Newdunnits

"A 1926 whodunit by Agatha Christie has been named the best crime novel ever written by her fellow crime writers. The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, one of the first Christie books to feature Belgian detective Hercule Poirot, topped a poll held to mark the 60th anniversary of the Crime Writers’ Association. The novel ends with an audacious revelation which is now considered one of the most ingenious plot twists in the history of crime writing." – BBC News

 

It’s never been easy for mystery writers to find new and exciting ways to surprise readers, and every year it gets that much harder to be original. It seems like all the good gimmicks have been used, most of them too many times. Heck, nearly a century ago, Dame Agatha had her first person narrator—the doctor who was aiding her detective throughout the novel—turn out to be the killer. (Oh, hang on... Spoiler alert! Did I do that right?) She also had everybody be the killer (Murder on the Orient Express) and one of the victims be the killer (And Then There Were None). What’s left for a crime writer a hundred years later? Well, before I give up and have the butler do it again, I’m going to try one or more of these ideas, which I thought of and which it would be great if nobody stole before I get to them:

 

You did it. My crime novel—by necessity available for electronic reading devices only—will build to a startling revelation. As the reader approaches the ending, the device will alert the publisher, who will in turn alert a troupe of improvisational actors near where the reader lives and/or reads. When the reader reaches the last page, it will be revealed that youdunnit. “What?” the reader will think. “I did it? How is that even—” Before he can finish the thought, he’ll find himself being “arrested” by “police officers,” then brought “downtown” to be “questioned” and “charged with murder.” Eventually, of course, the reader will be released. It will all have been a “misunderstanding,” but the surprise will be one he’ll never forget,  especially if there has been “police brutality.”

 

No one did it. In another scenario, everyone had a reason to want the victim dead: the gardener (because the victim was always trampling the newly-planted marigolds); the doorman (because the victim never wiped his boots after trampling through the damp marigold beds); the cook (because the victim slurped his soup); the victim’s children (because of... something to do with a will), etc., etc., and everyone had an opportunity—the chimney sweep (when the victim was peering up into the chimney); the prostitute (when the victim was asleep); the lawyer (when the victim was peering up into the chimney); and so on.  And everyone had the means: the barber (his razor); the nurse (her medicines); the prostitute (her brass knuckles). But in the end the coroner will reveal that the victim died of natural causes! Or an accident! Or the victim isn’t really dead! One of those.

 

The stranger you meet in a bar did it. No one knows who killed the victim, and the authorities close the case as unsolved. Weeks after finishing the book, still thinking about it, you meet someone at a bar and strike up a conversation. The conversation turns to things you’ve each read and enjoyed. You mention the unresolved murder mystery. He says he hasn’t read it, but then he says something else that reveals a genuine familiarity with the circumstances of the crime. Something, really, that only the murderer would know. Is it possible that this person you’ve just met in real life is the killer in the book you recently read—the killer who was never caught? It is. He is.

 

And here are some other possibilities, sent to me by friends and acquaintances who, as it happens, were murdered just after I received their emails, which is purely coincidental:

 

Surprise! The victim was dead to begin with!

Surprise! It wasn’t all a dream!

• They were all talking animals! Surprise!

Surprise! The novel was actually a grocery list or recipe!

• The killer did it in a past life and—Surprise!—was reincarnated as a cat and then did it again!

 

 

Matthew David Brozik keeps no secrets. His life is an open book, and some of it can be read at imdb.name.

July 23: Jessica Mitford died on this day in 1996.

Crime fiction legends Dennis Lehane and Michael Connelly discuss the new book that unites their beloved sleuths Patrick Kenzie and Harry Bosch.

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