The Department of Dead Ends has been brought back into print by Bello, a new imprint specialising in out-of-print authors. Roy Vickers (1889-1965) published more than 60 crime novels and story collections between 1921 and 1959, but is he worth reviving? Well, he is described in Murder in Print as master of the ‘inverted mystery’, who succeeded in establishing the form as ‘something far more than an intriguing experiment’.
Vickers’ stories are often compared to The Singing Bone, the collection of Dr Thorndyke stories by R. Austin Freeman. The books are similar in that both present ‘inverted’ mysteries: the crime is clearly described and the reader fully acquainted with the murderer from page one. The mystery lies in how the crime will be solved. Where they differ from Dr Thorndyke stories is the element of chance.
It was the function of the Department to connect persons and things that had no logical connexion… It played always for a lucky fluke, to offset the lucky fluke by which the criminal so often eludes the police. Often it muddled one crime with another and arrived at the correct answer by wrong reasoning.
The gimmick is that the Department preserves unaccountable pieces of evidence – a child’s rubber trumpet in the first story – and through indexing, memory or simple instinct manages to use them to unravel unsolved crimes. For me the stories had more of the feel of Columbo than Thorndyke – a clever (or more often, lucky) murderer getting away with it until one niggling little piece of evidence brings down their deception.
Most of the crimes are Edwardian, which gives them the feel of one of those ‘notorious local murders’ books you can buy. This is a world of clerks, music-hall turns, pharmacist’s assistants, and parlour-maids. The people are called Elsie, Ethel, Hilda, George, Constance. They are murdered for their insurance policies or out of sexual frustration by respectable chaps with high collars and little moustaches.
I think a more modern author would have made more of the eccentricities of the Department and foregrounded Inspector Rason more, but that would have taken away the novelty (at the time) of focusing on the killer.
Believe it or not, this was my first e-book. I read it on my Blackberry Playbook, a device which looks like it’s fast becoming the Betamax of tablet devices. I’m not going to rehearse all the familiar real books vs e-books arguments here, especially as the Playbook isn’t a devoted e-reader. To focus on the text rather than the format, this is a good quality edition (at least I didn’t notice many typos or formatting issues), and there is added value in the form of a short biography of Roy Vickers and an appreciation by Ellery Queen, no less.
Final destination: A keeper
Past Offences by Rich Westwood is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.