Clues, red herrings, and whodunnits: words you need to solve a murder
Perhaps you’re considering a weekend away in an English country house, or maybe you’ve got an upcoming trip on the Orient Express. Either way, you arrive, meet the other guests, and unpack your bags. After a meal – and maybe a glass of port and a game of bridge – you bid goodnight to your fellow guests and head to bed. Who knows what tomorrow will bring?
Whodunnits, howcatchems, and cosy crimes
Perhaps (and, knowing Agatha Christie’s novels, probably) there will be a murder. But what kind? A whodunnit or whodunit is a detective story in which the identity of the culprit is not disclosed until the end. The term emerged in the 1930s as a non-standard form of who did it?, and is probably the inspiration for the more modern howcatchem – an inverted detective story in which the person committing the crime is revealed at the start, and the plot follows how the detective identifies them.
If you shy away from the gore found in hardboiled crime novels, cosy crimes (or cosies) might be more your cup of tea. Usually set in a small village and following an amateur detective, they tone down blood and violence and replace it with humour. The term was coined in the late 20th century as authors tried to recreate the Golden Age of detective fiction: the period between the world wars in which Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, Josephine Tey, and many others wrote what we would now call classic crime fiction.
Sherlocks and gentleman detectives
But back to the task at hand: perhaps you will discover a body in the library. ‘Oh no!,’ you cry. ‘There’s a murderer amongst us!’ Somebody shrieks and drops their glass, the vicar lights his pipe, and a woman with a red handbag is undoubtedly having hysterics in the corner. Unless you are a real-life Sherlock, it’s time to call in the experts.
If you are lucky, you may have a gentleman detective in you midst; an amateur detective and member of the British gentry who, along with his trusty sidekick, solves the crime in record time. Notable examples of these are Lord Peter Wimsey or Paul Temple, created by Dorothy L. Sayers and Francis Durbridge respectively, who use their social status and superior intelligence to solve many a mystery.
In fact, the word detective itself has interesting origins. Although not used as a noun until the mid-19th century, the verb detect (from the Latin detegere, ‘to uncover’) was used from the mid-1400s with the meaning of ‘to give someone away’.
If you don’t have an amateur in your midst, you might need to turn to a private eye. The term is itself a bit of a riddle: the eye is a pun after the initial letter of investigator, incorporating the idea that the detective has preternatural powers of vision. Should an American be amongst your number, they might demand you call for a gumshoe – another term for a detective, from gumshoes in the sense ‘sneakers’, suggesting stealth.
Once the sleuth has arrived, you might take a moment to ponder on that word’s curious origins. The noun originally meant the track of a person or animal, from which the canine breed sleuth-hound took its name (a bloodhound with a keen sense of smell, used in tracking those scents). Sleuth-hound began being used metaphorically for human investigators in the 19th century, and this was quickly shortened to sleuth. It wasn’t until the early 20th century that sleuth began being used as a verb ‘to investigate’.
Clues and red-herrings
Once the detective has arrived, it’s time to start hunting for clues. Clue is a variant of the Late Middle English clew, a ball of thread. If you remember your Greek mythology, such things can be very handy when guiding people out of labyrinths – much as a detective unravels a mystery to solve a crime.
But be careful of any false clues laid to throw you off the scent. No detective novel is complete without its share of red herrings – clues that are intended to be misleading or distracting. The scent of dried, smoked herrings, which were turned red by the smoke, was used as a distraction when training hounds in the mid-18th century.
And what if the detective, upon finding a handkerchief or lipstick, cries ‘Cherchez la femme!’? Literally ‘seek the woman’ in French, the catchphrase was first used by Alexandre Dumas in his 1864 work Les Mohicans de Paris (in the form cherchons la femme) and it is used to indicate that the key to a problem or mystery is a woman, and that she need only be found for the matter to be solved.
The murder will out
You’ve helped the detective gather evidence, side-stepped red herrings, and used your ‘little grey cells’. It’s time for the grand finale. You gather your fellow guests in the drawing room and take a seat by the fire-place. The lady with the red handbag sits quiet; the vicar lights his second pipe. ‘The murder is out!’ cries the detective.
Not used only for murder, the murder will out (or is out, if you prefer) has been used from as early as the 14th century for when something surprising is revealed. The detective explains the crime in detail and, with a flourish, points to the lady with the red handbag. She sobs, attempts to deny everything, then confesses. The police are called, congratulations are given, and she’s led away.
You examine the candlesticks on the mantelpiece. ‘Anyone for billiards?’ asks the vicar.