08 July 2017

Whodunits: Pet Peeves

by B.K. Stevens

Whodunits sometimes seem like the Rodney Dangerfield of the mystery world: They don't get no respect. When people want to make fun of mysteries, they usually make fun of whodunits (probably because these people don't actually read mysteries, so they think all mysteries are whodunits). Even people who do read and enjoy mysteries often look down on whodunits, seeing them as hopelessly formulaic and old fashioned, as not nearly as smart or daring as their cool noir cousins. How often are unabashed whodunits nominated for Edgar awards? To be honest, I can't answer my own question, because I don't keep careful track of such things. But most of the Edgar winners and nominees I've read aren't whodunits. (I've wondered if some of them were really any sort of mystery--but that's a subject for another post, one I'll probably never write.)

Well, I'm unsophisticated enough to admit I love a good whodunit. Most of my favorite mysteries are traditional whodunits--and most of them were written many years ago, back when more people took whodunits more seriously. When I come across a new whodunit that tells an absorbing and believable story, plays by the rules, and still manages to deliver some surprises at the end, I'm both delighted and impressed. And, partly because I love well-done whodunits so much, I get seriously irritated by ones that don't play fair, ones that make things too easy for the detective (and the writer). Here are some of my pet peeves. I won't claim they're anything more than pet peeves, won't try to argue I'm objectively right. I'm simply going to list some things that get on my nerves. Maybe they get on your nerves, too.

  • Unrealistically chatty suspects and witnesses: Most law-abiding people feel some obligation to answer a police officer's questions. Even so, and even if they're not guilty of the crime, they might withhold facts they find embarrassing or painful, as well as facts they think might arouse false suspicions. If a private detective or an amateur sleuth is asking the questions, people are under no obligation to answer. Some people might be so talkative (or so lonely) they welcome any opportunity to spill secrets, but it's hard to believe many people would be that way. Wouldn't most people question the detective's motives, worry about getting in trouble or offending someone, or simply not want to spend the time? Private detectives and amateurs who try to bully people are out of line--they don't have the right to demand that anyone say one word to them. If a private detective or an amateur sleuth showed up at my door, asking for information about a friend or family member, I'd have some questions of my own to ask, and I wouldn't reveal anything unless I got satisfactory answers.

  • Overheard conversations: During the course of a story, a detective might catch a lucky break or two. But detectives should solve crimes by detecting, not by watching clues fall into their laps. If the detective just happens to overhear two suspects conversing and picks up vital information, I'm skeptical; if the detective overhears more than one helpful conversation, I usually stop reading. (An overheard conversation is more palatable if the detective goes to some trouble to overhear it--goes to a restaurant where two suspects always meet for lunch on Tuesday, puts on a wig, poses as a server, practices a French accent, and so on. Then I'll attribute any information the detective picks up to ingenuity and effort, not to dumb luck.)

  • Convenient coincidences:They're as bad as overheard conversations. The detective, too frazzled to keep deducing, goes for a run in the park and happens to spot two suspects sitting on a bench, holding hands and locked in intense conversation--but both have sworn they don't know each other, have never met. Now the detective can confront them with their lies and get them to break down. Or the detective decides to leave a party, puts on a suspect's coat by mistake, and finds a conclusive clue in the pocket. The detective hasn't earned the insights such incidents yield, so I'm not impressed--I'm incredulous and more than a little annoyed. As Ronald A. Knox says in "A Detective Story Decalogue," "No accident must ever help the detective." It was a good rule back in 1929, and it's still a good rule nearly a century later.

  • Culprits picked out of a hat: All the suspects have means, all have opportunity, and all have motives--very different motives: One will inherit a fortune from the victim, one is an angry ex-husband, and one is a business associate who went bankrupt when the victim didn't honor a contract. Several clues point to each. In the last scene, one case-cracking clue proves the would-be inheritor is the culprit, and all evidence about the victim's unhappy marriage and unethical business practices is irrelevant. If the final clue had been different, the culprit would have been different. That's one way of surprising the reader, but it's an easy, artless way. When I read that sort of whodunit, I feel as if all the effort I've devoted to weighing the evidence in ninety percent of the story was wasted. I thought I was working on a puzzle, but it turns out I was working on three separate puzzles. The puzzles don't interlock, and only one was completed--only one mattered. Any pleasure I might have found in being surprised is eclipsed by irritation.

