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In The Adventure of the Abbey Grange, Sherlock Holmes investigates the murder of Eustace Brackenstall, killed by an unknown assailant The Adventure of the Abbey Grange 03.jpg
In The Adventure of the Abbey Grange , Sherlock Holmes investigates the murder of Eustace Brackenstall, killed by an unknown assailant

A whodunit or whodunnit (a colloquial elision of "Who [has] done it?") is a complex, plot-driven variety of a detective story in which the puzzle regarding who committed the crime is the main focus. [1] The reader or viewer is provided with the clues from which the identity of the perpetrator may be deduced before the story provides the revelation itself at its climax. The investigation is usually conducted by an eccentric, amateur, or semi-professional detective. This narrative development has been seen as a form of comedy in which order is restored to a threatened social calm. [2]



Whodunit follows the paradigm of the classical detective story in the sense that it presents crime as a puzzle to be solved through a chain of questions that the detective poses. [3] In a whodunit, however, the audience is given the opportunity to engage in the same process of deduction as the protagonist throughout the investigation of a crime. This engages the readers so that they strive to compete with or outguess the expert investigator. [4]

A defining feature of the whodunit narrative is the so-called double narrative. Here, one narrative is hidden and gradually revealed while the other is the open narrative, which often transpires in the present time of the story. [5] This feature has been associated with the Russian literary terms syuzhet and fabula. The former involves the narrative presented to the reader by the author or the actual story as it happened in chronological order while the latter focuses on the underlying substance or material of the narrative. [5]

The double narrative has a deep structure but is specific, particularly when it comes to time and a split gaze on the narrative itself. [6] The two tales coexist and interweave with the first tale focusing on the crime itself, what led to it, and the investigation to solve it while the second story is all about the reconstruction of the crime. [6] Here, the diegesis or the way the characters live on the inquiry level creates the phantom narration where the objects, bodies, and words become signs for both the detective and the reader to interpret and draw their conclusions from. [6] For instance, in a detective novel, solving a mystery entails the reconstruction of the criminal events. This process, however, also involves on the part of the detective the production of a hypothesis that could withstand scrutiny, including the crafting of findings about cause and motive as well as crime and its intended consequences. [7] This discourse of explanation constitutes the second narrative besides the primary story relating to the crime. [7]

The double narrative is cited as a main distinguishing element between the whodunit and the thriller. The whodunit goes backward as it goes forward, reconstructing the timeline of both crime and investigation, the thriller coincides with the action in a single story. [8] According to Tzvetan Todorov, in terms of temporal logic, the whodunit narrative is considered a paradigm for fiction in general because the story unfolds in relation not to a future event but one that is already known and merely lying in wait. [8] Such certainty pertains to the crime and not to the identity of the culprit, who the reader must anticipate as part of the unknown future. [8]


According to Merriam-Webster Dictionary, the term WhoDunIt was coined by News Of Books reviewer Donald Gordon in 1930, in his review of the detective novel "Half-Mast Murder" written by Milward Kennedy. Journalist Wolfe Kaufman claimed that he coined the word "whodunit" around 1935 while working for Variety magazine. [9] However, an editor of the magazine, Abel Green, attributed it to his predecessor, Sime Silverman. [10] The earliest appearance of the word "whodunit" in Variety occurs in the edition of August 28, 1934, in reference to a film adaptation of the play Recipe for Murder, as featured in the headline, "U's Whodunit: Universal is shooting 'Recipe for Murder,' Arnold Ridley's play". [11] The film was eventually titled Blind Justice.

The "whodunit" flourished during the so-called "Golden Age" of detective fiction, between the First and Second World Wars, [12] when it was the predominant mode of crime writing. Many of the best-known 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 and 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. During the Golden Age, the genre was dominated by female authors. [12] In addition to Christie, Brand, Sayers, Mitchell, and Tey, major writers also included Margey Allingham and Ngaio Marsh. [12]

Over time, certain conventions and clichés developed which limited surprise on the part of the reader – vis-à-vis details of the plot – the identity of the murderer. Several authors excelled, after successfully misleading their readers, in revealing an unlikely suspect as the real villain of the story. They often had a predilection for certain casts of characters and settings, with the secluded English country house at the top of the list.

One reaction to the conventionality of British murder mysteries was American "hard-boiled" crime fiction, epitomized by the writings of Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett and Mickey Spillane, among others. Though the settings were grittier, the violence more abundant and the style more colloquial, plots were, as often as not, whodunits constructed in much the same way as the "cozier" British mysteries.


