Caitlin Kilpatrick discusses an inventive twist on wildly popular crime-solving media
Like many others, I spent the beginning of my lockdown making lofty goals to become well-read. After working my way through the 2020 standouts of Normal People and Where the Crawdads Sing, I was desperate for something a little more gritty. In this quest, I stumbled upon the cult following for Donna Tartt’s Secret History, who regard the book as a modern masterpiece; safe to say I was intrigued. My first impression: the book is dense, it took a long time to get through, but it was well worth it. Tartt’s debut novel tells the story of a wealthy friendship group studying classics at a secluded Vermont university, who come to murder their friend Bunny (not a spoiler - we find out on the first page). Mirroring a classic tragedy, Richard Pappen, our narrator, takes us through the group's journey from inspired students to masochistic murderers under the influence of their enigmatic Professor Julian.
Reading The Secret History as a St Andrews student, on a campus eerily similar to Tartt’s Hampden College, it struck me as so thoroughly relatable that it is easy to forget our narrator has admitted to murdering his friend from the offset. Pappen’s voice is so casual in his description of the deceased Bunny that he evokes a strange fascination, drawing the reader in with every line. Furthermore, the lack of significance and unreliability of the narrator engenders more frustration and fascination at how psychopathic the killers actually are. After all, they are relatable college students who are inspired by their outstanding, quirky professor – something I have experienced all too well. However, it is important to note that I have never been inspired to perform a Bacchanalia that led to murder!
On finishing the novel, I was met with overwhelming fascination at how a story in which I knew what was going to happen had kept me so captivated for 400 pages. I thought about the story over and over until I realised that this is exactly how you are supposed to feel. Tartt uses the novel to highlight that it is not the act of murder that fascinates us but the murderers. She allows us to get inside the friend’s psyche, and understand what drives a person to commit such an act. ‘Howcatchems’ are the medium that allows the author to do this. They facilitate themes of morality and human nature by asking how we can be led to commit crimes in the pursuit of our goals.
Thus, the Secret History was my introduction to the ‘howcatchem’, an increasingly popular narrative trope in which the murdered and murderer are revealed in the opening pages of the novel and the story proceeds to unravel how the murder took place. Whether referred to as howcatchems, open mystery, inverted detective stories or howdunnits, they are undoubtedly captivating. To understand why howcatchems have become so popular we have to first understand their counterpart - whodunnits.
Arthur Conan Doyle stands at the forefront of detective writing. His distinct style, depicted within the Sherlock Holmes novels, created the format for mysteries that inspired many subsequent works. Doyle crafted the story around the quirky detective discovering a murder and using a string of clues to find out who the murderer is. Both structures follow the basic detective story principle that the reader is to the detective as the writer is to the villain. However, ‘howcatchems’ alternatively focus on the development of the villain in the time between committing the crime and eventually being caught. Think of it as less of a who’s responsible and more of a will they get caught. Ultimately the key is that they situate the villain close to the reader, allowing us a glimpse into the mind of a murderer.
The howcatchem dates back earlier than you may think, with the first recorded story being R. Austin Freeman’s The Case of Oskar Brodski, a short story published in 1912. Freeman preferred to tell the reader within the first minute every single detail of the murder, relying on the fact that some evidence would be overlooked and so readers would maintain interest for the remainder of the story. For most people, their first encounter with a howcatchem came from the rise of detective shows in the late 70s and early 80s. The infamous Lieutenant Columbo nowadays is associated with grandparents and daytime television, but in its day it pioneered the format of TV crime dramas. In each episode, the murderer was always shown within the first 10 minutes, with the remainder of the show focused on how Columbo figured out the crime.
The influence of formats like Columbo can be seen today in the hit Netflix crime drama The Sinner. It exploded onto our screens and received critical acclaim for its exploration of the psychology behind crime. Their howcatchem format saw Detective Harry Ambrose investigate one specific criminal, season one being Cora Tanetti played by Jessical Biel, who unexpectedly and rather brutally stabs a man to death. The gift of The Sinner is that it brings us wholly into the minds and motives of the murderer and allows us to see Tanetti’s inevitable decline.
World-renowned musical Hamilton can also be considered a howcatchem as the very first song sees Aaron Burr’s declaration that he is the person who shot the eponymous Alexander Hamilton. Prior to Hamilton, the idea of revealing the significant plot point of the musical would’ve been met with laughter, but as Leslie Odom Junior explained it is what makes Burr interesting. Audiences are captivated by the representation of someone who is immediately identified as both a friend and killer of Alexander Hamilton. In the end, knowing that Hamilton will die at Burr’s hands only adds to watching the slow decline of their friendship.
A recently discovered favourite has been The devotion of Suspect X by Keigo Higashino is a Japanese thriller, in which a mother and daughter kill their abuser and plot an elaborate cover-up with the help of their neighbour. Higashino takes the inverted detective story to a new level by using it to implicate societal norms around abuse, particularly in early 2000s Japanese culture. The novel ultimately is a commentary on femininity and what it means to be a victim and a perpetrator.
Reading an inverted detective novel feels like driving through fog with the headlights on, aware of your destination but unsure of the journey. Yet, in the end, Howcatchems allow us to explore the dark and different psychologies we hear about in true crime cases in a way that will always keep us fascinated and wanting more.