"My detective doesn't show all the clues to the reader! He's always detecting stuff that the reader doesn't know and can't know, and at the end when he figures out the mystery, he arrests the murderer for reasons that we aren't privy to and that no careful reading of the text will ever reveal."
The Whodunnit is a funny genre. Sometimes the author "plays fair"
with the readers, giving them all of the clues necessary to solve the mystery at the same time as, or even before, the fictional detective.
Others don't. This type isn't intended to be participatory at all, the reader is expected to simply come along for the ride, and no effort is made to provide the clues needed to solve the mystery. This latter form is the "Clueless Mystery", and is, in fact, the older form. (The "rules" of Fair Play Mysteries were only codified in 1928.) Due to its Older Than They Think
status, the Clueless Mystery can catch many modern fans off-guard, leaving them feeling cheated in a game that the author wasn't really taking part in.
One common indicator that you may be looking at a Clueless Mystery is the use of the First Person Peripheral Narrator
. By having the story told by someone other than the detective, the author has an easy way of explaining the missing clues: the detective knew about them and their significance, but the narrator didn't.
It's still going to fall into one of the categories of the detective story — a Whodunnit, Whydunnit, Howdunnit or Reverse Howdunnit. The difference is that the audience has no real chance to solve the mystery at all.
For example, Mr. Rich Guy has been killed. Characters A, B and C are established to have motives. Evidence points to characters A, C and also D, who doesn't have a motive but was suspiciously close by at the time of the murder. The real criminal however, is Character Z, who shows up in the last ten minutes as the waiter
serving the frustrated police officer his coffee. He hasn't appeared before (or he did, but just for 30 seconds), and he was never considered in the investigation,
but the protagonist reveals him as the culprit as the audience wonders what the hell just happened.
Despite normally being an author's "trademark" style, Clueless Mysteries often appear in the repertoire of usually-Fair Play Whodunnit
writers, particularly when they get fed up
with fans who start complaining
that the puzzles are "too easy
", or when a television mystery gets accused of being formulaic
. In these instances, all the usual ingredients for the standard Fair Play Whodunnit
are there. Bizarre murder methods. A nice little inheritance. A family who haven't given birth to a sane individual since the fifteenth century,
and lots of clues. But the audience that settles in for its usual clue-hunt is only going to have the rug pulled out from under them in the closing minutes or the last few pages. The clues that they can normally count on mean absolutely nothing. They're all red herrings, and the audience seldom gets any warning that the normal rules are off on holiday. As a one-off, often has the audience applauding and declaring "Well played, sir/ma'am!" Use it too often, however, and it's a different story.
The Clueless Mystery is very much a controversial thing. Some people hate them, and will swear off of (or at) any author who serves one up. Other people are quite content with them, as long as they know beforehand that it's not a Fair Play Whodunnit. Done badly, without warning, or under the guise of a Fair Play mystery, it can seem lazy at best, and insulting at worst, as if the writer is mocking the audience in an "I'm more clever than you!" kind of way. Done well, it can lend a human side to seemingly-infallible detectives, and reflect the real world, where there isn't necessarily an elaborate rhyme and reason to every crime.
The opposite of a Fair Play Whodunnit
. Has nothing to do with a certain Alicia Silverstone movie
. See also Smoking Gun Control
, where everything that would normally provide a clue inconveniently doesn't. Contrast Reverse Whodunnit
, in which the audience sees the crime as it is committed, complete with identifiable culprit.
When adding examples, please be cautious about adding Fair Play Mysteries that are simply devilishly clever or obscure. If the clues were there, it doesn't matter if they were easy to miss or misinterpret; it's not
a Clueless Mystery.
Examples below may contain SPOILERS
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Anime And Manga
- Detective Conan tries to play fair much of the time, but does cheat on occasion. One murder, for example, is solved because the victim left a clue that referred to his killer's maiden name. No, we don't get to know what that name is until The Reveal. Non-Japanese-speaking readers may also be left unable to put together some of the clues that rely on Japanese wordplay.
- Just about every mystery in Majin Tantei Nougami Neuro is one of these.
