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Partie II. Subversive or New Forms

Twists and Turns in Crime Fiction—Peter Lovesey’s “Youdunnit” and Max Dorra’s “Thou shalt kill”

François Gallix
p. 125-131


Cet article en forme d’enquête tente de suivre la piste ouverte par l’Oulipien François Le Lionnais et repris par Umberto Eco, selon laquelle la seule hypothèse jamais exploitée par le roman de détection serait celle où le coupable est le lecteur. En réalité, deux auteurs ont désormais rempli ce vide: Peter Lovesey avec “Youdunnit” (1989) et Max Dorra avec “Vous permettez que je vous dise tue” (1999).

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1I must first warn you that many names will be revealed in this narrative that involves several people. In fact all of you, readers are from now on considered as potential culprits simply because you are, because we are all guilty of reading crime fiction!

2It all started at the Sorbonne a few years ago when I was giving a talk about The Moonstone (1868) by the British author Wilkie Collins, the novel which was hailed by T.S. Eliot as “the first, the longest, and the best of English detective novels”. (We can consider Edgar Allan Poe’s “Murders in the rue Morgue” (1842) as the first detective short story in literature). In this lecture, I had included the following quotation by the Italian critic and novelist Umberto Eco, who wrote in Reflections on the Name of the Rose (1983):

It seems that the Parisian OULIPO group has recently constructed a matrix of all possible murder-story situations and has found that there is still to be written a book in which the murderer is the reader. (78)

3During the discussion that followed, Delphine Kresge – a P.D.James specialist – said that this had, in fact already been done, by Peter Lovesey in a short story entitled “Youdunnit” (1989), included in a book called The Crime of Miss Oyster Brown and Other Stories published in 1994 .

4This was to be the beginning of a pleasantly twisted textual investigation which I am going to unfold before you. As every reader and writer of detective fiction knows, one is never quite sure where one is going to end when pulling the first string.


5The first thing I found was that what had inspired Umberto Eco was a four page essay entitled “Structures of the detective novel – who is the guilty party?” written by François Le Lionnais on January 12th 1969 and included in Oulipo La littérature potentielle (1973).

6With Raymond Queneau, François Le Lionnais was one of the founding fathers of a literary group “Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle” (Workshop for Potential Literature), set up on November 25th 1960, favouring potential literature and the mathematical and ludic patterns of literary works.

7Thus Raymond Queneau had written his sonnet of “Cent mille milliards de poèmes” (1961) made out of ten fourteen line sonnets (translated into English by Stanley Chapman) written on separate paper strips so that the reader could rearrange them in one hundred thousand billion ways.

8The OULIPO movement includes mathematicians, poets, novelists, like Jacques Roubaud, Jacques Jouet, Italo Calvino, the American author Harry Mathews.

9There was also Georges Perec who published La Disparition in 1969 (A Void), the longest lipogrammatic novel in the world – a book written without ever using the letter “e” (the most frequent letter in French). In 1972, he also published Revenentes, (The Exeter Text), a univocalic novella in which, on the contrary the letter “e” is the only vowel used.

10Perec’s last unfinished novel before he died, entitled 53 days, is an amazing detective story which was edited by the Oulipians Harry Mathews and Jacques Roubaud and published in 1989. It includes the first eleven completed chapters, Perec’s synopsis of the next seventeen and his own 140p. dossier about the book, so that the reader can reconstruct the whole literary crime story whose title is the first of many cryptic clues as it refers to the fifty-three days it took Stendhal in 1839 to write La Chartreuse de Parme (The Charterhouse of Parma ).

11One of the aims of the OULIPO is to study all the rules and constraints of writing, to invent new ones and to claim that, once they have been adopted, just as in poetry, those set rules do not hinder artistic creation. As Umberto Eco put it: “It is necessary to create constraints, in order to invent freely” (Reflections on the Name of the Rose, 25).

12Part of their project is to find new structures, new rules that writers could follow in their own texts. In fact, Le Lionnais’s essay “Who is the Guilty Party” initiated the foundation of the Oulipopo sub-group: Ouvroir de Littérature Policière Potentielle (Workshop for Potential Detective Fiction), in 1973. Its aim is to dissect known or possible situations and mechanisms in novels of detection and in hard-boilers.

13Thus in 1986 Jacques Barine published Les Vains Commandements – a novella claiming to be the worst detective novel in the world by using an inverted constraint consisting in breaking every single rule for writing detective fiction set up by Van Dine in Cosmopolitan in 1928.

14In his essay, François le Lionnais also gave a list of various possible hypotheses for whoever could be the culprit in a novel of detection and by so doing posed as many unanswered questions as he gave clues.

15- The examples of unusual culprits in his list are Satan (incarnated in the murderer) or God.
- Two allusions easy to clarify are:
- An animal as the culprit – a plain reference to Edgar Poe’s already mentioned short story in which an ape is the killer: “Murders in the rue Morgue”.
- The narrator as the culprit – One remembers the scandal created by Agatha Christie when she was accused of breaking the rule of fair-play betwen author and reader by making the narrator the culprit in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (1926).

