A whodunit wishlist

Last Friday I got caught up in some airport silliness. As soon as I read the text message telling me my flight home had been cancelled I foresaw a need for reading material. I was only a few pages from finishing a novel and I didn't have much else I could use to keep myself occupied.

So before heading to the airport to try and get on another flight I stopped in at a nearby bookshop and found some cheap editions of classic whodunits – I picked out The Mystery of the Three Orchids by Augusto De Angelis who is an Italian writer and journalist (and anti-fascist) who wrote from the mid 1930s to the early 1940s.

Sure enough, I arrived home five hours late. The book served me well – I'd read more than half and I finished it the next day. It was simple and satisfying, easy to read while tired, exactly what I was after.

It revived some of my existing idle thoughts about what, for me, makes a good whodunit (book or film), and what I'd like to see in new ones. So I thought I'd make this list as an exercise in thinking it through some more.

An eccentric detective

I think I draw the line at the detective having some kind of super power or really extraordinary talent, but apart from that any detective will do. They can be professional, freelance or amateur, I don't mind. I don't have a favourite detective but nor have any really bugged me.

Okay, maybe Inspector Thomson in Gosford Park was too bumbling, and Benoit Blanc's accent is terrible. I never warmed to Miss Marple nor Hercule Poirot. Commisario De Vincenzi was fine, I guess?

Oh yeah, Lieutenant Columbo. Maybe I just want Columbo. He's scruffy (something I can identify with) and good at getting people off-guard, that's all you really need. Having a photographic memory or extra-sensory perception (or whatever) just feels like cheating, and it can create distance between the mystery and the reader (who doesn't share the special ability).

A contained and compartmentalised setting

I really enjoy stories that unfold simultaneously in different compartments within a contained environment, whether that's a house, a boat, a train, an island, or whatever. Essentially, it creates a reason why people can't immediately leave or why help will be unreachable or delayed at best. And it's fun to piece the story together in time. I imagine this aspect is quite fun to write.

The airship in the indie game Wayward Strand would make an excellent setting (ignoring the fact that it's an old folks' home where death is neither uncommon nor mysterious).

Red herrings

According to the Wikipedia page for red herrings, the term was coined by a dude who used smoked fish to distract his dogs from chasing rabbits. This week I've been using dried kangaroo to distract my dog from being scared of going down stairs, something we have to do at least three times a day. So now, at least three times a day, I have good cause to dramatically yell out, “aha, a red herring!!” – excellent news.

Anyway, red herrings are fun and should always be included because they're about playing with the reader. You want to be able to guess the mystery before it's revealed, or to be fooled, but you don't want to find out pertinent information at the point of reveal. There's no fun in that.

Not more nostalgia

It's gotten beyond a joke. Yes, mobile phones and the internet make it harder to write constraints into a story. Yes, first-class train carriages looked pretty in the 1930s. Of course this was when many classics of the genre were written, but do we need to keep remaking them? There's a lot about these times that's really on the nose in any case. I like to see stories that work within the context of today, just so we're not avoiding this challenge. Or, at least, for stories set in the past for a reason that's more than aesthetics or narrative convenience.

Easy on the zeitgeist

One thing that bugs me generally is when stories lean too hard on the zeitgeist. I want my murder mysteries to be escapism from world events, not to excessively reference them. Even stories set in the past that reference an imagined zeitgeist can bug me. They can lean a little bit, just not so much that it's writing half the story for them. I just find it the opposite of clever.

Down with rich people

Notwithstanding my love for Gosford Park, I'd like to suggest that rich people are not a compulsory inclusion in a whodunit. I know that inheritance can provide a spicy motive – I myself expect to inherit a stack of second-hand floorboards from my father, who in mentioning this to me appears to have conceded he has no plans to do anything with these floorboards in his lifetime. Maybe one of my siblings has their eye on them and I'd better watch out.

But back to the point, it'd be nice to see fewer rich people (and their servants) featured in whodunits. There can still be money involved, that's fine. I just resent the suggestion that those of a wealthier class are inherently more interesting.