- In Spider Man comics, the Crime-Master turns out (after several issues of suspense) to be someone Peter's never heard of before.
- This was to be Green Goblin's secret identity as well, originally. Instead of someone he knew/knew by proxy, it was to be an absolute stranger.
- Not quite: Lee and Ditko always intended the Goblin to be Norman Osborn, who was seen as a Chekhov's Gunman member of Jameson's club issues before we ever even met his son Harry and learned of his name and identity.
- Also true for the criminal leader The Big Man, who was actually the nondescript newspaper reporter Frederick Foswell.
- When he first unmasked Electro, he joked that he didn't know who he was but that if it were a mystery novel, he'd shout "The butler did it!". Note: Electro's identity was not set up as a mystery and his real name, origin, and face were revealed to the audience early in the same story.
- Also Venom. The mystery of who the symbiote had bonded with after it left Peter was built up for issues and then it turns out to be Eddie Brock, a character that Peter's apparently heard of but readers had never seen before!
- Sin City usually utilizes this trope.
- One of Linkara's main problems with Identity Crisis is that the story follows this trope, but has to contrive unrealistic situations to explain why.
- Murder by Death ends with a parody of this, with each of the detectives delivering an increasingly convoluted solution, in the process revealing dozens of heretofore unknown facts about each other, all of which are apparently true and render most of the story incomprehensible and/or outright false. And then Lionel Twain, the victim, shows up and reveals that he did it, delivering a Take That speech against this trope:
"You've tricked and fooled your readers for years. You've tortured us all with surprise endings that made no sense. You've introduced characters in the last five pages that were never in the book before. You've withheld clues and information that made it impossible for us to guess who did it. But now, the tables are turned. Millions of angry mystery readers are now getting their revenge. When the world learns I've outsmarted you, they'll be selling your $1.95 books for twelve cents."
- And after everybody leaves, Lionel Twain removes his mask to reveal that the Poirot Expy's screwball solution was right.
- The Turkish Gambit, an adaptation of the eponymous Erast Fandorin book, changed the identity of the Turkish spy in the Russian camp. In the book, he was one of those the clues pointed to, while in the movie, all the clues were red herrings, and the real spy was somebody else entirely, whom Fandorin accused based on evidence never shown onscreen before.
- While the Harry Potter books are Fair Play Whodunnits, they tend to become this in movie format (mainly the earlier ones). For example, the second movie contains absolutely no evidence pointing to Ginny. In fact, she gets so little screen time that by the climax you probably won't even remember who she is. And The Reveal in the third film borders on nonsensical if you haven't already read the book. The fourth film, at least, rectified this somewhat by having Moody periodically drink Not Pumpkin Juice, which, coupled with references to someone possibly brewing Polyjuice Potion, at least gives you a chance to work part of it out.
- At one point, Fake!Moody does Crouch Jr's trademark facial tick (quickly licking his lips) - a trait that was not present in the novel - in front of Crouch Sr, to his horror.
- The Bone Collector — all that fuss, all that detective work, and the killer turns out to be ...Some guy introduced in the beginning of the movie; a newspaper headline glimpsed for about 2.2 seconds during the opening credits turns out to cover the killer's backstory. In the book, however, the killer had appeared before. Hell, he even had a Meaningful Name.
- In The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Allan Quatermain correctly deduces the true identity of the Big Bad, known simply as the Phantom. At no time, not even in the deleted scenes, is it ever explained how he figured this out. Exactly one clue is given, when The Dragon calls the Phantom by his real first name, but the name is such a common one (James) that it's hardly a clue at all.
- Three clues are given, but they are extremely obscure and easy to miss. His first name is called out "Run James!" the assistant who records his message addresses him "Ready to record, Professor" and his alias; M. Put it together and you have Professor James M - along with knowing he's a villain in a Massively Multiplayer Crossover version of Victorian London.
- Happens in the 2009 Sherlock Holmes movie with Robert Downey, Jr., where The Reveal at the end showing the whole "magic" premise as a facade involved several clues and details that were scarcely hinted at or never even mentioned. This is faithful to the original stories, which were not Fair Play Whodunnits.
