By JAKE SEXTON
After watching the popular movie “Knives Out,” I became hooked on “whodunit” mystery stories.
The set-ups vary: sometimes a person is found dead under impossible circumstances, sometimes a wealthy heiress has been killed by any number of shady friends or relatives and sometimes a group of posh aristocrats are locked in a mansion, getting picked off one by one.
When done right, you — the reader — are almost an unnamed co-protagonist in the story, trying to piece the clues together before the grand reveal that the butler (or mistress or long forgotten half-brother) has, indeed, done it.
The grandmother of all the whodunits is probably Agatha Christie’s “And Then There Were None.” In the book, 10 strangers are invited by an unseen host to a party at a mansion on a remote island. Unfortunately, once they get there, they find themselves prey to an unknown assailant who kills them one at a time, in a manner depicted by a spooky nursery rhyme. Tensions run high, secret sins are revealed and suspicions are raised and dashed as the guests’ numbers dwindle. This excellent novel became almost its own genre by offering, not one, but many murders to solve as suspects get eliminated, and the body count rises.
A recent discovery (to me, anyway) was the shin honkaku (“new orthodox”) subgenre of mysteries, popular in Japan in the 1980s. Often written by authors who were huge fans of classic mystery writers like Christie or Ellery Queen, these stories focus on depicting a crime as a complex puzzle for the reader to unravel. A prime example of shin honkaku is “The Decagon House Murders” by Yukito Ayatsuji. Members of Kyoto University’s Mystery Club decide to have a holiday weekend on a deserted island where, you guessed it, they begin to get murdered. Hidden backstories are revealed, and lots of twist, turns and subtle clues eventually lead the reader to the guilty.
Author A.A. Milne is primarily known for his “Winnie-the-Pooh” books. But when he wasn’t writing about stuffed bears and friendship, he at least once delved into the topic of murder. “The Red House Mystery” is about a Holmes and Watson-like duo who visit their friend Mark at his home in the English countryside, only to find out that Mark is missing and his brother has been shot to death. This is more a story about two chums solving an intellectual puzzle than a grisly thriller, but it maintains its cleverness throughout, and the eventual reveal is satisfying.
Finally, Stuart Turton takes the whodunit formula and gives it a hard shake in ‘The 7 1/2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle.” In this inventive story, the eponymous Evelyn is murdered at a late-night party at Blackheath Manor, and every morning, the day resets, she is murdered again. Each day, guest Aiden Bishop magically wakes up and relives the same day as well, but in the body of someone else at the mansion, with no recollection of the events he just lived. All he knows is that this cycle will repeat until he can catch Evelyn’s killer. This book is often described as a cross between the novels of Agatha Christie and the movie “Groundhog Day.”
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— Jake Sexton is a librarian at the La Mesa branch of the San Diego County Library.