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A whodunit or whodunnit (for "Who done [did] it?") is a complex, plot-driven variety of the detective story in which the puzzle is the main feature of interest. The reader or viewer 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, between 1920 and 1950, when it was the predominant mode of crime writing. Many of the best writers of whodunits in this period were British notably Agatha Christie, Nicholas Blake, G. K. Chesterton, Christianna Brand, Edmund Crispin, Michael Innes, Dorothy L. Sayers, Gladys Mitchell, Josephine Tey. 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, attempted a more "American" style.

Over time, certain conventions and clich s developed that limited any surprises on the part of the reader to the details of the plot and of course to the identity of the murderer. Several authors excelled, after misleading their readers successfully, in revealing to them convincingly an unlikely 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. Yet, more often than not, though the setting was grittier, the violence more likely to be on-stage, and the style more colloquial, the plots were, as often as not, whodunits constructed in much the same way as the "cozier" British mysteries they were written in reaction to.

Currently popular are live "whodunit" experiences, including game form, where guests at a private party might use cards, a board, or video from a pre-packaged box, to perform the roles of the suspects and detective; and there are a number of murder mystery dinner theaters, where either professional or community theatre performers take on those roles, and present the murder mystery to an audience, usually in conjunction with a meal. Typically before or immediately following the final course, the audience is given a chance to offer their help in solving the mystery.

Examples of whodunits

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).

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). The critically acclaimed HBO show True Blood has featured numerous major, and minor, whodunit mysteries in its first and second seasons.

Parody and spoof

In addition to standard humor, parody, spoof, and pastiche have had a long tradition within the field of crime fiction. Examples of pastiche are the Sherlock Holmes stories written by John Dickson Carr, 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 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 2006 Gilbert Adair published the first of three novels so far which combine many aspects of the golden age of crime fiction, most notably the works of Agatha Christie.

Tom Stoppard's The Real Inspector Hound is a send up of crime fiction novels and features a bumbling detective.

The 2001 film Gosford Park paid homage to the classic whodunit premise, while at the same time presenting a very original story.

"The Unicorn and the Wasp", an episode of the revived Doctor Who series, is a variation of the genre. The Tenth Doctor, companion Donna Noble and Agatha Christie investigate a series of murders committed by an alien at a dinner party.

In the episode "MMMystery on the Friendship Express", of the animated series My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic is a short parody of the "Whodunit". Pinkie starts to investigate and says: "...and find out who done it!" and then Twilight corrects her and says: "You mean... who did it."

Homicide investigation

The term whodunit is also used among homicide investigators to describe a case in which the identity of the killer is not quickly apparent. Since most homicides are committed by people with whom the victim is acquainted or related, a whodunit case is usually more difficult to solve.

See also

External links

de:Whodunit es:Whodunit fr:Whodunit it:Giallo deduttivo nl:Whodunit pt:Quem matou? sv:Pusseldeckare

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