SCRATCHING A NICHE: On Whodunits and Hitchcockian Hooey

Considering Sunday is a day of rest, this lazy cuss managed to get a lot done! I had a nice walk along the shore under a bright Indian Summer sky. I replaced all my decrepit plastic storage containers with spiffy new Pyrex bowls. I met the new lady Doctor. I like her, but her debut was like the others I’ve seen: great beginning and end, lots of padding in the middle. We’ll see if this latest producer can actually come up with anything new, gender switch notwithstanding.


On Sunday, I rearranged my books. I had to because my TBR pile has grown so large that it appears to be breeding! All the reference volumes are upstairs in the study/loft, but the two burgeoning bookcases in my tiny bedroom can no longer contain all the classic fiction. And so, I pulled all the handsome “new” old volumes – you know the ones from small presses like LRI, the British Library, Coachwhip, Ramble House, and the like, and made a shelf for them under the TV in the living room, right across from the case with the shelf containing my measly collection of modern crime fiction.

This is the Sunday I threw caution (and my keto-ish diet) to the winds and ordered a gluten free veggie pizza from Amici’s. As I chomped on that stringy goodness, I thought about what film to next show my cinema class. I decided on Strangers on a Train. All in all, a productive day, and as it involved both GAD mysteries and Hitchcock, a pleasurable one.


Strangers on a Train is a near perfect film, marred only by some questionable casting. As  a heroic couple, Farley Granger and Ruth Roman are . . . well, when you compare them to James Stewart and Grace Kelly, or Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman, or Grant and Kelly, or Grant and Eva Marie Saint . . . well, Granger and Roman are no Robert Donat and Madeline Carroll. But Pat Hitchcock and Leo G. Carroll are sheer perfection as Roman’s family, and Norma Varden, one of those fabulous character actresses you see in everything and love without ever knowing her name, is a delight as a dizzy socialite who almost gets strangled in the middle of a party (fact: never ever go to a party in a Hitchcock film!). Marion Lorne nearly steals the picture as the batty mother of a psychopath. And Robert Walker as Bruno Anthony easily vies with Psycho’s Mrs. Bates for the title of best Hitchcock villain of all time.

7b0b046b79018d3a9a189f27f596b739     DHC1wiwW0AI8GYv                                     Two magnificent character actresses: Norma Varden and Marion (“Aunt Clara”) Lorne

I show Strangers on a Train to my class to illustrate the elements of exemplary editing. Hitchcock earned his moniker as the Master of Suspense by knowing how to slice a reel of film. Every scene in Strangers is a glorious set piece: the first meeting between Bruno and his sucker, Guy Haines (Granger) on the titular transport; the murder of Haines’ wife Marian at the carnival; Bruno’s increasingly obsessive stalking of Guy through the streets of Washington, D.C.; Guy’s botched attempt to warn Bruno’s father; that fabulous cocktail party where Patricia Hitchcock earns her stripes; and the whole final sequence from the tennis match to the wild, deadly ride on a carousel – an object lesson in crosscutting.

Strangers 7, Miriam's ice cream          s3                       The victim: Miriam Haines . . . and the trigger, Barbara Morton (Pat Hitchcock)

Maybe it was because I had been moving all my mysteries around yesterday, but the combination of shelf stocking and film selection but me in a pondering mood. There is nothing I love to read more than a good whodunit. There is no director I think finer than Hitchcock. And yet the two are like oil and water, and the fact that Hitchcock hated whodunits can only give this mystery writer pause. (Remember . . . I’m pondering here!)

Hitchcock loved to talk, and it turns out he had a lot to say on the subject of the whodunit.

“I’ve never dealt with whodunits. They’re simply clever puzzles, aren’t they? They’re intellectual rather than emotional, and emotion is the only thing that keeps my audience interested. I prefer suspense rather than surprise — something the average man can identify with. The audience can’t identify with detectives; they’re not part of his everyday life.”

There’s a whole lot to take apart here! We in the blogosphere are always talking about the puzzle. Most of us base our rating, at least in part, on this aspect of the mystery. Oh sure, JJ doesn’t like the dryness of early Ellery Queen, but he loves the procedural detail of Freeman Wills Crofts. Moira is drawn to the depiction of social mores and fashion – but she still likes a good plot. The Puzzle Doctor is like Mikey on the old Life Cereal commercials – he’ll read anything! But whether it’s GAD or a historical mystery or psychological suspense told by an unreliable narrator, PD expects a tale well told. Many of my compatriots will sacrifice characterization, tone, setting, the works . . . as long as the mystery is strikingly clued and the denouement is worthwhile.

Hitchcock calls suspense “something the average man can identify with”. And it’s true that, within our daily lives, we are more likely to be kept in suspense than felled by surprise. Waiting for the test results, or for the clock to signal the end of a work day, or for him to call/text gets our adrenalin in a lather. Walking into a room and having a mess of people shout “Surprise!” – well I’ve had it happen twice, and, believe me, it’s not all that it’s cut out to be.

