Mystery Fiction and the Whodunit
Like most of Christie’s stories, ‘‘The Witness for the Prosecution’’ is best described as a mystery. Mystery fiction usually centers on a crime or transgression that has been committed, with the bulk of the plot devoted to determining who is responsible for the crime. This type of story is also known as a ‘‘whodunit,’’ since the main goal is generally to find out who committed the crime, how they did it, and why. The person resolving the mystery is often a detective or investigator of some kind, and many authors—like Christie— use a detective character who is featured in several stories or novels.
It is generally accepted that the mystery genre in modern literature owes its origins primarily to a single author: Edgar Allan Poe. In works like ‘‘The Murders in the Rue Morgue’’ (1841), ‘‘The Mystery of Marie Rogeˆ t’’ (1842), and ‘‘The Purloined Letter’’ (1844), Poe laid the foundations for the genre: a scandalous or sensational crime perpetrated by an unknown entity; a detective, often an amateur not directly affiliated with the police, who undertakes to solve the mystery; the presentation of clues to the reader, just as they are available to the characters within the story; and the use of logic and reasoning to arrive at the correct solution. These conventions were expanded upon and refined by writers such as Wilkie Collins, with his novel The Moonstone (1868), and Arthur Conan Doyle, whose detective Sherlock Holmes is perhaps the most famous literary creation of the mystery genre and one of the best-known characters in all of literature. After Doyle, Agatha Christie was instrumental in further pushing the boundaries of detective fiction, bending and even breaking some long-standing conventions that had both defined and limited the genre for decades.
Legal Procedural Fiction
Procedural fiction is concerned with depicting the steps involved in a specific process. The most common type of procedural is the police or crime procedural, in which a detective or investigator goes through the steps necessary to solve a crime. The story usually begins with the commission or discovery of a crime and ends with the perpetrator being caught. Police procedurals are considered one type of mystery fiction. Legal procedurals, usually considered a part of the mystery genre, focus on the details of the trial and sentencing process, and feature at least one main character who is a lawyer involved in the case. Since the term ‘‘procedural’’ has become closely associated with the mystery genre, not all literary works concerned with legal proceedings would be classified as procedurals, For example, the plays Inherit the Wind (1955) by Jerome Lawrence and Robert Edwin Lee and The Crucible (1953) by Arthur Miller rely on a courtroom setting but do not feature a mystery component as the driving force behind the story.
In many legal procedurals, the case has been ‘‘solved’’ incompletely or incorrectly, which leads to a trial. It is up to a lawyer for either the prosecution or the defense to discover the truth and prove the defendant’s guilt or innocence. Legal procedural fiction is often considered a part of crime procedural, since many works include both the police investigation and trial as different parts of a single case. It is worth noting that the author considered to be a pioneer of the police procedural—Lawrence Treat—was also a lawyer.
Sara Constantakis – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 31, Agatha Christie, Published by Gale Group, 2010