I loved geometry and I love theorems, so maybe it’s not so surprising I have always liked Whodunits and Puzzlers where deductive reasoning is paramount. I use Whodunit to mean a mystery where the perpetrator of the crime is discovered by uncovering a sequence of “truths” until there is only one conclusion. By Puzzler, and I can find no real meaning online, I refer to strange circumstances seemingly impossible to comprehend. Both types of books—and a single tome might be both—supply the reader with all the facts that allow her to determine the guilty party or explain the inexplicable.
To me the queen of the Whodunit is Agatha Christie. I loved Hercule Poirot’s and Miss Marple’s analytical abilities. Christie was fair, all the clues there for the observing. Ellery Queen (actually two collaborators) was another who gave the reader every opportunity to solve the mystery. Of course, one can’t ignore Arthur Conan Doyle who created that fellow Sherlock Holmes. His stories always are a fun read, but I found certain clues seen by that great detective were unavailable to the reader.
In my mind the absolute master of the Puzzler is John Dickson Carr who also wrote under the name Carter Dickson. His forte? Locked room mysteries. They can take many forms and I plan to devote a future posting to the genre. The stereotypical example is a murder that takes place in a room where all doors and windows are locked on the inside. Scores of authors have created such scenarios, but none with the ingenuity and frequency of Carr.
I thought it would be fun to write a locked room mystery myself. Then I discovered it’s not so easy. How can you arrange for the impossible to occur and then explain it? Finally, and I mean after a long while, I came up with an idea. It’s in Patriotism, and it took folks over 300 pages to figure it out.
“I could have.”
Oh, dear. Elmo’s back.
You were out of the country, so I couldn’t ask you.
“There’s something called a phone, you know.”
Enough, Elmo. And besides, while you did a good job in the other books, it took you a while also.
I don’t want you to get the idea Elmo’s anything other than kind and sweet. He’s just a child—a brilliant child—in many ways. I may have to let him take over this space at some point or he’ll pester me to death. In any event his self-confidence is deserved. His research has astounded the mathematical world. And it’s true he’s been instrumental in solving some confusing crimes.
Whodunit/Puzzlers don’t seem to be so popular nowadays. Present mystery authors are superb storytellers, with cleverly contrived twisting plots that glue you to the pages. It seems as if there would be interest, though, in these other forms. Murder She Wrote, which appeared on CBS from 1984 to 1996, had a logical detection component and was obviously popular. Twelve years is a long run in television.
Well, I can’t worry about current trends. So far all my mysteries have an element of either a Whodunit or a Puzzler. Will I always write in this genre? Who knows? But I am a mathematician after all.