And yet, I feel cheated reading a mystery if it’s not a whodunit. When I open that first page and know that I’m about to meet a group of people, one of whom is a killer, a wonderful excitement comes over me. The huge challenge for a mystery author is to sustain that feeling throughout. Hitchcock asserts that it can’t be done:

“. . . I have made only one whodunit, and that was many years ago. Before the five-second revelation at the end of a whodunit there is no emotion from the audience. When you are reading a book, you are terribly tempted to turn to the last page all the time, but that is merely an emotion of curiosity. The mystery form has no particular appeal to me because it is merely a fact of mystifying an audience, which I don’t think is enough.”

That one whodunit is called Stage Fright, and it’s not great, or even particularly good, Hitchcock, mostly because Jane Wyman did not click with the director and falls flat as a true Hitchcockian hero. Many people complain too that Hitchcock did not play fair with the audience here. Honestly, I think he plays us brilliantly by tricking us into making assumptions based on our expectations when watching a film, just as Christie played against our literary expectations time and time again. (By coincidence, Jamie Bernthal recently about this film at his fantastic site, A Sign of the Crimes. I really wanted to comment there, Jamie, but for some reason, your blog won’t let me post! Something about Google, dammit! . . . . )


Meanwhile, I am chastened to admit that I have turned to the last page of many a mystery novel because, while the prose, plotting, people and pace were downright inferior, I . . . just . . . had. . . to . . . know!!! Is Hitchcock correct? Have I been substituting curiosity for real emotion? The premise here is that the sole question of whodunit – and by extension howhedunit and whydidhedunit – does not generate adequate suspense because . . . I’ll let the director explain it himself from an interview he gave about visual clarity:

“I think an audience should be given all the facts. For example, if you take suspense – suspense can only be achieved by telling the audience as much as you can. I don’t deal in mystery – I never make whodunits, because they’re intellectual exercises. You’re just wondering – you’re not emoting. My old analogy of the bomb as an example: we could be blown up this minute and the audience would get five seconds of shock. But if we tell them five minutes ahead of time there is a bomb that’s going to go off, that would get five minutes of suspense. And we didn’t have suspense before, because the audience was in ignorance, you see.”


The French film community revered Hitchcock, so let me add to the confusion by quoting from a French film scholar, Dominique Sipière:

“Although he specialized in crime thrillers, Alfred Hitchcock avoided filming whodunits: his dislike gives a clue to both readers and spectators about the nature of what can be termed a ‘Hitchcock genre’ and about the thrill some still get from seemingly old-fashioned novels of the 1930s. Whodunits follow a strict pattern of double narration (the inquest strives to re-create the hidden story of the crime) and of a double “game” (the “author” challenges the reader and the characters keep challenging each other.) But the main thrill might result from a specific tension between a logical quest and an ever-expected meta-religious instant of revelation: doubt and certainty, mastery and subversion.”

In his arguments, Hitchcock seems to denigrate that “instant of revelation,” as antithetical to his aims as a filmmaker. I’m willing to concede that in most mysteries, the unmasking is the most exciting moment. However, the best authors managed so much more, creating a unique experience in their manipulation of the double narrative. In search of the truth, the hero-detective enters a world built of lies. Surprise is wrought by the overturning of the surface “reality” to reveal the true reality, but the suspense is still there, generated by the sense of doubt that pervades the reader – usually through his stand-in, the detective or the sleuthing team – as the fragility of the surface “reality” is exposed. Those moments before the truth is revealed should be delicious – and they are when placed in the best of authorial hands.


I think I share a preference with many of my fellow GAD fans for the kind of novel – exemplified in the best of Carr, Christie, and Queen – where the truth is doled out in drips and drabs, where revelation follows revelation, and where false solutions are handed out so convincingly that even the wariest of readers, sensing that we are at the moment when the truth will out, still manage to fall into a final snare laid by the author.

Perhaps the journey that depends on a reader/viewer’s lack of knowledge or misinterpretation of fact is incapable of engendering the kind of suspense Hitchcock talks about. And yet there is suspense to be enjoyed nonetheless, especially in the talented hands of an artist like Christie, Carr, or Brand, over who is telling the truth, who is lying, and whose lies are most significant in that they reveal murderous intent. Hitchcock claimed it couldn’t be done, and truth to be told, how many filmed mysteries actually sustain tension throughout? For example, most of the Christie adaptations we would deem successful blend mystery with comedy. The latest Orient Express attempted to combine these two elements with action, with mixed results. Does The Kennel Murder Case or The Last of Sheila hit all the audience buttons for people beyond the true puzzle fans? Is that possible? Is it even necessary?


