Who Cares Whodunnit? Part Two

April 25th, 2014

As the title suggests, this post is sort of a sequel.  If you haven’t read Part One and think you might like to, it’s right down there.

When I ran out of steam last time, I was getting into two of the things I blame for the low esteem with which some people regard mysteries and thrillers.  One was the universal human need to find someone or something to look down on  The other is the term “whodunnit” and what it implies.


The problem, on a platter

“Whodunnit,” when you think about it, isn’t a very complicated question. It can usually be answered with a single character’s name, unless you’re reading Agatha Christie’s “Murder on the Orient Express,” in which case the answer is, “everybody.” (Sorry about the spoiler.)

And I’ll go out on a limb here and say that I think “Murder on the Orient Express” is a perfect book of its kind, and that I don’t actually like books of its kind. And by that, I mean books in which “whodunnit” is actually the most important thing in the story. Books in which a puzzle, rather than people, is what matters.

whodunnit 2

The usual suspects

A murder, an act of violence, needs to be taken seriously. These deed affect people – obviously not just the victim, but those who loved the victim, who hated the victim, who envied the victim, who had his or her hopes pinned on the victim. Ultimately, since such acts have a ripple effect, people who never heard of the victim.


An act of violence is an interruption of everything we planned for, all the assumptions we depended on. It’s a disruption on the world. It makes it apparent that our hopes are predicated on expectations that may not be fulfilled, on rules that some people don’t follow, on an instinctive belief in a prevailing underlying justice that may not actually exist. An act of violence, a murder, creates a crisis. And what happens in a crisis is that character reveals itself.

I would argue that the revelation of character, of holding a human being up to the light to see how he or she works – where character is strong or weak or admirable or loathsome or flexible or rigid or holy or profane – is the primary function of fiction.

What’s most interesting to me about all this is that murder and violence – physical or emotional violence – have been used to reveal character and propel events forward in literature all over the world, from the very beginning. What’s Homer writing about?  War and survival.  The Book of Genesis takes us straight to a murder, Cain’s killing of Abel, and its repercussions. The greatest of Sophocles’ plays, “Oedipus Rex,” is a detective story with a twist, which is that the central character turns out to be the murderer. When Agatha Christie did precisely that in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd in 1926, it caused a minor sensation even though Sophocles had already pulled it off almost 2400 years earlier. To look at the Middle Ages, Beowulf is a straight-ahead thriller, a portrait of a society suspended, being held for ransom by violence until someone—some hero—will step forward and take action.

A classic example of serious literature using murder as the microscope for character is “Hamlet.”

Hamlet 1

You can’t have . . .

hamlet 2a. .  . “Hamlets” . . .

hamlet 3. . . without hams.

“Hamlet” presents a classic setup: a man has been killed and the job of finding the murderer and punishing him falls to the victim’s son. In fact, this situation has been used so often that it’s become a trope, one modern definition of which is “a story concept that the audience will recognize and understand instantly.”

But in Shakespeare’s hands, the murder investigation leads us into all sorts of issues: the primacy of kings, the relationship between mother and son, the betrayal of friendship, the immeasurable value of honest friendship, the fragility of young love, the soul-sickness of the murderer, the eternal question of what sometimes keeps us from doing what we need to do even when the path is clear.

At two points, Claudius’s failed prayer and the “To be or not to be” soliloquy, it takes us into regions like the silence of God, the relationship between God and the human soul, and the uncertainty of the afterlife. Big stuff. And all of it arises naturally from fascinating, deeply felt characters who are responding to the old-testament blunt weapon of murder.

And after Shakespeare has put us inside these characters’ hearts and souls for hours–so that Elsinore Castle stands in for the whole universe–at the end, when everyone is dead or dying, he brings in someone new, Fortinbras, to survey the dead, frown at the disorderly throne room, assert a shaky claim to authority, and order that the word of these terrible events be spread far and wide, and now let’s get to work. We’ve got a country to run.


Fortinbras rolls up his sleeves and dusts off his crown.

At that precise moment the bodies on the stage – Hamlet, Gertrude, Claudius, the others – who have been our world for hours, are just litter to be cleared away to make room for the new order.

We’re witnessing the restoration of order, which was Shakespeare’s great theme, whether the play is a comedy, tragedy, history, or one of the very complex late works that scholars, for lack of a better term, call “problem plays.” Whatever genre (there’s that word again) the play represents, in the first act we learn what’s wrong with the world it depicts, and the end of the fifth act, order has been restored

And that is absolutely what happens in a crime novel, whether it’s a thriller or a mystery. The reader enters a world that’s about to be broken or has just been broken. It’s out of kilter. It’s stopped working the way we believe our world should work. The characters of the people on the page have been stretched thin enough to be transparent; motives and enmities and love are suddenly made visible. The primary course of action of a mystery or a thriller is repairing that broken world and exploring those exposed characters, restoring both to some kind of acceptable balance. It may be retribution, it may be the revelation of the truth. The denouement may be thrilling or comic or tragic. Depends on the book. But at the end of the story – unless it’s noir – there will be some form of restoration.

question mark

Question mark or fish hook?

