1935 I Am a Thief movie ad

Whodunit? Figuring out who coined this popular term for a murder mystery is a whodunit itself. Like classic examples of the genre, this particular mystery has no shortage of “suspects.” But, unlike book, movie, and theater examples, the suspects in this case — or their supporters — proudly and openly claimed that they were the ones “who done it”.

Those supposedly “guilty” of coming up with the term include: American News of Books columnist Donald Gordon (the prime suspect for almost a century); the show business trade paper Variety; and the movie director Michael Curtiz (on the set of a Perry Mason mystery).

But, in fact, the first use of the term preceded the examples from any of these.

Introducing Mae Tinée

Mae Tinee
Frances Peck, a.k.a. Mae Tinee

The earliest use I’ve found of the term in print comes from a pioneering film critic for the Chicago Tribune named Frances Peck who wrote under the punny pseudonym “Mae Tinee” (later modified with an accent mark to “Mae Tinée”). She, in turn, may have taken the idea from a colleague on the Tribune, theater critic Frederick Donaghey.

Peck, described at her death in 1961 as “one of the nation’s early full-time motion picture critics” (Chicago Tribune, May 9), started writing for the Tribune in 1909, interviewing stars of the stage, including several who later acted in motion pictures. (e.g.Billie Burke, H.B. Warner, Maxine Elliott, and others).

In 1914 she started writing about the growing motion picture industry, including a Tribune column called “Answers to Movie Fans” where she answered questions submitted by readers.

Answers to Movie Fans - by Mae Tinee
Chicago Tribune, June 24, 1915, Page VIII-5

Peck (or Tinée) “cultivated a snappy, idiomatic writing style,” according to a profile of her by Richard Abel on the website of the Women Film Pioneers Project. She clearly had an interest in newsroom slang; one of her early columns for the Tribune began with an explanation for readers of such terms as “hunch,” “scoop,” “cub,” “graveyard,” and “morgue” that she was picking up from her newspaper colleagues.

In October 1929 — she’d been on the movie beat for a decade and a half by then — her review of The Unholy Night (directed by Lionel Barrymore with a script by Ben Hecht) concluded with these lines:

‘The Unholy Night’ proceeds fast and fascinatingly to a smashing climax, dealing out laughs and gooseflesh as it moves on its mysterious way. You’ll agree with me, I’m sure, in thinking it one of the best ‘whodunit’ films ever produced.

Mae Tinée. “The Unholy Night.” Chicago Tribune, October 5, 1929, p15.

But while Peck may have been the first to come up with the grammatically and orthographically incorrect “whodunit” version of the term, there were clear precedents.

Who-Done-It and Who-Did-It

The aforementioned Frederick Donaghey, theater writer for the Tribune, used the term “who-done-it” several times between 1924 and 1928. The earliest — with an extra word at the front — was in a June 1924 column (“This and That.” June 29, 1924, Part 8, p2) in which when he described Arthur Lamb’s play The Amber Fluid, playing at the Shubert Princess, as “a melodrama of the guess-who-done-it” type.”

(There were movies titled “Who Done It” even earlier, but the 1924 example is the earliest I’ve found that uses the term to describe a genre of story, in book, theater, or film form.)

The “who-done-it” version of the term was also used in a 1928 headline for a Mae Tinée review of the movie Perfect Crime, although she didn’t use the term herself in the review.

Review with "Who-Done-It' headline
Chicago Tribune, October 28, 1928, Part 7, p2.

Going back even further than Donaghey, there are at least a couple of reviews of plays on the New York stage — in the Washington Times in 1922 and the Brooklyn Eagle in 1923 — that used the more grammatically-correct but less catchy “who-did-It” to describe the genre.

1922 and 1923 theater reviews describing plays as "who-did-it" productions.
Alan Dale review of Whispering Wires in the Washington Times, August 20, 1922, p6D, left; and Arthur Pollak review of Zeno in the Brooklyn Eagle, August 27, 1923, p4, right

The Usual Suspects

So what about those “suspects” mentioned at the beginning of this post: Donald Gordon, Variety, and Michael Curtiz?

Curtiz, the director of such classic films as Casablanca, Yankee Doodle Dandy, White Christmas, half a dozen Errol Flynn swashbucklers, and many others, is the easiest to dismiss. His claim to having a role in the origin of “whodunit” was in a story reported from the set of the Perry Mason mystery The Case of the Curious Bride. (That picture, incidentally, was Flynn’s first Hollywood film.)

According to the syndicated article, which appeared in several papers, Curtiz was explaining the complicated plot to a group of technical crew members who had not read the script.

