Admit it. You used to watch “Murder, She Wrote”, or currently watch “Castle”. You have probably seen one of the “CSI” shows. You have probably seen so many tv shows in which someone gets killed that you can predict, with some certainty, “whodunnit”.
You have probably not codified this process. You have probably not sat down and figured out all the cliches and all the repeated, limited ways there are to divert attention away from the bad guy. You just instinctively know.
Well, my friend Bob Ingersoll has done this, thus saving us all a great deal of effort. Thank you, Bob.
Bob wrote these “rules” out last month. They make eminent sense. So, for the first time ever, and perhaps the only time, here on Bevboy’s Blog, I have a guest column, courtesy of Bob Ingersoll.
Please read carefully. There will be some spoilers in this post. People who read this post and then watch some of the movies or TV shows I'm talking about will have the identity of the murderers revealed. So proceed at your own risk after this
After years of reading murder mysteries in books and comic books and watching murder mysteries on TV and in the movies, I have developed several rules all based on cliches of the genre and all of which have served me pretty well in those years. And still do.
I have the MONTE MARKHAM RULE. It goes: Excluding the short-lived PERRY MASON revival in which Markham played Perry Mason, any time you see Monty Markham in a murder mystery, HE dun it!
I remember once watching an episode of MURDER, SHE WROTE and seeing his name as a guest star in the opening credits. Mind you, not one minute of the actual episode has bee shown, just some stock footage with the title of the episode, the guest start (in alphabetical order), and the writing and directing credits. NO plot. I said, "He did it," and my wife asked me who. I said whomever Monte Markham is playing did it. She asked how I could know that, when not one second of actual story had been shown and I explained the Monty Markham rule. My wife watched the episode with me and had me point out which character was Monte Markham, when he appeared. I think she was hoping the rule would be wrong, because she was almost angry when, at the end, he did it.
I have the RULE OF THE SUPERFLUOUS CHARACTER. That one goes: in a murder mystery if one of the supporting characters seems to be getting more screen time than his or her character deserves, he or she is probably the killer. (This doesn't work in a pure whodunnit, of course, as it must be stocked with several suspects all of whom must get some degree of screen time.) Where it works is other murder mysteries, ones which aren't whodunnits just murder mysteries. Basically, this character is given more screen time this his or her importance to the story would merit, so that the viewer can't complain that the murderer was a minor and unimportant character. So, when a character is given more screen time this his or her importance to the story would seem to merit, I scream "The Rule of the Superfluous Character" and suspect him/her. It seldom lets me down.
The best example I can give is an episode of the old Smothers Brothers show FITZ AND BONES, which aired for about a month back in 1981. It was about a TV reporter in San Francisco (Dick) and this bumbling cameraman (Tom). In one episode they're investigating some crime (if memory serves it was a series of arsons). Fitz and Bones cover these arsons. And each time they show up to cover one, they find a female reporter and her camera man already there. After a while Fitz starts to suspect the the reporter is starting the fires, so that she can show up to cover them first (with her prior knowledge of where and when to be) and thereby build up her reputation.
I noticed after about the first fire that any time Fitz and Bones were scooped by this news team, Fitz would have a conversation with the news woman. But Bones would always have a conversation with her cameraman, as well. It was never as long or as detailed a conversation as Fitz was having with the news woman, but it was always there. I realized, “Hey, this cameraman is getting more screen time than he really merits for this story.” And I realized he would have the same motive (build up the newswoman's reputation and he could ride along on her coattails). So my suspicions latched on him. And I wasn't wrong.
Another rule which often works (and this one works either for crime dramas or whodunnits) is the RULE OF THE FAILED ATTACK. If one of the suspects suffers an attempted murder (that is someone tried to kill him or her but failed for some reason) that person is the killer, who faked an attack to divert suspicion. Recently, when TCM ran the Rathbone/Bruce Sherlock Holmes movies and I watched them all, it happened twice. One character had a failed attack on his life, he faked it to divert suspicion and was the murderer. Same ploy was used in one of the Philo Vance novels and movies (I won't mention which one) which I saw sometime last year and one of the stupid Matt Frewer Sherlock Holmes movies that ran on Hallmark (which I saw recently and again I won't mention which one).
Agatha Christie used this play incessantly. It got to the point that any time I was reading an Agatha Christie novel and one of the characters had a failed attack on his or herself, I suspected that character. I was right every time. One time, the character was a nine-year-old girl and when she had the failed attack, I said, "Well if Agatha's following her usual ploy, this girl is the murderer." She was.
And, finally, here are a few of other rules of thumb that frequently point to the murderer in bad whodunnits:
1) If one of the characters has what seems to be an iron-clad alibi, he or she is the murderer. (I remember an episode of the 1994 BURKE'S LAW revival in which Doug McClure is the highest bidder an an auction and is killed with the statute he purchased. Two of the people at the auction weren't actually in Los Angeles, one was in Paris and the other in Hong Kong and they participated in the auction by closed-circuit television hook-ups. I immediately suspected one of them because they had the perfect alibies (how could they kill a man in Los Angeles when they were on another continent?) When only one of them showed up in the list of guest stars, I knew he was the killer. (He faked his alibi, of course, by setting up a closed-circuit broadcast from his hotel in Los Angeles and pretending it came from France).
2) If one of the characters is color-blind he/she is the murderer.
3) If one of the characters is left-handed he/she is the murderer.
I once submitted a Superman story to Julius Schwartz called "Eliminate the Impossible" in which Superman solves a murder mystery where, as a joke, I made one of the suspects the butler, one left-handed, and one color-blind. I really wish he had bought it.
I followed that up with this post:
And there is of course, those times when someone who would go on to be a huge Hollywood star appears in a murder mystery early in his or her career before he or she is a huge star and is the murderer. I remember watching an installment of one of the more famous mystery series of movies in which a huge star is one of the suspects and thought, well he (or she) can't be the murderer he (or she) is ... (Fill in the blank with said performer's name. And when you do it, do it in all caps, it was that big a name.) Only the movie was made before he or she was ... (Fill in the blank with said performer's name. And when you do it, do it in all caps, it was that big a name) and he or she was just a young character actor. And was, of course, the murderer.
(which was a reference to AFTER THE THIN MAN.)
Hope this helps.
Thanks, Bob. I’d add one more to the list. If you watch a show in which there is a recognizable guest star, a person who was formerly a star of his own show or played a big part on a show, then that actor is playing the guilty character on the show you’re watching. There are so many examples of this that it isn’t funny, but the one I’ll use involves D.B. Woodside. He played a prominent role on “Buffy, the Vampire Slayer”, and, later, on “24”. I saw him recently on “Castle”. When I saw him, before he had said a word, I thought, “He did it. He’s the murderer!” And, he was.
What are your murder mystery cliches, my friends?