Caroline: When we want to describe a work of detective fiction, there are a few different terms that get thrown around. We might say “murder mystery”, or “crime fiction”, or “detective story”, or “thriller”, or perhaps “whodunnit”. These aren’t all the same thing, of course, but they are expressions that get used fairly interchangeably. A mystery doesn’t have to contain a murder, for instance, and detective stories are crime fiction, although not all crime fiction is detective stories, and so on. And if we’re talking about classic or golden age crime fiction, as I frequently do on this podcast, there’s certainly a tendency to equate “murder mystery” and “whodunnit”. That’s what a mystery is, surely — a story that documents the unfolding of a crime, its investigation, and the eventual revelation of who was responsible. Or is it?
The majority of early twentieth century and golden age detective fiction does adhere to this whodunnit format, it is true. But even as this structure was becoming synonymous with the genre, there were writers experimenting with different ways of telling mystery stories. What if we knew who did it from the beginning? Would you keep reading?
Today, we’re falling headfirst into the howdunnit.
Welcome to Shedunnit. I’m Caroline Crampton
You’re probably fairly used to me saying the word “whodunnit” on this podcast, and pretty comfortable with what that means: a mystery story in which the structure is built around discovering the identity of person who has committed the plot’s principal crime. But what is a howdunnit? Well, as the name might suggest, a howdunnit is a mystery story that is focused on how the crime is committed rather than who has done it.
This requires a few adjustments to the way that the story is told. To start with, it is usually necessary in a howdunnit to identify the criminal — usually a murderer, although it would also be possible to write a theft-based howdunnit — right from the start of the story, so that the reader is clear about what they are reading.
Whereas the whodunnit often tells the story from the perspective of the investigator, their “Watson”, or some other interested party such as a witness or a suspect, the howdunnit requires an intimate acquaintance with the perpetrator: how else will the reader be let into the secret of “how” the crime is done?
Howdunnits then frequently feature either first person narrative, in which the murderer narrates events entirely from their point of view, or in some cases a third person narrative with a limited perspective. If the latter, the writer doesn’t tell the reader anything that their protagonist doesn’t reasonably know, meaning that the reader finds out new developments in the case at the same time that the murderer does. This is a helpful technique for a couple of reasons: it helps the reader identify with the criminal protagonist — more on this later – and it aids in creating suspense, because it means that the investigator can be kept largely invisible while the murderer goes about their murdering business. They don’t know how much the detective knows, or how close they are to getting away with it.
The howdunnit also goes by a couple of other names, and both are instructive when we’re trying to understand this form. It’s sometimes called a “howcatchem”, and sometimes an “inverted detective story”. Howcatchem refers to the fact that this kind of story is more explicitly a duel between murderer and detective than a whodunnit: at the same time that we’re learning how the crime was done, we’re also seeing the trail that has been laid for the investigator to follow, and ultimately apprehend our protagonist. And because this is detective fiction, we can be fairly sure that there is going to be some kind of resolution, or “catching” at the end.
This phrase “inverted detective story” is especially interesting to me. It refers to the fact that the howdunnit is really defined in relation to its better known counterpart, the whodunnit. Our usual expectations are “inverted”, or turned inside out. We know who from the very start, completely reversing what is usually the crux of the mystery. The puzzle basis of the whodunnit is moved more into the background, and the focus instead becomes methods and motives. The source of suspense in a howdunnit is a mirror image of the whodunnit. The tension comes not from who did it, because we already know that, but from whether they will get away with it.
The honour of the first howdunnit is usually given to a short story by R. Austin Freeman: “The Case of Oscar Brodski”. This first appeared in Pearson’s Magazine in November 1910, so slightly before the post-first world war period usually described as the golden age of detective fiction. It featured two characters that had already appeared in print a few times: Dr John Evelyn Thorndyke and his colleague Dr Christopher Jervis. The 1905 novella The Mystery of 31, New Inn, the 1907 novel The Red Thumb Mark and the Freeman short stories published before 1910 all help to set up Thorndyke and Jervis as a duo in the Holmes-Watson mould.