  • Loose ends: As the previous pet peeve made clear, I'm not a fan of mere red herrings. I prefer whodunits in which all clues, no matter how much the detective may misinterpret them at first, ultimately point directly or indirectly to the solution. But if writers can't resist the temptation to throw a mere red herring into the plot, they should at least have the decency to explain it at the end. Years ago, I read a well-written whodunit that had an intriguing plot and some interesting, complex characters--but also had one big problem. I mentioned the book to an old college friend who also loves mysteries. "I think you might enjoy it," I said, "except for one thing." "I know," she said. "I've already read it. You never find out who the baby's father was!" Yes, that was the problem. The murder victim was a young, single woman, and the autopsy revealed she was several months pregnant when she died. So the protagonist's initial investigation focused on three men who might have been romantically involved with the victim and might have fathered the unborn child. Eventually, the protagonist realized the motive for the murder had nothing to do with the pregnancy and focused on other suspects. And the writer never bothered to tie up loose ends by saying who the father was. I understand that it's good to end a mystery at a dramatic moment. I know many readers--and many editors and critics--don't have much patience with the old-fashioned scenes in which suspects gather in the parlor to hear the detective go over all the evidence and gradually zero in on the culprit. But I don't think that's any excuse for leaving loose ends dangling--and leaving readers wondering.  

  • Withholding secrets: Awakened in the middle of the night when the phone rings, the detective listens to what an unidentified caller says, jots down some notes, and goes back to sleep. Later, the detective looks through the victim's appointment calendar, takes out the notes from the phone call, underlines something, and nods sagaciously. But the reader doesn't learn anything about what was said in the phone call or what was written in the appointment calendar until the final scene, when the detective reveals that the bits of information each yielded connected in a surprising way, making the culprit's identity clear. How can readers keep up when the detective knows things they don't? Golden age writers declare such ploys unacceptable. "The reader must have equal opportunity with the detective for solving the mystery," S.S. Van Dine says in "Twenty Rules for Writing Detective Stories" (1928). Knox agrees: "All clues must be plainly stated and described. The detective must not light on any clues that are not instantly produced for the reader." And the oath taken by members of the Detection Club (including Knox, Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, and E.L. Bentley) asks inductees to "solemnly swear never to conceal a vital clue from the reader."
I could go on. I love good whodunits so much that I have lots of other pet peeves about lazy ones. I'd better stop here, though. I may have already reinforced the stereotype that whodunits are hopelessly formulaic and old fashioned, governed by rigid rules set down nearly a century ago. But some of the rules Van Dine, Knox, and others proposed no longer hold writers back (if they ever actually did). The rules saying whodunits shouldn't have a "love interest" have faded from significance, for example, as have the ones forbidding "subtly worked-out character analyses." The rules whodunit purists still cite with approval are the ones that helped shaped the genre, and they boil down to two simple principles: Be reasonably realistic, and play fair. A whodunit, when it's done right, presents detectives, writers, and readers with difficult but possible intellectual challenges. We're cheating if we make our detectives' job too easy, and we're cheating if we make our own job too easy, too. We shouldn't shower our detectives with unearned clues. And while misleading and surprising readers are essential parts of our job, we shouldn't accomplish them by bombarding readers with completely irrelevant red herrings, or by withholding vital information until the last possible moment. We should treat the whodunit form with more respect. If we do, maybe, just maybe, others will respect it more, too.

Do you have pet peeves about whodunits, or about other kinds of mysteries? I'd love to hear them.


Leigh Lundin said...

Bonnie, I’m with you, both in loving whodunits and believing they should always play fair. I also believe in characterization, so that shouldn’t be an excuse for genre haters. It should be noted that whodunits don’t always need a detective, even an amateur one, if it’s crafted in a way to give the reader a chance to solve the mystery.

When I was a teen, I read one novel and built a substantial, can’t-lose case against a suspect. Imagine my chagrin when the World Famous Detective settled upon his accused and dismissed all others. The author outlined the case against his suspect A and it made sense. But what he didn’t do was explain why my carefully crafted case against suspect B wasn’t equally as viable. That happened long ago. I’ve forgotten the title but I never forgot that feeling of being hung out to dry.

Bonnie, I enjoyed the quotes you included. I re-read a couple of SS Van Dine novels a year ago. I like silver-age mysteries, but a couple of times I wanted to smack Philo Vance for being such a bossy prig. As Ogden Nash put it:
Philo Vance needs a kick in the pance.