‘Yes,’ spoke up an interested property man, ‘but who done it?’

‘The point exactly,’ agreed Curtiz with a big smile. ‘And it’s a good word. Whodunit?’

“The Hollywood Lowdown.” Hartford Courant, March 24, 1935, pA6

But that was in 1935, by which point “whodunit” had already appeared in print several times.

The Variety story had more legs. As the term slowly grew in popularity in the 1930s it was attributed in several stories to Variety founder Sime Silverman, who died in 1933. A syndicated story in 1940 credited the writer and press agent Wolfe Kaufman with having coined the term while working at Variety in 1935.

That version of the Variety origin story gained traction six years later when Kaufman wrote his own whodunit novel and his publisher, Simon & Schuster, sent out a press release trumpeting his earlier coining of the term. It was even noted on the back inside flap of the book jacket.

"When Wolfe Kaufman worked  at Variety he invented the word 'Whodunit,' which has now become part of the language. It has taken him a long time to get around to writing one himslef."
Book cover and “About the Author” blurb for Wolfe Kaufman’s I Hate Blondes (1946)

The Kaufman claim was a quickly debunked by sydicated arts columnist Clarence “Clip” Boutell who pointed to Donald Gordon’s 1930 use of the word. That led to a retraction by Simon & Schuster and a contrite (and funny) letter of apology from Kaufman to Gordon: “I resign. I abdicate. You are the sole and only whodunit inventor. I will gladly kiss your feet in Macy’s window at any given hour and day. And I will never again claim that I invented the word.” (As quoted in Clip Boutell. “Whodunit.” Charlotte News, March 16, 1946, p3A. Also appeared in other papers.)

Despite his abdication, the Kaufman story continued to be repeated, appearing in occasional newspaper articles as late as 1985. But most sources today — including OED, Merriam-Webster, and Wikipedia — gave and continue to give credit for the term to Gordon.

Of course, we now know that Gordon didn’t invent the word either. But who was Donald Gordon?

Donald Gordon and the Spread of “Whodunit”

Donald Gordon (1902-1965) was the founder and longtime editor of American News of Books, a monthly trade journal of book reviews published by the American News Company, a leading book wholesaler based in New York. The publication was widely read by booksellers, librarians, and others interested in new books.

Gordon’s reviews, based on pre-publication copies, were not like the literary reviews of books that appeared in newspapers and magazines. A widely syndicated 1948 profile of him by the Associated Press called him a “literary handicapper judging the probable success of a book or the lack of it for the retail trade.”

Literary quality, he told reporter Hilliard A. Schendorf, is only part of it: “The sales will be affected by other things, such as the past performance of the author, the value of his name as a selling point; whether the publisher will give the book a good advertising and publicity campaign, and whether he has the reputation in the trade for putting out good books.” (Hilliard A. Schendorf. “Donald Gordon Serves as Literary Handicapper.” Richmond Times-Dispatch, March 21, 1948, pD-8. Also appeared in other papers.)

Photo of Donald Gordon
This photo of Donald Gordon accompanied some versions of the 1948 syndicated profile of him that appeared in many newspapers.

He rated books for “rentability, salability, and suitability” with an AAA rating indicating the top grade in all three categories. One book advertiser said his predictions were more than 90% correct, though Gordon shrugged off the figure. “There is no right or wrong,” he said. “Mostly it’s a degree of correctness, which is hard to measure.”

Gordon’s 1930 use of “whodunit” was said to have been in a review of English author Milward Kennedy’s Half Mast Murder which Gordon called “a satisfactory whodunit.” (It’s hard to check or to see if he used the term other times; very few libraries have copies of American News of Books, and there do not seem to be any that have it from before 1935.)

Although Gordon was not the first to use the term, he may have helped spread its use, although it didn’t begin to appear in newspapers with any frequency until three or four years after that 1930 review. Several of the early adopters were other book reviewers; it seems likely they were among the reported 25,000 subscribers to American News of Books.

It also seems likely that Variety (and Wolfe Kaufman), that other longtime “suspect” in the origin of “whodunit”, played a part. The biggest growth spurt for the term occurred in 1935 with most of the articles attributing it to the show biz industry trade journal.

Montage of articles
Some of the many newspaper articles from the first few months of 1935 attributing the term “whodunit” to Variety

Is that the end of the story? Maybe. Or maybe not. Unlike the classic whodunit, the stories of word and phrase origins are rarely wrapped up neatly at the end. New sources and new researchers may rewrite this tale again. Stay tuned.