- That said, all the crucial details do appear on screen; it's just that their significance is only obvious in hindsight. Such as the shower of accelerant, in the guise of harmless rain, that dooms one of the victims...
- Clue is this by necessity: three different endings were filmed, requiring all the clues to be vague enough that they could all fit.
- Edgar Allan Poe's C. Auguste Dupin stories are all Clueless Mysteries. In The Murders in The Rue Morgue, for example, the only clue Dupin and the readers both have is the testimony about "the shrill voice". Everything else that Dupin discovers the reader is completely unaware of.
- Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories predate the Fair Play convention, so most, if not all, of the stories are Clueless Mysteries. The solution often hinges on something that Holmes observes, but which is not described to the reader in sufficient detail for them to come to the same conclusion as Holmes does. In this case, the fun of the stories don't come from solving the mystery, but seeing the logic Holmes used to solve them.
- The portrait of Hugo Baskerville in The Hound Of The Baskervilles. Since the reader can't see the portrait or the criminal, there's no way to notice the striking resemblance that puts Holmes on the right track. The reader is presented with the crime scene and some background information. Since the stories are told from Watson's point of view, the reader only knows what Watson does.
- Right from the beginning in A Study In Scarlet, despite Holmes (correctly) describing the murderer's appearance and even how he got to the scene of the crime in detail from the clues in the room (see here), nobody even slightly resembling the murderer turns up until the last chapter of the London-based narrative.
- This is lampshaded within the stories, as Holmes himself frequently criticizes Watson for embellishing his investigations into "tasteless" action-drama novels to entertain the public, instead of properly detailing the "scientific methods" that Holmes' applies to solve them.
- In Gaston Leroux's The Mystery of the Yellow Room, the identity of the aggressor is only revealed with clues that the protagonist gathered off-page.
- Including the significance of the mysterious passphrase / Arc Words, that the protagonist knew before the novel even starts.
- However, the solution to the main mystery, which is how the murderer got out of a locked room surrounded by witnesses without being caught, can be deduced from the information, even though it comes off as a surprise. The victim was actually having a nightmare at the supposed time of the murder. The real murder attempt happened earlier and caused the nightmare.
- Owen Johnson's One Hundred in the Dark was a subversion considering it had a resolution where the victim came up with a solution which got her stolen property back. However, the result was she would never know who stole it in the first place.
- Zilpha Keatley Snyder's The Egypt Game has a terribly egregious example. The actual murderer is not a suspect and is only mentioned once in passing — if you're reading too fast you'll miss it.
- Done fairly well in Dashiell Hammett's The Big Knockover. A mob of over a hundred crooks lays siege to a bank, stealing a fortune and killing several people. The mastermind of the job then sets to killing every one of the crooks instead of paying them. At the climax, the surviving criminals and the detective, pretending to be one of them, hole up in a house to make a stand against the cops. The suspects are: a sympathetic thief, a magnificent bitch, her meek lackey, a dumb bruiser, and his naive girlfriend. So who's The Chessmaster? The meek lackey, introduced just a few pages ago, with an assist from his girlfriend the magnificent bitch. Upon finding this out, even the detective can barely believe it.
- The Nero Wolfe mysteries are often called Clueless Mysteries since, like the Holmes stories, the reader only knows what Archie knows, but in fact, Rex Stout was scrupulous about letting his readers know if Archie (and therefore they) didn't have enough information to come up with the solution himself before the grand reveal. Considering how often Nero deliberately kept Archie in the dark about one or more facets of the investigation, it's not surprising that some of the stories are effectively unsolvable for the reader.
- Like Nero Wolfe, Agatha Christie is often accused of writing these, although a careful rereading will usually reveal that the clues were there, but were insignificant and easily overlooked, obscure, or misleading. One noteworthy exception is And Then There Were None, where there are really only three clues to the identity of the killer, and all of them are deliberately written in a way that makes them nearly impossible to not be misinterpreted.
- There are only three clues that the judge himself admits to, but those aren't the only ones in the book. For example, isn't the fact that "U.N. Owen" summed up the accusations like a hanging judge and even asked if the "defendants" had anything to say in their defense a clue?
