I love puzzle whodunits. On account of my crime-novel-loving mother I grew up in a house full of them, which meant that—when I ran out of SF titles—I would pick a green-liveried penguin off the shelf and read that instead: Margery Allingham; Michael Innes; Ngaio Marsh; Edmund Crispin. And of course Agatha Christie. I read huge numbers of such books growing up. I still read them today.
So: one of the things I do as a SF author is write SF puzzle whodunits. I did it with a book of mine called Jack Glass, and I’ve recently done it again with Real-Town Murders. And, yes, I’m aware that the puzzle whodunit mode has rather gone out of fashion. Crime fiction is as huge and significant genre as ever it was, of course, but its centre of gravity has shifted from locked-room puzzleboxes to psychological verisimilitude, police procedural realism and a focus on how crime and its detection really works in real life. But whilst I certainly see so many people love all those Rebuses and Reachers and Gloomy Scandinavians, it’s just not the form of crime I love best. I don’t go to crime for realism. Indeed, I don’t think crime-fiction is really about the day-to-day criminal investigation and boozy coppers and paperwork and so on. I think it’s about something else.
It is, when you come to think of it, remarkable how completely murder has come to dominate the detective novel. Almost all Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories are about lesser sorts of crimes: blackmail and stolen jewels and so on. But the genre that developed out of Holmes’s enormous success very quickly became about murder and that’s where it has remained. My theory: that’s because the detective mode is really about death, our anxiety about death, the puzzle of death—the puzzle of the murder whodunit is a way of emblematising the puzzle of death itself, the puzzle that we die. A puzzle is a trivial thing: a crossword clue, a sudoku. But trivia, counter-intuitively enough, is often the best idiom in which to address the biggest questions.
And so, in no particular order, here are my five favourite puzzle whodunits.
Josephine Tey, The Singing Sands (1952)
Tey (pseudonym of Scottish writer Elizabeth MacKintosh) only wrote a handful of detective stories, but every single one of them is gold. The Singing Sands is probably my favourite, not so much for its denouement—though that is very satisfyingly handled—as its premise. Tey’s detective, Allan Grant, spends a sleepless night on the overnight train to Edinburgh, tortured by a panic-attack induced by his small sleeper compartment (it’s never spelled out, but I assume these recurring anxiety episodes are PTSD occasioned by Grant’s WW2 service). In the morning, bleary with unsleep, he passes the guard trying and failing to rouse a fellow passenger—the man, drunk on whisky, had slipped in the night as the train swayed and struck his head on the washstand, killing himself. Without really meaning to, foggy-headed Grant picks up this man’s newspaper, Later, over breakfast, he realises the fellow sketched out most of a strange little poem in its margins:
The beasts that talk
The streams that stand
The stones that walk
The singing sand
That guard the way
I’ll say no more, except to confirm what you already suspect:—the man on the train’s death was no accident, and Grant finds himself unable to get that poem out of his head. It takes him into the Highland and from there to the Outer Hebrides, in some of the most beautiful-written and haunting chapters I’ve ever encountered in a crime novel, and eventually provides the key to solving the mystery.
Michael Innes, And Then There Came Both Mist And Snow (1940)
In real life ‘Innes’ was Oxford English academic J. I. M. Stewart, and perhaps it takes a certain donnish-priggish temperament fully to enjoy his rather literary and allusive elegance. But to quote Louis XIV, Le donnish-prig c’est moi. when it came to whodunits Innes was a superbly ingenious puzzler, and his urbane detective John (later Sir John) Appleby has a tartly dry wit. As to my reasons for selecting this title in particular from the several score Innes novels, many of which are equally brilliant—well, to explain that involves spoilers. Look away now if, as they say, you don’t want to know the result.
The novel’s setting is the mansion at Belrive Priory, together with its park and medieval ruins, owned by the fractious Foxcroft family, many members of which have descended on the place for Christmas. This enables Innes to undertake some neatly understated parody of the conventions of ‘country house murder’, with all the bickering-cousins and secret-antagonism trimmings. When Wilfred Foxcroft is discovered shot in the study, any of them might have done the deed.
But it’s the twist at the end that I really love. Before writing Jack Glass I sat down to tabulate all the variants on the ‘whodunit’ format, hoping to find a new wrinkle. The vanilla mode of the form, of course, is: here are twelve possible murderers, and the one you least suspect will prove to be the culprit. But there are many variations on this default. In Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express (1934) it turns out all the suspects ‘did it’. In Allingham’s Police at the Funeral (1932) it turns out the victim herself ‘did it’ (an elaborate suicide disguised as murder to frame her loathed family). The twist in Jack Glass, if you’re interested, is that I tell you who the murderer is at the beginning of the story, but still contrive to surprise you when I reveal who the murderer is at the end. And Then There Came Both Mist And Snow is another twist on the format: it turns out that nobody ‘did it’. A pistol was carelessly left on the balustrade outside the study; the freezing night contracted its firing pin until it, accidentally, discharged—hence the Ancient Mariner-y title. But what could be a cheat is, as Innes handles it, a beautifully wrongfooting commentary upon arbitrariness, suspicion and the need to attribute blame.
I did mention there’d be spoilers, did I? Yes? Good.