The 1935 commercial parlour game Jury Box sees the players cast as jurors who are given the scenario of the murder, the evidence presented by the prosecutor and defendant, two photographs of the crime scene and ballot papers. Players are challenged to make the decision as to who is guilty, before a real solution is read out. [13]

The 1948 board game Cluedo , released as Clue in North America, was the first murder mystery board game, and sees players as visitors in a mansion, attempting to identify a killer whose identity is recorded on a hidden card.

A murder mystery game is a form of live-action "whodunit" experience, where guests at a private party are given notes to perform the roles of the suspects, detective and murderer over the course of an evening. 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 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") in which 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 and The Streets of San Francisco also fit 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. 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.

There are also "reversal" mysteries, in which the conventional structure is deliberately inverted. One of the earliest examples of this is Trent's Last Case (1914) by E. C. Bentley (1875–1956). Trent, a very able amateur detective, investigates the murder of Sigsbee Manderson. He finds many important clues, exposes several false clues, and compiles a seemingly unassailable case against a suspect. He then learns that that suspect cannot be a murderer, and that while he found nearly all of the truth, his conclusion is wrong. Then, at the end of the novel, another character tells Trent that he always knew the other suspect was innocent, because "I shot Manderson myself." These are Trent's final words to the killer:

'[...] 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.'

Another example of a spoof, which at the same time shows that the borderline between serious mystery 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 and their sidekicks. [14] In the 1976 film, Sam Spade (from The Maltese Falcon ) becomes Sam Diamond, Hercule Poirot becomes Milo Perrier, and so on. [14] The characters are all gathered in a large country house and given clues to solve the mystery. [14]

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 an original story.

The 2019 film Knives Out is a modern take on the classic whodunit by deconstructing the narrative form and adds a tongue-in-cheek sense of humor.

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.[ citation needed ] 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

Related Research Articles

Detective fiction is a subgenre of crime fiction and mystery fiction in which an investigator or a detective—either professional, amateur or retired—investigates a crime, often murder. The detective genre began around the same time as speculative fiction and other genre fiction in the mid-nineteenth century and has remained extremely popular, particularly in novels. Some of the most famous heroes of detective fiction include C. Auguste Dupin, Sherlock Holmes, and Hercule Poirot. Juvenile stories featuring The Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, and The Boxcar Children have also remained in print for several decades.

Crime fiction Genre of fiction focusing on crime

Crime fiction, detective story, murder mystery, mystery novel, and police novel are terms used to describe narratives that centre on criminal acts and especially on the investigation, either by an amateur or a professional detective, of a serious crime, generally a murder. It is usually distinguished from mainstream fiction and other genres such as historical fiction or science fiction, but the boundaries are indistinct. Crime fiction has multiple sub-genres, including detective fiction, courtroom drama, hard-boiled fiction, and legal thrillers. Most crime drama focuses on crime investigation and does not feature the court room. Suspense and mystery are key elements that are nearly ubiquitous to the genre.

<i>Trents Last Case</i>

Trent's Last Case is a detective novel written by E. C. Bentley and first published in 1913. Its central character, the artist and amateur detective Philip Trent, reappeared subsequently in the novel Trent's Own Case (1936), and the short-story collection Trent Intervenes (1938).

The "locked-room" or "impossible crime" mystery is a subgenre of detective fiction in which a crime is committed in circumstances under which it was seemingly impossible for the perpetrator to commit the crime or evade detection in the course of getting in and out of the crime scene. The crime in question typically involves a crime scene with no indication as to how the intruder could have entered or left, for example: a locked room. Following other conventions of classic detective fiction, the reader is normally presented with the puzzle and all of the clues, and is encouraged to solve the mystery before the solution is revealed in a dramatic climax.

Mystery fiction Genre of fiction usually involving a mysterious death or a crime to be solved

Mystery fiction is a genre of fiction that usually involves revealing the identity of a murderer or of the perpetrator of some other type of crime. Often within a closed circle of suspects, each suspect is usually provided with a credible motive and a reasonable opportunity for committing the crime. The central character is often a detective, who eventually solves the mystery by logical deduction from facts presented to the reader. Some mystery books are non-fiction. Mystery fiction can be detective stories in which the emphasis is on the puzzle or suspense element and its logical solution such as a whodunit. Mystery fiction can be contrasted with hardboiled detective stories, which focus on action and gritty realism.