- There's also a major and obvious-in-hindsight clue given in the penultimate chapter where the police sum up the evidence: namely, that the gun was found outside of Wargrave's room, instead of in the room where Vera — seemingly the last owner of it and the last person alive on the island — hanged herself. Most readers are unlikely to spot this clue during their first reading, however, as the police unwittingly bark up the wrong tree entirely (and by extension, the unknowing reader too) by not even considering that anyone outside of Armstrong, Blore, Lombard, or Vera could have been the murderer, even when they systematically prove it impossible that any of these four could have done it.
- And in some of her work, it falls under Values Dissonance when someone has a working class name but an upper class job, they did it.
- Most books in the modern bookstore's mystery section fit this trope. These range from being unapologetic "crime stories" to "mysteries" whose charm lies in the characters and themes rather than a puzzle.
- Margaret Maron's Sand Sharks has this issue, though most of her books do not. In that book, however, the waiter did it. No, really.
- One Encyclopedia Brown vs Bugs Meany caper was titled "The Case of The Missing Clues".
- Parodied in The Conditions Of Great Detectives.
- In one Lord Peter Wimsey novel, the most crucial piece of evidence — an item missing from an oil painter's kit — is deliberately concealed by the author to make the mystery more interesting. It's just possible to figure out what it is, but it's maddening anyway.
- It's arguably still a Fair Play Whodunnit, as we are given a list of everything that is there, and Lord Peter merely deduced the item's absence from this list.
- In one of P. G. Wodehouse's collections of early short stories and articles, one article outlined his ultimate mystery novel. After the usual clues, suspects, and plot twists, the inspector reveals the true murderer is a man living in another county who was too smart to even appear in the book.
- The Westing Game turns out to be a case of this. The apparent "clues" are hopelessly cryptic red herrings to a mystery that isn't even real, and the actual clues to the actual mystery can only be found in hindsight, appearing entirely irrelevant at the time you discover them. This is intentional — the story's more about the interaction of the characters involved than the supposed mystery.
- Nearly all of Lawrence Block's Bernie Rhodenbarr mysteries are this. You'll know all the characters beforehand, but motivations, connections between characters, bits of evidence, and even whole sections of actions by the main character will be hidden from the reader until the final reveal.
- Each book of Tamora Pierce's The Circle Opens quartet had a crime central to the plot, requiring the four mages of the original Circle Of Magic books to play detective. The first two books were Reverse Whodunnits, where the reader knew from the start who was responsible. The third was a fair play whodunnit until it outright revealed its criminal early in the story (turning the rest of the tale into another reverse whodunnit). The fourth however, used the clueless mystery format, where the culprit was someone who had never been introduced to the reader, who the characters had no previous interaction with and who had no other importance to the plot. More observant readers might have worked out which group the killer belonged to, but the fact that neither reader nor heroes could identify an individual was part of the book's social commentary. Even after the murderer is revealed, we are told very little about them.
Live Action TV
- One episode of Doctor Who, "The Unicorn and the Wasp", is set up like a mystery novel. However, one important clue is a piece of Imported Alien Phlebotinum whose function is not explained or even hinted at until near the end of the episode. Which is rather appropriate since Agatha Christie is a character...
- What's funny about that episode is that, from the Doctor's perspective, it really is a Fair Play mystery, because he takes the evidence at face value. Christie is baffled only because she thinks the Doctor's pulling her leg with talk of aliens.
- There's actually two mysteries in the episode (who is "The Unicorn" and what's the deal with the 6' tall wasp monster). One is Fair Play, one is not.
- Midsomer Murders does this constantly, but then it stopped taking itself seriously a long time ago. Early episodes gave the viewer a fighting chance; later episodes pretty much acknowledged that the viewers' Willing Suspension of Disbelief was ironclad, started hanging lampshades everywhere, and opted to see how many bizarre murder methods they could employ instead of playing the Whodunnit? game.
