In this post, I’d like to discuss another tool at the disposal of the crime writer, the “whydunit”.  In the locked room mystery we discussed the problems faced by both a crime writer and the fictional detective when a story drifts away from a classic whodunit anchor point and focuses instead on how a murder was committed.  The whydunit is a simple evolution of this and in the hands of a skilled writer, it is genuinely powerful.

When I first read The Secret History by Donna Tartt I was shocked by the deliberate disregard for crime writing convention and then hooked as the story unfolded.  Here is the first line of the prologue:

The snow in the mountains was melting and Bunny had been dead for several weeks before we came to understand the gravity of our situation.

By the end of the two-page prologue, the reader knows not only who gets killed, but also who is responsible.  What Tartt does next is to go back in time and then spend the majority of the story working towards the events of the prologue.  Throughout the whole book, the reader is waiting for the whydunit to become clear.  It is an excellent piece of writing and a genuine heavyweight psychological thriller.  By focusing on the why Tartt renders the fictional detective irrelevant and forces the reader to join all the clues together unaided.

One of the best examples of the whydunit comes in the form of A Judgement in Stone by Ruth Rendell.  The economy in the writing, a sign of a very skilled novelist, is such that in a relatively short book Rendell crafts a story which stands up to multiple re-readings.  In a similar manner to The Secret History, the reader is told whodunit in the very first sentence.  In a traditional crime novel, the reader has no need to keep reading once the central question of whodunit has been answered.  What remains after this point are loose ends with little of real substance to drive the story forward.  Not so in A Judgement in Stone which turns this traditional view of the genre on its head.  Using a range of narrative tools Rendell weaves a series of revelations into the rest of the book which allows the reader to understand why the murders are committed and also how the whole thing could have been prevented.  She does this with such skill that stopping before the end is never considered.  It has been described as Rendell’s masterpiece and if she has written anything better, I would love to read it.  Crime writing at its very best.

Tying up a loose end of my own, well done to those of who guessed that the unsolvable crime from the previous post came from Remington Steele.  Strictly speaking, he was a private investigator and not a detective, but where would crime writers be without a little misdirection eh? Speaking of which, next time, we’ll discuss the red herring.

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