Who Done It

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Who Done It: A Brief History of the Classic Mystery Genre

If you’re a fan of mystery novels or crime dramas, you’ve probably heard the phrase “whodunit.” It’s a term used to describe a story where the central mystery revolves around identifying a perpetrator of a crime, usually a murder. This classic genre goes by many names, including detective fiction, crime fiction, and mystery fiction. It has been a favorite of readers and viewers for generations, and it has spawned some of the most iconic characters in literary history.

The Roots of the Whodunit

The first true whodunit is often credited to British author Wilkie Collins. His 1860 novel “The Woman in White” wasn’t a traditional murder mystery, but it did feature the central component of a whodunit: trying to solve a mystery by identifying the guilty party. In the book, a young teacher working in London comes across a mysterious woman in white who begs for his assistance. As the story unfolds, the teacher finds himself wrapped up in a complex web of secrets, lies, and deceit, all of which culminates in an exciting courtroom scene where the true culprit is revealed.

Many scholars point to two other authors as pioneers of the whodunit genre. First, there’s Edgar Allan Poe, who cemented the idea of a “locked room mystery” with his 1841 short story “The Murders in the Rue Morgue.” In this story, the detective C. Auguste Dupin solves a baffling murder case where the killer seemingly vanished from a room that had no doors or windows. Poe’s gripping storytelling and complex puzzles set a high bar for future mystery writers.

The other early figure often credited with helping to develop the whodunit genre is Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. His famed detective series featuring Sherlock Holmes debuted in 1887 with “A Study in Scarlet.” The character of Holmes quickly became a cultural phenomenon, and his deductive reasoning and intelligence served as a model for many future sleuths. The Holmes stories introduced the “clue puzzle” as a major component of the whodunit genre, where readers are challenged to solve the mystery alongside the detective by piecing together various clues and information.

Golden Age of Detective Fiction

The early 20th century is often considered the “Golden Age” of detective fiction, where the whodunit genre exploded in popularity. A group of writers from the UK, including Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, and Margery Allingham, produced a wave of iconic mystery novels featuring amateur and professional detectives alike. These authors helped establish several traditional elements of the whodunit, including locked room mysteries, red herrings, and plenty of plot twists.

Agatha Christie is perhaps the most famous writer from this era. She wrote a staggering 66 mystery novels during her career, many of which featured the iconic detective Hercule Poirot or the amateur sleuth Miss Marple. Her works are marked by complex mysteries with a large number of suspects and a focus on psychological clues and character development. Christie also made waves with her use of unorthodox solutions to mysteries, such as in her novel “Murder on the Orient Express,” where the killer is actually a group of suspects acting in concert.

Another notable author from this era is Dorothy L. Sayers, who created the character of Lord Peter Wimsey. He’s a British aristocrat with a talent for solving mysteries, but he’s also plagued by PTSD after fighting in World War I. Sayers’s novels often touch on themes of social class and gender roles, and her characterizations of Lord Peter and his friends are considered some of the best in the genre.

Modern Whodunits

The whodunit genre hasn’t slowed down in the decades since the Golden Age of detective fiction. In fact, there are many contemporary authors who are adding new twists and styles to this classic genre.

One of the most notable modern authors is Gillian Flynn, whose novel “Gone Girl” was a runaway bestseller and later adapted into a film. Flynn’s works are noted for their complex characters and twisty, unpredictable plots. “Gone Girl” in particular turns the classic whodunit on its head by presenting two unreliable narrators with conflicting views on a missing persons case.

Another author who is breathing new life into the whodunit genre is Tana French. Her Dublin Murder Squad series focuses on a group of detectives solving various mysteries in Ireland, and each book features a different protagonist. French’s novels are notable for their immersive settings and richly drawn characters, and her mysteries are always satisfyingly twisty.

Finally, there’s the subgenre of “cozy mysteries,” which are lighter, more humorous takes on the whodunit. These stories often feature amateur detectives and settings like small towns or quaint villages. One of the most famous cozy mystery series is the “Cat Who” books by Lilian Jackson Braun, which center around a pair of Siamese cats who help their owner solve mysteries.


The whodunit genre has come a long way since Wilkie Collins and Edgar Allan Poe first began experimenting with mystery fiction. Today, we have a wealth of classic and modern works to choose from, and the genre continues to evolve and surprise us with new takes on the classic formula. Whether you’re a fan of traditional locked room puzzles or prefer more character-driven mysteries, there’s a whodunit out there that will keep you guessing until the very end.