- Done in several episodes of Monk's latter seasons, when the writing team abandoned the standard comedy/mystery format to just have a comedy episode that happened to have a mystery in the background but the audience isn't supposed to pay any attention to said mystery.
- One first season episode played this concept rather effectively both in-universe and for the audience. Sharona's son accidentally witnesses a murder in a hotel. Monk works with the head of security to investigate, but they cannot find any clues (with the few they do find disappearing). It turns out to be the cleaning staff, who simply cleaned up the scene of the crime and removed the evidence whenever it was discovered. They would have gotten away with it if Monk didn't figure out at the last minute where they hid the body.
- In the BBC adaptation of Agatha Christie's short story The Third Floor Flat, in an attempt to cheer his friend up, Hastings takes Poirot to watch a play adaption of a murder mystery, and bets him that he can't figure out the solution. Unfortunately, the attempt goes sour when the play serves up one of these, and Poirot is outraged that the vital clues weren't given to the audience. It's a clever lampshading, because the crime in the story has exactly the same flaws that Poirot criticizes in the play, including the servant who has means and opportunity being ignored, the last-minute reveal of two characters being connected rather than complete strangers...
- It should be noted, though, that those flaws don't exist in the short story the TV episode was based on; the whole "going to see a play" part is padding added for the adaptation, and there is no servant at all.
- CSI: Crime Scene Investigation likes to do this rather often, mainly by the team finding a lot of evidence that could point to one person...only in the final act to find a random piece of evidence that points to the real killer.
- Law & Order does this by dropping new clues every 5 or 10 minutes that appear to invalidate the direction all the previous clues were pointing at.
- Some episodes of House, such as "Baggage", where UV lights applied to the patient in the episode's last 10 minutes for a TB screening reveal that the patient had tried to remove a tattoo to which she was allergic. The tattoo wasn't removed fully, causing a prolonged allergic reaction.
- Veronica Mars pulled this with Lily's murderer. To quote Rowdy C:
"Yeah, all those clues you were collecting for the whole season to try to figure out who done it? They meant absolutely bubkis, because we left out the only clue that mattered until the very last act! Screw you, our loyal fanbase!"
- Arguably the show is an inversion because several times the audience gets clues that Veronica doesn't. (In the above storyline, for instance, the viewers get to see a few different instances of the culprit's temper/violence firsthand, whereas Veronica only hears about the events in passing, if at all.)
- Hustle has these, omitting essential parts of conversations, not showing important actions, and generally fooling the viewer (it is a show about con men, after all...). For a first time viewer this can come as a bit of a surprise.
- Elementary does this a lot, which is not surprising since it's based on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's work.
- Power Rangers Zeo had this with the arc introducing the Gold Ranger, whose identity is unknown to both the show's cast and the viewer. While there were a few possible candidates, most hints pointed at being the apparently retired ranger Billy, since he was never around when the Gold Ranger was, the Gold Ranger's zord combined with the other rangers' zords, the Gold Ranger saying he'd lose his powers if he told them who he was (explaining why he'd keep that a secret). But when the Gold Ranger's identity is revealed, it turns out be a completely new character that the viewers have never heard of.
- The Famicom Detective Club games have a knack for doing this, rather annoyingly since you'd think a game about murder mysteries would require you, the detective, to actually solve the case. Nah, you can get through the entire game by just asking every single question to every single person. It's basically just a book with a Rubic's Cube that must be solved before you flip the page.
- World of Warcraft is sometimes guilty of this. In preparation for unveiling something unknown, like the location of the next Sealed Evil in a Can or Infinity+1 Sword, the developers scatter clues throughout the game world... and then when the time comes to actually implement the thing that the clues point to, they find out that the story they had in mind doesn't fit with the new content. The Ashbringer storyline in particular has been an offender, and to some extent Varian Wrynn and Brann Bronzebeard's disappearances.
- Persona 4 is sometimes accused of this, since one of the major parts of figuring out the culprit in a mystery—the motive—isn't revealed until the murderer rants about it to the party during the Very Definitely Final Dungeon. That lack of a foreseeable reason for the killings is one of the main reasons why The Reveal comes right out of left field (unless the player is particularly Genre Savvy or metagaming).
