The other day I had an interesting comment exchange with Tracy at Bitter Tea and Mystery. Our exchange was about crime novels in which the reader can identify the killer before the author reveals who that person is. Sometimes that happens, but it doesn’t always mean that we stop enjoying the novel. There is, after all, more to a crime novel than just the whodunit aspect (not that that doesn’t matter of course). If you’ve ever really enjoyed a crime novel even though you spotted the ‘bad guy’ before the author revealed all, you know what I mean. Not all of us identify the murderer in the same novels, so I can only speak for the novels where it’s happened to me. But in those novels, there were other things that held my interest even though I’d worked out who the killer was, and that’s what kept me reading. Here are a few examples to show you what I mean.
Agatha Christie’s Death in the Clouds (AKA Death in the Air) is the story of the murder of Marie Morisot. a French moneylender who does business as Madame Giselle. One day while on a flight from Paris to London, Madame Giselle suddenly dies of what turns out to have been poison. The only possible suspects are the other passengers so Hercule Poirot, who was on the same flight, works with Chief Inspector Japp to find out which of the passengers is the killer. I don’t want to give away spoilers, so I won’t say what tipped me off to the killer, but I will say I figured out who it was before the answer was revealed. But a few things kept my interest throughout the novel. One was the motive, which I’ll admit I didn’t work out for myself; the motive is believable but it’s not obvious right away. Neither is the exact method of murder. This isn’t really an ‘impossible murder’ but it takes some figuring out, and I stayed along for the ride, so to speak, to find out how exactly the thing was accomplished.
In Dorothy Sayers’ Strong Poison, Lord Peter Wimsey attends the murder trial of mystery novelist Harriet Vane, who is accused of having poisoned her former lover Philip Boyes. There is evidence against her too. She had arsenic in her possession, the two had quarreled, and she was the last person known to give Boyes anything to eat or drink. So the prosecution thinks it has an ‘airtight’ case. But the jury can’t agree on a verdict, so she is given another trial. Wimsey has fallen in love with Vane, so he determines to clear her name during the month before her new trial. Little by little and with help from some friends and his valet Mervyn Bunter, Wimsey traces Boyes’ last days and weeks. In the end, he’s able to work out who really killed the victim and why. I admit I was able to identify the murderer before Wimsey did. But there’s more than just ‘whodunit’ in this novel. There’s the sub-plot of Wimsey’s interest in Harriet Vane, and her reaction to it. There are also some well-drawn characters in the story that keep readers (well, this one anyway) interested. For instance, there’s Katherine Climpson, who owns a temporary services agency. She and her employees prove to be very helpful to Wimsey; they’re quick-thinking, capable and interesting. There’s also a thread of humour throughout the novel. So at least for me, working out the killer’s identity didn’t stop me enjoying the novel.
Peter Robinson’s A Dedicated Man introduces us to Harry Steadman, an archaeologist who left his position at Leeds University when he inherited enough money to set him up for life. His passion is the Roman ruins in Yorkshire, so he and his wife Emma moved there to allow him to excavate them. One day, Steadman is found bludgeoned. DCI Alan Banks and his team begin the investigation with a close look at Steadman’s personal and professional lives. As they do so, they discover that there are several possible suspects, including people in Steadman’s professional circle as well as his friends. Then, sixteen-year-old Sally Lumb disappears and is later found dead. It turns out that Sally knew more than was safe for her to know about the murder of Harry Steadman, and when she put what she thought was the final piece of the puzzle together, she ended up paying with her life. I’ll confess I worked out who was behind the murders, but that didn’t stop me staying involved in that story. That’s in part because at first I didn’t know how the whole thing had been accomplished. I was really interested also in untangling the complicated set of relationships that we learn about in this novel. They all play a role in what happens, and they kept me wanting to know more.
And then there’s H.R.F. Keating’s Inspector Ghote’s First Case. In that novel, Ganesh Ghote has just been promoted from Assistant Inspector to Inspector in the Bombay (now Mumbai) police force. No sooner does he receive word of his new status than he is summoned to the office of Sir Rustom Engineer, who heads the Bombay police’s Crime Branch. Engineer wants Ghote to travel to Mahableshwar to follow up on a request from an old friend Robert Dawkins. Dawkins’ wife Iris recently committed suicide and Dawkins wants to know what led up to it. Ghote’s wife Protima is about to give birth to their first child, but he doesn’t see how he can refuse this request, so he reluctantly makes the trip. When he gets to Mahableshwar, he makes contact with Dawkins and his household staff, as well as with some of the people in Iris’ past. Soon enough Ghote begins to believe that Iris Dawkins was murdered. Although the local police are unwilling to upset someone with as much power as Dawkins has, Ghote persists and in the end, he finds out that he was right about Iris’ death. Part of the appeal in this story comes from the well-crafted setting, so even though I worked out who the killer was, I stayed engaged on that score. What’s more, although I had guessed who committed the crime, I wasn’t sure how that person managed to create an alibi. So I followed along eagerly as Ghote solved that part of the puzzle.
Donna Leon’s Through a Glass, Darkly takes Commissario Guido Brunetti and Ispettore Lorenzo Vianello into Venice’s glass-blowing industry. Giorgio Tassini is night watchman at Giovanni de Cal’s glass-blowing factory; late one night he is killed in what looks like a terrible accident. But Tassini had been quite vocal in his belief that that factory and others are guilty of illegal toxic waste dumping. In fact, he blames that waste for his own daughter’s disabilities. So Brunetti and Vianello have to consider the possibility that he was murdered. They begin their investigation with Tassini’s colleagues and bosses and soon find that more than one person could have had a motive for murder. I did work out who the killer was but the suspects in this case have alibis, and it was hard to break the killer’s. I didn’t feel too badly about that though, as Brunetti doesn’t break it either at first. And even if I had worked that one out, Leon’s depiction of Venice, and her portrayal of Brunetti’s family life are ‘draws’ for me. So are the ‘regular’ characters such as Signorina Elettra Zorzi, assistant to Brunetti’s boss, and one of the very interesting characters in this series. I had no trouble remaining engaged in this one even though I had guessed the ‘whodunit’ part.
Of course, your reading experience will be different to mine. Have you worked out whodunit before the author told you? Does that put you off a story? I’d be really interested in your input on this one. If you’re a writer, what do you add to your stories to keep readers turning/clicking pages even if they do figure out whodunit?
Thanks, Tracy, for the inspiration. Folks, I encourage you to add Bitter Tea and Mystery to your blog roll. It’s an excellent source of thoughtful and informed crime fiction reviews.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Richard Adler & Jerry Ross’ Seven-And-A-Half-Cents.