Why Do We Like Whodunnits?

Why Do We Like Whodunnits?

Why do we like Whodunnits? By “Whodunnit” I mean the movies, TV shows, and books where we don’t find out the murderer, thief, or conman until the final scene.

It’s an interesting question, considering it’s not always been the format of choice.

For instance, take The Thomas Crown Affair—the original 1968 heist film. We know from the opening, if the title didn’t give it away, that the mastermind behind the heist is Thomas Crown himself. The movie then follows the female headhunter sent in to catch him and bring him in. Naturally, romance ensues, and I won’t give away the ending. But the point is, we know who’s the mastermind and that he successfully pulled off the heist from the very beginning. That’s very different from heist films like the 2001 Ocean’s Eleven where the entire plot revolves around the fact that we don’t know if they’ll be successful. It’s a question of “how will they pull it off” not “will they get caught.”

Albeit, that’s a heist, not a murder. So now consider the 70’s TV show Columbo—which I only just got around to finally watching for the first time. I’d actually tried starting it several times, but couldn’t get past the opening scenes where it shows the murderer fulfilling their marvelous scheme. I just kept thinking, “I don’t like knowing whodunnit ahead of time. I much prefer the puzzle of solving who is the murderer.”

And then Columbo shuffles in. And immediately, my opinion changed.

Why? Because he’s Gryce! The quiet, bumbling, under-appreciated, side-looking detective who’s much, much more intelligent than the criminal gives him credit for.

Detective Gryce is Anna Katharine Green’s serial detective who appeared in novels from 1878 to 1917. Here’s the description of him given in his first appearance in The Leavenworth Case.

Isn’t that a similar description to one Detective Columbo?!

So in the case of Columbo, each episode is not about who the murderer is, but how they messed up enough to get caught. They’re usually very tight plans, too, to the point where the viewer wonders what could possibly be missing. Now I will say, the first few episodes of the show do not play fair with the viewer (though later episodes get better about it). This is not the puzzle-solving type of mystery where the viewer could solve the puzzle a second before the detective. The clues Columbo catches are sometimes not visible, though he keeps the viewer informed with his use of “I just got one question…” or “There’s just this one detail that’s botherin’ me…”—always said around a cigar, of course.

It makes me smile just thinking about him.

Now, I realize these are TV show and movie examples, not books, but that’s because they’re more likely to evoke a recognizable, discussable image.

It is worth noting, however, that there are few examples of mystery books that are not Whodunnits. From Detective Gryce to Sherlock to Hercule Poirot (Agatha Christie’s leading detective) to Kinsey Millhone (Sue Grafton’s ABC series) to Chet and Bernie (dog and his owner who solve mysteries—hilariously wonderful series told by the dog) we have mysteries who focus on Whodunnit.

What are some of your favorite mystery series that don’t follow this classic format? I’d love to check them out!

One Reply to “Why Do We Like Whodunnits?”

  1. I’m stuck on CSI:NY and recently binged on Bones as well. Once I get past the gore I love trying to figure out whodunnit! And then there’s Castle, of course!

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