24 March 2023
Novelist Tom Hindle looks at the enduring popularity of the murder mystery
More than a hundred years since Agatha Christie published her first Poirot novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, our fascination with murder mysteries remains just as vibrant as ever. The antics of The Thursday Murder Club reign supreme over the charts, Rian Johnson’s Glass Onion was a hit over Christmas and The Mousetrap has now racked up over 28,000 West End performances.
But what is it about a murder mystery that has granted them such enduring popularity?
I think we all have a natural – if slightly morbid – fascination with the chilling notion of murder. Only look at the popularity of true-crime podcasts, the number of murder-fuelled documentaries regularly sitting within Netflix’s ‘Top 10’, even the way we take crime novels on holiday to read on the beach. But there’s something about a whodunit that just lands differently. Something that means we’re charmed, rather than repulsed, by what is almost always a story plotted around the most gruelling of circumstances.
I’d say the answer’s clear. A police procedural will have plenty of clues, and a thriller will boast its fair share of twists, but a whodunit is a murder mystery that puts the magnifying glass definitively over the mystery rather than the murder.
That isn’t to say they shy away from the gory details of a crime scene. I recently revisited Hercule Poirot’s Christmas, a novel in which the victim is found in a pool of his own blood, having had his throat viciously sliced. A grisly scene, and at Christmas, no less.
But more often than not, once the first impression of the crime scene is established, the focus shifts and the emphasis is instead placed on the human element – the relationships between the characters, the secrets they’re keeping, the lies they’ve told. A terrible crime will always act as the catalyst of the story, but it’s ultimately propelled by drama, rather than blood and gore. And when it comes to investigating the crime, it’s about who these people are, rather than simply who a fingerprint belongs to.
This, for me, is key to answering why whodunits have stood the test of time. For all of the time a sleuth might spend gathering clues and inspecting evidence, the overarching story is rarely functional or analytical, but instead deeply human.
Another facet to this mystery-focussed approach is the opportunity it presents for a game to be played between the audience and the reader.
We peer over the detective’s shoulder as they investigate, we inspect the clues and we listen as the suspects give their testimony. We, as the reader, are invited not just to observe but to participate. To play detective ourselves and solve the mystery first. It’s why we find it so satisfying to successfully pick out the killer before Poirot or Marple, or why we’re frustrated when a vital clue isn’t shared until half a page before the grand reveal.
This idea of the author playing fair is particularly important. Most won’t notice on their first viewing – I certainly didn’t – but in Glass Onion, we actually see the drink that will kill them being handed to the victim. It happens on-screen. Right in front of us. We could have spotted it, and by spotting it, we could have immediately identified the culprit. The fact that most of us didn’t is irrelevant. It’s the fact we could have done that makes it so enjoyable.
I can’t think of many other genres that do this in quite the same way – give us exactly as much to work with as the hero and almost dare us to see if we can work it out first. That, for me, is what makes a whodunit so compelling. It’s the reason I love writing in this genre, and ultimately, I think, what will contribute most to their enduring popularity. Whether it’s a mystery set in a remote corner of Japan, the leafy English locales that Agatha Christie so often transported us to, or even a retirement village in Kent, so long as whodunits can hold on to that quality, I’m sure they’ll be here for a long time to come.
The Murder Game by Tom Hindle is published by Penguin (£8.99)
Interested in writing your own mystery stories? Read Kate Simants on unlocking the locked room mystery.