Howcatchems and Killer Mistakes
In Demystifying the Beats, we broadly define two different “types” of mysteries: Whodunits and Howcatchems. The beats for the two types of mysteries stay the same.
The Howcatchem is an inverted mystery. The reader/viewer know, usually from the beginning, who committed the crime, and the villain and sleuth play a cat and mouse game throughout the story. The sleuth might even know who the villain is but MUST get enough evidence for the “arrest”.
No one lays out Howcatchems better than Columbo (original 1968-1978). And they work because the writers made sure to add Killer Mistakes during the commission of the crime. Let’s review a season 4 episode.
Negative Reaction (1974). Three Immediate Killer Mistakes.
Set-up: Paul Galesko (Dick Van Dyke) tries to pin the murder of his wife (who he murdered in cold blood) on a recently released felon. He stages a ransom drop, murders the ex-con scapegoat (again, in cold blood. This guy), then sets up the scene as if he killed the scapegoat in self-defense.
Let’s see what he did wrong and what we can learn from his KILLER Mistakes.
(1) Galesko doesn’t check the crime scene for potential witnesses, so a drunk homeless guy (Thomas Dolan) sleeping it off in a van hears two gunshots separated by almost a minute. The homeless man contradicts the killer’s story of two quick shots. Unfortunately, when Lt. Columbo goes to interview the homeless man later (in a wonderful scene set at a downtown L.A. mission), the man has sobered up and doesn’t remember anything. A great twist, by the way. An unreliable WITNESS but NOT because he’s lying.
(2) Galesko tells the police that he was shot in the leg by the kidnapper from a distance of a few feet, but when Columbo goes to the hospital to check on the “victim”, he immediately notices contact gunshot residue on Galesko’s trousers because Galesko actually shot HIMSELF in the leg. Lie #2 is a forensic lie, which means you need to know your forensic stuff as the author. You can leave your villain ignorant.
(3) Galesko was 30 minutes LATE ⌛️ for the ransom drop. Columbo calls out Galesko immediately. If it were COLUMBO’S wife held by kidnappers, the Lt. would make sure he followed their instructions to the crossed t’s and dotted i’s. Galesko glibly changes his story and adds a phone booth telephone call BEFORE in which the kidnapper directs him to the ransom drop. Suspects who change their stories are a great way to muddy the waters in both howcatchems and whodunits.
To recap: Add Killer Mistakes made DURING the commission of the crime by carelessness, arrogance, and/or ignorance. No crime can be perfect because– remember–the primary mystery in your story MUST be solved by the end of the book.