The reason that kind of exploration and illumination work so well in the whodunnit and the thriller is that each of them plants a question mark at the very beginning – in “Hamlet,” the opening words are “Who’s there?” called out by a terrified guard who’s asking the question that’s really being asked throughout the play. Who’s behind that mask? Who’s beneath that crown? Who’s wearing that smile?  Who is that man who was pretending to love me?

The whodunnit and the thriller take that question mark and plant it right there in the first act. It may or may not be a coincidence that a question mark looks like a fish hook, because what the question mark does is hook the reader and pull him or her across 100,000 words or so to see what the answer is, and—more important—what happens as we get closer to it.

And that fish hook has to drag the reader upstream because as he or she sits there, nose to the type, the real world is flowing by. People take a break from their lives to read, and writers should never forget that. A reader with the book open is like a rock in a stream: life is flowing past, carrying with it lots of things that compete for the reader’s attention, and some of them will only go by once. I think we owe the reader something in our book that makes that commitment of time and energy and attention worthwhile.

So that means the books have to be about something that goes beyond whodunnit. On a purely personal note and from a writer’s perspective, I can testify that there’s probably not a theme in the world that can’t be explored in a thriller or a whodunit, not a society, not a culture, not a business.

I love a mystery photo

These are essentially investigative forms – there’s almost always a character whose primary function is to ask questions, and there’s pretty much nothing you can’t open up and put a microscope to. To suggest one personal example, in my Bangkok series, I’ve looked closely at Thai culture and American culture and where they overlap and clash. I’ve looked at the dynamic of putting together a family that’s made up of people whose world views and expectations and belief systems are completely different. That’s complex material, and I haven’t even mentioned emotional damage.

In a modest way, when I attempt to hold up to view that kind of material I feel that I’m following in the tracks of a lot of talented writers who have sat down day after day to write the best book they possibly could – to make the reading experience worthwhile for the people who open the book – in both literary fiction and genre fiction. Detective fiction and thrillers have deepened and broadened to include characters who are deeper than the page, predicaments that are more than puzzles, revelations that reflect our own lives. I believe that some of the best writers of the past century have worked and are working in what’s still called genre fiction, and they know that the question is not, and never really has been, “whodunnit?” It’s “what happened?” and “to whom?” and “what does this show me about my world?”

Far as I’m concerned, those are real books.

15 Responses to “Who Cares Whodunnit? Part Two”

  1. Kay Kendall Says:

    This is bloody brilliant, Tim. You’d said on your Facebook page that this piece is “out there,” but I respectfully disagree. It is solid, meaningful, and very well thought out. You need to get this excellent opinion piece published in other places. In the old days it could’ve been in a learned journal, me thinks. I do not disagree with one word in it. Everything you’ve said makes complete sense to me. Well done, you!

  2. Lil Gluckstern Says:

    Wow, Tim, just wow!
    You have set forth a whole new-to me-way of looking at Hamlet and how things change. There has to be some sort of upheaval to be able to build something new. I would venture to say that I will read my next mysteries or thrillers with a new eye. You must have been a hell of a teacher!

  3. Bruce DeSilva Says:

    If Dostoyevsky wrote “Crime and Punishment” this year, it would be shelved in the mystery section between DeSilva and Ellroy. As Robert B. Parker once said, “writing isn’t good because it’s about 20th century angst, and it isn’t bad because it’s about a private detective. It’s either good, or it isn’t; and if it is, it deserves to be taken seriously.” And as I once said, “90 percent of everything is basically crap. Music, painting, food, architecture, genre fiction, and literary fiction.” But I’d like to amend that because I find the percentage of terrible literary fiction is actually higher.

  4. Peg Brantley Says:

    Two favorites:

    And what happens in a crisis is that character reveals itself.


    I believe that some of the best writers of the past century have worked and are working in what’s still called genre fiction, and they know that the question is not, and never really has been, “whodunnit?” It’s “what happened?” and “to whom?” and “what does this show me about my world?”

    Awesome thoughts, Mr. Hallinan. Thank you.

  5. Theresa de Valence Says:

    Very nice.

  6. Everett Kaser Says:

    Thanks, Tim! Once again you’ve shown me why I find your books SO good. Well thought out, clearly explained… just the skills needed by a successful novelist!

  7. Mark Says:

    Even in the mystery genre, the cozy is looked down upon by the other sub-genres. And yes, they do tend to be written for more entertainment purposes. (Since that’s mostly what I look for, I don’t mind.)

    However, there are writers out there who do create vivid characters and move them through mysteries that show them and us who they and those around them truly are. As you so wonderfully pointed out, those truly are the best of the best.

  8. Dana King Says:

    This reminds me of Chandler’s “The Simple Art of Murder.” Not as a knock-off; as an expansion. I agree with everything here, and would add one thing: in virtually all crime fiction (my preferred term), there are no happy endings; the best you can hope for is bittersweet. The dead are still dead, and the ripples of their death will continue to affect others. As you so eloquently stated, the best we can hope for is a restoration of order.

    Now, if we could only find a better term than “hard-boiled” for my favorite style.

