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Whodunit, Not Howdunit or Whodunwhat September 5, 2016

Happy Labor Day! I've had a very enjoyable long weekend reading eBooks from the public library and taking naps in the sunlight. I worked a bit on my cozy mystery, but because I'm prone to obsessing over projects and working on them nonstop until I burn out, I'm limiting myself to a maximum of six hours of fiction writing per day, even on weekends. So that I don't feel indolent, I spend the rest of my time reading popular mystery novels or nonfiction books on writing. I have P. D. James' Talking About Detective Fiction on hold, and I'm next in line!

While I wait for it, I'd like to do some talking about detective fiction of my own. Truth be told, most of the novels I've read recently have been sorely disappointing. I love whodunits, but the books I borrow often end up being "howdunits" or "whodunwhats" instead. (Yes, I made those words up, but I'm sure many people made them up before I did. In fact, Google says Ellery Queen coined "howdunit" in the collection of essays copyrighted 1957, In the Queens' Parlor: And Other Leaves from the Editors' Notebook.)

The Howdunit

A "howdunit" is a story about a detective who spends an excessive amount of time unraveling and then explaining the technicalities of a crime. The crime is seemingly impossible, and the villain uses complicated tricks to carry it out and conceal the evidence.

People who write howdunits today might be trying to emulate classic authors of detective fiction, like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie. But secret codes and deadly traps aren't the real reason people love stories starring Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot. People love those stories because they love the heroes. Poirot is just as entertaining when he's solving a simple case of poisoning as he is when he's solving the murder of Girl A, who was discovered at 8:00 and mistaken for Girl B, and then Girl B was killed at 8:30 and swapped with Girl A before the police arrived, and that's why the murderers have airtight alibis for the supposed time of Girl B's death.

While coming up with these wicked puzzles is certainly fun for a writer, solving them isn't much fun for a reader because "how" is the least interesting question to ask.

When something shocking happens in real life, people first ask, What happened? They want to know who was hurt, who was responsible, when it happened, and where. Then they skip straight to, Why? Why did he do that? What on earth was he thinking? Why would someone so normal do something so cruel?

This summer a security guard in my town was arrested for murder. He told his wife he was driving late at night when he struck a young woman in the street. He panicked, drove her to a dry canyon, and dumped her there to die.

When the news broke, nobody asked "how" he'd done it and gotten away with it. Not a single person I talked to wondered how he'd concealed the evidence of the accident, or how he'd transported her body, or how he'd managed to drop her in the canyon without anyone noticing.

They wondered only why he'd reacted that way. If it was an accident, why didn't he call an ambulance? Why was his first thought to get rid of her, not to help her? What was wrong with him?

And of course people cared about the poor woman. They cared about her mother, who immediately noticed she was missing because she'd called home every day. They cared about her boyfriend, who ran around all night looking for her. They even cared about the security guard's wife, who found the young woman's bloody purse in the shed and took it straight to the police, shaking and crying.

Readers think the same way about fictional crime. They care about the people involved, not about the technicalities. When the sleuth goes around talking to suspects, readers don't examine their words to figure out if they could have committed the crime with careful planning. They examine their words to figure out if they're the sort of people who would have committed the crime. Who is this person? Can she be trusted? Does she have morals fragile enough, or a personality weak enough, or a temper volatile enough, to be capable of premeditated murder?

The "how" is important in a mystery, obviously, and a bizarre or impossible crime can hook a reader's interest on page one. But it won't hold her interest for an entire novel. Intricate locked-room murders are well and good as long as the details of how the murderer locked the room don't overshadow the story. The story is about the man or woman who kills someone and why, and about the courageous detective who uncovers the truth. It's not about how the culprit cleverly uses fishing wire, a piece of chewing gum, and an empty shampoo bottle to make a murder look like a suicide.

The Whodunwhat

A "whodunwhat" is a story about a detective who solves an excessive number of interconnected crimes at a breathless pace.

