In 1944, the American literary critic Edmund Wilson wrote an essay for the New Yorker called “Why Do People Read Detective Stories?” With admirers of the form including objects of Wilson’s own study, like modernist poets W.B. Yeats and T.S. Eliot, the question was a vexing one. Wilson worked his way through several mystery novels and remained unmoved.
“You cannot read such a book,” Wilson wrote, “you run through it to see the problem worked out.” One target of his critique was the British novelist Agatha Christie, who had just published her book Death Comes as the End. At the pleading of his peers, Wilson had read it, and was not impressed.
In this new novel, she has to provide herself with puppets who will be good for three stages of suspense: you must first wonder who is going to be murdered, you must then wonder who is committing the murders, and you must finally be unable to foresee which of two men the heroine will marry. It is all like a sleight-of-hand trick, in which the magician diverts your attention from the awkward or irrelevant movements that conceal the manipulation of the cards, and it may mildly entertain and astonish you, as such a sleight-of-hand performance may.
In response, Wilson was treated to an onslaught of correspondence complaining about his disrespect for a genre widely beloved by American readers. He later described “letters of protest in a volume and of a passionate earnestness which had hardly been elicited even by my occasional criticisms of the Soviet Union.”
Wilson addressed these complaints in an essay the next year called “Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?” — the title targeting yet another Christie novel, Who Killed Roger Ackroyd, strangely not addressed in the text. Here Wilson issued his verdict: “my final conclusion is that the reading of detective stories is simply a kind of vice that, for silliness and minor harmfulness, ranks somewhere between smoking and crossword puzzles.“ You might say they fall into the same general category as amusement parks.
Having read nearly all of Christie’s novels, and being an avid viewer of TV mystery serials, I don’t entirely agree with Wilson. For one thing, I find the distinction between high and low art, between literary fiction and genre fiction, to be mostly the product of wishful thinking on the part of adherents of either. But the experience of being carried through a narrative to its conclusion is indeed one that mystery fiction sets out to produce. Hence the portmanteau whodunit, standing in for the question to which the reader or viewer eagerly awaits the answer.
Star Wars: The Last Jedi director Rian Johnson’s recent film Knives Out appears as the most au courant possible iteration of the very old detective story form, still taking its classically British shape. Though initiated by an American, Edgar Allen Poe, the modern incarnation of the genre was shaped by writers in England like Arthur Conan Doyle, Dorothy L. Sayers, and, of course, Agatha Christie. You know the formula, even if you don’t like detective stories — maybe from a parody, maybe from playing Clue. It all takes place in an opulent setting of the kind that the American crime novelist Raymond Chandler, in his essay “The Simple Art of Murder,” called “Cheesecake Manor.” Someone, probably a family patriarch, is found dead. A detective arrives. Along the way there are revelations: someone is having an affair, someone is in the closet, someone has a dark secret in their past that, in the end, is irrelevant to the matter at hand and has been revealed for no good reason. If there is an encroaching threat of boredom, we might be treated to a second murder. At the conclusion, the detective assembles the suspects in a drawing room and summarizes the preceding course of events in exacting detail, filling in any and all blanks unknown both to the audience and to all assembled except the culprit.
Raymond Chandler knew whereof he spoke, having grown up in England but dedicating himself to asserting the American language in his work. In “The Simple Art of Murder,” he laments the dominance of “murders scented with magnolia blossoms,” stories set in mansions shut off from the rabble of the city. There remains a general fascination with this setting among the American audience, as embodied by phenomena ranging from Masterpiece Theatre to The Great British Baking Show, in which all that is missing is a corpse.
“This, the classic detective story, has learned nothing and forgotten nothing,” said Chandler. “It is the story you will find almost any week in the big shiny magazines, handsomely illustrated, and paying due deference to virginal love and the right kind of luxury goods.”
There are some troublesome features to this subgenre. One of England’s longest-running TV mysteries, Midsomer Murders, is notable for not including any people of color among its characters for its first 14 years. In a 2011 interview, producer Brian True-May called the show “the last bastion of Englishness.” He argued that the inclusion of “ethnic minorities” wouldn’t fit, “because it wouldn't be the English village with them.” This expression of white nationalism is surprising for its frankness, but the tendency it describes is all too familiar. No wonder Tory Prime Minister David Cameron called Murders his favorite show.
Knives Out is savvier, self-aware enough to be considered a spoof, but with an earnestness at times bordering on preachiness. A New England setting and stately country house establish the format, and yet contain jarringly modern, American signifiers — references to New Yorker profiles, Instagram, and Hamilton; a cast of characters including an alt-right teenager addicted to his phone and a college student described as majoring in “SJW studies.” Daniel Craig adopts a cartoonish Cajun accent as private detective Benoit Blanc, transferring the exotic demeanor of Agatha Christie’s odd little Belgian, Hercule Poirot, to Louisiana. Craig’s chewing of the (always charming) scenery would be overshadowed by Lakeith Stanfield’s deadpan police investigator had their performances been granted equal screen time. In a fashionable, winking metafictional gesture, the murder victim is himself a mystery novelist, Christopher Plummer’s Harlan Thrombey.
The movie’s first sequence is its most effective: one by one, the members of the Thrombey family are questioned on their recollections of the murder. This produces a Rashomon effect, as we see the same sequence of events from slightly different, or contradictory, perspectives. The possible motives that begin to emerge are variations of the old classic: greed. (The story is almost devoid of sex.) The structure shifts upon the arrival of the one missing member of the family, with the confusingly Dickensian name Ransom, played by Chris Evans. At this point, a new question arises, besides the central who-done-it: who will inherit the wealth and property of the deceased?
