in article about the howcatchem, an illustration of an open book with a magnifying glass over it

The ‘Howcatchem’ Puts a Spin on the Typical Detective Story

Most people are familiar with the 'whodunit,' but what happens when the audience is introduced to the culprit before the investigation gets started?
September 25, 2022
9 mins read

When it comes to fiction, mystery is one of the most popular genres. Agatha Christie’s works, for example, made her a bestseller. “And Then There Were None,” a murder mystery about 10 strangers invited to an isolated house on an island, is on the list of the most-sold novels of all time. Finally, detective characters such as Sherlock Holmes and Nancy Drew remain firmly ingrained in the public consciousness.

Many works in the mystery genre are “whodunit” stories. A crime — often murder — is committed, and the audience follows the detective as they find clues and follow leads. At the denouement, the suspicions of the audience are either confirmed or denied as the detective completes the puzzle and discovers the culprit.

Christie’s “Murder on the Orient Express” is an example of a whodunit. The detective in the story, Hercule Poirot, takes the titular Orient Express from Istanbul to London. When the Express gets caught in a snowdrift and a man, Samuel Ratchett, is found dead with 12 stab wounds, Poirot takes on the case. The reader follows him as he interviews the other passengers, examines the body for evidence, and thinks about the murderer’s possible motives. When Poirot comes to his conclusion, he explains it — both for the benefit of the other passengers and the readers. Here, the intrigue comes from the case and the clues. Who killed Ratchett? Why did they kill him in such a way? What was the motive? Finally, is the murderer still on board? The detective, and therefore the audience, try to figure out the mystery.

However, the whodunit isn’t the only form a detective story can take. Another variant is the inverted detective story, or the “howcatchem.” The first known example is found in R. Austin Freeman’s short story “The Case of Oskar Brodski.” This story opens with the murder being committed from the point of view of the murderer.

Howcatchem stories are detective stories with most of the mystery taken away. The audience knows the crime, the criminal, the method and the motive. With this knowledge, how does the story keep the audience’s attention?

The 1970s television series “Columbo” may be the most well-known example of the howcatchem detective story. At the beginning of each episode, the audience learns the identity of the murderer and their victim. They also learn of the motive; often, the victim is trying to blackmail or else take advantage of the murderer. The method is shown, as is the cover-up. The murderer often tries to make the crime look like an accident, suicide or like somebody else did it. The detective, Lieutenant Columbo, usually doesn’t even appear in the episode until about 20 minutes in. If the audience already knows everything and there’s no mystery, who do they keep watching?

Like in the whodunnit, the interest comes from watching the detective piece together the clues. The murderer is often very thorough and covers up their crime in a way that would make anyone assume they had nothing to do with it. Because of this, the audience keeps watching to see how the detective will be able to catch the culprit.

In the 1973 episode “A Stitch in Crime,” the audience is introduced to Dr. Mayfield, a brilliant surgeon who plots to murder a colleague, Dr. Hidemann, over a disagreement. Hidemann requires a heart valve replacement. Dr. Mayfield, who will be conducting the surgery, decides to use this to his advantage to create an untraceable murder. Rather than the regular sutures, he uses dyed dissolving sutures. The failed sutures will make Hidemann’s death look like a heart attack and Dr. Mayfield will never be suspected. However, Mayfield’s plan becomes foiled when a nurse, Sharon Martin, suspects him of foul play. After she threatens to report him, he kills her with a tire iron while she is leaving work.

Columbo and other officers appear on the scene the next morning. Most believe that Martin’s death was caused by a robber, but Columbo seems to catch on to Dr. Mayfield immediately; for example, when Mayfield learns of Martin’s death over the phone, Columbo notes he doesn’t seem very shocked. As Columbo drops more and more hints, Dr. Mayfield becomes more and more uneasy. As things escalate, Mayfield attempts to divert attention away from himself. He plants evidence on Martin’s ex-boyfriend to make it appear that he killed her for drugs. As Mayfield does this, however, he creates an even larger trail leading right back toward him.

In the climax of the episode, Hidemann’s sutures dissolve and Mayfield must perform surgery — real surgery this time — to save his life. When Mayfield looks up from his work, he sees that Columbo is standing above him and watching his every move. In the end, Columbo catches Mayfield and proves he knows that Mayfield used dissolving sutures in an attempt to discreetly commit murder.

“A Stitch in Crime” shows how “howcatchem” stories can still keep audiences hooked. For one, Dr. Mayfield can be entertaining to watch. He is certainly an evil man, killing two people and nearly killing another. Throughout the episode, he shows no remorse or guilt. All these factors get the audience invested in how Columbo will catch him. Additionally, Mayfield’s original plan makes the whole case interesting; his original plan to murder Dr. Hidemann was perfect and he would have gotten away with it if it weren’t for Sharon Martin.

Lieutenant Columbo himself is also entertaining to watch. In the television series, most of the murderers are rich and in positions of power. They are celebrities, actors, politicians, military officers and, in Mayfield’s case, brilliant doctors. They usually live in large, fancy houses with big lots. In contrast, Columbo is a short and shabby man who drives an old car. He always dresses in a well-worn raincoat. In one episode, he is mistaken for a homeless person and in another, he is thought to be a servant. Episodes of “Columbo” often become cat-and-mouse chases, if the mouse was a suave millionaire and the cat was scruffy and smoked cigars. The actor Peter Falk even said that being caught by Columbo was like “being nibbled to death by a duck.” The contrast between Dr. Mayfield and Columbo can be somewhat amusing because of this.

The inverted detective, or “howcatchem,” story keeps its audience interested not with mystery, but rather its plot and characters. The audience wants to see the killer caught, but they may also be entertained by watching how the killer tries to cover their tracks. The audience also wants to see how the detective pieces together what they already know. So, while there’s not much of a mystery left, there is still plenty of entertainment to be found in the howcatchem story.

Melissa Wade, Northern Arizona University

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Melissa Wade

Northern Arizona University

Melissa Wade is a student at Northern Arizona University. She is majoring in English and minoring in studio art.

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