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The mystery story springs from a rent in the fabric of the world, a felonious rupture, which our protagonist will struggle to understand and, at least in part, to repair. — Mark Bernstein

1. The Whodunit

The whodunit, according to Tzvetan Todorov, (The Poetics of Prose, pp. 44-48) has a dual nature: This type of novel

contains not one but two stories: the story of the crime and the story of the investigation. In their purest form, these two stories have no point in common . . . . The first story, that of the crime, ends before the second begins. But what happens to the second? Not much. The characters of the second story, the story of the investigation, do not act, they learn. Nothing can happen to them: a rule of the genre postulates the detective's immunity. We cannot imagine Hercule Poirot or Philo Vance threatened by some danger, attacked, wounded, even killed. The hundred and fifty pages which separate the discovery of the crime from the revelation of the killer are devoted to a slow apprenticeship: we examine clue after clue, lead after lead. The whodunit thus tends toward a purely geometric architecture. . . .

This second story, the story of the investigation, . . . is often told by a friend of the detective, who explicitly acknowledges that he is writing a book; the second story consists, in fact, in explaining how this very book came to be written . . . . The first [story] — the story of the crime — tells 'what really happened,' whereas the second — the story of the investigation — explains 'how the reader (or the narrator) has come to know about it.'"

Each story has a status which is the converse of the other.

The first, that of the crime, is in fact the story of an absence: its [salient] characteristic is that it cannot be immediately present in the book. In other words, the narrator cannot transmit directly the conversations of the characters who are implicated, nor describe their actions: to do so, he must necessarily employ the intermediary of another (or the same) character who will report, in the second story, the words heard or the actions observed. The status of the second story . . . [consists in being] a story which has no importance in itself, which serves only as a mediator between the reader and the story of the crime . . . . We are concerned then in the whodunit with two stories of which one is absent but real, the other present but insignificant."

2. The Thriller

Todorov defines the thriller as

another genre within detective fiction, . . . created in the United States just before and particularly after World War II . . . . [T]his kind of detective fiction fuses the two stories or [more precisely] suppresses the first and vitalizes the second. We are no longer told about a crime anterior to the moment of the narrative; the narrative coincides with the action. No thriller is presented in the form of memoirs: there is no point reached where the narrator comprehends all past events, we do not even know if he will reach the end of the story alive. Prospection takes the place of retrospection.

There is no story to be guessed; and there is no mystery, in the sense that it was present in the whodunit. But the reader's interest is not thereby diminished; we realize here that two entirely different forms of interest exist. The first can be called curiosity; it proceeds from effect to cause: starting from a certain effect (a corpse and certain clues) we must find its cause (the culprit and his motive). The second form is suspense, and here the movement is from cause to effect: we are first shown the causes, the initial donn´ees (gangsters preparing a heist), and out interest is sustained by the expectation of what will happen, that is, certain effects (corpses, crimes, fights). This type of interest was inconceivable in the whodunit, for its chief characters (the detective and his friend the narrator) were, by definition, immunized: nothing could happen to them. The situation is reversed in the thriller: everything is possible, and the detective risks his health, if not his life."

The thriller seeks to depict a particular milieu, and it organizes itself

around specific characters and behavior. This is how it was described in 1945, by Marcel Duhamel, its promoter in France: in it we find 'violence — in all its forms, and especially in its most shameful — beatings, killings . . . . Immortality is as much at home here as noble feelings . . . . There is also love — preferably vile — violent passion, implacable hatred.' Indeed it is around these few constants that the thriller is constituted: violence, generally sordid crime, the amorality of the characters.

Related Material: Some detectives in Victorian fiction

Last modified 1988

Links added 17 December 2013

Epigraph added 14 November 2015