Agatha Christie, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (1926)
There has to be a Christie on this list, of course. She bestrides the world of puzzle whodunits like a criminolossus, and is orders of magnitude more famous, and more widely-read, than any other. In many ways her success is a remarkable thing. She wasn’t a very skilled writer, technically speaking: her prose is a flavourless soup, most of her characters are marionettes and her powers of visual description nugatory. Plus Hercule Poirot’s command of English is hilariously inconsistent, at one moment eloquent (‘we must clear away the extraneous matter so that we can see the truth—the naked shining truth’) and at another stumbling over simple English vocabulary (‘… it is, ’ow you say …’). My experience of people speaking a second language is that they tend to get the easy stuff right and to hesitate over the complicated stuff, and Poirot’s idiom is exactly the opposite of that. But it doesn’t matter! Poirot is an iconic, enduring creation and although some aspects of her execution can sometimes be a touch workwomanlike, Christie’s puzzles and plotting are superb. She came up with what is for my money the best ‘ok, now I have to read this novel’ title ever—Why Didn’t They Ask Evans?—and some of her books (And Then There Were None, Endless Night) are quite superbly nihilist in the completeness of their vision of death. But there’s really only one choice for her best.
No spoilers this time. The writer of the whodunit is aiming for quite a specific reaction when it comes to the revelation of the murderer’s identity, and, believe me, it’s hard to pull off: it needs to be an amazed-delighted ‘woh!’, pitched quite precisely between the Scylla of ‘well that was blindingly obvious!’ and the Charybdis of ‘what? How could I possibly have guessed that??’ Reading Roger Ackroyd as a kid was my first experience of that, and it’s something for which I will always be grateful.
Edmund Wilson, in one of his snottier moods, once published an article called ‘Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?’ But Who Reads Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd Nowadays?
Dorothy L Sayers, Nine Tailors (1934)
Which of Sayers’s eleven whodunits to include—because, obviously, she has to be here—was a puzzle in its own right. In the end I’ve gone for her atmospheric tale of Fenland campanology, jewel-thieves and a faceless corpse, Nine Tailors. But any of the Lord Peter Whimsy novels could have taken its place. Sayers had unquestionably the most brilliant mind of any crime writer—Oxford don Innes included—and something of that sheer intellectual brilliance shines in all her novels. Some accuse of her of chilly over-intricacy and it’s true her books tend to be longer and more involved than the standard whodunit format, becoming longer and longer after Sayers introduced Harriet Vane to the series in Strong Poison (1930). Vane is pretty evidently a Mary Sue for Sayers herself, and the love story between her and Whimsy—essentially, Sayers’s ideal man—comes to dominate the later books. Fans wrote angry letters to Sayers demanding that she ensure ‘that horrid girl’ never marries Sir Peter. But marry they did, and her last novel Busman’s Honeymoon is set on their honeymoon.
I have to say, I don’t mind that at all. Sayers own love-life was full of dissatisfaction, and it’s hard to begrudge her a bit of wish-fulfilment. What interests me is the way she rewrites her emotional disappointments into consummated fantasy in ways that (a) are still thorny and problematic in various ways and (b) all take place in the idiom of murder mystery. When she wasn’t writing crime stories, or translating Dante, Sayers was one of the century’s major religious writers, and I suspect her locating her own erotic wish-fulfilment in murder mysteries reflects a profound, Christian apprehension of the importance of the momento mori to love and life more generally. If I’m making her sound po-faced I don’t mean to: her books are rich and brilliant and extremely entertaining.
Roberto Bolaño, 2666 (2004 in Spanish; 2008 in English)
After four books broadly from the same period and in similar styles of intellectual whimsy, my fifth choice is something of a departure. Famously Bolaño wrote this enormous book as he was dying, hoping to provide for his widow and family. Since the novel became a global bestseller, you’d have to hope he succeeded in that aim. And what a novel: five regular-length books stitched expertly into one overarching masterpiece that both enacts and embodies the cryptic, unsettling and above all violent incompletion of death. There are many strands, and it may be that you wouldn’t categorise the novel as a whodunit it all. But there is murder in this book, and on a devastating scale: the novel’s main focus is a fictionalisation of the feminicidios of Mexico’s Ciudad Juárez, the murder of hundreds women over many years. Bolaño’s treatment of this grim theme brings much of the twentieth-century to bear, Europe as well as America, the horrors of World War 2 as well as modern life, and the whole builds a powerfully solid sense of how profoundly modern society is interpenetrated by murderous misogyny.
2666 is not the first whodunit to withhold from the reader the satisfaction of knowing who actually did it—Carlo Emilio Gadda’s Quer pasticciaccio brutto de via Merulana (‘That Awful Mess on Via Merulana’) pulled that trick as long ago as 1965. But Gadda’s novel gets bogged down in rather fanciful metatextual games, where Bolaño’s grows solider and realer and more overwhelming the longer it goes on, until, by the end, we both don’t know whodunit and can’t avoid knowing whodunit—men, men, men. It’s a stunning novel.
Adam Roberts’s The Real-Town Murders (Gollancz 2017), a locked-room mystery and a puzzle whodunit. Although Adam was gracious enough not to include it on his own list of favourites, it is certainly on ours. You can find it now from all good booksellers. Also, Amazon.