After decades of being put on the back burner, the whodunnit is back to popular status. The genre – which takes a known cast of characters with motives to commit a crime and pits them against a clever investigator – is packing theaters and bookshelves for the first time since the 1950s.
After pioneers like Agatha Christie both cemented and subverted the Whodunnit’s common tropes, its popularity fell because audiences felt it became formulaic and predictable. When there is a small cast of suspects and a similar plot structure, there are only so many solutions to the puzzle before they start repeating each other – or at least that was the consensus from popular audiences whose interest in those stories declined. But recently, new writers have been infusing the genre with fresh life. Here are a few picks for recent favorites and how they bring something new.
“Knives Out” (2019, film) by Rian Johnson
Chances are you’ve seen this movie, or at least heard of it. In an age of mediocre movies, it stands out as one of the best films of its decade and a re-watchable modern classic. Johnson’s story brings a fresh take by moving the story to modern-day New England (that’s right, it’s a murder mystery with cell phones), involving the only sympathetic character with the murder so that the audience doesn’t know if they want the truth to come out, and creating the hilarious character of Beniot Blanc (Daniel Craig) with his dripping Southern accent.
“The 7 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle” (2019, novel) by Stuart Turton
Aiden has to solve the murder of Evelyn Hardcastle at her homecoming party. There’s only one problem: every morning he wakes up in the body of a different guest, and he only has eight days to find the answer. The decaying Blackheath estate is full of wealthy and poisonous guests, each with their own grudges and secrets. Each time Aiden is in a new host, his mind is fighting for space with the person whose body he occupies. He has to piece together the events of the night from eight different perspectives before time runs out, and there is someone out there looking to kill each of his hosts.
“Magpie Murders“ (2016, novel) by Anthony Horowitz
Susan Ryeland is the editor of acclaimed mystery author Alan Conway. She reads the manuscript for his newest book and is shocked when the last chapter – where the detective should piece everything together – is missing. What she discovers is a mystery within a mystery, where an author placed clues about his own life into his works – and she must become the investigator she had only read about. “Magpie Murders” is a great meta-analytical mystery, where a simple (but excellent) whodunnit becomes layered with the life of the author and editor surrounding it, as well as asking questions about the cultural significance of popular culture’s obsession with violent crime and easy-reading “potato-chip books.”
The last few years have given us a peek at the evolution of the genre. New voices are coming up with refreshing takes on old tropes, and infusing them with modern values and questions about the nature of wealth and violence. Keep an eye out in bookstores and wherever you watch movies, because the whodunnit is stale no more.