Paul D. Marks said...

B.K. you make a lot of good points here. One thing that bothers me, particularly in TV mysteries or whodunits, is what I call pulling rabbits out of a hat. Where the detective at the end just sort of magically has all the answers in their hands. Kind of a combination of several of the things you mentioned.

Another thing I’m totally with you on is when you say, “But most of the Edgar winners and nominees I've read aren't whodunits. (I've wondered if some of them were really any sort of mystery…” I’ve often wondered that. I hear about a great mystery or crime novel. I read it and I wonder where the crime is. I’m particularly thinking of one book that in the last year or so got a lot of attention. I read it and had to wonder what all the fuss was about and where the mystery was.

Steve Liskow said...

Great post, Bonnie.

I confess, I've actually written a couple of fairly pure whodunits, and several other stories lean that way. I do sometimes have a few (trivial) loose ends, though. I have to confess that stories with really complex plots that account for every single detail at the end strike me as contrived. They may be very good stories, but at some point the writer's hand is too visible.

Another peeve for me is the boastful villain. At the end, he or she has the sleuth at gunpoint or tied up, and decides to brag about how everything was done and how it fooled everyone and look how brilliant I am...while help is racing to the scene. This always strikes me as amateur hour, and I see it fairly often. It was the ending of an Edgar winner a few years ago. I liked ninety percent of the book, but ended up throwing it across the room at that point.

Paul, I've also read stories I wouldn't call mysteries but crime stories that lean toward Otto Penzler's definition. It seems that many writers now create character studies that involve how and why, which is fine, but sometimes plot takes a back seat. I know people have said that about me. (So I kill them)

Absolutely, withholding clues from the reader is cheating. That's probably why Watson, Hastings, and Archie Goodwin (among others) are narrators of so many of the classics: to keep the detective's thoughts secret until the big finish.

Melodie Campbell said...

There is nothing I like better than a clever whodunit. The key is - it must be *clever*. I must be given the clues, and the author must play fair and not hold anything back.
My complaint these days is that most whodunits are published in 'cozy' lines, and the authors aren't writing books that are clever enough for me. I don't get distracted by the charming setting and delightful recurrent characters. That is not enough to forgive a lame plot, or as I so often see, insufficient motivation.
It takes great skill to write a good whodunit. I long for more Agatha Christies.

Melodie Campbell said...

Paul, I just read your comment, and I have to agree. As the former ED of Crime Writers of Canada, I was often baffled by books that were submitted to our awards. We used to call this, "Where's the beef?"
A crime book should be about the crime - the solving of it, or the hope to escape from it, in the case of suspense. I could write for hours on this subject, so I better stop now - grin

B.K. Stevens said...

Leigh, Paul, and Steve, thanks for your comments. Leigh, I sympathize with your frustration about Suspect B. It's like the frustration my friend and I felt when we never found out who the baby's father was. When an author has deliberately made us wonder about something and tantalized us with possibilities, we want an explanation, however quick it may be. Paul, I sometimes wonder if people choosing Edgar nominees or winners (or deciding about other mystery awards or honors) are seduced by authors with big names or with reputations for being "literary" writers. Are they trying to prove that mysteries are "literature" by giving awards and honors to writers others respect? Steve, I definitely should have mentioned the boastful villain. I sometimes wonder (I'm a nasty, suspicious sort of person) if writers resort to this silly, unrealistic plot device because they haven't bothered to provide enough clues, and there's no other way to reveal who, how, and why.

B.K. Stevens said...

Melodie, I agree with you. Not all mysteries have to be whodunits--I enjoy other sorts of mysteries, too--but if a book takes the form of a whodunit, it ought to deliver a clever plot. It can be far more than a puzzle, but the puzzle should be there, it should be carefully constructed, and readers should have a fair chance of solving it.

Eve Fisher said...

Oh, Steve, I HATE the boastful villain. Nobody ever, ever, ever confesses everything, not even lifers in prison! Much less to the detective / spy / whoever.

And Bonnie, I HATE overheard conversations. (Unless they're overheard by a complete stranger, the speaker notices, and complete stranger ends up being the next victim. That I'm just fine with.) Most people know how to keep their mouths shut. And you're right, they don't just talk away to anyone who asks, especially law enforcement.

