#MyrtleMondays: On the Structure of Mystery Stories

This week we’re switching things up a bit to talk about the writing process! At a recent school visit, an astute student asked me a brilliant and surprising question…

“Why did you wait until the end to reveal the killer?”

At first, I was stumped—the answer to that seems obvious. And yet, as is the way of young minds, of course it isn’t! It’s a question worth examining, and one of the reasons that writing for and working with kids is so amazing. They are brilliant thinkers who analyze their world in ways adults sometimes forget to even think about.

Fifth grade book club members at New Century Elementary School read the first two Myrtle Hardcastle Mysteries. (They also read John Grisham’s latest book, but did John show up to talk to the kids? Just sayin’.)

My initial answer was that if Myrtle figured out the crime right away, the books would be a whole lot shorter (and, um, my job would be easier…?). But the real answer takes a closer look at the structure of crime stories and the way mysteries are revealed to the readers and viewers.

The Myrtle Hardcastle Mysteries are traditional mysteries, or “whodunits,” of the cozy mystery subgenre, in which the actual crime (typically a murder) occurs off screen, and the enjoyment comes in the solving of a clever puzzle. The reader joins the sleuth on the journey—and if I’ve done my job properly, the reader should be able to solve the crime moments before Myrtle & Co. reveal the solution.

Agatha Christie is considered one of the all-time masters of the traditional whodunit.

But there are other types of mysteries, and in particular, there is a type of mystery in which the audience knows the culprit right from the start. This inverted mystery style follows a criminal during the plotting and commission of a crime, and the reader enjoys seeing all that careful plotting unravel as the detective takes apart the case clue by clue. The pleasure is in seeing the bad guys get their comeuppance.

Lt. Columbo and sidekick Dog took down sloppy criminals for the Los Angeles police department.

One of the most famous examples of the inverted mystery is the classic TV series “Columbo,” starring Peter Falk as a brilliant but bumbling homicide detective. In episodes and movies spanning the last quarter of the 20th century, Columbo dismantled the oh-so-carefully planned schemes of scores of murderers who thought they’d done everything perfectly. “Columbo” is available on several popular streaming services.

The first inverted detective story can be found in this 1929 collection by British author R. Austin Freeman.

Although the sensational fiction of the mid-Victorian era often focused on criminals and their crimes, British author R. Austin Freeman is considered the father of the modern inverted mystery, in his 1912 short story “The Case of Oscar Brodski.” Reprinted in his 1929 collection The Singing Bone, it and other stories featuring Freeman’s forensic investigator Dr. Thorndyke, now in the public domain, can be read at the link above, courtesy of Project Gutenberg.

As a mystery author, I must know every detail from both sides of the crime, and in my first drafts, I typically focus on the criminals’ side of things—who the victims are, what the killers’ motives are, and how and why the murders take place. I craft a carefully-plotted crime that only the keenest sleuths and readers can unravel.

The keenest sleuth.

…And then I must write the unraveling. Perhaps I ought to consider writing my own inverted mystery! You never know…

4 Responses to “#MyrtleMondays: On the Structure of Mystery Stories”

  1. J. Hyde

    TIL the term “inverted mystery”! Had not heard that before, though I’ve enjoyed reading them. It would be a fun style shakeup to have Myrtle tackle one. And I love the spot illustration of Peony. 🙂

  2. Maggie

    Thank you for a peek into a writers mind on crafting their story. It gives me insight into figuring out the mystery. I love the Myrtle books and I also love Columbo too.

  3. Natalie Aguirre

    Thanks so much for your tips. I hope you write more blog posts on the craft of writing a mystery. I’d love to know what craft books you recommend on this genre. I’m thinking of trying to write my first mystery one day and would like to learn more about how to write one. Natalie @ Literary Rambles