Any of us could’ve scribbled the plot of the average detective whodunnit, reckons Tom McParland, but nonetheless the detective movie has been a staple of Hollywood’s output since cameras first started rolling.
Even though originally American, the term ‘whodunnit’ has been around since 1920. It once solely referred to a detective novel, but came to be multi-generic for any detective mystery. It was a retrospective classification along with creepie, flick and oater, beloved of book, film, play, radio and TV guide critics.
The ungrammatical, thumbnail review brevity is supposedly a nod-winking that we too are in on this pseudo tee-hee chic. But its only purpose is tiresome word economy.
Perhaps the reason we tolerated potboiler whodunnit movies for so long, was that in pre-TV days we were subconsciously initiated into the genre through inanimate comic picture crime solvers such as School Friend’s detective Terry Brent (plus ‘Oirish’ assistant ‘Paddy’ McNaught) Sexton Blake, Dick Tracy, etc. And because our real world wasn’t such a bad place, we simultaneously indulged in an additional darker one.
This darker place that related only to itself had dozens of corpses slumped or lying about.
They were seldom in beds, except flowerbeds. For a real bed might suggest justifiable motive (the lazy bugger was murdered because he spent all day asleep).
These bodies were stilled in the throes of effort and in supposedly unexpected places: in autos, mansion libraries, offices or clubs. But that was unreal non-anticipation.
In our less glamorous world, surprising places would be the discovery of a corpse sauntering along a WC-making plant’s conveyor belt, or beneath the pyjamas in an M&S counter, or a stiff and silent finalist in the Elvis lookalike contest.
The luxury of living in this dual world sometimes resulted in these worlds colliding. How often on TV when a real murder is committed, do we hear some genius parrot, “I mean, nothing like that ever happens round here” – as if more outraged by the surprise than the homicide.
Yet, it’s the degree of conformity to apparent reality in any whodunnit that ultimately determines whether we stay – rather than stick – with it.
Only bad detective movies should be called whodunnits. Not because we don’t give a toss about murder. But because a bigger transgression is brought to our attention: who allowed this crime against good taste to be made in the first place.