Check out the TV programs, scroll through your streaming services, review the bestseller lists and bookstore shelves, and it quickly becomes obvious - humans are addicted to murder.
True Crime is an industry that’s enjoyed an explosion of popularity over the past 2 decades, fueled by the emergence of podcasts and online publishing. And the Police Procedural, Cozy and Thriller/Suspense continue to be perennial favourites.
But there’s one mystery subgenre mainstay - a stalwart favourite that has enjoyed consistent ‘bestseller’ sales for over 100 years: the ‘Golden Oldie’ - ‘Whodunnit’ murder mystery.
And it’s enjoying a particular resurgence in film and streaming; the unexpected box-office success of Kenneth Branagh’s Murder on the Orient Express (it grossed $352 million off a budget of $55 million) gave the greenlight to a sequel Death on the Nile at an increased budget of $90 million.
Additionally, the 2019 release of Knives Out starring Daniel Craig, Christopher Plummer and Jamie Lee Curtis met with critical acclaim and grossed $311 million off a $40 million budget. Such was its popularity that Netflix are closing on a deal for 2 sequels worth upwards of $450 million. And Netflix’s Murder Mystery, starring Jennifer Aniston and Adam Sandler was streamed by nearly 31 million accounts on its opening weekend alone.
These are huge numbers for a subgenre thought to be in decline since Agatha Christie’s death in 1976.
The Whodunnit has been denounced and parodied by intellectuals for decades - Edmund Wilson’s famous put-down ‘Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd’ is an example. And yet, the popularity of the Whodunnit continues today. As David Lehman’s Boston Review article states ‘For every Edmund Wilson who resists the genre, there are dozens of intellectuals who have embraced it wholeheartedly. The enduring highbrow appeal of the detective novel … is one of the literary marvels of the century.’
Simply put, the Whodunnit will never die. And the main reason for this is simple - readers enjoy the challenge of solving a puzzle. It is no surprise that the Golden Age of crime fiction (the era in which Whodunnits were essentially created) coincides with the publication of the first crossword puzzle.
And this is what the author of a whodunnit does to their reader - throws down the gauntlet; in amongst these characters is a murderer and I challenge you to find the clues, ignore the red herrings and figure out who it is. Essentially, CAN YOU OUTWIT ME?
The basic premise of the Whodunnit - unmasking the villain - dates back as far as storytelling itself. And it is a story that is deeply comforting. The mystery (almost) every time is completely solved with no loose ends.
The murderer is identified and justice is done.
In a world that increasingly seems chaotic, unfair and uncertain - in the Whodunnit, order is restored and right wins the day.