Five to Try: Inverted Mysteries

inverted mysteries (2)

Those of you who have been around this blog for a while will know that I am a bit of a fan of the inverted mystery. While I make a point to read a pretty wide variety of crime and mystery fiction, I review inverted mysteries more frequently than any other type and I have no intention on slowing down on that front.

One of the things that excites me most about the inverted mystery and crime sub-genres (and yes, I think they are slightly different – the former is akin to a detective novel whereas the latter is more psychological) is the sheer diversity of approaches that writers take with these forms.

For some writers the use of an inverted form is a chance to experiment with the structure of a mystery story and show that you can still craft a viable puzzle even if you know the killer’s identity. Others like to use the form to explore the psychology of killers or their perspective on the cat-and-mouse game of detection. Sometimes these books are light-hearted and comedic with the killer’s plans either coming to nothing or being turned back on the killer themselves. Others are dark, gritty and drenched in noir-style.

The list I have compiled today is not an attempt to pick the five best inverted mysteries. While I have read quite a number of these over the past few years I know that there are many I have yet to try including a few classics of the sub-genre. What I was aiming to do instead was illustrate some of the different ways writers have interpreted this simple idea.

One of my paramount concerns was that the titles I picked should be available and affordable. I also wanted my picks to represent the different styles of inverted mysteries out there so I tried to select a mix of story types. This means that I had to leave out some favorite authors and titles such as Crofts’ The Affair at Little Wokeham (the best of his four inverted novels). For this reason I have included further reading suggestions after each of my selections to give you other options if a particular type of inverted story appeals to you.

One title that did not make the list is Malice Aforethought. I gave considerable thought to its inclusion but ended up opting against it because it is so clearly the dominant title in the sub-genre. It so obviously would merit inclusion for its importance to the development of the form that I think highlighting it would add very little. While I think it tends to be a little overrated, I do suggest you seek it out if you haven’t read it already.

On with the list…

Antidote to Venom by Freeman Wills Crofts

AntidoteThis is an example of the Howcatchem structure. In this type of story the reader learns the killer’s identity, their plan and their motivation early in the novel. Their job is to work out how the detective will unpick the information they can see to get at the truth and bring the killer to justice. This is the most common form of inversion and certainly the best known – TV’s Columbo is structured this way.

Freeman Wills Crofts’ Antidote to Venom is a great example of this format because it is essentially split into two sections. The first builds our understanding of how the killer comes to be murdering someone at all, explaining their motivation, choice of victim and plan. The second follows Inspector French as he tries to unpick the evidence.

This proves particularly tricky because the person carrying out the killer does not a personal motive to carry out the murder. The scheme Crofts devises is really quite technically ingenious and memorable and while I found French’s investigation a little too slow and detail-oriented, I love the story’s backdrop of a midsized metropolitan zoo and the characterization of the killer, George.

Read my full review of this title here.

If You Like This, Try

Strangers on a Train by Patricia Highsmith operates with a similar premise in which the person who performs the killing does not have a direct motive for carrying out the murder.

Crofts wrote three other inverted stories each of which takes a slightly different structural approach. My favorite is the one that is hardest to find The Affair at Little Wokeham (also called Double Tragedy) and it’s well worth a look if you can find an affordable copy.

Finally I strongly recommend Heir Presumptive by Henry Wade. It is one of my favorite inverted mysteries in part thanks to a clever premise and its really effective ending.

The New Sonia Wayward by Michael Innes

soniawaywardThis is an example of a comedic approach to the inverted mystery novel. Typically these sorts of stories present us with a bumbling, incompetent would-be murderer (or person perpetrating some other form of crime) who may or may not succeed. Often they don’t and their plan will end up backfiring on them in some fashion, possibly leading to their own death or humiliation.

The New Sonia Wayward is a great example of this type of story because the protagonist, Colonel Petticate, does not actually kill his dead wife. Instead he is trying to cover up a natural death but does it so badly that he finds himself in a compromising situation.

This is a wild ride of a story packed with unpredictable and comedic twists and turns. I enjoy the digs and jokes at the publishing industry’s expense and found it a charming and engaging read.

Read my full review of this title here.

If You Like This, Try

Richard Hull’s The Murder of My Aunt is probably the best-known of this sort of inverted story and it is certainly enjoyable though I am a little reluctant to label it an inverted mystery novel at all. I think it’s a great read though and I think it puts an interesting if predictable twist on the subgenre.

