Inverted detective story

An inverted detective story, also known as a "howcatchem", is a murder mystery fiction structure in which the commission of the crime is shown or described at the beginning,[1][2] usually including the identity of the perpetrator.[3] The story then describes the detective's attempt to solve the mystery.[2] There may also be subsidiary puzzles, such as why the crime was committed, but those are cleared up along the way. This format is the opposite of the more typical "whodunit", where all of the details of the perpetrator of the crime are not revealed until the story's climax.


R. Austin Freeman claimed to have created the inverted detective story in his 1912 collection of short stories The Singing Bone.

Some years ago I devised, as an experiment, an inverted detective story in two parts. The first part was a minute and detailed description of a crime, setting forth the antecedents, motives, and all attendant circumstances. The reader had seen the crime committed, knew all about the criminal, and was in possession of all the facts. It would have seemed that there was nothing left to tell. But I calculated that the reader would be so occupied with the crime that he would overlook the evidence. And so it turned out. The second part, which described the investigation of the crime, had to most readers the effect of new matter.[2][4][5][6]


One early and prominent example of this subgenre is Malice Aforethought, written in 1931 by Anthony Berkeley Cox writing as Francis Iles. Freeman Wills Crofts's The 12:30 from Croydon is another important instance.

The 1952 BBC television play Dial M for Murder by Frederick Knott (later adapted for the stage and then adapted again in 1954 as a theatrical film by Alfred Hitchcock) is another example. Tony Wendice outlines his plans to murder his wife Margot in the opening scenes, leaving the viewer with no questions about perpetrator or motive, only with how the situation will be resolved. In Alfred Bester's 1953 novel, The Demolished Man, the reader learns in the first chapter that Ben Reich plans to murder a man; the rest of the novel is concerned with whether he will get away with it.

The short stories written by Roy Vickers about the Department of Dead Ends are nearly all of the inverted type. They deal with the eccentric methods used by Inspector Rason, a detective in a fictional division of Scotland Yard assigned to investigate cold cases, to solve crimes where more conventional methods have failed.

Several of the Lord Peter Wimsey novels, such as Unnatural Death and Strong Poison, come near to inclusion in this category. In both books, there is from the start only one real suspect, whose guilt is more or less taken for granted by the middle of the book and who indeed turns out to be the murderer. In both books—as in some other Sayers detective novels, including her last, Busman's Honeymoon, the mystery to be solved is mainly, "why did this person have any motive to commit this murder" and "how did he or she do it" (which makes this format more similar to the majority of police investigations). Also, the short story, "The Abominable History of the Man with Copper Fingers", had the villain not only discovered, but dead at the beginning. Lord Wimsey explained his investigation in detail, complete to the villain's stumbling into a vat of cyanide-and-copper-sulphate electroplating solution.

The term "howcatchem" was coined much later, by American magazine TV Guide in the 1970s, after the United States television series Columbo popularized the format.[5]

The 1989 theatrical play Over My Dead Body, by Michael Sutton and Anthony Fingleton, depicts three elderly detective story writers committing a real-life locked room murder in Rube Goldbergian fashion. The audience is in on it every step of the way. In a variation of the typical inverted form, in this case the miscreants want to be caught and made to pay their debt to society.

In the 1990s, some episodes of Diagnosis: Murder were presented in the howcatchem format, usually when featuring a "big name" (or at least recognizable) guest star. TV shows Monk, Criminal Minds, and Law & Order: Criminal Intent have frequently featured episodes structured as howcatchems, in which the viewer typically witnesses the killer commit the crime (during which the killer's identity is revealed to the audience), and then watches as the detectives try to solve it. (In at least one Monk episode, they had to prove that a crime has been committed). The shows have also used the whodunit format at times. The British television crime series Luther also made regular use of the inverted detective story structure.[2]

In the manga Death Note, Light Yagami, Misa Amane, and Teru Mikami are villain protagonists, known to be killers from the start. The series chronicles L, Mello, and Near as they gradually uncover the truth.

See also


  1. Inverted Detective Story - Pearson's Magazine
  2. 1 2 3 4 Orlebar, Jeremy (2013). The Television Handbook. Routledge. p. 216. ISBN 9781136655555. Retrieved 30 December 2015.
  3. Seigneuret, Jean-Charles (1988). Dictionary of Literary Themes and Motifs. Greenwood Publishing Group. p. 381. ISBN 9780313263965. Retrieved 30 December 2015.
  4. This is a quote from an essay by Freeman entitled "The Art of the Detective Story", which appeared e.g. in Dr. Thorndyke's Crime File (1941).
  5. 1 2 Shead, Jackie (2015). Margaret Atwood: Crime Fiction Writer: The Reworking of a Popular Genre. Ashgate Publishing. p. 7. ISBN 9781472450630.
  6. Queen, Ellery (1951). Queen's Quorum: A History of the Detective-crime Short Story as Revealed in the 106 Most Important Books Published in this Field Since 1845. Biblo & Tannen Publishers. pp. 62–63. ISBN 9780819602299.
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