BETTER KNOWN as the who-dun-it, the "puzzling-identity" story is, a dying animal in the slick zoo. Why? One good guess might be that the current slick mode uses "real " emotions and laudable sentiments in almost all popular fiction. The classic who-dun-it is an intellectual game in which only the stagiest motivations are used to set the story in motion. Just as there is a taboo in today's best science-fiction against introducing any considerable emotional content, so the who-dun-it was almost invariably carried along on a passionless plane. A unique crime and ingenious methods of detection made the story. The only sentiment content of most who-dun-its was the trite and universal crime-doesn't-pay one. There was little attempt on the writer's part to elicit from the reader either sympathy or empathy. A good puzzle was sufficient. Today, that is rarely the case. A puzzle is fine, but it must be hung with all sorts of tinsel. After stating the rule, we should talk about the exceptions, because they are important. Who-dun-its appear regularly in the popular magazines, but they are mainly the work of name writers whose heroes are the detectives they have made famous. It must be remembered that the mystery story has very rigid strictures which closely limit what can and can't be done. No editor is knowingly going to buy a story with a situation that has been used before. And only professional mystery writers who devote all their time to the game are well read enough in the field to know what has and hasn ' t been used by other mystery writers. Originality is difficult to achieve in the mystery story for anyone, but almost impossible for the neophyte who casually decides he will give one a spin. To take a crack at the who-dun-it simply because he has tried most other types of slick stories is a mistake. Although he may be competent enough in slick fiction in general, the casual writer of the mystery story is, after all, only an amateur beside the man who devotes himself exclusively to mysteries. It's a case of the generally good swimmer competing against the specialized swimmer with a stroke that the specialist has devoted his life to perfecting. But, if you have in mind what you think is a fairly original mystery situation and want to write it, play the long shot—set your detective hero up for a repeat performance. About that detective—Sherlock Holmes is still the standing model. A detective-hero will have idiosyncrasies and have them a-plenty. He will proceed with a unique modus operandi of detection. He will be opinionated to the point of prejudice and extremely brilliant after his own peculiar fashion. And these highly individualistic traits will be placed in strong contrast by surrounding the detective with the fictional equivalents of everyday people . Usually, only one other outstanding personality will appear within the framework of the story. That is the crimm final, of course, and his individuality will not be apparent until he is revealed as the criminal. That's the classic setup. Variations, naturally, if effective, are as good or better.
Now back to the detective-hero. The smooth, cultured gentleman of leisure who dabbles in detection for his own amusement is not entirely passe in the slicks, but the writer will do better to establish a detective who, one way or the other, is in the detecting business. One currently popular detective is a sheriff in a cowboy town. Neither sheriffs as characters nor subtle detection separately are new to the slicks, but together, they are. A foreign detective operating in an exotic (the more exotic the better) land is good. A professional psychiatrist using psychoanalytic methods of detection would be a unique innovation. A reformed criminal depending on his special knowledge of crime, or a clever young patrolman, might catch an editor's eye. The point to be made is that a writer, working in a story form as well worn as the who-dun-it, must provide some originality. That originality can be the story's locale, the method of detection, the nature of the crime, a historical setting—really anything, just so the editor and finally the reader will not feel he has read precisely this tale before.
In a sense, the justification for writing this book lies in the fact that the trite story structure is not only sufficient for writing salable fiction but necessary. But a certain amount of innovation is always required. That tiny bit of originality the writer must provide himself, and no formula will tell the writer when the spark is the right one. That is the unknown factor in writing for the slicks. It is the commodity for which the slick publisher pays the writer twenty-five or fifty times the amount the pulp publisher pays. But more of that later.
The reason this particular plot-line was not defined as "The Identity of the Criminal Is Revealed" was to leave the way open for the inclusion of the non-detective, noncriminal identity story.
An ordinary housewife with an adolescent daughter is visited by her younger, recently divorced sister. The housewife has always resented the sister because of her apparent superior social grace. At present, though, the sister seems to be down on her uppers. One day, the housewife discovers that a hundred dollars is missing from her purse. When the possibility of having lost or misplaced the money is ruled out, the housewife begins to wonder why her sister, who has obviously been in need of money, has been anxious but unable to tell her something. She also observes that her daughter has been acting s trangely. The housewife is about to confront her daughter with the big question, when she finds that the daughter had been worried, not about having taken the money but about some petty school matter. That leaves the sister. The housewife waits patiently, and finally the sister decides to get off her chest whatever had been troubling her. She is deeply in debt, as the housewife suspected, and wants to marry again. Then comes the juvenile deus ex machina. The sister's five-year-old son turns up with the money, having taken it Innocently in childish play. In the process of discovering the culprit, the housewife is able to take care of both her sister's and her daughter's troubles, as well as free herself from her inferiority feelings in respect to her sister. That's the reader's extra premium.
Here is a genuine who-dun-it cast in familiar slick-story, home-drama terms. The classic mystery tale has been given new vitality.
Of the three suspense questions available to the writer of popular fiction, WHAT, HOW, and WHO, the last is the cleanest. The difficulties of breaking into the mystery field have been indicated, but the entire remainder of the slick-story world is open to the use of WHO-suspense. The "it" of the who-dun-it need not be a murder; it need not even be a crime. In fact, a complete reversal, such as a whodid- the-good-deed piece, is full of potential.