Search of “Dunits”

Search of “Dunits”

We’re all familiar with the term “Whodunit.” Classic mysteries by authors like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie, and Dorothy L. Sayers set the standard that has endeared the genre to millions of readers throughout the years.  The challenge?  Can the reader match wits with the detective and unmask the killer first.

But “Whodunit” represents only one-sixth of the “Dunit” family – a fact I bear in mind when writing a crime novel. Little did I realize that the Journalism 101 elective I took in college so many years ago provided five “W”s and an “H” that are as important to a mystery writer as to an investigative reporter. The difference is mystery writers make up the very story they are investigating.

Who, What, When, Where, Why, and How need only the suffix “dunit” attached and you’ve got a checklist of questions that must be satisfactorily answered for any story to succeed. The fun lies in leaving missing “dunits” for the detective and the reader to solve.

Some stories give the reader the “Whodunit” and instead focus on the “Wheredunit.”  Poe’s The Purloined Letter is an iconic example.  Where the letter was hidden turned out to be the real mystery and probably created that familiar phrase, “hidden in plain sight.”

Emphasizing the “Howdunit” led to the locked-room puzzler.  How can one solve a murder when the murder appears to have occurred under impossible circumstances?  Again, Poe gives us that convention with The Murders in the Rue Morgue and its most unusual perpetrator.  “Howdunit” can also be a mystery’s most challenging feature if the fatal incident is difficult to be classified as a murder.  The best way for a murderer to escape is to have the murder go undetected.  Here the forensic medical examiner can make or break a case by discovering how a victim died.“Howdunit” goes hand in hand with “Whatdunit.”  A detective needs to understand exactly what happened.  Was a suicide really a homicide?  Does the note left behind contain a clue that proves otherwise?  Or “Whatdunit” can be something unknown that threatens to be happening in the future.  “Whatdunit” is often the backbone of a thriller as the protagonist races to uncover what assassination or cataclysmic event is about to rock the world.

The discovery of “Whendunit” can make or break an alibi.  Is the time of death accurate?  Does it match up with other evidence like voice mail messages, receipts, traffic delays, or weather data?  “Whendunit” can have a tremendous impact on the scope of a suspect pool.

“Whydunit” is the foundation of the villain’s story and points directly to “Whodunit.” Determining the motive, the why, is a critical part of solving a case.  Without knowing why, an ending will be unsatisfying.  In prosecutorial parlance, motive, means, and opportunity can stand in for why, how, when and where, with why being the leading element.  But “Whydunit” is more than the villain’s story.  It’s the reason and motivation for the detective to pursue the solution, whether that detective is an amateur, a law enforcement officer, or a private investigator.  Why are they doing what they’re doing?  The best protagonists are driven by more than simple curiosity or their job responsibility.  The case becomes personal and demands a relentless determination to triumph against all odds.

So, the next time you go into your favorite bookstore, ask “Can you recommend a good “Dunit?” You’ll probably receive a curious stare along with the question, “Dun what?” “Yes,” you should enthusiastically answer. “And also Dun Who, When, Where, Why, and How.”

Mark de Castrique BIO

Mark was born in Hendersonville, NC, near Asheville. He went straight from the hospital to the funeral home where his father was the funeral director and the family lived upstairs. The unusual setting sparked his popular Barry Clayton series and launched his mystery-writing career.

His novels have received starred reviews from Publishers WeeklyLibrary Journal, and BooklistThe Chicago Tribune wrote, “As important and as impressive as the author’s narrative skills are the subtle ways he captures the geography – both physical and human – of a unique part of the American South.”  Publishers Weekly describes his latest, MURDER IN RAT ALLEY, which pubs in December, as a “winner.”

Mark de Castrique is a veteran of the broadcast and film production business. In Washington D.C., he directed numerous news and public affairs programs and received an EMMY Award for his documentary film work.

Mark lives in Charlotte, but he and his wife Linda can be often found in the NC mountains or the nation’s capital.

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