While making my way through Stephen Fry’s astoundingly good Sherlock Holmes: The Definitive Collection on Audible, I began to notice a pattern in Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories. Story after story in the collection tended to follow one of three different patterns, and after I started taking notes, I began to realize that these three patterns didn’t just apply to Holmes’ stories, but mysteries in general.
Using the language of mystery fans, I classify these three patterns as “whodunnits,” “howdunnits,” and “whydunnits.” For those not familiar with the term “dunnit,” it’s a slang version of “done it” and traditionally connected with “whodunnit” (who has done it) mysteries. And, in this and the following posts, I’ll be discussing each of them as they relate to the Holmes stories and the rough story formulas each of them is used in classic Holmes stories. Of course, these formulas can be applied to any plot or subplot to get a mystery out of them.
Let’s look at each in order of their popularity.
Whodunnit: A mystery story built about the question of who committed a crime. When most people think of mysteries, or “murder mysteries,” they’re thinking of whodunnits. In these stories, there will be two or more possible suspects who may have committed the crime and by the end of the story the detective will have figured out which one did it. There might be questions about how a crime was done, or motives, but ultimately everything leads back to the central question of who the criminal was. A classic Holmes whodunnit is “The Adventure of the Abby Grange.”
Howdunnit: A mystery story built around the question of how a crime was accomplished. A classic example of the howdunnit is the “locked room mystery,” which is defined on Wikipedia as a crime being “committed in circumstances under which it was seemingly impossible for the perpetrator to commit the crime or evade detection in the course of getting in and out of the crime scene.” These are also called “impossible crime” mysteries, for obvious reasons. Of course, there are other kinds of howdunnits as well, like a crime where the criminal seems to have been in two places at once, but the focus of these stories will always be the central question of how a crime was committed. In fact, often the criminal is known to both the reader and the detective(s), but to lay the hands of the law on the criminal requires figuring out how the crime was even possible first. A classic Holmes howdunnit is “The Adventure of the Speckled Band.”
Whydunnit: A mystery story built around the question of why something has happened (or is happening). These stories usually come in two flavors – motives and events. A motive-based whydunnit is built around the question of why a character did something, usually a crime. An event-based whydunnit is usually built around the question of why something out of the ordinary happened. Doyle made use of both, but he especially loved to write event-based whydunnits because of their ability to shock and intrigue readers. In a Doyle story, the reason behind the event is usually a crime, but one which is seen from a strange angle (often that of someone affected by the crime indirectly) and then when the events are seen correctly everything becomes clear. The story may involve elements of whodunnits or howdunnits, but the central mystery will always be why something did or did not happen. A classic Holmes whydunnit is “The Adventure of the Red Headed League.”
Of course, these stories are often not “pure” and often contain elements of each other as plots and subplots, and you can even have a story that contains all three- a mysterious criminal who commits an impossible crime for unknown reasons. However, especially with short stories, there is usually one of these three which is the dominant mystery question to be solved. Which one it is can usually be discerned by it being the last question the story answers, since once it is done, the story is effectively over.
Making each of these the focus of a story can change the story quite a bit, since each of them has their own special rules and quirks that will be discussed in turn in each of the following posts. Just click on the links below to look at how Doyle writes each in more depth.
Lastly, some of you might be saying, “Wait a moment, Rob! What about Whatdunnits? Whendunnits? and Wheredunnits?” If we’re playing with question words, wouldn’t those be stories too?
And you, intelligent reader, would be right, but those three are rarely the focus of a mystery story for good reasons.
A “whatdunnit” would be in a weird space between a “whodunnit” and a “howdunnit”, but really covering neither of them well. If a non-living (or non sentient) thing committed a crime (or other act) then technically it’s a “whodunnit” with a non-living suspect. This has been done, usually in stories where the victim accidentally killed themselves with some weapon or object, and the twist is that all the suspects were innocent. On the other hand, if the “whatdunnit” is about what object/method was used to commit a crime, then the term “howdunnit” is better because it covers a lot more possibilities.
A “whendunnit” or “wheredunnit” would build a story about the time or place a “crime” (or other act) occurs, but in most stories those are just pieces of information that lead to answering other questions. In fact, time and place are usually parts of “howdunnits” when they’re the focus of the story, so that category also covers them already.
Now, on to the formulas!