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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, and Mickey Spillane, among others.
Some representative examples of whodunits in chronological order
- Wilkie Collins's The Moonstone (1868), widely regarded as one of the first true whodunits
- Anna Katharine Green's Initials Only (1911)
- E. C. Bentley's Trent's Last Case (1913)
- Agatha Christie's The Mysterious Affair at Styles (1920), introduces Hercule Poirot.
- A. A. Milne's The Red House Mystery (1922), a famous whodunit by the author of the Winnie the Pooh books.
- Agatha Christie's The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (1926), featuring Christie's best-known character, Belgian sleuth Hercule Poirot, and in which the solution to the crime is related to the narrative technique of the novel (see unreliable narrator)
- Dorothy L. Sayers's Unnatural Death (1927), one of the first Lord Peter Wimsey novels
- S. S. Van Dine's The Greene Murder Case (1928)
- Ronald Knox's The Footsteps at the Lock (1928) -- though Knox is better remembered as the author of ten commandments for writing whodunits and for his short story "Solved by Inspection"
- Anthony Berkeley's The Poisoned Chocolates Case (1929), which features six different solutions to the murder (and is an expansion of Berkeley's classic short story, "The Avenging Chance")
- Ellery Queen's The Greek Coffin Mystery (1932), regarded by some as the best of his early novels in the Golden Age style
- C. P. Snow's Death Under Sail (1932) -- his first novel, after which he turned to mainstream fiction; it features unusually complex characters for a mystery of this period
- Rex Stout's The League of Frightened Men (1935), the second Nero Wolfe novel
- John Dickson Carr's The Hollow Man (1935, U.S. title The Three Coffins) -- usually considered the quintessential locked-room mystery, replete with a tongue-in-cheek philosophical disquisition on the subject by the detective, Dr. Gideon Fell
- Nicholas Blake's Thou Shell of Death (1935), a locked-room mystery
- Josephine Tey's A Shilling for Candles (1936) -- which became the basis for Alfred Hitchcock´s 1937 film Young and Innocent
- Ethel Lina White's The Wheel Spins (1936) -- which was filmed by Hitchcock as The Lady Vanishes (1938) (with a changed ending)
- Clayton Rawson's Death from a Top Hat, a locked-room mystery
- Michael Innes's Lament for a Maker
- Cyril Hare's Tragedy at Law (1942)
- Helen McCloy's Cue for Murder (1942) -- set in the Broadway district and featuring Dr. Basil Willing
- Christianna Brand's Green for Danger (1944) -- which was made into a celebrated film in (1946)
- Edmund Crispin's The Moving Toyshop (1946), a Golden Age mystery which also parodies certain conventions of the genre
- Shear Madness, a very long running play, which opened in 1980.
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), Ben Elton's Dead Famous (2001), and Gilbert Adair's The Act of Roger Murgatroyd (2006).
- See also Historical whodunnit.
An important variation on the whodunit is the inverted detective story (also referred to as a "howcatchem" or "howdunnit") 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 (Law & Order: Criminal Intent also fits into this genre). 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's Before the Fact (1932), which became the Hitchcock movie Suspicion. Successors of the psychological suspense novel include Patricia Highsmith's This Sweet Sickness, 1960, Simon Brett's A Shock to the System, 1984 and Stephen Dobyns's The Church of Dead Girls, 1997.
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 parody or ridicule is involved. Examples are the Sherlock Holmes stories written by John Dickson Carr and Adrian Conan Doyle, and hundreds of similar works by such authors as E. B. Greenwood.) As for parody, the first Sherlock Holmes spoofs appeared shortly after Conan Doyle published his first stories. Similarly, there have been innumerable Agatha Christie send-ups. The idea is 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 the whodunit genre in general 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 wrong (though Trent is not presented as a bumbler at all). 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. 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.
In the video game The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion there is a quest for the Dark Brotherhood titled "Whodunit", which involves murdering five people in a locked house.
whodunit in German: Whodunit
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whodunit in Dutch: Whodunit