A whodunit or whodunnit (for "Who done it?") is a detective novel where the reader is provided with clues and encouraged to take guesses at who the perpetrator -- in most cases the murderer -- is. The identity is only revealed in the final pages of the book. Whodunits are essentially puzzles in the form of a story. The locked room mystery is one kind of a whodunnit, where the puzzle is how the murderer got out of the room (or other closed area) in which the victim was found and, often, how the murder was accomplished (and/or how the murderer got in, too).

The subgenre of the whodunit flourished during the so-called "Golden Age" of the 1920s and 1930s, when it was the predominant mode of crime writing. Most of the authors on both sides of the Atlantic have long been forgotten since, with the exception of a handful of writers whose novels have become classics and have been in print ever since their first publication.

Most authors were British -- Agatha Christie (1890-1976), Dorothy L. Sayers (1893-1957), Josephine Tey (1896-1952), and Cyril Hare, for example. Some of them -- John Dickson Carr, for one -- were Americann, but with a very British touch.

By that time certain conventions and clichés had been established which 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 cosy conventionality of British murder mysteries was the American hard-boiled school of crime writing (Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, Mickey Spillane -- see his novel I, the Jury -- and others).

Table of contents
1 Some representative examples of whodunits in chronological order
2 Humour in Whodunits

Some representative examples of whodunits in chronological order

Finally, recent additions to the subgenre of the whodunit include the novels of Simon Brett, 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).

In reaction to the whodunit's popularity, there is also the "howhescatchem" story where the guilty party and the crime is 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 was begun as early as 1931 with the publication of Malice Aforethought by Anthony Berkeley writing as Francis Iles. In the same vein, Iles published 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

There are a lot of mainstream novels which are often found awfully lacking as far as their contents are concerned and, consequently, utterly depressing to read. Serious illness, the death of a beloved person, war and its cruel aftermath, grave social injustice and, generally, absolute hopelessness described at length in a novel usually make for very serious reading, especially if the narration does not offer the reader any comic relief (which in such cases would be more or less out of place anyway). Thus, novels began to offer an element of humour. These novels will not be seen as tear-jerkers, the equivalent of soap operas on TV, books whose intention it is to make the reader feel pleasantly sad and sentimental. Rather they are novels and stories depicting tragic events and the reactions of the desperate people affected by them.

Throughout literary history, there has been a vast spectrum of this sort of fiction, a category which contains such novels as Grant Allen's The Woman Who Did (1895), about a woman slowly driven to suicide by her ungrateful daughter; E.M. Forster's Where Angels Fear to Tread (1905), about unfulfilled love and the loss of a beloved child; Ernest Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms (1929), about cowardice and death in wartime; Kazuo Ishiguro's The Remains of the Day (1989), about the disastrous effects good intentions can have on two people; or Russell Banks's The Sweet Hereafter (1991), about the tragic events in the wake of a fatal accident.

As opposed to this kind of mainstream fiction, whodunnits -- 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 almost always there; it just comes in different shapes and sizes. In many a whodunnit, 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. This can be seen in the following passage from Kinky Friedman's novel The Mile High Club (2000), in which the first person narrator takes his friend's advice and answers every question put to him by two federal agents with another question :

'We'd just like to ask you a few questions,' said Agent McKinley, his tones soothing.
'A few questions?' I said. Agent Ford fidgeted slightly in his chair. [...]
'About the woman who sat next to you on the flight from Dallas,' he said.
'The flight from Dallas?'
'Our records indicate that three days ago you traveled from Dallas to New York on American Airlines Flight Number 207,' said Agent McKinley, like he was reading the back of a cereal box. 'We are routinely looking into a small matter of another passenger on that flight who became separated from her luggage.'
'Another passenger?'
'A woman seated in 11C,' he said.
'A woman seated in 11C?'
'You were seated in 11A, Mr Friedman,' said Agent Ford rather pointedly.
'11A?' I said, as Ford's face reddened ever so slightly.
'If we need any more information,' said Agent Ford, as if the maddeningly futile ordeal had never taken place, 'we'll get back in touch with you.'
I stood in the open doorway as they walked into the hall.
'You'll get back in touch with me?' I said.

The humour displayed in many crime novels can be best described as tongue-in-cheek. Nothing is ever meant absolutely seriously, there is always this slight 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 they are reading about, a world that has little in common with the real world outside their own doorstep.

In addition to the kind of humour that pervades practically all genre novels, parody 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 copied from someone or something else, in particular one which contains a mixture of different styles.) 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 whodunnit 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.