What to call a detective story that's not a 'whodunnit'

What to call a detective story that's not a 'whodunnit'
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While dealing with my recent logjam of writing ideas, I’ve been reading a very good novel, “The Black Ascot” by Charles Todd. Inspector Ian Rutledge is working on a murder case, but I can’t call it a “whodunnit.” I’ve seen enough of the crime to know Rutledge is on the right track.

This crime happened ten years before the investigation, though, as the early pages explain. So this is not a “whodunnit,” it’s a “Will he get away with it?” or a “Where is he?” (I’m only halfway through the book.

When I went outside this evening, my mind seemed to go for a longer walk than my feet, and I started to think of other things to call a “mystery” story — the ones that aren’t asking “Who did this crime?” (I can’t keep up the ungrammatical “Who done it?” every time.)

I put “mystery” in quotes following one of my foremothers in detective writing, Dorothy L. Sayers, who referred to her excellent Christian theological writing as her mystery stories and her tales of Lord Peter Wimsey as detective stories.

So other types of plots might get categories like these:

“He’ll kill us all!” — Agatha Christie‘s “And Then There Were None” and similar stories

“Wait, where’d he go?” — following an escapee (which may turn out to be what Rutledge is doing in “The Black Ascot”)

“You’ll never get away with this!” “Oh yeah?” — another kind of search plot, with two viewpoints

“But that’s physically impossible!” — Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Hound of the Baskervilles” and others

(I’m hoping to finish the present book and dip into “The Hound” for the umpteenth time over the weekend. Great stuff, especially this time of year.)

Thinking of Holmes gets me thinking of one final possibility for this list:

“Who’s going to solve this one, anyway?” — from Holmes getting the better of Scotland Yard to my own team of student Daisy MacDonald and Sergeant Mike Hossa, which of the “solvers” will come out the best in the story?

Back to the books!

Margaret Serious has a page on Facebook.







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  • You are so much fun t to read. Keep writing, my friend.

  • In reply to Aquinas wired:

    Thank you for the kind words, my friend. You keep writing, too!

  • In the real world, there's the State's Attorney commercial that the opponent put away 4 innocent people who served a collective 45 years. They didn't do it, but someone did, and a real investigator would want to find out who, even if the perpetrator is now dead.Also, there's no statute of limitations for murder.

    Only way it isn't a whodunit is in mixed causes of death, such as a "medical emergency" resulting in a car hitting a wall, or whether the corona virus or the flu killed someone (the governor's statistics rack it up to corona). Normally, that's a medical novel, unless an assault caused the fatal infection, in which it is a whodunit.

  • In reply to jack:

    Yes, I wonder what detective-story writers are going to make of any story set in 2020. Not guilty by reason of insanity during quarantine? Willful murder because of not wearing a mask? It could make for some great locked-room puzzles, too -- the victim was quarantined alone, etc. I don't want to write myself out of ideas here! Eventually, we may read about the end of February 2020 the way we read about the end of November 1941 or the end of August 1939... here comes trouble!

  • In reply to Margaret H. Laing:

    The contact tracers deal with the medical mystery.

    Although mostly documented in secondary sources, intentionally exposing someone to the virus would be aggravated assault, and thus, if resulting in death, murder.

    If you were looking for something similar to the dates mentioned, it would be the revolution against the police.I wonder if whether when the Family Dollar was looted in Philadelphia, the losses were in integral multiples of $1.

  • What to call a detective story that's not a who-done-it? What about simply "detective story?" I must confess that my favorite fictional detective is not from literature but from television. In "Columbo" there was never a mystery about who-done-it. This was revealed near the beginning of each episode. The mystery was always in how Columbo would solve it. And he always did so without shooting anyone, beating them up or subjecting them to harsh interrogations. Presented with the results of his clever investigations, they all resigned and confessed.

    As with the earlier Perry Mason, where the guilty persons always confessed in open court, this was nice escape fiction.

  • In reply to jnorto:

    Maybe aside from the literary device used, isn't that what any detective story is about (and basically why I can't be a detective) except for "Who Shot Mr. Burns"?

  • I like your solution, jnorto. I'll stick with "detective story." You're quite right about "Columbo" -- I never liked his voice, but I always liked his investigations. I was young enough to want to yell at the screen "But lieutenant, there he IS!" (I didn't because I was usually watching with my very logical dad.) I recall Perry Mason mostly from the movie-length color version, not the black-and-white, but I should catch up on that.

  • In reply to Margaret H. Laing:

    My main takeaway from Perry Mason was how incompetent Hamilton Burger was (sort of a precursor to Marsha Clark, including in the same court house). Also, that the law books were real, but went through about 7 revisions since then. It's hard to envision the closing credits over a Lexis or Westlaw app screen today.

  • In reply to jack:

    Thanks. I do remember jokes about whether Mr. Burger was still practicing law after losing so many cases.

  • In reply to jack:

    With a conviction rate like his, how would Hamilton Burger do in a Cook County State's Attorney race?

    Also, I found it amazing that Perry Mason, as a criminal defense attorney, never represented anyone who was not innocent. All of his clients were charged with murder, yet none of them even had dirt under their fingernails.

  • In reply to jnorto:

    In reply to both.
    1. The issue seems to be losing cases as opposed to dropping them.
    2. If Clark and Darden are any indication, to become a pundit and author, although Darden (as usual) is also a defense attorney. Burger would be on KTLA saying nobody did anything wrong.
    3. Perry Mason,, OJ, and the R. Kelly cases prove that while a county prosecutor can pack the penitentiary, not if the defendant can afford a lawyer.

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