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Guest Post: The Inverted Detective Story

The inverted detective story was invented by a writer named R. Austin Freeman in 1912. But anyone old enough to have watched TV in the 1970s will remember Peter Falk’s Columbo.

by Frederick Weisel

The Silenced Women
by Frederick Weisel

The classic mystery saves the big reveal—the identity of the guilty party—for the last chapter or even the final paragraph. As readers, we rush through the book to learn how the puzzle is solved. Agatha Christie was, of course, famous for this. Even current writers like the Irish mystery writer Tana French keep the reader guessing until the end.

But the mystery genre also includes a different kind of plot—the so-called “inverted detective story.” Here the crime and the identity of the criminal are described at the outset. The story then shows us how the detective uncovers the evidence to figure out what the reader already knows. If the classic mystery is the whodunit, the inverted detective story is the howcatchem.

According to Wikipedia, the inverted detective story was invented by a writer named R. Austin Freeman in 1912. But anyone old enough to have watched TV in the 1970s will remember Peter Falk’s Columbo. The first few minutes of that show always began with the commission of the crime and the identity of the guilty person. The rest of the show was about how Columbo found a way to prove the killer’s guilt.

My mystery/police procedural The Silenced Women follows the inverted detective story format. No spoiler alert is necessary. Chapter 3 introduces Ben Thackrey and his friends Victor and Russell. The chapter doesn’t actually tell you they are killers. But, given their conversation about how to dispose of a bloody trunk liner in their car, you know all is not right in their world.

So—as readers, what do get in an inverted detective story in exchange for not being able to guess the killer? In my novel, readers are able to spend time with the killers throughout the novel, not just at the end. Many chapters show them trying to cover their tracks and even threatening the police detectives. Equally, the plot shows the detectives gradually collecting clues that close in on the Thackrey and his friends.

In Columbo and, hopefully, my novel, the plot puts readers in a different place from the classic mystery. Readers aren’t trying to catch up to the detective; they are ahead of the sleuth. As the shorthand phrase above notes, it puts the emphasis not on the who but the how. In that sense, it’s a profoundly different kind of story.

The structure also shifts the focus more on character than plot. As readers, you’re not reading to find out who the killer is, you’re reading to observe who the detective and the killer are. That was clearly true with Peter Falk’s Columbo character. What we remember about that show are not the plots but Lieutenant Columbo’s way of speaking and moving.

When you read my novel, I hope you’ll find some pleasure in getting to know Eddie Mahler, the lead detective who suffers from migraine headaches; Eden Somers, the smart former FBI analyst who is haunted by serial killer case; and the other detectives on the VCI team. And I hope these characters will keep you turning the pages even though you know the killer before the cops do.

About the Book:

A debut novel, The Silenced Women, introduces an exciting new police procedural series, set in Santa Rosa and Sonoma County, about a team of homicide investigators led by the enigmatic detective Eddie Mahler. The novel follows the detectives as they investigate a recent homicide and several similar cold cases. The book will be published by Poisoned Pen Press on February 2, 2021, and is available for pre-order now. The second book in the series, The Day He Left, is a missing person case, and will be published in February 2022. More information about the book and the series is at:

About the Author:

Author Frederick Weisel

Frederick Weisel has been a writer and editor for more than 30 years. He graduated from Antioch College and has an MA in Victorian Literature and History from the University of Leicester in England. The Silenced Women is his debut novel. He lives with his wife in Santa Rosa, California.




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By Thonie Hevron

Mysteries to keep you reading through the night.

20 replies on “Guest Post: The Inverted Detective Story”

Thank you for this, Thonie! I’ve written traditional mysteries for five years now. But I never knew what this plotting/writing technique was called. Now that I do (and I’ve been wanting to focus more on the “how” and “why” or character), I’m all over this for my WIP, a fire-investigator mystery. The heroine is young, female and Native American, single, with a Down baby and a demanding family. Inverted it will be!

Fred is very knowledgeable and writes a darn good mystery. He’s just published his first book this week. I’m his cheerleader because he’s in my small critique group (Zoom these days, but in person before and soon again…). Thanks for your comment, Carole!

Hi Carole, Actually I didn’t know what the plotting was called until after I finished my novel. But I do like its focus on watching the characters close in on the criminals. I heard an interesting quote recently made by Alfred Hitchcock: “A mystery is when spectators know less than the characters in a movie. Suspense is when the spectators know more than the characters.”

This is an interesting perspective, Fred. I watched a Columbo rerun the other day and found it amusing, but he certainly wasn’t the only ’70’s sleuth whose show used this device. Both Barnaby Jones and Cannon would routinely show the crime being committed and then the audience would follow the protagonist through the rest of the show while he tricked down the bad guy.. It would seem that writing this type of novel would be closer to the suspense/thriller, a la a police procedural,than a mystery. It would also require you to have a real engaging protagonist to maintain the interest of the reader. Tell Detective Mahler to keep his guard up for me. Good luck

Another writer and I are giving a presentation on writing mysteries and I’d completely forgotten this technique. Thanks for this article. The Silenced Women sounds wonderful. Continued success.

This was informative. Thanks for sharing. And I’m so excited that your amazing book is almost here!

Fascinating idea, eager to read it. I did love Columbo programs and treasure my autographed book of Columbo stories by William Link, received after meeting one of the other series’ authors (Tom Sawyer) at a writers’ conference in Oklahoma City years ago..

Very interesting and enjoyable post, Thonie and Fred! I’m currently watching Columbo reruns while eating lunch. Takes you back…and for me, enjoyably. Great meeting you Fred, and off to order your book. Much success!

Thank you so much for this blog! I just wrote an inverted cozy mystery without having a term for it and feeling alone out there on the end of the limb. I’ll get in touch with Frederick.

Welcome to Thonie's world!

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