  9. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Hi, everyone, and thanks for hanging in all the way down that very, very long page.

    KAY, thank you so much. This is (obviously) a subject I care about, and I’m delighted that you found it interesting and persuasive. (Actually, I would have settled for one of those.)

    LIL, so nice to be back chatting with you again. “Hamlet” is like a mirror in that it shows everyone something different. One of the world’s most complex works of art despite the simplicity of the story. Really glad to have had an opportunity to wax on about it and even gladder that you enjoyed it.

    BRUCE –Exactly. There aren’t really any genres on the larger scale — there’s only good writing, not-so-good writing, and bad writing. Just because I don’t read romance and sci-fi doesn’t mean I’m passing judgment on either; both have their share of fine writing. Not so long ago I would have said I didn’t read westerns, but in the past six months I’ve read Alan LeMay, Philipp Meyer, John Williams, Erwin Shrake, and Larry McMurtry, and they’ve all essentially nailed me to the page. There’s a difference between having some interests and lacking others on the one hand, and, on the other, being a snob who’s blind to talent in the service of “lesser” genres.

    PEG, thanks for those picks. You chose two of the things I really wanted to say, and I’m very happy they stood out for you. (But then they would, as good a writer as you are.)

    THERESA and EVERETT — Thanks for the comments and thanks for coming back. It’s always livelier, writing when you know that bright people will be reading it.

  10. bookswoman Says:

    Wonderful posts. I used to read mostly romance (which is three steps lower than mystery to some people). I switched to mystery because they often define characters better and I do love a good puzzle. I continue reading this genre because it gives me the most joy in reading.

    Thank you for this two part blog. It was so good to read something so positive about what I love to read.

  11. Nancy G. West Says:

    What a thoughtful and well-written piece. I agree with everything you wrote. Questions that come to mind are
    (1)Do you see more frequent blurring between genre and “literary” fiction?
    (2)Where does humorous mystery fiction fit in? I’ve heard some publishers and awards committees look down on it; yet, bookstore owners tell me customers ask for it. Go figure.
    I enjoyed sharing a table with you at Left Coast Crime.

  12. Pat Browning Says:

    Tim, get someone to format it for you, put it on Kindle and sell it for 99 cents.
    Print lots of copies and hand them out with copies of HERBIE’S GAME wherever you do signings this summer.

    It’s too good to hide in your Blog Cabin forever.

  13. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Picking up where I left off (and look at all the new correspondents. Very cool.)

    MARK — I admit that I like cozies less than I do harder books, but that’s probably snobbery on my own part. My problem with SOME cozies is that they don’t honor the massive evil of murder — they SOMETIMES treat it almost as a plot mechanism, the irritation that messed up the day and caused all that fuss. Cozies, in my experience, rarely go very deeply into things like inconsolable grief, or the tragedy of a promising life brought to a nasty and sudden end, or the moral complexity when the killing is committed by someone who had been sinned against to the point of snapping, just to pick three. But that’s a matter of taste and I’ll agree with you absolutely that good writing is good writing in any kind of story and would actually like to see a list of your favorite cozies.

    DANA — you’re the author of one of my top five books from 2014, so it’s a treat to have you show up and a double treat that you agree with me. “The Simple Art of Murder” is (obviously) one of my favorite essays, so I have no problem with having this piece mentioned in the same breath. Is it in “Simple Art” that Chandler says that Hammett “gave murder back to the kind of people who commit it?” One of my favorite lines of all time.

    BOOKSWOMAN, great to have you hear, and you’re right — on the Genre Snob Scale, Romance usually ranks right below books on weeding techniques and mucus-free living. But there’s some good romance there, too – this is a genre, like every other, that needs some time to sift the coal from the diamonds.

    NANCY — It was great to sit next to you and attempt to tell you jokes, probably the most fun I had the whole week. Would love to see you again. Regarding “blurring,” I think it’s interesting that so little is made of the fact that much “lit-fic” is dreadful and quite a bit of “genre” wriing is very good. Good writing is where you find it, and the occasional “blur” book is often just the subject of an effective marketing campaign with one of two messages: either “Here’s a crime novel you don’t have to feel guilty about reading” or “here’s a lit-fic book that’s actually interesting.” Genre in the publishing world is almost entirely about genre. About humorous crime, well, I write it, and so I’m not perhaps entirely dispassionate when I say that it doesn’t get its props. People don’t take comedy seriously, which is why you have all those comics who want to play Hamlet and why humorous mysteries never win Edgars. But they’re fun to read and fun to write, and there’s nothing that says that you can’t write a funny book that’s serious at the same time, so I don’t suppose they’re in any danger of disappearing.

    PAT — What a great reaction — you’ve been so nice about these posts I can hardly believe it. I don’t know about the Kindle Single thing — I’m writing a new rant right now (about people who go all bazaatz about present tense) and maybe I’ll write a few more and put them out as a little collection. If people like them, I mean.

  14. Erin Hart Says:

    Excellent work, excellent writing, Tim. I’m going to share liberally, if you don’t mind.

  15. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    ERIN — glad you liked it, and please feel free to share it anywhere you see fit.

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