Leo Bruce’s Case for Sergeant Beef is also a great choice with a quirky would-be killer with an interesting plan. It is frequently very funny and can be enjoyed independently of Bruce’s other Sergeant Beef stories.

Finally Anthony Roll’s Family Matters (yet to be reviewed on this blog) presents an interesting situation in which we know the identity of two people who are seeking to kill the book’s victim but end up inadvertently spoiling each others’ plans.

A Demon in My View by Ruth Rendell

RendellI don’t often review books featuring serial killers on this blog but one of the strongest currents of inverted fiction deals with psychopathic killers.

Sometimes these sorts of stories can try to realistically explore the psychology of a psychopath, others will take a more stylised approach or use it to tell a more conventional thriller.

Ruth Rendell’s A Demon in My View presents us with a serial killer who has found a way of suppressing his instincts. He has set up a mannequin in an outbuilding in the block of flats in which he lives which he uses to play out his fantasies.

Unfortunately for him he finds his life is turned upside down when someone with a very similar name moves in to the same building, sparking a dangerous and destructive obsession in him.

Read my full review of this title here.

If You Like This, Try

I have fewer examples here because it’s not my favorite type of fiction. One I can recommend though is Jim Thompson’s Pop. 1280. It is an extremely dark, perverse and often amusing look into the mind of a killer.

Hugh Holton’s Windy City explores a married couple who kill for the enjoyment of it. I was entertained by it but it is hard to believe that these killers could succeed for as long as they do.

They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? by Horace McCoy

TheyShootHorsesDontTheyThis is an example of a justification narrative or whydunnit. The reader begins the novel with the knowledge of who the killer killed and how it was done but their motive is unclear.

They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? is a punchy, brutal and bleak tale set against the backdrop of a gruelling dance marathon contest. Couples compete, dancing for an hour and a half before getting a ten minute break and starting all over again.

The protagonist, Robert, is an aspiring film director who agrees to dance with Gloria, an actress who is hoping to catch a film producer’s attention during the contest. We know that by the end of the contest several weeks later he will be arrested and put on trial for her murder and over the course of the book we learn what led him to take her life.

McCoy’s story works because it is a blistering, uncomfortable and provocative reading experience packed with salty prose and a decidedly noir outlook on humanity.

Read my full review of this title here.

If You Like This, Try

The whydunnit seems to be the least used inversion of the typical mystery formula but there are a few examples out there. The Collini Case is presented as a legal thriller but it does ask the reader to figure out why a man has committed a murder.

Another interesting example is James Hogg’s The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner though it is not usually categorized as a genre work. Written in the early nineteenth century, Hogg presents us with two accounts of a murder and leaves it open to the reader which interpretation they favor. It can be a bit of a dense read and the supernatural elements will not be for everyone but its focus on the killer’s psychology makes it feel a surprisingly modern work in other respects.

Blueprint for Murder by Roger Bax

blueprintOne of the most interesting aspects of the inverted crime novel is the way it can allow writers to explore the social causes of crime. Blueprint for Murder was written in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War and it explores the idea that war is so dehumanizing that it may have eroded any sense of social responsibility or ethics.

I like to think of these as kitchen sink inverted crime stories as the emphasis here is on trying to channel a sense of gritty realism though they can still contain some fantastic developments. While I have only encountered a few such stories so far they are mostly from that early postwar period of 1945-1960.

Often these sorts of stories contain elements of noir style and portray the killer not as a deviant who stands apart from society but its logical product. This can sometimes make for grim reading, particularly as society is usually shown to be fairly impotent in dealing with these sorts of threats, but I do find books in this style to be an interesting bridge between the inverted mystery and the sorts of psychological crime and serial killer fiction of later decades.

Read my full review of this title here.

If You Like This, Try

Too Soon to Die and Diplomat’s Folly by Henry Wade both feature protagonists who believe that the rules should not apply to them. The latter, much like Blueprint, features a soldier who has returned from the war.

Roger Bax’s Disposing of Henry similarly presents us with another disaffected soldier – this time an injured airman who is invalided out of the war and plots with a woman to murder her husband.

Bonus Selection

A Kiss Before Dying by Ira Levin

KissA hybrid inverted mystery story that blends elements of the howcatchem and the whodunnit to great effect.

This is invariably my choice whenever I am asked to pick my favorite inverted mystery novel because it manages to really showcase what you can do with the form within the familiar structure of a traditional detective story. Levin does this brilliantly by splitting his narrative into three sections, each told in a different style.