16Another very stimulating category le Lionnais envisaged was the case in which the culprit had his (her) name on the book cover. This could be, according to him:

  1. the author of the book (not being the narrator). No suggestion was made and I leave this for you, readers, to solve. In which book is the author the culprit?

  2. the publisher ( Le Lionnais suggested a humorous tale by P.G.Wodehouse, but gave no title). So here was another mystery to solve. In which short story (he wrote more than ninety) did the British novelist – the creator of the unforgettable Jeeves, the butler – make of the publisher of his book the culprit?

17A few phone calls and e-mails to Evelyne d’Auzac – who wrote her thesis on Wodehouse put me on the right track. It could not have been Summer Moonshine (1937) where there is a dishonest publisher: Mortimer Busby, because his fictitious name is obviously not on the front cover of the book. The right answer seems to be Wodehouse’s first publisher, Jenkins.

18But even more puzzling, at the end of his text, François Le Lionnais claimed that he had himself discovered a rational solution (neither supernatural nor a hoax) to make the reader the culprit, and that he would present it at a solemn session of the OULIPO in the expectation that a writer might wish to make use of it. Here was another string to pull.

19I contacted Harry Mathews, the American Oulipian author who divides his life between the United States and Paris. He answered me from Key West and advised me to read his recently published Oulipo Compendium. (1998) and to contact a Oulipopian, Paul Gayot. In his letter (November 19th 1999), headed “Cymbalum Pataphysicum” (a reference to Alfred Jarry’s famous College of Pataphysics) and signed “votre oulipopote”, Paul Gayot told me that, according to him, François Le Lionais’s solution to the case of the guilty reader remained potential and that it had never been presented officially.

20Apart from a collective text with the Argentinian Luis Borges, Histoire des échos d’un loup (with pastiches of Conan Doyle, Chesterton and Ellery Queen), the Oulipopians quoted Jean-Louis Bailly’s novel published in 1990 La Dispersion des Cendres (A Scattering of Ashes) as solving Le Lionnais’ problem. Indeed, in the book, a character wishing to end his life has written a detective story and when the royalties reach a certain amount, they automatically send into action a killer hired to murder him. The readers are actually the willing culprits since the advertising strip around the book’s cover reads: “If you buy this book, you are a murderer. If you read it, You will know why”.

21But even before Jean-Louis Bailly, Peter Lovesey had taken up Le Lionnais’s challenge with his “Youdunnit”, published in 1989, thus proving that every hypothesis suggested by the OULIPO had finally been tried.


22“Youdunnit” is an eight page short story – which is just right to conform to Edgar Allan Poe’s standard of “unity of impression” according to which it should be read all in one sitting. The reader is immediately and irresistibly asked to penetrate within the story from the very carefully coined word of the title: “Youdunnit”. In every short story, the title always plays an important part as it is necessarily included on the same page as the text of the story itself, so that it really is the incipit, the very first words of the text.

23The puzzling pronoun “You” is immediately repeated and isolated on the page, just to make sure you have heard and understood that the main character of the book you are reading is no one else but you.

24Indeed you are literally asked by an unknown character (“someone”) in the text to “step into the story” (172) after being duly warned only to do so if your heart and strength can take it, because it is a murder mystery.

25This is followed by a short metafictional exchange (inclusion of detective books within detective books) as in many crime stories, in order to pay homage to famous predecessors, to freshen up the readers’ knowledge in the genre, and to give them a pleasant group feeling. Edgar Poe and Dorothy Sayers are thus mentioned. The allusion to Agatha Christie and The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is followed by a very ironical “mise en abyme” fully justifying and explaining the title and filling in Le Lionnais’ last blank: “One of these days I fully expect to find out that the reader did it. Not so much of a whodunnit as a youdunnit” (174).

26And when you show your scepticism by smiling nervously and by saying: “That would be stretching it” (174), little do you know that the next moment you are going to find yourself being accused by that strange man who seems to know everything you were doing on the last Saturday of August, including that bottle of Champagne Perrier Jouet seventy nine which happens to be the weapon you used to commit your crime. And there, one should perhaps remember that Peter Lovesey won the Champagne Veuve Clicquot award for short story in 1985! Would there, by any chance, be a connection?

27Of course I am not going to tell you the whole story – which contains many surprising developments that climax in the final double twist revealing where you are and why and a few hints about the possible identity of that strange man.

28Just to give you a clue I will draw a parallel with an early short story written by Graham Greene entitled “Proof Positive” in which a man giving a talk about spiritism tells his audience that “the spirit outlives the body”. And he certainly knows what he is talking about because, as a doctor whispered: “The man must have been dead a week”.

29To come back to Peter Lovesey’s short story, the revelation in the end brings back certain ironical clues in the narrative, like the unlikely suggestion made by the strange man that he had known G.K.Chesterton, the allusions to a “blazing row”, sentences like “there was hell to pay with all that evidence”, “to be still as the grave”. There was also the fact that the man had a book in which he was constantly writing and some of the words he used, like “Speak that which thou knowest and no more, for by thy words shalt thou be judged », which were the right words in this place, according to him! (179).

