The growing interest in choice-based stories in games and television, as well as my own interest in the perennial popularity of mystery and detective stories led me to finally read Who Killed Harlowe Thrombey? (1981) by Edward Packard, an early title (#9) on the original Choose Your Own Adventure books.
How do you make a choice-based whodunit interesting? One of the things that keeps us reading or watching a whodunit is that, after the crime is discovered at the beginning, the reader / audience is given snippets of information, which they try to piece together to be able to anticipate the solution to the crime before they reach the end of the story. Reportedly, this is what led Agatha Christie to write her first mystery novels, challenged by her sister to write a story that the readers could solve before reading the solution. But how does giving the reader choices change the challenge? (Partial spoilers ensue.)
Turns out that Packard was actually pretty smart when writing his book. The mystery itself is a paint-by-numbers mystery (millionaire gets poisoned in countryside house, and all the suspects are people who could benefit from his death), and the reader can choose different places to go to, different people to talk to, or different stories to pursue, as the blurb of the book describes. More interestingly, at a certain point the reader can actually give up on the investigation, thus forfeiting the chance to learn the solution to the case.
And that’s what makes the book compelling–a whodunit in the end tells the reader / audience what the solution to the mystery is, which can be satisfying even if one did not get anywhere near figuring out the solution. But here the reader has to pursue the solution, and in order to get all the details of how the murder happened has to actually re-read and choose different paths in order to get all the information that they’d traditionally get by just continuing to read or watch. At a certain point, the reader is told “if you’re sure you’ve solved the murder, go to page 122”, which would seem to be a shortcut for them to learn the solution even if they don’t really know it. But it is really a red-herring – the paragraph just tells them that they’re calling the police inspector Prufrock and say they have the solution, without providing any additional information or solving the case. The reader must actively pursue all the pieces of information.
For my first read-through, I figured out who one of the culprits was (there’s actually more than one) and then the protagonist was immediately killed, which was not very satisfying as a reader, but it was a very clear message telling me to try again. And this is one of the achievements of the book – it does encourage re-reading in ways that choice-based games don’t often encourage – the recent Overboard being an exception – at times because of their length, at times because there is not a sense that what the player may be missing is that interesting at all.
The book also manages to make some of the choices very dramatic – one of the early choices involves joining the victim to the dinner where he will be killed. This allows the reader to witness part of the events directly, including hearing Harlowe Thrombey’s last words. In one of the branches, one of the culprits misrepresents those last words, which makes the reader realize they are lying – but the reader has no agency to act upon that information, it is a revelation for us instead of the detective protagonist. One of the options leads the protagonist to say he has a recording of Thrombey’s last words, which feels wrong if the reader has actually read the passage with Thrombey dying on the protagonist’s arms. This is also not a choice – the protagonist does it for us. But it leads to a satisfying ending – the culprits reveal themselves and get arrested, while the reader learns that the recording was a bluff. While the reader does not have agency in this resolution, the gap between the reader and the protagonist gives way to a compelling dramatic moment.
The book thrives on this gap – while the protagonist keeps trying to solve the case in each potential branch, the thrill for the reader is to collect and contrast the information with every read-through, carrying out an investigation of sorts while exploring the different choices in the story. The detective work takes place at the meta-level, outside of the story, which turns what is otherwise a trite murder mystery low on characterization into and interesting and charming read. The book creates a loop for the reader, in consonance with the fashionable mysteries on a loop that we have seen in traditional fiction as well as games, but in a work written almost four decades ago.