An awkward made-up word that doesn’t really help explain what it means, but the HowCatch’em—or inverted mystery—is the counterpoint to the classic WhoDunIt.
In a WhoDunIt, the sleuth and the reader come into the mystery not knowing who committed the crime. As the sleuth gathers clues and puts together the mystery puzzle, they carry along the reader, and it’s a race to see who figures out WhoDunIt first.
But in the HowCatch’em, the beginning chapters or scenes are devoted to the victim and the villain, and the reader—but not the sleuth—knows exactly how and why the crime was committed, and who the culprit is.
This knowledge of the villain’s identity is relatively common in the thriller genre—a cat and mouse game played out during the book or in visual media that usually culminates in the villain getting their just desserts after a multitude of car chases, shootouts, and explosions, all because the World is in Danger—which are Thriller beats. Just watch almost any Jerry Bruckheimer movie you can think of.
But a HowCatch’em can be quiet and classic, with a cozy sleuth or a raincoat-wearing detective who don’t know who the bad guy is while the reader does. The sleuth goes through the interviews with witnesses and suspects, gathers the clues and evidence, and unknowingly matches wits with the culprit—who throws roadblocks in the sleuth’s path, thinks they way are smarter than their opponent, and are shocked, SHOCKED when they miss one minor detail that unravels the fabric of their perfect crime.
Back to that raincoat-wearing detective, Lt. Columbo (And I will be back with him, I assure you). Many of the Columbo mysteries are some of the best written HowCatch’ems out there. But other classic Howcatch’ems include Dial M for Murder, originally a BBC play by Frederick Knott, made into a movie by Alfred Hitchcock; Malice Aforethought by Francis Iles; and A Kiss Before Dying by Ira Levin.
Have you read or seen any Howcatch’ems you enjoyed? We’d love to hear what they are and why they worked for you.