The Success of the British Whodunits

Ever since Sir Arthur Conan Doyle penned the popular stiff-upper-lip stories concerning a very astute, savvy Brit named Sherlock Holmes and his partner in crime-solving, Dr. Watson, the American reading public has become hooked on British Whodunits, especially those set in the Victorian or Jazz eras.

Their world is another world, so unlike our own modern one. The characters speak an English that is part proper, part charming, and filled with English words and slang we don’t always readily recognize. Gaspers are cigarettes, bricky means you are brave or fearless, a church-bell is a talkative woman, and a bin liner is what we Americans call a trash or garbage bag. It’s English, but in a delightfully “new” lingo.

Authors of these British murder mysteries (there is always a murder or an attempted one!) excel at suspense, often successfully misleading readers by convincingly creating a least-likely suspect as the villain in their stories. We’re kept guessing until the end, when the culprit is revealed with subdued panache.

Many times, there are certain casts of characters and specific settings in these novels. There are usually upper-class inhabitants and a secluded English country manor involved. A large house, owned by someone old and rich is a good plot starter, as is inviting a number of friends and relatives for a long weekend. A murder is committed during the first night, and the guests then become suspects. Though the police are called, the murder is invariably solved by a detective who just happens to be invited along for the weekend or is a friend of the owner of the house.

In these Whodunits, the detectives are rarely professionals. The sleuth in a British murder mystery is more likely to be a savvy, upper-class, “modern” woman, with a strong no-nonsense attitude and a need to get to the bottom of it, or an astute, nosy retiree—usually a retired academic or an idle male aristocrat who delights in complex puzzle-solving. It is never someone from the local police. These crime-solvers are rational and detached, and when a murder needs to be solved, these are the very qualities you want in your detective.

British Whodunits take us away from the hum-drum daily grind. We love to escape into the brilliant prose, complex and very proper characters, and fascinating stories. 

Besides the ones we already know by Agatha Christie and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, there are some newer very nicely written Brit detective novels in series form, including the Irene Adler books, involving Sherlock Holmes, by Carole Nelson Douglas (though Nelson Douglas is an American, her Holmes-ian mysteries are spot-on British) and the Amory Ames Mystery series by Ashley Weaver. All are solid reads and have great characters and satisfying endings. A true British invasion, and it’s all good.


Kristen Houghton is hard at work on the third book in the Cate Harlow Private Investigation series to be published summer, 2016. The second book, Grave Misgivings, is available in print and ebook versions. Kristen is a linguist and the author of nine top-selling books. Before pursuing writing full-time she was an educator who taught the languages and cultures of Italy and Spain.


  1. Kristen Howell

    Yay to the Brits!

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