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: https://frederickweisel.com.
About the Author:
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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