Why CLUE is the perfect mystery

Broken by James Patterson

Nothing could tear Detective Michael Bennett away from his new wife except the murder of his best friend. NYPD lead homicide investigator Michael Bennett and FBI kidnapping specialist Emily Parker have a story. When not reporting to FBI headquarters in Washington, DC, Bennett ventures outside of its jurisdiction. The investigation he undertakes is the most brilliant detective work of his career…and the most intensely personal. A portrait begins to emerge of a woman as adept at keeping secrets as she is at forging powerful bonds. A woman whose enemies had the means and motives to silence her—and her protectors.

There are certain elements of murder mystery novels that we’ve come to expect. The crime scene. The suspects. Tear. Investigation. And then there’s the shocking revelation of what really happened, all backed up by the evidence that was established earlier in the story. Of course, you can probably think of many mystery novels that incorporate elements of it. But what is the real murder mystery story that brings all these essential parts together? Index.

Sure, Index was a board game before being adapted into a movie in 1985. But we are talking about the movie Index here. Index is a dark comedy mystery film directed by Jonathan Lynn and written by Lynn and John Landis. But one of the things you probably remember the most from this iconic film is the ensemble cast, starring Tim Curry, Madeline Kahn, Eileen Brennan, Christopher Lloyd, Michael McKean, Martin Mull and Lesly Ann Warren.

When it was released in December 1985, Index was initially a bit off. In general, critics weren’t fans, and the film only earned $14.6 million at the box office. But since then, the film has become a cult classic, with many people revisiting the film and re-examining its merits.

Aside from the stellar cast and wonderful comedic performances (from Tim Curry in particular), what’s the biggest reason this movie remains a fan favorite nearly 40 years later? You guessed it. This is the mystery well constructed. So, mystery writers everywhere are taking notice. Here are the things that make Index the perfect murder mystery.

Adjustment

Setting is such an important aspect of any murder mystery story, and Index uses one of the most popular parameter types for this genre. It’s a locked room mystery. The closed bedroom mysteries really amp up the tension because the murder happens in a closed setting where no one can escape. This means that someone among the characters is definitely the murder. And all the other characters are probably in danger.

In Index, seven strangers are invited to dinner at a remote New England mansion. After it is revealed that one of the guests – Mr. Boddy – blackmailed the rest of the guests, the lights go out and when they come back on, Mr. Boddy is on the floor, apparently murdered. Someone in the room is guilty of committing the crime, but who? No one will leave the mansion until the murderer has been discovered.

The suspects

Because Mr. Boddy was blackmailing all the guests, every one of them is a suspect. Upon arriving at the mansion, they are given the aliases of Colonel Mustard, Mrs. White, Mrs. Peacock, Mr. Green, Professor Plum, and Miss Scarlet. And then, of course, there’s the butler Wadsworth and the good Yvette. Neither is above suspicion either.

This setup creates an interesting mystery as each character rightfully feels like they could be the murderer. And every time you come close to pronouncing someone clearly innocent, a twist occurs in the story to bring them all back under suspicion again. It’s actually surprisingly difficult to accomplish for a lot of murder mysteries. Even for murder mystery novels that present a wide range of potential suspects, one or two often end up becoming prime suspects soon enough. Or one seems like such an obvious suspect that it becomes clear it can’t be that person. The beauty of Index is that the eight main characters are real suspects, until the very end of the film.

Voltage

Yes, for a successful murder mystery, there must be a murder. But that can’t be where the tension ends. From the start of Index, the stakes are raised, and they keep rising as the story continues. After Mr. Boddy is murdered, Wadsworth informs the guests that he has called the police and that law enforcement will arrive at the mansion in 45 minutes. This gives everyone exactly that amount of time to solve the murder. So right now the clock is ticking.

The tension doesn’t end there, however. As the characters investigate the house, revelations are made, secrets are uncovered, and yes, more and more people end up being murdered. Granted, a murder is needed to get the ball rolling in a murder mystery, but the stakes must be raised throughout the story to keep viewers (or readers) interested, and Index is able to accomplish this expertly.

The end(s)

Another thing you probably remember Index even if it’s been a while since you’ve seen the movie? Terminations. There are actually three different endings to the film. When Index was originally released in theaters, each theater was given a different ending for the movie, meaning you couldn’t be sure which ending you were going to see, even if you had seen the movie before.

To be fair, not everyone liked the film’s multiple endings. In his review, Gene Siskel said, “Think about it. If we know [that there are three different endings] walking into the movie, then we really can’t get too excited about guessing the thriller because literally anyone could have done it. And anyone has. Three different people did it. And it cuts the heart from the tension of a mystery. Either Paramount should have shown all three endings. Or, better yet, just beef up the storyline and choose the best ending.

This may be part of the reason why the film was more successful after its theatrical release. When the film was released for home viewings, it included all three endings, with the additional information that the first two endings could happened, but that the third ending was what really past.

The reason I would say all three endings work is because all of the endings are supported by evidence from the beginning of the movie. The final ending is the strongest ending because it makes the most sense when tied to other story details. Technically, you can’t guess the ending of this one because three endings are totally possible. However, isn’t that a little disappointing when guessing the ending anyway? With the best murder mysteries, you’re given enough detail to make the ending feel deserved, but you aren’t given so much detail that the ending seems obvious. Index does it perfectly.

What to read if you like Index

Sure Index is a silly comedy based on a board game, but as a murder mystery it really is works. And dare I say it works a lot better than a lot of crime novels! But if you like Index, and want to read books that tick some of the same boxes, there are plenty of books – classics and new – that you should put on your reading list.

It’s clear that Index is partly inspired by the classic thrillers of Agatha Christie. books like Murder on the Orient Express and And then there was no more feature a wide range of suspects in locked room situations. The classic mid-level novel The Westing game also has major clue vibes, with a slew of characters working together to solve the mystery.

For more recent mystery novels, check out the works of Lucy Foley, whose novels The hunting party, the guest list, and The Parisian apartment all feature multiple suspects and plenty of twists. And then there’s Rachel Howzell Hall They all fall which is a great update on an Agatha Christie classic. And of course there’s the recent Clue Mystery YA trilogy based on the board game (the first book is In the knife room) by Diana Peterfreund.


Looking for even more mystery recommendations? Try the top ten mysteries with a twist, be sure to listen to Book Riot’s Read or Dead podcast, and check out the rest of our Mystery/Thriller week for even more mystery content.

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