These are classic questions in the genre. By the time the modern detective novel was born, patronage of fine arts coexisted with a system of mass media. Developing concepts of wealth and ownership became a subject of representation in artworks of various forms, as well as a means of distribution. As John Berger wrote about oil paintings in his 1972 book Ways of Seeing:
Works of art in earlier traditions celebrated wealth. But wealth was then a symbol of a fixed social or divine order. Oil painting celebrated a new kind of wealth — which was dynamic and which found its only sanction in the supreme buying power of money. Thus painting itself had to be able to demonstrate the desirability of what money could buy. And the visual desirability of what can be bought lies in its tangibility, in how it will reward the touch, the hand, of the owner.
Property is a key plot point in Knives Out, as the housekeeper Marta Cabrera, played by Ana de Armas, is named as the sole inheritor in Thrombey’s will. But signifiers of wealth also appear on a smaller scale; the movie has literally boosted sales of chunky cable-knit sweaters like the one worn by Ransom Thrombey as he whisks Marta away from the house in an attempt to conspire with her.
A digression: while I have no sympathy with the conflation of fan culture with some kind of ethical code, I sympathize with the aversion to spoilers. Our daily lives are so predictable that a plot twist can be our only source of uncertainty. There is a utopianism to the experience of a mystery; it allows us to imagine we do not know what will happen tomorrow. That being said, the rest of this essay contains vague spoilers, not only for Knives Out but for a series of unrelated mysteries to which I intend to compare it. Proceed with caution.
After the questioning sequence, Blanc and Marta partner for a real-time investigation. Without the coherent repetitive structure of flashbacks, the plot takes on an ornate baroque structure. The movie is in love with all the attendant flourishes of the genre, granular details that may not necessarily contribute to its outcome; as the details add up, they begin to seem both elaborate and gratuitous. In Johnson’s past work, he adopted the qualities of American detective fiction, like that of Chandler’s — at times it worked, as in the high school film noir Brick, at times not, as in the hardboiled sci-fi Looper. But Knives Out is more like his installment of the Star Wars franchise, The Last Jedi, serving as a machine to trigger associations to its referent — in this case, Christie’s body of work. What it lacks is a sense of obligation to make the core of its plot consequential.
In many of Christie’s major works — Who Killed Roger Ackroyd, The ABC Murders, Murder on the Orient Express, or And Then There Were None — the entire notion of the whodunit is overturned. Christie calls into question either “who,” or “it,” or both, by means of a self-referential resolution of the narrative. Respectively: the narrator did it, the person we witnessed doing it did not do it, everyone did it, everyone dies. This accomplishment is emulated in cinematic form by the movie Clue, which takes advantage of its medium in a manner that, in retrospect, looks as much like a daring Brechtian experiment as the commercial gimmick it also was. Its most direct subsequent attempt by an acclaimed filmmaker is probably Robert Altman’s Gosford Park, which shows so much enthusiasm for cameras winding down hallways and overlapping conversations that the time between the murder taking place and its explanation being given takes up only a small fraction of the movie’s duration.
Knives Out makes a cautious reference to Clue — the house is described as itself being like a Clue board — but its conclusion is most remarkable for being banal. If it is surprising, it is only for a knowingly comical level of detail. But this is at the expense of the real potential merit of the form. By the end of the film, any seeming narrative ambiguity established by shifts in perspective is dispensed with — everything is exactly as it seems. Marta, the beautiful young heroine, really is a saintly innocent, who was not culpable for any wrongdoing. Harlan Thrombey, the victim, really was an honorable old paterfamilias with no skeletons in his closet. Benoit Blanc, brilliant detective, really is an infallible genius, who knew, in the back of his mind, what was actually happening all along. And, of course, Ransom Thrombey, the sinister black sheep of the family, really is the villain.
After all is revealed, in a more action-packed version of the traditional drawing-room soliloquy, good triumphs over evil and no questions are left unanswered. The story falls into a trap that Wilson described as afflicting even his favorite crime writer, Chandler: “the explanation of the mysteries, when it comes, is neither interesting nor plausible enough. It fails to justify the excitement produced by the elaborate build-up of picturesque and sinister happenings, and one cannot help feeling cheated.”
The failure to surprise has a more disappointing implication. The movie’s heart appears to be in the right place, with the working-class immigrant triumphing over the venal family that employs her, a wish-fulfillment that has led many commentators to describe the movie as a repudiation of Trumpian politics. Indeed, the boorish, privileged scions of the Thrombey family are easily read as proxies for the Trumps, and deserve defeat.
But what happens when Marta wins? All that happens is this: she gets the house. Property passes from hand to hand, within a system that will continue to allow the holders of obscene wealth to designate its inheritors. There is certainly pleasure in seeing the villains get their comeuppance, both in reality and in fiction. But we have not been able, in the process, to imagine that something unexpected could take place.
There was a redeeming quality in work like Chandler’s, Wilson acknowledged. “It is not simply a question here of a puzzle which has been put together but of a malaise conveyed to the reader, the horror of a hidden conspiracy that is continually turning up in the most varied and unlikely forms,” he wrote. This is how the best of crime fiction represents reality, by defying the ideological constraints that lead us to take events at face value — the official narrative, the conventional wisdom, the stereotype. When everything is just as it seems, we’re trapped in Cheesecake Manor, no matter who holds the deed.