When considering the differences between a “whydunit” and a “whodunit,” it struck me that the two are inseparably intertwined. It would be difficult to figure out whodunit, without knowing why they “dunit,” although you might be able to make a case for knowing why, but not exactly whodunit in certain situations. But, then again, part of this would certainly involve their kissing cousin, “howdunit.” After rereading that paragraph I feel compelled to include a picture of the sign in the Haunted Forest from The Wizard of Oz:
I’d turn back if I were you.
Consider that your warning. You’re not in Kansas anymore.
Maybe we can make this conundrum more comprehensible by breaking it down into its various parts. Traditionally, mysteries have always been referred to as “whodunits.” I used that title for the first short story in my new collection, Pope’s Last Case and Other Stories. Highbrow critics labeled mysteries thusly, making “whodunit” a rather pejorative term. Snobbish critic Edmond Wilson once wrote an essay called “Who Cares Who Killed Roger Acroyd?” Among Wilson’s pompous assertions was that the mystery genre (another pejorative in his opinion) was all about creating a cute little puzzle and tying it up with a bow. In other words, it was not the sort of thing that a man of his self-inflated sophisticated tastes would be caught dead reading.
How many people these days remember who Wilson was, or the ridiculous essays he wrote? To say the guy missed the mark is like saying he couldn’t kick a cow paddy through an open barn door. Besides showing his ignorance and pomposity, he missed out on an important point. Mysteries, or whodunits, are still widely popular because they’re entertaining and fun to read. That’s why the genre has been around for so long and continues to flourish. I’m flying a bit far afield here, but I recently took a survey about reading habits and one of the questions was, Name the best book you had to read in school. I sat there considering this question, and reviewed as many of them as I could recall reading in my academic life. I could certainly recall a lot more bad ones than ones that I liked. This speaks to one of the defects in our educational system. Instead of being taught that reading is fun and enjoyable, teachers often force-feed students a steady diet of uninteresting, incomprehensible books. (Ever met anybody who enjoyed reading Moby Dick or The Scarlet Letter in high school? They both sent me running for the Cliff’s Notes.) This makes students dread reading and see it was drudgery rather than a great entertainment. They do this because they were taught by their college professors that those were the books that represented “good literature.” Their professors were taught this by the previous generation of professors who were in turn taught the same thing by their professors, and so on.
Think that I’m an unsophisticated knucklehead? Well, maybe I am, but at least I admit I used the Cliff’s Notes and a Classics Illustrated comic book to write my high school essay on Moby Dick. Go on, take the test. I dare you. Name the “best book” you were forced to read in school. Now name the best book you read on your own during that same time period. I’d be willing to bet you have a lot more to choose from in that second category.
But anyway, let me get off my soapbox and back to our original topic: Whydunit vs. Whodunit. If you’re reading a mystery, figuring out whodunit is pretty closely connected to whydunit. I would venture to say that if you know who, you have probably figured out whydunit, and if you know whydunit, whoduit should be fairly obvious. Enter the red herrings and the artful subterfuges. I can remember watching an old mystery movie on television with my grandfather when I was a kid. I was totally convinced that one character was the killer that I made that prognostication that “He dunit.” Alas, when the climactic revelation came, I was in total shock to find out I was wrong. The guy I thought was the killer “hadn’t dunit” after all. My grandfather laughed and said, “You got off on some stray tracks, didn’t you?”
I must admit, I did. But the guy I thought “dunit,” was framed. It was a marvelous set up. The “hadn’t dunit”guy even had a real solid “whydunit” motive. That’s what the real guy “whodunit” was counting on. The “whodunit” had his own reasons for “whydunit,” which weren’t revealed until the detective had everybody in the same room and reviewed all the other possible “whydunit” reasons. The telling clue, which was revealed in this last scene of the last act, was so obscurely planted that I, and just about everyone else, had missed it the first time.
Whodunits like that have fallen out of favor in recent years. I think it has to do with playing fair with the reader. Otherwise, it’s like asking the magician why he pulled a rabbit out of his hat instead of a rhinoceros. So, as a writer of mysteries, it’s imperative to put a few layer of whydunit in your whodunit, and don’t forget to add a little howdunit, either.
Okay, admit it: Don’t you wish you’d taken the advice on that sign from the Haunted Forest back at the end of the first paragraph?