn’t rely on the Who as its only gimmick, for fear that it falls flat if the reader is astute enough to guess right. No matter the old cliché about the genre being a battle of wits between author and reader, the latter paradoxically often resents winning and I’m speaking from personal experience here. No matter how well written and plotted a mystery is otherwise, the reader will always give it minus points for not being deceptive enough.
The only way to avoid that is to remember crime fiction is actually about three questions – the Who of course, but also the Why and the How, the latter two being much more fertile grounds for deception as the reader’s experience is less likely to help them there. It can be relatively easy for a seasoned audience to work out who killed X, but finding out why the murderer cut their tongue or how he escaped from a locked room may prove trickier. The more questions a mystery ask the better, for there is a chance that one of them at least won’t be answerd by the « player on the other side ».