The Sinner didn’t invent the mystery genre –- or even the whydunnit subgenre –- but if you have a taste for it now, where else can you quench your desires until The Sinner returns on August 1? (We know, it’s such a long wait!) You could start with some of the earlier mysteries that employ this inverted setup to focus more on the psychology than the puzzle alone – such as R. Austin Freeman’s Dr. Thorndyke tales from the early 20th Century, Muriel Spark’s novella The Driver’s Seat, Ruth Rendell’s novels, and the Columbo TV series from the 1970s. Or you could dive into these more satisfying examples...
1. Alias Grace
What It Is: Fifteen years into her sentence, Grace Marks recounts the circumstances of her life leading up to the pivotal events which landed her in prison, convicted of murdering her employer and his housekeeper/mistress in 1843 -– a crime she says she doesn’t remember.
Why The Sinner fans will love Alias Grace: Both Margaret Atwood’s novel and the Netflix limited series adaptation (written by Sarah Polley, directed by Mary Harron) give us a detailed examination of what the life of an immigrant domestic servant was like in 19th Century Canada, and it’s not a pretty picture. This is a real-life case, a tantalizing mystery which caused quite the scandal in its own time. (The trial drew so many spectators, there was a fear the courtroom floor would collapse). But the deeper we dive, the less the murders matter -– it’s the rest of Grace’s story we want to hear.
What It Is: A psychiatrist tries to get his patient, a troubled teenage boy, to explain why he blinded six horses via therapy and hypnosis. It’s a mystery, because he’s a stable boy known to love animals … perhaps too much.
Why The Sinner fans will love Equus: Both Peter Shaffer’s play and Sidney Lumet’s film (written by Shaffer) delve into Alan Strang’s psychosis, which combines elements of eroticism and religious fervor. Even the psychiatrist feels compelled to redefine sanity -– as well as his own life’s work -– after hearing Alan’s story. Is there such a thing as normal?
3. Dolores Claiborne
What It Is: A widowed domestic worker is suspected of killing both her employer in the present, as well as her husband in the past. The lingering suspicions about her husband’s death color perceptions about the current circumstance, but even if she did kill either of them, what was the motive?
Why The Sinnner fans Will Love Dolores Claiborne: The novel by Stephen King focuses more on Dolores, while the resulting film adaptation (starring Kathy Bates and Jennifer Jason Leigh) dissects the mother/daughter relationship, but both are more concerned with crimes of the past. Dolores’ hometown and even her own daughter all seem to believe she’s guilty (despite the lack of evidence or an indictment), and treat her accordingly, and the caustic Dolores has given up trying to justify herself to anyone but her estranged daughter Selena, who she hopes will understand. And eventually, Selena does, telling her mom, “Whatever you did, I know you did it for me.”
4. We Need to Talk About Kevin
What It Is: After a 15-year-old commits mass murder, Columbine-style, his mother examines her own culpability as she tries to rebuild her life without her family. Is she somehow to blame for turning her son into a monster, or was Kevin a monster all along?
Why The Sinner Fans Will Love We Need to Talk About Kevin: The novel by Lionel Shriver is more of a whydunnit than the film adaptation starring Tilda Swinton and an extra-creepy Ezra Miller, which is less ambivalent about Kevin’s nature and saves the information about the school massacre for the end. In the epistolary-structured novel, we learn about the school killings early on in a series of letters to Eva’s absent husband, as she second-guesses every step of raising Kevin, from her ambivalence about having a baby in the first place to her failure to bond with him. She may be an unreliable narrator –- what mother wants to admit her son is a sociopath? -– but she’s seeking to understand, as a form of closure. Gripping.
What It Is: In the first season, a criminal psychologist tries to find the connection between two seemingly unrelated murders of a young asylum seeker and male prostitute, and a female bishop. Could they be hate crimes? In the second season, the female POTUS (played by Kim Cattrall) goes missing.
Why The Sinner Fans Will Love Modus: Based on the books by Anne Holt (the “godmother of Norwegian crime fiction,” according to Jo Nesbo), the first season of this Swedish import is a definite whydunnit, introducing the killer in the opening shot. (The second season, however, is a different story).
6. The Secret History
What It Is: We learn in the prologue that a close-knit group of students at an elite college has killed one of their own, and our narrator, Richard Pappin, is haunted by it: “This is the only story I will ever be able to tell.”
Why The Sinner Fans Will Love The Secret History: Donna Tartt’s debut novel works backwards, starting with the murder and then looking back at all the apparently chance but perhaps inevitable events that led to it. Richard, a scholarship student, pretends to be upper class and joins a strange circle of amoral students: Francis, Henry, Camilla, Charles, and the doomed Bunny, whose death they plot, in part, because they’re really, really into their studies. Why and how, you’ll have to learn from Richard.
What It Is: The original USA Network whydunnit! The premise of the show is that in each episode, the viewer would be told who the killer is within the first few minutes -- with a big, bold typeface, so you couldn’t miss it -– as well as the victim. Then homicide detectives investigate, analyze the evidence, and figure out the motive.
Why The Sinner Fans Will Love Motive: Motive is a modern take on the Columbo-style procedural –- chasing down crimes where ordinary people kill for extraordinary reasons. The end of each episode reveals the circumstances or psychology behind each crime, so if you don’t have the time to invest in a longer television season or mini-series, this can provide a quick fix.
Find out why he did it when The Sinner returns Wednesday, Aug. 1, on USA Network!