The Department of Dead Ends

9781447224617the department of dead ends jpg 255 400

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.

Continue reading

A Little More than Kin, and Less than Kind


My husband and I had a quiet evening at home last night, watching a Columbo episode: “Short Fuse”. He and I are huge Columbo fans; we have both entire series (the original 1970’s series, and the late eighties/early nineties series) on DVD. I’ve seen the entire seventies series several times, plus a few episodes of the generally inferior “new” series.

Anyway, the plot of “Short Fuse” is as follows: David Buckner (James Gregory) is president of Stanford Chemicals, which is owned by his wife, Doris “Dory” Buckner, née Stanford (Ida Lupino). Buckner wants to sell Stanford Chemicals to The Conglomerate. He is opposed by his nephew, Roger Stanford (Roddy McDowall), whose father founded Stanford Chemicals. Roger’s parents (both chemists?) died in a chemical explosion when Roger was underage, and apparently his Aunt Dory became his guardian and inherited the company.

For some reason, Roger doesn’t have enough shares in the family company to block the sale, but he does have influence over his Aunt Dory, who does. Buckner tries to blackmail Roger into dropping his opposition, so that Aunt Dory will also agree to the sale. Luckily, Roger is also a boy genius chemist (PhD before he was 21!); he fixes up an exploding cigar box to kill Buckner. He then plants evidence to suggest that the company vice-president, Everitt Logan, is engaged in industrial espionage for a competitor.

Buckner goes “BOOM!”. Aunt Dory fires Logan, then appoints Roger to be the head of Stanford Chemicals. Everything is going Roger’s way, until Columbo discovers the truth. End of story.

It’s a pretty good episode. Roddy McDowall seems to be having fun in his role, with his groovier-than-Greg-Brady poet shirts and his incredibly tight jeans. James Gregory is always a pleasure to watch, and Ida Lupino is lovely. Peter Falk is his usual terrific self. But let’s be honest — the plot is way more convoluted than it needs to be, and doesn’t entirely make sense.

If Roger’s father founded Stanford Chemicals, and Roger is now an adult, why does Aunt Dory still own it? Why doesn’t Roger have the controlling shares? Wouldn’t this all make more sense if the company were owned by Roger’s mother, and David Buckner was his stepfather? No mysterious, parent-killing explosions at the plant when Roger was underage, no guardian arrangements — so much cleaner.

Ah, but then it would be patricide.

Continue reading