  • The master of the mansion died in his bedroom at 7 pm. His estranged wife lied that they were together to cover up the humiliating fact that he was actually in bed with the studly gardener.
  • The cook lied that the butler was eating supper at the time because the butler had caught her pilfering the silverware, and he threatened to report her to the police if she told them he was really taking tea to the master and his lover.
  • The butler had been blackmailing the cook because he needed money to replace the thousands he'd "borrowed" from his employer's accounts to buy his girlfriend luxury goods.
  • The butler's girlfriend turns out to be the secret wife of the master's son, and she was only using the butler as a beard.
  • The son was desperate for his father's inheritance because he has a gambling addiction and owes terrifying sums to the local gangs.
  • And for good measure, the sweet daughter of the house who captured the detective's heart turns out to have planted evidence to frame her brother, because she was in love with the butler and suspected he'd done the deed.

When I wrote the list above I intended it to be a humorous exaggeration. Now that I read it over, I swear I've read that story before. Or I've seen it on TV.

These soap-operatic mysteries are not only cliche, but they're very confusing. Recently I read a novel about a heroine who was supposedly searching for her missing friend, a fashion designer. Then she started zipping so quickly from corporate espionage to real-estate scams to university sex scandals that I lost track of which crime she was trying to solve. One minute she was breaking into a lawyer's office for evidence of some sort, and the next a mysterious figure was knocking her out in a dark hallway for some reason, and then a mild-mannered accountant turned out to be an Interpol agent investigating something nefarious.

The writer might have thought this book would be exciting because it was so fast-paced, but the result was very dry. None of the scenes had emotional weight. None of the heroine's relationships went anywhere. How could they, when the characters talked of nothing but French embezzlers and Irish mobsters?

How to Dodge Both

How do you know if you've written an interesting whodunit, a boring howdunit, or a confusing whodunwhat?

They key is character. When writing a mystery novel, it's easy to get caught up in the "mystery"—the motives and means and opportunities—and to lose sight of the "novel." Mystery novels are stories first and puzzles second. You can come up with the most ingenious puzzle or tightly plotted conspiracy in the world, but nobody will care to read about it if your story lacks interesting characters.

Both howdunits and whodunwhats unwisely sacrifice character development for less important things. In howdunits, character takes a backseat to brainteasers—cleverly manipulated clocks and poisoned darts rigged up with pulleys. In whodunwhats, character takes a backseat to titillation—shocking scandals and high-flying adventures.

By asking yourself the three questions below, you can easily avoid writing a howdunit, a whodunwhat, or any other variety of mediocre mystery novel that doesn't have a cute name.

  1. Is my hero a three-dimensional person?
  2. Is my villain a three-dimensional person?
  3. Are each of my minor characters three-dimensional people?

If the answer is no to one of them, your novel hasn't yet reached its full potential. In cozies written under contract, too often the answer is no to all three. The amateur detective is a bland vehicle for wish fulfillment. The villain is a stereotypical psycho. The suspects are all familiar archetypes: the mean queen bee, the greedy land developer, the slimy playboy. And the supporting characters—the love interest, the best friend, the business partner—are little more than sounding boards for the detective's musings.

If you can answer yes to all three questions, you can make your victim's demise as fanciful as you want and drop your detective into a metric ton of dirty laundry. Brainteasers create problems only if the characters spend all of their time babbling about timelines, instead of building and navigating relationships. Scandals by the bucketful create problems only if the relentless pace prevents readers from getting to know anyone in depth.

Christopher Fowler's Peculiar Crimes Unit series is about, well, peculiar crimes. Bizarre, seemingly supernatural crimes that defy rational explanation. But these novels aren't howdunits, because they're really about the two eccentric detectives who head up the unit, and about the unique people they work with and investigate during their peculiar adventures.

P. D. James' Inspector Dalgliesh uncovers mountains of sordid secrets. The people he meets are always hiding something scandalous like illegitimacy, incest, extramarital affairs, and so on. But these novels aren't whodunwhats, because every character is painfully human.

Howdunits are as diverting and meaningless as crossword puzzles. Whodunwhats are as eye-catching and fluffy as celebrity gossip magazines. If you want your novel to be more memorable than a crossword or a tabloid headline, you need to develop the characters.


Tiffany Inman (March 19, 2024 7:52 am)

I've read most of this information before but it was bland and didn't spark any lightbulbs for thoughts like these: "Oh that is exactly what I want to avoid doing! It all makes sense now and I can keep writing the way I am writing my mystery, everything is going to be OKAY." Until I read your blog. So, Thank you. Thank you thank you!

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