Classic Detective Fiction: Whodunit Puzzle Plots
By Gigi Pandian
Why are these mystery writers so appealing? Some people may roll their eyes and say their stories are cliché and lack character development. While there may be some truth in that critique, it misses the point of the mystery stories from the Golden Age of detective fiction. These mysteries were ingeniously crafted puzzle plots that played fair with the reader. Are you smarter than the detective? If so, prove it: Whodunit?
There’s something addictive in following along to see how a seemingly impossible crime was indeed pulled off. How can the impossible have a logical explanation? When it’s done right, it’s incredibly satisfying.
I’ll give the example of my favorite author of the age, John Dickson Carr. His most famous protagonist was Dr. Gideon Fell, a portly and brilliant amateur sleuth who had a specialty in solving locked-room crimes that baffled the police. When I think back on the double-digit number of these books that I’ve read, what sticks out in my mind is the evocative atmosphere he created. There were often supernatural overtones in Carr’s books (as you can see from the book titles in these photos), making them wonderful entertainment for a dark and stormy night – but they always had a rational explanation at the end. When you think back on a book such as this, the pieces fall into place and you slap your forehead because you realize all the clues were laid out before you.
Carr (1906 – 1977) was an American who lived in the UK for most of his adult life. His books were often published in the UK and US with different titles. In The Hollow Man (published as The Three Coffins in the US), Carr delivers the famous “locked-room lecture” in which Dr. Fell explains all of the concepts for dissecting a seemingly impossible crime. There was one of his books, which shall remain nameless, where the US title gave away the plot resolution. Frustrating, but still a clever book.
Even though this type of story isn’t quite as popular today, many authors are still writing mysteries where the puzzle plot is the central element. The wonderful British TV show Jonathan Creek also paid homage to these “impossible crime” classics. A creative consultant to a stage magician, Jonathan Creek is uniquely able to find the true explanation of seemingly magical occurrences.
When it comes to my own writing, because of the books I love to read it was a given that I’d write puzzle plot mysteries. Every short story I’ve written (six, to date) is a locked-room mystery. And while my first novel, Artifact, isn’t a locked-room crime, it’s a fair play mystery where the reader has all the clues. I’m happy to report it was just as fun to write a puzzle plot as it is to read them.
Gigi Pandian is the child of cultural anthropologists from New Mexico and the southern tip of India. After being dragged around the world during her childhood, she tried to escape her fate when she left a PhD program in favor of art school. But adventurous academic characters wouldn’t stay out of her head. Thus was born the Jaya Jones Treasure Hunt mystery series. Find Gigi online at www.gigipandian.com.
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In Gigi’s debut mystery novel, Artifact, when historian Jaya Jones receives a mysterious package containing a jewel-encrusted artifact from India, she discovers the secrets of a lost Indian treasure may be hidden in a Scottish legend from the days of the British Raj. But she’s not the only one on the trail…
“Artifact is witty, clever, and twisty. Like
Agatha Christie? Elizabeth Peters? Then you’re going to love Gigi Pandian.”
—Aaron Elkins, Edgar-winning author of the Gideon Oliver “Skeleton Detective” mysteries