First, you’re going to need to know about this show Whodunnit?. It’s a summer reality show where thirteen contestants awkwardly puzzle through murder mysteries, like those “How to Host a Murder” games. Except every week, somebody gets “killed,” so maybe it’s more like a reality show version of the Agatha Christie novel And Then There Were None. It’s pretty awful, but it also hits my reality show buttons.
One of the reasons it’s bad is that so much of it is obviously staged. But apparently someone thought the problem was that things weren’t staged enough. And as a result, there’s a Whodunnit? novel. You don’t see a lot of novelizations of reality shows, and now I know why.
The premise of Whodunnit? Murder in Mystery Manor is that it’s a fictionalized season of the show. There’s a mansion and a butler and guests who get killed one at a time. And every time there’s a murder, the guests have to decide which area they’re going to investigate, and then they swap information and make guesses. It’s exactly the format of the show.
But it’s an idealized version of the show. It’s what the producers of the show wanted the show to be like. In the real show, there’s a pretty big mansion. It’s big enough that each contestant gets his or her own room, which is pretty rare in reality show mansions these days. But in the book…
The estate grounds covered almost forty acres of land. A huge, well-manicured lawn surrounded the mansion. A modest lake, West Lake to be precise, sat one hundred yards east of the mansion, complete with two boathouses and three large docks. Forest extended out beyond the lake and toward the outskirts of the estate grounds on all sides.
A large garden spilled out from the back of the mansion adjacent to a sprawling granite-and-slate patio with nine sets of stone tables and benches, several grilling stations, and a recreational gaming house. A lush pool surrounded by palm trees and other assorted tropical plants dominated the center of the patio area. Behind it stood a two-story pool house that most people would have been proud to call their permanent residence.
Elsewhere, sprinkled throughout the estate grounds, one could find a stable stocked with horses from some of the country’s finest breeders; a large, detached garage with enough room to house at least thirty-five automobiles; a small, now-defunct winery; and a well-manicured hedge maze.
In the show, the murders have a small amount of special effects involved. In the book, there are giant helicopter crashes. It’s all the same sort of thing, but much bigger. And much more ridiculous.
SO LET’S TALK ABOUT THE BOOK
The book starts out ridiculous, with the first two and a half chapters being devoted to providing background and motivation for Giles. That’s the butler. On the show, he just delivers the next plot point. It’s like if you had a book describing a fictional season of Survivor and started out with three chapters explaining how Jeff Probst got there and why he can’t just leave these people alone. In this case, it’s because Giles has been told that his family will be killed if he doesn’t read out these sinister orders and poems. Aren’t you glad you know that?
Taken on its own merits, this is a terrible book. Each episode of the show has several standard scenes: there’s a murder, then the contestants decide which scene to investigate, then each of the three scenes get investigated, then information gets shared, then there’s a riddle, then everyone explains their theories, then people find out if they’re spared or scared. So the book has to have all of those scenes. But the book represents an entire season, so it has all of those seasons over and over again in the same order. It gets pretty dull to run through the same format over and over again.
It’s also not a satisfying mystery. In a regular whodunnit, the characters are interested in figuring out who committed the murder. But these people are only interested in how the murders are performed. There’s no thought given to finding out who might have had a motive for all these murders. Or prying into each other’s backgrounds to find out who’s lying about who they are. Or even trying to see if everybody had an equal chance to set up these elaborate deathtraps. It’s all means and no motive or opportunity. And that sort of makes sense on the show, but it’s weirdly empty as a book. For some reason, I don’t mind a ridiculous framing device on a television show, but as soon as it’s in written form, I start questioning the motivations of the crazy character who set this whole thing up for no reason. Call it the Chairman Kaga Principle.
It’s especially odd because the book is written in the third person omniscient voice. That means that we’re constantly seeing into the minds of the characters as they go about their business. As soon as we’re past the three chapters of Giles-centric description, we start getting things like this:
The tub itself was a thing of absolute beauty and perfection, unmatched by almost anything she’d seen before. It was a clawfoot tub, larger and deeper than any she’d been in previously. The four claw feet were made of polished silver, and even she could plainly see how expensive they were. But the tub also had Jacuzzi jets. Twenty-eight, by her count.
She’d long dreamed of owning a tub like this. Antique styling, modern amenities. That was Guadalupe’s taste in a nutshell. She knew from her own searching that tubs like these often cost at least $3,000, usually more. It wasn’t that she couldn’t afford one. At least, technically that wasn’t true. She did have the money. But at the same time, such purchases were reserved for retirement. She had to prioritize her budget until then.
Setting aside the descriptions of luxury (which just make me wonder about the author’s obsessions), note that we’re told here that Guadalupe has never been in this nice a tub before. So that means it’s not her estate, so she’s not the killer. In fact, most of the characters get moments like that. All you have to do is notice which character’s mind we never see inside.
Verdict: Read The Westing Game instead