Incidentally, a bit of bibliographic research would seem to show that at least one of Freeman’s other howdunnit stories was first published before “The Case of Oscar Brodski” — “A Wastrel’s Romance” for instance, first appeared in The Novel Magazine in August 1910. But according to its author, “The Case of Oscar Brodski” was written first, and so retains its place in history as an origin point for the howdunnit.
Thorndyke is, in his own words, a “medical jurispractitioner” — a medical doctor who became interested in crime and also then qualified as a barrister. This dual specialty in medicine and law makes him a unique figure in crime fiction of the time: something like a proto forensic investigator, who can both analyse the clues left at a crime scene and reason his way through the legal implications of how a crime might have been conducted. Jervis, also a medical doctor, is sometimes the narrator of his friend’s adventures and sometimes more of an introducer; regardless, he frequently accompanies Thorndyke when he is called out on cases and fulfils the Watson role by being the person to whom the brilliant detective explains his observations and his methods.
In “The Case of Oscar Brodski”, Freeman’s readers got a taste of his new innovation, the inverted detective story. The story is told in two parts: first, we get a scene describing the actions of one Silas Hickler, a smalltime burglar who seizes an opportunity for enrichment one night when a diamond merchant named Oscar Brodski stops at his home to ask him for directions to the station. Hickler invites Brodski in, saying he is also about to leave to catch a train and suggesting they wait in the warm together. He then proceeds to murder his guest, ransack his pockets, steal the diamonds he finds, and dump the body on the nearby railway line, attempting to make it look like an accidental death or suicide.
Part one concludes when Hickler arrives on the platform to take his train as planned, just as the stretcher bearing the body of his victim is being carried into the station. Part two opens a few moments later with Thorndyke and Jervis arriving, by coincidence at the same station, being recognised by an acquaintance, and thus roped into the nascent investigation. We are invited in to the secrets of Thorndyke’s “mysterious little green box”, which contains all of his scientific paraphernalia, including his microscope and slides. We see them retrace Silas Hickler’s steps and follow Thorndyke as he recreates all of the events that we, the reader, have already witnessed via meticulous observation, careful scientific analysis and deductive reasoning. The story is satisfying even though Thorndyke’s deductions do not technically provide us with any new information. There is something moral about the way this tale is told, with the reader deriving satisfaction from the fact that the bad person isn’t allowed to get away with their crimes.
In a 1924 essay titled “The Art of the Detective Story”, Freeman explained a little about how he came to create the inverted form. He had observed, he said, that “the plot of a detective novel is, in effect, an argument conducted under the guise of fiction”, with the writer positing a mystery and the reader trying to solve it. According to the rules of fair play, which Freeman scrupulously adhered to, the writer must include in the story all of the data that the reader needs to solve it, but could do so “inconspicuously and in a sequence purposely dislocated so as to conceal their connexion”. The great intellectual trick of a good detective story was for the writer to be completely open about all of the evidence but to do so in such a way that the reader didn’t realise what they were reading until the correct solution was revealed at the end. “The more boldly the writer displays the data, the greater will be the intellectual interest of the story,” Freeman argued.
It was from this idea that the inverted detective story grew. What could be more obvious than showing the reader the entire crime before the detective even enters the scene? And yet most readers still won’t guess just from reading the first part of “The Case of Oscar Brodski” how it is that Dr Thorndyke is going to get his man. As Sherlock Holmes might say, we see, but we do not observe. Freeman explained the effect thus: “The reader had seen the crime committed, knew all about the criminal, and was in possession of all the facts. It would have seemed that there was nothing left to tell. But I calculated that the reader would be so occupied with the crime that he would overlook the evidence. And so it turned out. The second part, which described the investigation of the crime, had to most readers the effect of new matter. All the facts were known; but their evidential quality had not been recognised.”
R. Austin Freeman was well suited to write a character like Dr Thorndyke. Freeman’s own first profession had been that of doctor: he had received his medical qualifications in 1886 and entered the Colonial Service, working for several years in Ghana in West Africa. He returned to Britain after a period of illness disqualified him for future work overseas and did a number of jobs in London, including as the Deputy Medical Officer of Holloway Prison, before his health completely failed and he was forced to give up medicine. He turned to writing to support himself and his family, first penning a series of stories about a gentleman conman named Romney Pringle in collaboration with a fellow doctor at Holloway, Dr John James Pitcairn. Freeman’s first Dr Thorndyke story appeared in 1905. While in Ghana, he had served as doctor, naturalist and surveyor for official colonial expeditions in the region, and some of his scientific experience there contributed to Thorndyke’s meticulous crime scene methods. He was definitely a man of his time: some of his work, both fiction and non-fiction, includes racist, eugencist and anti-Semitic views. He was a prolific writer right up until his death in 1943, and also a founding member of the Detection Club.