<i>The Mysterious Affair at Styles</i> 1920 Poirot novel by Agatha Christie

The Mysterious Affair at Styles is a detective novel by British writer Agatha Christie. It was written in the middle of the First World War, in 1916, and first published by John Lane in the United States in October 1920 and in the United Kingdom by The Bodley Head on 21 January 1921.

<i>The Murder of Roger Ackroyd</i> 1926 Poirot novel by Agatha Christie

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is a work of detective fiction by Agatha Christie, first published in June 1926 in the United Kingdom by William Collins, Sons and in the United States by Dodd, Mead and Company. It is the third novel to feature Hercule Poirot as the lead detective.

<i>The Murder on the Links</i> 1923 Poirot novel by Agatha Christie

The Murder on the Links is a work of detective fiction by Agatha Christie, first published in the US by Dodd, Mead & Co in March 1923 and, in the same year, in the UK by The Bodley Head in May. It features Hercule Poirot and Arthur Hastings. The UK edition retailed at seven shillings and sixpence (7/6), and the US edition at $1.75.

Ariadne Oliver is a fictional character in the novels of Agatha Christie. She is a mystery novelist and a friend of Hercule Poirot.

Crime is a typically 19th-, 20th- and 21st-century genre, dominated by British and American writers. This article explores its historical development as a genre.

<i>Peril at End House</i> 1932 Poirot novel by Agatha Christie

Peril at End House is a work of detective fiction by British writer Agatha Christie, first published in the US by the Dodd, Mead and Company in February 1932 and in the UK by the Collins Crime Club in March of the same year. The US edition retailed at $2.00 and the UK edition at seven shillings and sixpence (7/6).

Mystery film Sub-genre of crime film

A mystery film is a genre of film that revolves around the solution of a problem or a crime. It focuses on the efforts of the detective, private investigator or amateur sleuth to solve the mysterious circumstances of an issue by means of clues, investigation, and clever deduction.

<i>Murder by Death</i>

Murder by Death is a 1976 American comedy mystery film directed by Robert Moore and written by Neil Simon. The film stars Eileen Brennan, Truman Capote, James Coco, Peter Falk, Alec Guinness, Elsa Lanchester, David Niven, Peter Sellers, Maggie Smith, Nancy Walker, and Estelle Winwood.

<i>Five Little Pigs</i> 1942 Poirot novel by Agatha Christie

Five Little Pigs is a work of detective fiction by British writer Agatha Christie, first published in the US by Dodd, Mead and Company in May 1942 under the title of Murder in Retrospect and in UK by the Collins Crime Club in January 1943 although some sources state that publication occurred in November 1942. The UK first edition carries a copyright date of 1942 and retailed at eight shillings while the US edition was priced at $2.00.

<i>Appointment with Death</i> 1938 Poirot novel by Agatha Christie

Appointment with Death is a work of detective fiction by British writer Agatha Christie, first published in the UK by the Collins Crime Club on 2 May 1938 and in the US by Dodd, Mead and Company later in the same year. The UK edition retailed at seven shillings and sixpence (7/6) and the US edition at $2.00.

An inverted detective story, also known as a "howcatchem", is a murder mystery fiction structure in which the commission of the crime is shown or described at the beginning, usually including the identity of the perpetrator. The story then describes the detective's attempt to solve the mystery. There may also be subsidiary puzzles, such as why the crime was committed, and they are explained or resolved during the story. This format is the opposite of the more typical "whodunit", where all of the details of the perpetrator of the crime are not revealed until the story's climax. The first such story was R. Austin Freeman's The Case of Oskar Brodski published in Pearson's Magazine in 1912.

The Golden Age of Detective Fiction was an era of classic murder mystery novels of similar patterns and styles, predominantly in the 1920s and 1930s.

<i>A Mysterious Affair of Style</i>

A Mysterious Affair of Style is a whodunit mystery novel by British writer Gilbert Adair, first published in 2007. A homage to the Golden Age of Detective Fiction in general and Agatha Christie in particular, the novel is a sequel to Adair's 2006 book, The Act of Roger Murgatroyd.

The closed circle of suspects is a common element of detective fiction, and the subgenre that employs it can be referred to as the closed circle mystery. Less precisely, this subgenre - works with the closed circle literary device - is simply known as the "classic", "traditional" or "cozy" detective fiction.

Anthony Ernest Pratt was an English musician and the inventor of the English detective-themed board game Cluedo, currently owned and marketed by American entertainment company Hasbro.


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