Who, Why, and How: Mystery’s Most Important Questions (by M. Zizzari)

M. Zizzari’s fiction debut, “Rage and Ruin,” appears in the Department of First Stories in EQMM’s current issue (September/October 2021). The author is currently a student at Simon Fraser University, majoring in criminology with a minor in English. It’s evident from this post—which discusses a way of looking at the genre that was articulated by EQMM in its early years!— that a love of mysteries is in this writer’s blood.—Janet Hutchings 

Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine is currently celebrating its anniversary; it has been in publication for 80 years now, and deservedly so. And for a magazine with such a long and varied history, which welcomes and has published just about every type of mystery fiction there is, what better way to commemorate the occasion than by taking a look at what are considered to be the main forms of mystery fiction? Fittingly, I stumbled across an old article from American Speech that contained the line: “Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, XVI (October, 1950), 53, groups mystery fiction into three classes, ‘whodunit,’ ‘howdunit,’ ‘whydunit,’” and in light of this, I thought I would start with those three classes before going on to discuss a fourth class.

The first form, I trust, requires no introduction: the whodunnit. The whodunnit is often considered the quintessential mystery story, and even those who do not consider themselves to be fans of the genre would have no difficulty in recognizing the form and those who have mastered it, such as Agatha Christie or, aptly, Ellery Queen. In a whodunnit, the protagonist, who is often a private detective or some layperson imbued with admirable powers of deduction, comes into contact with a crime that has, usually, only recently taken place. Generally, this protagonist, through witness accounts or via their own investigation, gains all the facts of the case save one—the identity of the culprit—and must use this information to fill in that final piece of the puzzle. They must determine who done it. In theory, any mystery story that concerns itself primarily with uncovering the identity of a criminal would fall under the classification of a whodunnit, from the grizzled, hard-boiled stylings of Raymond Chandler, to the cozier, more youth-oriented works of Carolyn Keene.

On a personal level, what I have always enjoyed most about whodunnits is trying to put the puzzle pieces together before the protagonist’s big reveal at the end. While not all whodunnits are necessarily fair play mysteries—those which give the reader the information necessary to solve the case themselves—I always tried to keep the clues in mind and attempted to follow the detective’s logic as closely as possible. For the fair play stories, I felt a sense of pride if I had managed to accurately predict the perpetrator, and in those that were not, I still took satisfaction in seeing how all the pieces slotted together. The best whodunnits manage to capture intellect within art. The objectively logical, encased within the subjectively beautiful.

When compared to the whodunnit, the whydunit is a term far less commonly encountered. Unlike a whodunnit, the whydunit does not hide the identity of the criminal from the reader. Indeed, the opposite is true, as the criminal is often the protagonist of these stories. Rather than following a detective, we follow a criminal or would-be criminal in an almost introspective way, as they contemplate the crime they have or will commit. Whydunit concerns itself with the motivations of the culprit, emphasizing the psychological aspect of criminality.

The howdunnit can, perhaps, be considered the counterpart to the whydunit. Where the latter looks at the deeper, internal questions behind the crime, but the former takes a more external approach, and questions the mechanism of the crime. The narrative of a howdunnit focuses on revealing the method the culprit used, and the answer to that question is the ultimate goal for the reader.

Interestingly, when I went to write an example of a howdunnit, the story that came to my mind was one of Nabokov’s works. What makes that point interesting, for those who aren’t aware, is that the famous writer Vladimir Nabokov was well-known to dislike mystery fiction. Nabokov once said, “there are some varieties of fiction that I never touch—mystery stories, for instance, which I abhor,” and he referred to the genre as “a kind of collage combining more or less original riddles with conventional and mediocre artwork.” And yet, despite his vocal denouncement of the genre, I believe that some of his works fall under the category of mystery fiction. Particularly “Revenge,” which was originally published in Russian in 1924, and which I would argue is a rather good example of a short story howdunnit.

“Revenge” follows an aging biology professor who has decided to murder his wife. Here we already have the main element of mystery fiction, the crime, but we are not barred from the knowledge of the killer’s identity. While Nabokov avoids the riddle of who, he does not avoid the riddle of how. Quite the contrary, as though the professor comments on the fact that he has settled upon a method, he does not state what it is. The reader spends the entire story wondering as to what the professor’s plans actually are—wondering how it will be done, something which is not revealed until the very end of the story. I will refrain from giving more details, as I don’t want to give away too much, and I think anyone who has not read this story should give it a read. The point remains that though this story does not fit the definition of a whodunnit, it does seem to fit our working definition of a howdunnit.

Having looked at all three classes of mystery fiction as recognized by EQMM in 1950, and some examples of them, we now arrive at what I consider to be the final class of mystery fiction: the howcatchem. Compared to the other terms, howcatchem is quite new, having come into popularity in the 1970s. In stories of these sort, the author crafts a mystery in which the identity, method, and even motivation, are known to the reader. The beginning typically follows the criminal as they perpetrate their crime, before switching perspectives to follow the detective tasked with solving it. The howcatchem is sometimes also referred to as the inverted detective story. I personally favour the term howcatchem, not only because its style is in keeping with other terms of the mystery genre, but because it is the one my father used fondly when he first introduced me to the show, Columbo.

Columbo is the show that popularized not only the term, but the form itself. Every episode begins with the culprit, introducing the audience to them briefly before the murder occurs, allowing the viewer some insight into the character and their motives, and continuing to follow them to the moment of the act and past it, to how the killer attempts to cover it up. By the time the titular homicide lieutenant, Columbo—played by the incomparable Peter Falk—arrives on the scene to investigate, the viewer has seen everything, and thus, is already in possession of all the pertinent information. If nothing else, the viewer has the answers to all the questions that most mystery fiction centres on; they know whodunnit, whydunit, and howdunnit, but they’re left asking themselves, “how does he catch ‘em?” The aspect that is left until the ending’s big reveal is exactly where the killer went wrong. The viewer scours that opening looking not for clues, but for mistakes. I can easily recall asking my father to rewind the episode so I could watch it again and try to determine where the murderer slipped up, often pausing to discuss my theories.

Mystery has the power to compel its audience more powerfully than perhaps any other genre, and even those who later feel it has lost its power over them have been irrevocably impacted by it—traces of its influence still there to be found, as evidenced with Nabokov. The engagement a person has with the genre may be intellectual, emotional, or a combination of the two. But nonetheless, all mystery fiction seems to have a special ability to draw in its audience, regardless of which classification it falls under.

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