After the break: Anthony Berkeley gets psychological.
Although R. Austin Freeman started publishing his inverted detective stories in 1910, it wasn’t until the early 1930s that the howdunnit reached its most powerful form. And this happened in tandem with a more general societal trend: a greater interest in and understanding of psychology. You find references to this littered throughout the detective fiction of the 1920s, reflecting the fact that the work of men like Jacques Lacan, Jean-Paul Sartre, Jean Piaget and Sigmund Freud had entered the popular discourse. In Freud’s own History of the Psychoanalytic Movement, he wrote that until 1907 he had been an outlier, an isolated theorist. Then other thinkers began to coalesce around his work; he was invited to America to give lectures, he met influential figures in this nascent speciality of the mind on both sides of the Atlantic, and his ideas began to have traction with the public at large. The aftermath of the first world war had an impact, too: for the first time, the lingering trauma of “war to end all wars” was acknowledged in a widespread fashion, and some cases were treated by psychoanalysis. Dorothy L. Sayers’s 1928 novel The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club provides a detective novelist’s perspective on this very topic. The psychiatrist was a figure that more and more people had awareness of and even contact with, and this appetite for probing the inner workings of the mind was a gift to detective novelists. I don’t think it’s an accident, for instance, that when Gladys Mitchell debuted her sleuth Mrs Bradley in her first novel, 1929’s Speedy Death, she made her a psychiatrist.
We can track the growing influence of psychology on the world in general and detective fiction in particular very clearly in this pivotal exchange in Agatha Christie’s 1926 novel The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. Hercule Poirot is explaining his method to a sceptical police detective, Inspector Raglan. His chief weapons against the criminal mind, Poirot says, are method, order and the little grey cells of the brain. He also feels that it is vital to study what he calls “the psychology of a crime”. The inspector is politely doubting: “You’ve been bitten with all this psycho analysis stuff?” he asks. Of course, the reader knows that when Poirot pulls off the successful finale of his investigation, it is largely due to his being able to identify and penetrate the mind that carried out this crime. The little grey cells and their interest in psychology are much more than just a punchline.
An increased interest in and focus on psychology was vital for the howdunnit to develop from the somewhat sterile intellectual debates that R. Austin Freeman was presenting in the years before the first world war. Since the whole focus of the howdunnit is on the criminal, their version of events and why they are doing their crimes, it is a form that works best when the writer is really in tune with the psychological underpinnings of their central character. These are stories that invite the reader to observe, up close, the actions and reasoning of an individual with dark and harmful motives: of course it makes sense that ideas from psychology would come up as a way to enhance this effect.
As the golden age of detective fiction really got going in the late 1920s, there was a sense in which different authors were specialising, carving out their own niches within the genre. Readers wanted to know what they could expect from a book before opening it, whether that was the presence of a particular detective or a new instalment on a recurring theme. John Dickson Carr settled into producing stories the revolve around locked rooms and impossible crimes, Dorothy L. Sayers became known for her attempts to heighten the character study and relationships in her mysteries, Freeman Wills Crofts was renowned for his unbreakable alibis, and so on.
But what was Anthony Berkeley famous for? He had a detective, the amateur sleuth Roger Sheringham, but he’s hardly a character who developed a life of his own beyond the pages of the books he appeared in. Berkeley’s intellect was a restless one, always looking for new challenges and ways to push the boundaries of his genre. He both was a keen student of real life criminal cases and a survivor of the First World War: there is no doubt that he was fascinated by psychology. His second novel, 1926’s The Wychford Poisoning Case, brought this to the fore. It was based on the 19th century Florence Maybrick poisoning case — which I’ve made two episodes about in the past, if you care to learn more about it. It was dedicated to his friend the writer E.M. Delafield, and in this note he hoped that she would “recognise the attempt I have made to substitute for the materialism of the usual crime-puzzle of fiction those psychological values which are … the basis of the universal interest in the far more absorbing criminological dramas of real life. In other words, I have tried to write what might be described as a psychological detective story.”