The first of those sections is delivered from the perspective of the killer and establishes plenty of information about them. We learn their relationship to the victim, their motivation and exactly how they did it. Crucially however we never learn their name or get a clear sense of their appearance so when the victim’s sister appears in the second section the reader has no idea which of the characters was responsible.

I consider it the best crime novel I have read, period, and I would definitely recommend it if you haven’t. It is a cracking read, full of tension and bold, memorable characterizations. The split into three sections helps Levin keep the material feeling fresh and I found it gripping right to the last page.

Read my full review of this title here

The image in the banner is taken from the cover on a PAN edition of Malice Aforethought by Frances Iles.

30 thoughts on “Five to Try: Inverted Mysteries

  1. This is a great idea for slecetion criteria — instead of simply “inverted”, what did each bring to the inverted mystery. Not read some of these (and, wow, there are decidedly more than five to try here…!) but I’m working my way through that subgenre very slowly and imagine I’ll get to these in due course (goddamn, that Innes sounds tempting, damn you).

    It never occurred to me just how much a fan of the inverted mystery I was until I realised how many of Jim Thompson’s novels are exactly that: the entire scheme from the perspective of the criminal (usually watching all their hopes and intentions crumble helplessly before their eyes…).

    I second the recommendations of Case for Sergeant Beef by Leo Bruce, which might be one of the funniest inverted mysteries I’ve ever read, and the BLCC Family Matters by Anthony Rolls which I loved. I also picked up the reissued Malice Aforethought recently, and shall be reading that again in the coming months to see how it stands up to my 15+ year-old memory of it.

    And, of course, there’s another one coming in a couple of weeks 😉

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks JJ. Yes, I did stretch the selection limit a little but it is difficult narrowing down!

      I loved the Thompson I read and am excited to try some of his others. He is not an inverted mystery writer in a way R. Austin Freeman would use the term but I think he definitely still presents the reader with questions to solve and so falls within the subgenre.

      I seem to recall you were the person who steered me to try Case for Sergeant Beef so thanks for that!

      I will look forward to seeing what you make of Malice when you reread it. And I am very curious what you will make of that book coming up in a few weeks…

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      1. Got some inverted mysteries in my TBR which I’m very much looking forward to — Heir Presumptive by Wade, the four Crofts, Mr. Pottermack’s Oversight by R. Austin Freeman, plus others — so will use this post as a jumping off point when I run out. How long that will take remains to be seen 😊

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      2. Ooh – I am excited to see what you think of all of those. I need to get around to reading some Freeman but I have found his short stories a little dry. No doubt I will give him another go soon, particularly if you end up liking that one.

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  2. I’ve never thought about inverting a mystery, but from reading your descriptions, I can see why it would be appealing. My mind immediately goes to changing whodunnit to ishegonnadoit or ishegonnagetawaywithit. This naturally leads to one of my favorite Hitchcock devices — causing the audience/reader to feel sympathy for the murderer. This can only be done in short scenes. If we spent a whole book cheering for a murderer….let’s just say the world would be scarier than it already is. I love the Christianna Brand short story Poison in the Cup. I can’t say I was hoping the main character got away with it, but every time Cockrill got close to arresting her, I was on edge. Of course, sympathy was Brand’s great talent. I’ll check out Blueprint for Murder

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    1. I really need to read some Brand and that short story does sound appealing. I will have to check it out.

      It is interesting you referencing Hitchcock as he, of course, directed Strangers on a Train and it is interesting to consider how he changed the source material. Basically Guy becomes a much clearer victim, allowing the audience to sympathize with him more easily. His film Rope is also inverted though we are clearly meant to be repulsed by the murderers there.

      I hope you enjoy Blueprint. The killer there is one of the most cold and unpleasant but I think it does touch on some interesting themes and ideas.

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  3. You have created a wonderful resource here, Aidan. My first response, unfortunately, is that I’m not a fan of inverted mysteries! I love the surprise of identity too much to veer far away from more traditional whodunits. However, as I recently attested myself, I am a huge fan of A Kiss Before Dying, I like the occasional novel where you are allowed into the killer’s mind even as his identity is kept intact until the end. Bill Pronzini does that a couple of times, most notably in The Running of Beasts. (It’s a serial killer story, however; I like those more than you do.)

    I think I prefer the inverted form when it appears on film, and I think it works better there than whodunnits do. Nobody is a bigger Hitchcock fan than I am, and he found the question of “who did it” a boring one. With only a couple of exceptions, he revealed his criminals early on. Watching Bruno in action in SoaT is thrilling, and it’s too bad Farley Granger is such a milksop in comparison to Robert Walker because you find yourself almost rooting for Bruno over Guy for this reason. The same thing holds true for the killer in Frenzy, who is oddly more appealing than the hero. Would you say Psycho is an interesting hybrid, like AKBD? We do see into the killer’s head, but points of identity are held back, albeit in a different, but no less surprising, way from the Levin novel.