At any rate, who am I to complain about Hitchcock’s intent when he consistently succeeded in churning up emotional tsuris in his audience?

Nevertheless, even if there was a dichotomy between the mysteries of Hitchcock and the GAD authors, I think a look at both can offer some insights to what makes either one tick. For example, to compound the emotional effect in his mysteries, Hitchcock never makes a policeman the protagonist of his story; it is the average citizen (if you can call Cary Grant “average”) whom we follow and with whom we identify. And as I demonstrate to my film students every year, Hitchcock employs every technical tool in his cinematic arsenal to literally put us in his hero’s shoes.

This brings to mind a recent post at The Invisible Event, where JJ talked about the amateur detective. I’ll confess here that I’ve never been as interested in stories revolving around actual policemen as those involving an eccentric sleuth or true amateur. We need the police, of course, because they have access to information necessary to solving a case. That’s why consulting detectives have relationships with cops, whether collegial or adversarial. However, the cop always exists as an adjunct or inferior to the main detective. The more collegial the relationship between cop and sleuth, the more rational and sound the cop’s methods are made to appear.

51H-mTbkMdL                                                      Team #1: Marple and Craddock

The best amateurs manage to forge a connection with the authorities, too, or else they risk censure from fans for excessive unreality in an already melodramatic genre. Those who prefer procedural mysteries may cite an amateur’s lack of knowledge and authority: how can Aunt Ginevra get a hold of the murder weapon, let alone understand how to identify the classification and interpret the trajectory of a bullet or blood smear? They snicker at the idea of murder following these characters everywhere, making them a sort of Jonah. Honestely, if I were having tea at Bertram’s Hotel and spotted Miss Marple enter the restaurant, I would promptly check out before it was too late!

Murder-on-a-Honeymoon-images-25b5237f-3267-409b-8c84-df501ae2180                                      Team #2: Hildegarde Withers and Oscar Piper

How can the amateur gather information without access to the scene of the crime or the witnesses? Why should anyone offer their alibi to a nosy private citizen? Thus, murder investigations made by an amateur are always in danger of becoming rambling, dithery things, involving endless conversations that stumble circuitously toward the truth, an over-abundance of fortuitous opportunities to examine evidence, and less reliance on good old-fashioned clueing and more on a nose for the truth or woman’s intuition. Therefore, to keep things on a more professional keel, amateurs connect with professionals: Miss Marple is allowed to investigate because Sir Henry Clithering and Dermot Craddock of the Yard can vouch for her bona fides;  Hildegarde Withers develops a special friendship with Inspector Oscar Piper; writer-sleuths Ellery Queen and Nigel Strangeways are both related to upper echelon policemen.

eq-fpcenter2                                                  Team #3: Ellery and Richard Queen

The thing that makes me gravitate toward the amateur is the same thing that makes me shy away from Rhodes and Crofts and all those clever-as-hell-but-dry-as-dust puzzle plots: matters of the heart. The amateur detective has the luxury of giving vent to their feelings more than a professional – at least until you get to the 1970’s when all cops start needing a good therapist. At the end of a case, the stalwart Scotland Yard man feels nary a frisson of regret at the way things have gone, while the old lady knitting in the corner can feel a thrill for having abetted the cause of justice at the same time she sheds a tear that her dear friend Bethesda’s youngest son turned out to be such a rotter. The cases he solves between 1942 and 1949 result in Ellery Queen fleeing to Vienna to consult with the world’s greatest psychotherapist.

The GAD authors to whom I have always been drawn knew that a good mystery requires a mixture of professional inquiry and strong emotion. This is why John Dickson Carr tended to provide three sleuths in his mysteries: the cop (Inspector Hadley or Masters) who provided easy access to the facts – and always interpreted them incorrectly; the consulting detective (Dr. Fell or H.M.), who had the brilliance to see through each outlandish scheme – and knew how to conduct an investigation to provide the maximum of suspense by withholding solutions until the right moment;  and the civilian found on the scene, named Brian or Jim or Henry or Miles, who had enough connection to the circle of suspects to . . . well, to care!

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Thus, in He Who Whispers, the surprises don’t stop after Dr. Fell has sorted out the truth behind rumors of vampirism and the death atop a tower where nobody could or did approach the victim. The real gut-wrencher belongs to Miles on the final page. In The Emperor’s Snuff Box, you may or may not see the trick at once – sadly, I did. Yet if Dermot Kinross’ primary purpose in the novel is to provide clarity over the murderer’s tricks, his final gesture is to ensure happiness for Eve Neill.

