General Question

weeveeship's avatar

Is it possible to write a mystery story without revealing who the culprit is?

Asked by weeveeship (4584points) July 12th, 2011

There will likely be clues throughout the book pointing to a certain character, but that character is not actually caught or revealed to be the culprit. The point would be for the audience to guess and ultimately decide for themselves which of the characters was the true culprit.

P.S. Feel free to let me know of any known mystery novels that do not reveal explicitly who the culprit is. I would be very interested in reading them.

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18 Answers

CWOTUS's avatar

Dickens’ last novel: The Mystery of Edwin Drood was never resolved, as the author died before it was finished.

You may elect not to go that route.

SpatzieLover's avatar

In real life we often don’t find the culprit. As long as the story takes twists and turns and points to one or a couple of characters that have possible involvement it should be intriguing.

Jeruba's avatar

Readers of mystery stories expect to find the answer at the end. The mystery genre has very definite conventions, and that is one of them. Part of its appeal is that it offers a kind of satisfaction that many or most other genres do not: the villain is unmasked and justice in some fashion is done. It is not meant to resemble real life. Mystery readers do not want to be tricked into reading something that doesn’t deliver on the promise.

PhiNotPi's avatar

Of course it is possible. Sometimes key details to the story are never revealed to the reader. Take the Series of Unfortunate Events. There were entire books focused on the search for a mysterious suger bowl, but no book ever reveals what was inside the suger bowl. A plot element that is never revealed to the reader is called a MacGuffin.

flutherother's avatar

Arthur Machen once described a novel he was planning to write which would depict the lives of the characters in such a way that only the cleverest and most perceptive of his readers would discover the ‘atrocious or a banal reality’ as he called it, that could be deduced from their behaviour. I don’t think the novel was ever written.

Zaku's avatar

Hmm, interesting.

I can’t think of an example of one where the culprit isn’t revealed at all.

In Agatha Cristie’s Curtain, Poirot is sure who the culprit is, but hasn’t been able to build a case, without doing something very extreme. Not the same as you suggest.

There are some where there can be multiple culprits with with same story leading up to the end. In fact, there are many like that, where something near the end makes it suddenly clear that it was C, not A or B. But the more extreme version is like the tongue-in-cheek film of the game Clue, which screened with random endings for each of the characters.

And that nature of many mysteries, where there is no way to tell, has me rarely interested in trying to solve a mystery myself, even if I may be entertained enough to watch and find out the solution. They often seem way too fake and contrived and unbelievable and poorly-characterized. Even many of the better-done ones seem just too difficult to make the effort, and more or less impossible to figure out, so again I just wait and find out.

Dutchess_III's avatar

Hmmmm….I think people would turn away from future books because that one would leave them feeling frustrated and unfulfilled.

WestRiverrat's avatar

You could reveal the culprit at the end of a series of books, maybe with each book being told from a different character’s perspective. Until the final book from the culprits perspective that reveals it all.

@Dutchess_III unless the book is part of a series and the culprit is revealed by the end of the series. There are many science fiction trilogies that work on a similar formula.

Jeruba's avatar

@WestRiverrat, I wouldn’t trust an author who did that. I wouldn’t read past book 1.

Science fiction has different conventions.

Plucky's avatar

I think it’s possible. However, I do not think it would be very popular. Most readers of that genre would be quite disappointed at the end; many would probably never go near the author’s work again. I would not like a book such as that. The gratification of reading a mystery novel comes from the suspense, twists/turns and finding out who did it in the end.

I wholly agree with @Jeruba and @Dutchess_III.

weeveeship's avatar

Would a story like Inception be considered mystery?

i.e. What if the genre was changed, but the plot still involves crime, suspense, etc?

Zaku's avatar

How about one where the crime is apparently solved and justice served, but it is possible to notice that they missed something and to figure out that someone else must have done it?

Meego's avatar

Sure it’s possible just look at the classic story of Jack the Ripper

6rant6's avatar

I think it’s a great idea. You’d better write your before I steal it.

filmfann's avatar

There was a video mystery about 27 years ago, where if anyone solved it by a certain date, they would receive $1,000,000. People watched the video, worked on the clues, but no one solved it. The date then passed.
The company involved then announced there would not be a winner.
Then refused to explain any of the clues, or reveal the answer.

King_Pariah's avatar

Why not? I’ve seen movies that pull that off fairly well so why would a novel be possible as well?

WatchingPreacher's avatar

Stephen King does this in “The Colorado Kid”. A LOT of movies also never reveal the culprit – Zodiac and Memories of Murders spring to mind. So yeah – it’s absolutely possible. It depends on the writer how good it is though – I didn’t like Memories of Murders for this (and a lot of other) reasons but loved Zodiac simply BECAUSE of this reason.

As always, it lies in the execution – if you’re writing a mystery story where the culprit is never revealed, you must choose to focus on something else. Zodiac focuses on its characters – their reactions and psyche regarding the case. How they ruin their lives trying to solve this thing, and eventually doesn’t solve it at all.

So if you plan on not revealing who the culprit is, you need to have another in. Why should I want to read a mystery novel without an answer? Well, because it portrays excellently the characters’ need to solve it, or to show how bureaucratic police work is, leaving millions of small road-blocks whose consequences are that the murderer gets away with it. Or you could do as in Memories of Murders, where (if I remember right) it is incredibly, hugely vital and important for the Country and the Police Department that the two main detectives solve the case, but its too much of a burden to bear. After going at the case in a completely wrong and stupid way, they’ve essentially burned all bridges and can’t bear it anymore. Blame it on sloppy and idiotic cops, but when the pressure is on and they needed to solve it fast, they made some mistakes. These early mistakes leads to them not being able to solve it, and the murderer gets away with it.

My two cents, is all. (notice how a lot of these stories are based on real-life killings? Such as Zodiac, Jack the Ripper, Memories of Murders, etc.).

CWOTUS's avatar

This sounds a little bit like what Stewart O’Nan did in Songs for the Missing. It’s a very moving book, but it’s not even a sure thing whether it’s a murder mystery. It’s a powerful book, for sure.

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