30One way for the author to involve every reader is to remain uncertain about the narrator’s sex. In “Youdunnit”, Peter Lovesey made every effort not to include any word that would imply a choice between male and female for his reader as a culprit, thus using words like “spouse” instead of husband or wife.

“Thou shalt kill”

31The opposite solution was chosen in a very recent French short story published last April, written by Max Dorra in which the reader is also the culprit: “Vous permettez que je vous dise tue?” – a title with an almost untranslatable pun. Max Dorra himself suggested the following adaptations: “Words always strike twice” or “Killing me softly with his Words”. I would risk “Thou shalt kill”.

32After stating that “This is a detective story”, the short story – which is going to be included in a novel with a wellsian title “La Machine à déplier le temps” “The Machine to unfold time”, continues with the beginning of Rousseau’s Confessions, but instead of the famous “et cet homme ce sera moi” (and this man, will be me), Max Dorra has substituted “it will be you” [...] I am going to tell a murder story. Normal for a detective novel. The problem is that you are the murderer. Yes, you”.

33The whole story, filled with epigraphs from Poe, is a long address to the reader, so that it adds one more puzzle about the identity of the narrator (which is revealed in the end). The text continues as an Oulipian mathematical problem, the characters being given letters instead of names: you are A, you love B and you have killed C because you were jealous of B. At one point, Max Dorra decided to make of A a male: “We’ll say then , A, that you are a man and that B is a woman”.

34The way you killed is one part of the mystery, but the final revelation is about the identity of the narrator when “vous” becomes “tu(e)”.

35One may wonder when this is going to end and whether the OULIPOPO still has any new hypotheses to find. Fortunately, the challenge seems to be endless.

36Thus in 1993, Pascale Fonteneau published a short novel Etat de lame (another pun, which – with the author’s permission, I would propose to translate, with a Whitmanesque allusion, as “Blade of Grace”). It starts like this:

I have been stuck for so long between a hand-grenade and a kalashnikov that the violence of their steel has become mine[...] so that I am surprised that a hand may still approach me, feel me before holding me firmly. [my translation]

37This voice thus addressing us readers throughout the novel is that of the blade of a dagger in its velvet casket whose point of view we share from its first word to the end of the narrative.

38Well, daggers can talk if authors, creators so wish. After all in A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters (1989),the British novelist Julian Barnes (who also wrote detective novels under the name of Dan Kavanagh) decided to have a worm as his narrator retelling his (her) own version of The Flood, the woodworm being a stowaway on Noah’s Ark and giving his/her very unusual point of view.

39When will we reach the extreme limit? Or had we already reached it when in Tristram Shandy published in 1759, Laurence Sterne made of the reader the author of part of the book when he included a blank page in his chapter seven and wrote: “All I wish is that it may be a lesson to the world, to let people tell their stories their own way.”

40Man’s imagination fortunately seems to have no limits.

41About those hypotheses for new narratives, François Le Lionnais wrote that “It might be thought that these new possibilities are rare. I reject such defeatism, convinced as I am that there are paths that remain untrodden” (264).

42So it is now up to you, readers as active participants in the construction of modern texts of pleasure to tell the authors in what sort of crime fiction you would like to be included in their next “youdunnit” to turn their story into a “you’vereadit”!

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Bailly, Jean-Louis. La Dispersion des cendres (A Scattering of Ashes), Paris, Laffont, 1990.

Dorra, Max. “Vous permettez que je vous dise tue?”, La Nouvelle Revue Française, n°549 (avril 1999), p.117-38.

Eco, Umberto. Reflections on the Name of the Rose (1983), tr.William Weaver, Seckert and Warburg, 1985.

Fonteneau, Pascale. Etats de lame, Paris, Gallimard, Série Noire, 1993.

Lovesey, Peter. The Crime of Miss Oyster Brown and Other Stories, London, Little, Brown and Company, 1994. “Youdunnit” (1989), p.172-80.

Mathews, Harry, Alastair B, Oulipo Compendium, London, Atlas Press, 1998.

Oulipo—La littérature potentielle, Paris, Gallimard, 1973.

Perec, Georges. “53 jours”, édition de H. Mathews et J.Roubaud, Paris, P.O.L., 1989.

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Pour citer cet article

Référence papier

François Gallix, « Twists and Turns in Crime Fiction—Peter Lovesey’s “Youdunnit” and Max Dorra’s “Thou shalt kill” »Sillages critiques, 6 | 2004, 125-131.

Référence électronique

François Gallix, « Twists and Turns in Crime Fiction—Peter Lovesey’s “Youdunnit” and Max Dorra’s “Thou shalt kill” »Sillages critiques [En ligne], 6 | 2004, mis en ligne le 01 juillet 2009, consulté le 22 juillet 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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François Gallix

Professeur Émérite de Littérature anglaise, Université de Paris IV-Sorbonne

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