- That being said, the murderer does make a couple crucial slip-ups that are major red flags if you're paying attention. They don't appear until you're already very close to the above-mentioned Reveal though.
- There are a number of small clues prior to The Reveal, which are extremely easy to overlook and are only really viable clues if you already suspect that character. For example, he likes to brag about how smart he is. The characters (and you, likely) think that he's being a Know-Nothing Know-It-All but he really, really means it.
- While the actual puzzles of Professor Layton are usually solvable and provide you with enough clues or hints to solve it on your own, the plot of each game is typically resolved near the end of the game with a bunch of clues that Layton found while you've been exploring and has been keeping coy about. They also have a tendency to incorporate some rather outlandish technology or other explanation into the mix.
- Umineko No Naku Koro Ni uses this trope as a plot point. Even the characters can't agree on whether its a Fair Play Whodunnit or a Clueless Mystery. Should be mentioned the trailer did say "No Knox. No Dine. No Fair".
- A large part of the mystery of Ghost Trick is figuring out the original identities behind the deceased player character Sissel and his ghost advisor Ray. While the game provides plenty of Foreshadowing that makes a large amount of sense once the truth is revealed, it is maddeningly hard to figure out the identities ahead of time, given that Ray's identity requires a leap in temporal logic that isn't expressed in such magnitude anywhere else in the game, and Sissel's former identity is a character who only appears two or three times in the entire game... and appears to be alive each time. That said, players can be proud of their astute detective skills if they are able to work out ahead of time that Sissel wasn't human.
- Scooby-Doo shows tend to lampshade this a lot nowadays, as the older shows used to do this a fair bit, having the culprit be a character who never appeared but would often be some criminal wanted in twelve states that the police were looking for but the characters have never seen before.
- Lampshaded in an episode of Whats New Scooby Doo? that took place in Greece. At the end of the episode, Velma (in a hydra outfit... don't ask) explains all the evidence that suggested that the archaeologist was behind the centaur attacks, and unmasks the creature to reveal... a woman that she doesn't know. (The audience does; she was the archaeologist's partner who appeared in the teaser before Mystery Inc. ever showed up.) Velma immediately starts complaining that this shouldn't count against her perfect record.
- Invoked & inverted in one episode of the series that took place in Paris. The gang has been finding clues and Freddy remarks "Clues, but no suspects". Velma gives "the fashion designer who would do anything to push his label" (Tony Stickfinger), "the jealous roommate" (Bonnie Bjork), "that gothic gargoyle groupie" (Sonny, a present day Quasidimo). Daphne adds "that slimy sliver screen star that hang glides" (Guy L'Averton). Daphne sets a trap by disguising herself as her cousin, Dannica LeBlake for the Gargoyle but screws up with Sonny — but the garygole turns out to be Dannica LeBlake herself, who wanted get out of the model business and have a normal quiet life like Daphne. This is lampshaded by Velma who remarked, "If she only knew."
- A similar but goofier example occurred in A Pup Named Scooby Doo where, after going through the usual theories, the monster is revealed as "Someone we've never seen before!" This time, though, they know what's going on; this man was disguised as a woman that they met earlier.
- Scooby Doo Mystery Incorporated lampshades it in "Revenge of the Man Crab", where the primary villain is a character who only appears for a few seconds after the intro, and in "Aliens among US" where the villains are the three people on a Wanted poster we see for a few seconds.
- Parodied on The Grim Adventures Of Billy And Mandy, where Mandy reveals that an evil circus ringmaster is really (beneath a dozen disguises) a common earthworm. When Billy voices puzzlement that Mandy figured this out, she and Grim tell him that the (nonexistent) clues were there all along: he (and the audience) is just stupid enough to have missed them.
- Then there's the Harry Potter parody when Mandy shows up at the climax and reveals that she found a clue offscreen. And had it analysed by the FBI Crime Lab in Quantico, Virginia. The clue in question is dust. Specifically, dust from a cheap latex mask, like the one the perp wore.
- Used in many episodes of The Sylvester And Tweety Mysteries.