The early Hercule Poirot mysteries burdened provided the detective with his own Watson. Captain Hastings was purposely made stupid so that readers could feel both amazement at Poirot’s feats of sleuthery and superiority over Hastings’ ignorance. But Hastings was also a man of feeling, and his expressions of loyalty to – and concern for – Poirot, as well as his own developing romantic life, gave a balance to the complex elements of the mysteries Poirot solved. When Hastings departed forever, things shifted in the Poirot novels: the sections featuring the suspects were built up, and the sleuth’s presence, for the most part, lessened. Often a young woman was presented as the major figure, and “Papa” Poirot made it his business to find happiness for her. Think Katherine Grey (Mystery of the Blue Train) Carla Lemarchant (Five Little Pigs) or Lynn Marchmont (Taken at the Flood.)

cheapflat6                                                      Team #4: Poirot and Hastings

Contrast this with the Miss Marple novels, so much looser as detective stories, yet so much more emotionally accessible. We become intimately connected with the citizens of multiple villages, or the denizens of this hotel and that halfway house. Think of the fairy tale ending to The Moving Finger (which belongs to Jerry Burton in every way but the sleuthing one), the wave of bittersweet nostalgia closing They Do It With Mirrors.  Think of the emotional wallop at the end of A Pocketful of Rye, certainly not the most complex of plots in the end but a beautiful depiction of the protective feelings Miss Marple had over the girls whom she had trained for service. We’ll see that care depicted again with happier results in The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side as a balance to one of the spinster sleuth’s most tragic cases.

To give credit to modern mystery authors, I think they recognized readers’ thirst for emotional resonance and for allowing a book of any genre to speak to the human condition. That’s why modern mysteries tend to put the puzzle after the people. And that’s what made writing classic mysteries so tricky, since the true nature of the characters had to stay (mostly) veiled. I think that’s why I love Christie so much: she had the capacity to display her characters as openly as possible and still hide a murderous heart in plain sight. I think a study of her works that do this – along with a comparison to those of her books where the murderer is more thoroughly disguised – would make for a fascinating study! I think the “hide in plain sight” cases might turn out to be more satisfying.

It’s an idea, that!

I know my pondering has taken me all over the place today. That’s what “scratching a niche” means! If any of this has resonated with you, I would love to hear your thoughts.

9 thoughts on “SCRATCHING A NICHE: On Whodunits and Hitchcockian Hooey

  1. “Tee hee! I suppose I’d have to get a GUN from somewhere!” Norma Varden, thanks for the memories! “We used to call him the witch – dentist!”


  2. Ah, Brad, you’ve mentioned two of my top TV/film topics: Hitchcock and the Ellery Queen series. I always wished the Jim Hutton/David Wayne series had gone on longer. And you’re absolutely right that they made a really effective duo. The chemistry was there, if that makes sense. And Hitchcock’s work? Classic, most of it, if you ask me. No-one’s perfect, and that includes him. So I can’t say that each film is steller. But Strangers…? That’s a top, top film.

    Liked by 1 person

    • The EQ TV series got it right showing us how crucial that father-son relationship was, Margot! I also liked that, while Inspector Queen depended upon his son for the ultimate truth, he was no slouch as a detective himself!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Fine analysis, all around. Let me suggest something else for you to ponder: Hitchcock directed one other film that uses a whodunit structure—or, at any rate, a structure based on misdirection and revelation—and it’s one of his greatest achievements. I’m speaking of “Vertigo” (which critics in the most recent Sight & Sound survey declared the greatest film of all time). For most viewers, the culprit here isn’t very difficult to spot. But I’ll admit that when I first saw the film, during my teen years, I was naive enough to be surprised by the final reveal. “Vertigo” even features an actual detective as its protagonist. In any event, it’s a powerful counter-argument to the notion that a movie can’t deliver both mystery and suspense.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hey, Mike! Thanks for commenting! Vertigo is a complex piece, one I’d love to write about one of these days. Yes, there are revelations as befitting a classic mystery and a detective protagonist, but it starts out as part ghost story/part noir film about obsessive love and then switches halfway through into something else: sort of an inverted mystery that much more in keeping with what Hitchcock was known for.

      Liked by 2 people

      • Brad, you’re right: I hadn’t fully recalled how clearly the latter half of the story is structured as an inverted tale, rather than a whodunit. The first half roughly follows as gothic structure—and it does, I think, have a “double narration” pattern that culminates in an “instant of revelation” (the kind of “aha” moment that Hitchcock rarely aimed for).

        Anyway, in response to a related point that you raise: I’ve long thought that film as a medium is inherently better suited than prose fiction to the thriller-suspense genre, and that the reverse is true of the classic detection genre. The filmed whodunit reaches its zenith in movies such as “Kennel Murder Case” and “Green for Danger,” but I’d still prefer to read the book versions of those tales. And recently I reviewed “The Singing Sands,” by Josephine Tey, and made sort of the opposite point about that story.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Pingback: #447: The Criminous Alphabet – A is for…Alibi [Part 2 of 2] | The Invisible Event

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