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Untangling the Mystery Behind the Mystery Bookstore
image of Whodunit bookstoreby Bev Patterson

I REMEMBER WHEN I discovered the place. It felt like a rare find. Part of me wanted to keep it my little secret and another part felt the excitement of discovery, which always leads to “word of mouth.” I don’t go a lot, not because of a lack of appeal but life gets busy and it’s one of those places that I would rather go when time is not of the essence. The space is small and full but whenever I’m there I always feel I could browse for hours and still find something new and intriguing.

With any good bookstore there is the feeling that the world just got a little bigger, a little more inviting; life becomes an adventure waiting to be explored. It’s a world I love to enter and hate to leave. The best part is that you can always come back and the emblems you can take with you promise to keep the imagination alive till your return.

Despite its unassuming storefront, the Whodunit bookstore, located on Winnipeg’s Lilac Street, does just that. This world, though not for everyone, is a dream come true for those with the taste for mystery, suspense and intrigue. Mystery, in fact, is the only genre the store offers. At first thought, having a store so specific in what it offers might be a hindrance but it is exactly this very focus that makes Whodunit a place that keeps people coming back.

When we decided that reading would be the theme of our next Watershed Online edition, it felt like the perfect opportunity to find out a little more about Whodunit and the people behind what I consider one of the better bookstores in Winnipeg. I set out to solve the mystery of what makes this place so unique. I know one thing. On first detection, they always seem to have a hot cup of spiced tea in the offering, a little different than having to put out $5.00 for a cup of coffee. But that’s just window dressing to what lies beyond.

detective with magnifying glassAs much as I love a good mystery, I still feel I am just a newcomer. What I’ve discovered is a much larger, more complex genre of literature. Besides my early diet of Nancy Drew mysteries, I have tasted only bits of what is out there, but it was definitely not a taste I had to acquire. Perhaps the types of books I usually read leave me needing a break, the inevitable escape my mind needs after plowing through theory. Mystery for me is definitely a satisfying reprieve. It would only make sense that many people, in their demanding schedules and fast-paced lives, yearn for such a reprieve.

In our interview with Henrietta Wilde and Gaylene Chestnut, the founders and shopkeepers of Whodunit, I resigned myself once again to the same conclusion. I will not read all the wonderful books out there and, in fact, I am just scratching the surface. Despite the small square footage that Whodunit takes up, the world of mystery is huge. There is a series out there for anyone, set in any time period imaginable, whether your fancy is Roman, Victorian, Egyptian, Italian art history, Native American or American Civil War.

Then there is the option of a “cozy mystery” which I discovered is a mystery much like an Agatha Christie mystery (Henrietta’s favourite mystery writer). The plot is played out with a series of red herrings to give you clues along the way, and a solution is well in place. Of course, for those who would rather explore the ambiguity of a “messy” character and a “gritty” storyline, there are the “darker noir mysteries.”

A distinction also exists between British and American mysteries. Then there are historical mysteries… thrillers… suspense. The categories could go on forever. In favour of maintaining the quality of the book, Gaylene noted that when you start breaking mystery down into too many categories the feel and essence of the individual book is lost. Henrietta commented that perhaps the best way to decipher the quality of a mystery is whether it is plot-driven or character-driven.

"What makes this bookstore so unique is that you can..."Conveniently, Henrietta and Gaylene find themselves naturally drawn to these two opposite extremes. What makes this bookstore so unique is that you can regularly walk into the store and walk out with a custom designed purchase. If it’s a sense of resolution that you want, Henrietta is the one to talk to but if you don’t mind “loose ends” with a darker tone, Gaylene can steer you to the right book. Like many mystery readers, Gaylene finds that she loves plot twists. “I love it when they trick you. I think I’ve got it all figured out and then the author tricks me, and I love it.” She recommends Minette Walters, especially The Sculptress, and Deborah Crombie, for those who love twists.

What re-awakened my love for mysteries was British television and the many adaptations from mystery books they produce. The most obvious example is Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse. What is it about the Brits, I keep asking myself, that they do mystery so well? I mistakenly believe that they are the true and only masters of mystery when really the history of this genre spans many cultures and countries, which explains the fact that there are so many translations available. In fact, Henrietta corrected my misperception by reminding me that the first detective writer was actually the American Edgar Allan Poe. There is a rich history to this genre which grew in the 19th century when a lot of detective and mystery stories were serialized so that anyone could afford them. This helped to build up an audience; readers have been hooked ever since.

Both Gaylene and Henrietta pointed out the obvious in terms of rendering a book to TV. The British are usually much more faithful to the book than Americans. As one of them said, “I think the British feel the author did a good job of the book, so they don’t feel they have to mess with it too much.”

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