Evolution of Whodunits

Updated: Jun 19, 2021

The Whodunit is a staple of the crime fiction genre, one which has greatly changed over time to incorporate elements of true-to-life police work and while disregarding other more fanciful practises, distilling the whodunit into sub-genres that vary widely in both theme and tone. Rather than the police investigators of today’s bestsellers, most early detective fiction concerned amateur sleuths; the likes of Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes and Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot. There’s a variety of reasons for Holmes’ rather tepid relationship with the police, and largely he doesn’t display antipathy or sympathy for the constabulary. At the time, the sleuth’s fantastical unravelling of the mystery trumped the dullness and discipline of police procedure. But by the turn of the century, the sleuth who helps the police became a staple of the genre, especially in the works of Agatha Christie.

This all changed with the creation of the US radio show Dragnet in 1949, which later became a TV show in 1951. The show’s aim was to reproduce the way police investigated crimes, literally following the police procedure. Up until that point, there had been a consensus that the general public wouldn’t be intrigued by police investigations the same way they engaged with sleuths and private detectives. The police were either stuffy paper pushers or thuggish brutes, both unfit to be the eccentric heroes who outwit criminals, or when they were the focus.

Yet, Dragnet proved to be incredibly popular, the simple no-nonsense formula and adherence to authenticity made for intriguing stories that gripped Americans. The one thing which didn’t carry over, was Dragnet’s Joe Friday. A by-the-book cop with no personal baggage wasn’t a character authors wanted to write about. People tuned into Dragnet for the accuracy and focus on crime solving and not for the quirky antics of Joe Friday.

Dragnet’s success showed authors and audiences that the work of the police was far from drama-free and it quickly grew into a genre in its own right. Police protagonists became more popular than their amateur sleuth counterparts, while sharing the sleuth’s eccentric personalities. In contrast to these eccentricities, the personality quirks of police detectives tended to be framed in a more negative light, the hard-drinking private detective became the hard-drinking police detective, and they faced larger consequences for their lifestyles. Whereas a PI’s flaws could be isolated from the society they worked in, a police detective’s flaws couldn’t help but play commentary on the institution of the police.

With the growing popularity of psychology and the practice in police work, the personalities of our protagonists, whether too hard, too soft, hiding traumas, exposing sadism or addiction, authors couldn’t help but criticise character flaws in a more profound way than had been previously visited.

The flawed police investigator as commentary on society was a common theme in Swedish Detective Fiction such as The Story of a Crime series of novels featuring the sickly and unlucky-in-love Martin Beck. In contrast to Dragnet’s Joe Friday, Martin Beck doesn’t always crack the case with good police work, in some of the novels it is a coincidence or a fault on the behalf of the perpetrators that brings the case together. This pitches the series as more critical of the police than Dragnet which was celebrated for raising public perception of the police during a turbulent time for America. Beck’s sickliness and failures in love could serve as Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö’s critique of Sweden’s social democratic state in the 1960s, demonstrably working and seemingly performing its duty but beneath lies a decay.

Whodunits still exists that feature amateur sleuths in the same vein as those seen in the “Golden Age”, these amateur protagonists have become the stars of the comfy crime genre, a genre focusing more on solving mysteries than the brutality of crime. The very name comfy crime is a contradiction, crime is never comfy, however it exists to preserve that focus on mystery that one might say became lost in the morass of police procedure and hard living cops that seeped into the popular consciousness with the noir and police procedural genres. The comfort comes from pondering a mystery alongside the quirky protagonist, and not in the lurid details of crime or the implications that has on society.

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