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    1. Thank you so much Brad. I am really happy that people are finding this useful and interesting.

      I do agree with you that inverted stories can work really well on screen and the adaptations are often more entertaining than they may be in print. I think part of the reason for that is reading killer’s thinking can feel a little repetitive, particularly when the crime occurs early and they spend much of the time passively angsting about being caught. Some inverted stories are prone to this sort of wallowing in guilt – Crofts often spends a little too long rehashing motivations and emotions. Film gets to do that visually and I think that can often be more satisfying as we can interpret emotions for ourselves, allowing a little more engagement for the viewer.

      I remember reading your post about Hitchcock and suspense recently and finding it interesting. I can think of a few examples and while Psycho would not necessarily have occured to me now you mention it I think you are right. I can definitely see a case for saying it has elements of whydunnit and howcatchem about it and like AKBD it is clearly structured with sections with distinct styles.

      I think SoaT is an interesting adaptation in general for the way Hitchcock adjusts the story. Farley Granger’s character is much more of a victim than Guy is in the book – while the scheme is undoubtedly Bruno’s in both versions Guy is far more responsible in the book for his own fate as a result of choices he makes and some moments of inaction. Like you I find Bruno all the more appealing in Hitch’s version and I do think the decision to soften Guy is the reason.

      Thanks for the suggestion about Pronzini – I haven’t read any of his but I will seek out a copy of The Running of Beasts. I have no problem with the serial killer story type except that I can find them far more chilling than any other kind of crime fiction.

      On Sun, Jan 27, 2019 at 11:36 AM Mysteries Ahoy! wrote:

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      1. Just like Brad, I’m not overly fond of inverted mysteries, as I’m sure you’ve probably realised by now. 🙂

        In my case, the best inverted mysteries are those when it turns out that the murder didn’t actually happen the way that it was described in the early chapters. Because then it suddenly turns into a regular mystery again – a didhereallydoitorwasitsomeoneelse, which is a term that I’m guessing won’t ever catch on – and that certainly increases the tension of the whole plot.

        To name examples would be a bit spoilerific, so I’ll abstain, but there is at least one excellent example by one of the more celebrated authors of the genre.

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      2. I enjoy those kinds of stories too and I did think about adding them as a separate category but I ran into the spoiler problem too. I do have a review of one such title planned for the week after next though so I’ll be curious if that turns out to be the one you are thinking of.

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    1. That’s weird! Do you get notifications of other posts in WordPress? I find that Puzzle Doctor’s rarely come through to me though I get notices of everyone else’s.

      On Sun, Jan 27, 2019 at 11:37 AM Mysteries Ahoy! wrote:

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  4. “I like to think of these as kitchen sink inverted crime stories as the emphasis here is on trying to channel a sense of gritty realism though they can still contain some fantastic developments. While I have only encountered a few such stories so far they are mostly from that early postwar period of 1945-1960.”
    That’s worth at least one doctoral thesis (and, for all I know, it already has been). I’m thinking this “kitchen sink” school of inverteds might have been influenced by the “angry young man” school of drama that flourished at about the same time – although how much of an influence it exerted we shall leave up to our hypothetical doctoral candidate to determine.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I was thinking it might be a good topic for a more serious essay so I am excited to see you agree. I do think you are right about the way it ties in to that same movement we see in drama and film. I believe it reflects a new cynicism about social order and institutions. Those books are more brutal and I think it is far less certain that the killer will be brought to justice (though they often suffer some other way).

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  5. I would also suggest giving R A Freeman a try. As well as Mr Pottermack’s Oversight I would also suggest that The Shadow of the Wolf and the short story collection The Singing Bone are good examples of the inverted crime story. While at times his style reflects the fact that he was born in 1862, he arguably did invent both the inverted crime and the scientifically accurate forensic genres. In addition, he had an interesting life both professionally and personally (see The Golden Age of Murder by Martin Edwards in respect of the latter) which is reflected in his books.

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    1. Thanks Adrian for the suggestions. I have read some of the short stories from The Singing Bone in other collections but I do need to give one of his novels a go. I appreciate having a few titles to get started with.

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    1. I really like that collection though I wish the stories were arranged differently. There are a few that have very similar ideas placed right next to each other which I think diminishes both a little.

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