My biggest pet peeve was in "A Simple Plan". I don't mind that everyone's greedy and selfish and violent - that's noir. What I minded was that the plot had the cops never asking the FBI guy for his id. NO! Police do not just take anyone who walks into a police station and says, "Hi, I'm from the FBI / CIA / Interpol / IRS, and I need your help" at face value. They will check. THEY WILL CHECK.

B.K. Stevens said...

Eve, thanks for your comments. I love Columbo--it's probably my favorite television series of all time--but I often thought Columbo gets his confessions too easily. Sometimes, the confessions make sense, at least in fiction if not in real life: The killer is a basically decent person who killed in a moment of rage and is motivated partly by remorse, or Columbo tricks the killer into thinking someone the killer loves is about to be arrested. Too often, though, Columbo has one dramatic clue that probably wouldn't stand up in court, and the killer blurts out all the damning details too easily. I sometimes wondered what would happen the first time these killers met with their lawyers--"You said WHAT?"

GBPool said...

Bonnie, You are very tough in your analysis, but oh so right. I don't want everything to be too easy or the answer pulled out of a magic hat at the end. As for characters blabbing out secrets, when I was an undercover private detective people would tell me everything. One lady had a daughter who dated a mob enforcer in Chicago. I heard all kinds of stories from dear old mom and none of it had anything to do with my case. People, perhaps I should say slightly uneducated/unsophisticated people, will tell you everything. Even on any episode of COPS people talk to the police when they shouldn't. My husband and I keep yelling at the screen: "Get a lawyer and shut up?" But people do talk... and talk... and talk.

Barb Goffman said...

Bonnie, you'll be pleased to know that because of this column, I realized that in a story I have coming out next year, I have a scene in which the protagonist knows something the reader doesn't, so I added a single word to fix the situation and am now playing fair. Thanks for making me think about it.

I love you list, by the way. I once heard a novelist say that she doesn't decide who the culprit is until the end. She sets up a bunch of possibles and then just picks one. That drives me crazy. When you get to the end of a book, the reader should be able--now knowing exactly what happened--to read everything in the book and realize that this conclusion was inevitable, that the bad guy had to be this one particular character. If it could have been any of them, what's the point?

B.K. Stevens said...

Gayle and Barb, thanks so much for your comments. Gayle, I'm sure you're right about people saying far more than it makes sense for them to say--that may be a case of truth being stranger than fiction can afford to be. Perhaps, when one of our detectives runs into a foolishly chatty suspect, we should have the detective reflect on how odd it is that some people will say damaging things simply because they like to hear themselves talk. Barb, the whodunits I like most are the ones that make me smack my forehead at the end and say, "Rats--why didn't I see that coming? The author gave me all the evidence I needed, but I missed it." That's when I know the author has done a really good job of playing fair while still successfully misdirecting my attention.

Storyteller Mary said...

I hate loose threads and cliffhanger endings. I adore puzzles I figure out just a bit before the big reveal.

B.K. Stevens said...

Mary, I hate loose threads, too. And cliffhangers are fine at the end of a chapter but not at the end of a novel. I don't like it if the author tries to lure me into buying the next book in the series. Each novel in a series should stand on its own and reach a definite conclusion--if the conclusion is truly satisfying, THAT might lure me into buying the next book. I agree that it's fun to figure out a puzzle just before the end, but I don't mind if the author outsmarts me. As long as I feel I've been treated fairly and SHOULD have figured things out, I don't care who wins.

Anonymous said...

Always play fair. Never should the detective know more than the reader. Otherwise I love whodunits.

B.K. Stevens said...

Anonymous, I couldn't agree more. Fair play is essential.

Linda Thorne said...

One thing that bothers me is something I rarely see, but when I do, I want to throw the book or magazine across the room. I think it might have worked in older times until it was overused. Readers are more savvy these days (at least I hope). A mystery writer has to set up the reader, but does he need to do it blatently out in the open? What I'm talking about is when the protagonist receives a phone call and the caller says, we must meet! But will not give him a clue. Most people would say more on a call like that, especially if they felt in danger when they should be handing over all the clues in advance - just in case. Of course, the protagonist shows up to find the caller dead and he's left with little or no information. This doesn't have to be a phone call to meet about information. There are other scenerios that go the same way and it's just the writer going the "easy" route to try to set up the scene or conflict. It worked for me when I was a child, but I'm over that routine now.