Subject Material

"Whodunit" - The Classic Crime Plot

Published: 06.08.2012, Updated: 04.03.2017
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The title of this article is a bit funny; it is also grammatically incorrect. It should read “Who did it” or “Who has done it”. It is an American label of a certain genre in crime literature. The classic plot is a crime committed, an investigator, and his ways of finding out “whodunit”. The genre is recognised by a fairly fixed set of ingredients, and it has a history which is closely linked with certain aspects of Victorian England.

Vocabulary

assignation, sibling, perpetrator, deduction, pertinent, to clamour, instalment, to violate, illicit, fabric, sanctuary, to embed, to titllate, ominous, atrocity

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The origin of a genre revealed

Jack The RipperJack The Ripper
Forfatter: Corbis
An English country house; an extended, dysfunctional family.  Eccentric visitors, an inscrutable butler and a pretty maid.  A tangled web of jealousy and ambition; assignations and conspiracies.  And, of course, a corpse.
All the evidence points to the classic English whodunit: an art form that, despite sometimes seeming lifeless on the drawing room floor, still manages to emerge from the shadows when we least expect it.  Almost 150 years on from the first recognisable whodunit – Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone – one of the biggest hits on British TV this winter has been Sherlock: a series of modern reworks of Conan Doyle’s classic tales.
So, what is behind the formula’s success?  And where did the genre come from?

A story that is no story

Answers to those questions were provided by Kate Summerscale’s The Suspicions of Mr Whicher (2008) – a book that ingeniously manages to be a whodunit whilst explaining the genre’s social and historical background.  Summerscale tells the story of a murder committed in a well-to-do household in nineteenth-century rural Wiltshire.  The family wakes one summer morning to discover that its youngest member has been brutally killed in the grounds, yards from the windows of sleeping parents, siblings and servants.  As if that were not awful enough, they soon have reason to fear that the perpetrator is still amongst them.
Enter Jack Whicher of Scotland Yard: a whiskered, uncompromising man, with a fearsome reputation for solving crime by logical deduction.  What Whicher encounters is a household where everyone seems to have something to hide, and several people had opportunity and motive to murder.  Our sleuth discerns flaws in the suspects’ stories, uncovers hidden clues and methodically closes in on the truth.
You would be forgiven for thinking that it isn’t a very original plot.  However, the events recounted by Summerscale are not the product of a novelist’s imagination, but a matter of historical record.  The murder in the village of Road really happened; and it happened a full eight years before The Moonstone was published. The story told by Summerscale is not an example of, but the blueprint for the classic whodunit.

Media revolution

Gruesome killings are mercifully rare; but they are frequent enough to make it pertinent to ask why this particular crime should have given rise to an entire body of literature.  Authors apparently picked up the formula because of the profound impression that the real-life drama made on the public.  Victorian England was gripped by the events that unfolded at Road in 1860. Summerscale suggests several reasons why.
One was the “dizzying expansion of the press”.  In the middle of the nineteenth century, the electric telegraph and the development of a nationwide rail network brought a revolution in the gathering and distribution of information.  For the first time ever, news from every corner of the land was immediately and cheaply available to all.  And people clamoured to hear it.  In response to the demand, countless national and regional dailies sprang up.  Crime reports became the ‘soap operas’ of the day, read by instalment at breakfast tables from Cornwall to the Highlands.

Contemporary significance

Two features of the Road murder particularly appealed to the Victorian imagination.  First, the role of the detective.  The Metropolitan (i.e. London) Police – the world’s first modern force – was formed in 1829, and it did not acquire a detective division until 1842.  Most of the UK had no police force at all – let alone detectives – until significantly later.  In other words, policing was still something of a novelty to most people in 1860, and detectives were practitioners of a mysterious art.  The involvement of a metropolitan detective will have caught the attention in a way that cannot be underestimated.
English Cuntry HouseEnglish Country House
Fotograf: Science Photo Library
Second, what happened at Road shook at the foundations of Victorian morality and convention.  The notion that “an Englishman’s home is his castle” is an expression of nineteenth-century thinking amongst the middle and upper classes.  The Road murder violated this most secure and reassuring of sanctuaries.  If the family home was the bedrock of a stable society, the brutal killing of a small child by someone close to him – and the illicit activities and dark emotions from which the act must have stemmed – threatened the very fabric of the community.

Murder most foul

The characteristics of the Road murder were therefore particularly resonant in Victorian society.  Consequently, in the years after 1860, writers distilled those characteristics to create a formula that was used repeatedly to capture public attention, just as the original crime had done.  Many of the authors concerned, particularly the later ones, probably knew little or nothing about Road, but that didn’t matter; the formula was embedded in the nation’s literary culture.
It should not be imagined, however, that crime writing was invented by the Victorians.  There is no shortage of black deeds in the literature of all periods.  Shakespearean crime can be shocking.  American essayist S. Clarke Hulse memorably said that Titus Andronicus was a play with “fourteen killings, nine of them on stage, six severed members, one rape … one live burial, one case of insanity and one of cannibalism – an average of 5.2 atrocities per act.”  Yet there is something very matter-of-fact about it all.  Hamlet stabs his prospective father-in-law and more or less says “Whoops: wrong man.”  The focus is very much on emotions and motivations, and the crimes are merely the means by which feelings are made visible on stage.  One senses that Elizabethan audiences were familiar with death and didn’t need or want the details spelt out.

Fear as a literary device

By the Victorian era, authors were routinely using horror to titillate a gentile public comparatively safe from blood-letting in everyday life.  Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein appeared in 1818 and, in the middle of the century, serialised ‘penny dreadfuls’ such as Reynolds’ trilogy Faust (1846), Wagner the Wehr-wolf (1847) and The Necromancer (1857) enjoyed great popularity.  Few of these works included graphic violence, but they played on the reader’s natural fear of violence and fascination with the fate of those exposed to it.
In the whodunit, the tactics of Gothic horror writing were adapted.  The ominous shadow was cast, not across some exotic location, such as a Transylvanian castle, but across the reader’s own world: the comfortable homes of Middle England.
While other factors – the suspense and intellectual puzzle elements, for example – contribute significantly to the appeal of the genre, it is surely the tingle for fear that the whodunit brings to a trusted setting that has exercised such a hold on successive generations.

Comprehension

What made the story about the murder at Road so special?

How did the media influence the development of crime literature in the mid-19th century?

What was the state of police and investigation of crime in the mid-19th century England?

What is, according to the article, the difference between the atrocities performed in many of Shakespeare’s plays and what we can read in modern crime literature?

What are “the tactics of Gothic horror writing”?

What is meant by “penny dreadfuls”?

Research

Sherlock Holmes is mentioned in the article. Search the net for information about the London super-detective and make a brief presentation for the class. You may want to include some film-clips to compare the classic Holmes to the modern Sherlock 2011 version.