I adore Columbo; I got addicted to reruns of the original Seventies-era series when I was in graduate school, and it’s still one of my favorite TV shows. Columbo’s sharp eye for apparently trivial incongruities, his deceptively bumbling manner, his mythical wife who’s a fan of everything and everyone, his equally mythical Captain who just hates loose ends — I love it all.
Columbo‘s format is the so-called inverted mystery, where the viewer (or reader) knows whodunit, how, and even why. The real mystery is how the murderer will be caught. You could make an argument that inverted mysteries existed in literature at least as far back as Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment ; I read somewhere that the creators of Columbo cite this novel as on influence on the Columbo format. That, and the “cozy English mystery” tradition of elaborately complicated murder amongst the upper classes (investigated by the not so upper class police). But the official original inverted mystery is R. Austin Freeman’s “The Case of Oscar Brodski” (1911). The story was popular enough that Freeman wrote four more and collected them with “Brodski” into The Singing Bone (1912).
Beyond the twist of presenting the crime before the investigation, Freeman’s stories are classic ratiocination stories. His protagonist, Dr. Thorndyke, is basically Sherlock Holmes, complete with a (portable) laboratory and a Dr. Watson (Dr. Jervis, in this case). Thorndyke notices things the police don’t, and awes them with his deductive prowess. As with most stories in the ratiocination genre, the detective and his extraordinary abilities are the center of the tales.
The stories in Roy Vickers’ The Department of Dead Ends (1949) are inverted mysteries of a different style. The Department of Dead Ends is a group within Scotland Yard whose sole purpose is to take “everything the other departments rejected:” clues that led nowhere, cases that can’t be closed (or that no one is interested in closing), puzzling but seemingly irrelevant information, lost items. The department solves cases (often cold cases) via this massive collection of minutia mostly by serendipity: someone happens to notice that a puzzling fact from one case, when put together with some irrelevant trivia from an apparently unrelated situation, becomes an observation neither puzzling nor irrelevant to either circumstance.
No brilliant, eccentric investigator dominates these stories. The police characters are so de-emphasized that in the first story, “The Rubber Trumpet,” they aren’t even individuals. Vickers literally writes that “the Department” takes an item from the shelf and makes the relevant connection. The others stories feature Detective Inspector Rason (sometimes with Chief Inspector Karslake, from regular Scotland Yard), but he is a mostly anonymous figure, albeit with a hint of Columbo: one story mentions his “mask of fatuous breeziness;” in another story he approaches a suspect for questioning unexpectedly at a train station, “practically groveling with apology.”
The bulk of each story focuses on the crime and its background: what makes the murderer tick, what drove them to what they did. The narration is omniscient and rather distant, and tends to read a bit like a non-fiction true crime article in The New Yorker or The Atlantic. In fact, Vickers worked for a while as a journalist on the crime beat, as well as a court reporter. As in real life, the crimes are messy and often unpremeditated, the solutions less brilliant deduction than luck plus legwork and the ability to remember things and put them together.
My favorite story was “The Lady who Laughed,” which had a particularly Columbo-like vibe. A famous clown suffocates his wife by “accidentally” rolling her into a heavy carpet — at her own garden party, in front of her own guests. The police are sure he killed her intentionally, but they can’t prove it. Rason makes a breakthrough on the case because of a random remark that his niece makes. Lieutenant Columbo would have had his epiphany while the murder case was still hot, but in Vickers’ story over a year has passed since the murder. Rason and Karslake’s final confrontation with the killer, where they slowly reveal the chain of facts and observations that prove deliberate murder, felt very much like the final scene of a Columbo episode.
All the stories in this collection occur either in the first decade of the Twentieth Century or in the 1930s — I rather wonder if the stories set in the earlier era are based on cases he knew of through his reporting or court work. There are some outdated attitudes evinced, particularly about class and certain personality traits, mildly irritating and sometimes cringe-inducing but nothing that made me want to throw the book against the wall (your mileage may vary). It’s interesting, too, how many of the murderers were almost sympathetic. Vickers does a good job of painting in shades of gray.
My copy of The Department of Dead Ends is from Bello, the digital only (ebook and print-on-demand) imprint of Pan Macmillan. I mention this mostly from my deep frustration with finding affordable copies of books that I am interested in that were published in that long (and getting longer, in the US) dead interval between “public domain” and “currently in print.” I think that in an era where digital technology alleviates the problems of excess inventory, no book should ever go out of print, no matter how obscure or niche its audience. So kudos to Pan Macmillan for reviving some previously out of print crime classics (among many other genres). I have the print version of the book; it’s good quality paper and well formatted. Bello has another volume of Department of Dead Ends stories, Murder will Out, that I’ve not picked up yet, as well as several other works by Vickers.
Overall, I enjoyed this collection. If you enjoy inverted mysteries, if you like Columbo, or if you like true crime written up in the New Yorker/Atlantic style, you might like The Department of Dead Ends.