If The Wychford Poisoning Case was Berkeley’s first attempt at infusing psychology into the detective story, it certainly wasn’t his last. It isn’t precisely a howdunnit, but the attentive reader can see Berkeley trending in that direction; the classic whodunnit held no challenge for him any longer. And then in 1931, not long after he had helped to found the Detection Club, Berkeley put out a novel that is widely recognised as the high point of the golden age howdunnit: Malice Aforethought.
It has one of those opening lines that belongs up there next to the all time greats like “Last night I dreamed I went to Manderley again” or “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in position of a large fortune must be in want of a wife”. Malice Aforethought begins: “It was not until several weeks after he had decided to murder his wife that Dr Bickleigh took any serious steps in the matter.”
I would argue that everything you need to know about this howdunnit, and arguably any howdunnit, is contained in this one sentence. We know who is going to commit murder (Dr Bickleigh), who he is going to kill (his wife), how long he has been thinking about it (several weeks at least) and that he has now arrived at the point where he is going to take “serious steps”. All that is left to find out is how he is going to do it, and we’re already wildly curious about that. It’s a perfect opening.
The reviewers agreed, picking up on Berkeley’s deft handling of the psychology of the howdunnit. The New York Times called the book a “fine psychological study of a distorted mind.” The English Review deemed it “psychologically extremely good.” But almost nobody knew that it was Berkeley who had written it. To distance this new, darker, more experimental type of book from his more classic puzzle based whodunnits featuring Roger Sheringham, he used a pseudonym for Malice Aforethought: Francis Iles. He picked the name after discovering that he had a long distant smuggler ancestor of the same name. He managed to kept his connection to the Iles pseudonym a secret for two whole years, bringing out two novels under the name in that time. It was a favourite game among his literary contemporaries, trying to guess who the writer’s real identity was. The frenzy was stoked by Berkeley’s publisher, who let it be known that “Francis Iles” was the penname of an already well known writer. Suggestions ranged as widely as Rose Macaulay and HG Wells, but the writer’s true identity was still a secret when the second Iles book, Before the Fact, appeared in 1932.
The crowning achievement of Malice Aforethought as a howdunnit, to my mind, is the fact that Dr Bickleigh is an inherently repulsive character, yet Berkeley makes the reader root for him to succeed. The more we see of Bickleigh’s crimes, the greater the tension — will he get away with it? Should we want him to get away with it? The moral clarity of the whodunnit is inverted, and punishment for the criminal is no longer the default outcome that the reader desires. By showing us “how” the crime was done, Berkeley has exposed the awful humanity of his criminal.
Encouraged by the success of Malice Aforethought, other writers were inspired to try their hand at the howdunnit. Christopher Bush’s The Case of the April Fools came out in 1933, and Freeman Wills Crofts switched fully into this new mode in 1934 with The 12.30 from Croydon. Indeed, it became such a popular structure that Ngaio Marsh poked fun at it in her foreword to her 1935 novel Enter a Murderer. It’s a brief vignette in which the author and her detective are in dialogue; she has shown Chief Detective Inspector Alleyn the manuscript that contains an account of his latest case and is receiving his feedback. “Isn’t it usual in detective stories to conceal the identity of the criminal?” he asks, implying that it is obvious from the outset “whodunnit”. Marsh replies: “‘Hopelessly vieux jeu, my dear Alleyn. Nowadays the identity of the criminal is always revealed in the early chapters.” Vieux jeu means “old game” or “old hat”. The howdunnit was no longer in the whodunnit’s shadow.
This episode of Shedunnit was written and hosted by me, Caroline Crampton.
You can find links to all the books mentioned and other information about this episode at shedunnitshow.com/howdunnit. I publish transcripts of every episode including this one; find them all at shedunnitshow.com/transcripts.
Shedunnit is edited by Euan MacAleece. Production assistance from Leandra Griffith. Member support for the Shedunnit Book Club from Connor McLoughlin.
Thanks for listening. I’ll be back in two weeks with a new episode.