The Department of Dead Ends

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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.

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Two Bottles of Relish


I’ve long been a fan of Lord Dunsany’s beautiful prose, and I can’t get as much of it as I would like. Much of his early work, now in the public domain, is high fantasy, which is a genre I’m not fond of. His later (non-public domain) work isn’t much published anymore. So I was overjoyed to discover that Harper Collins has reprinted Dunsany’s only volume of crime stories, Two Bottles of Relish: The Little Tales of Smethers and Other Stories — and at a very reasonable price. An early Christmas gift to me! Continue reading

What I’ve been Reading: Javier Marías


This was originally intended as a short little post on ello, but after I finished, it seemed long enough to post (slightly extended and modified) here, too.

I’ve just finished a collection of short stories by Spanish author Javier Marías, my second one in the past month or so. The first collection was When I was Mortal, the second was While the Women are Sleeping. Marías was one of the authors featured in the anthology A Thousand Forests in one Acorn (which I reviewed here), and in that anthology, I noticed that one of his novels was described as a critic as “hybrid-genre” — which has overtones of “This has the plot of the sort of book I’d never admit to reading, but Marías writes well, and interestingly.” Whatever. If you read my blog, you probably don’t worry too much about the literary/genre fiction dichotomy.

Marías (at least in his short fiction) writes a lot of stories that I would classify as “crime fiction” — but often from a somewhat different perspective than you would expect from “typical” crime fiction. By this, I mean that the crime isn’t necessarily the focus of the story, but almost the excuse for the story, the frame on which to hang what Marías really wants to write about. His ghost stories also also usually not “typical” ghost stories, in that same sense. Often, his crime stories have a touch of the fantastic, the “weird” (not necessarily supernatural).

When I was Mortal was the more conventional collection overall; Marías notes that eleven of the twelve stories included were written on commission. But there’s still that “something else” about most of them. “Everything Bad comes Back” reminded me of Julio Cortázar’s “The Pursuer.” The title story, my favorite, is told by a ghost, who thought he had lived a good, contented life. But there was some darkness there he didn’t know about. And now he knows, because when you are dead, you know everything.

I not only remember what I saw and heard and knew when I was mortal, but I remember it in its entirety, this is including what I did not see or know or hear… but which affected me or those who were important to me….

In other words, the fact that it’s a ghost story is a choice about the style of storytelling, not a choice about the story’s genre.

A couple of the stories in When the Women were Sleeping were pale imitations of stories told better in When I was Mortal — but it still had some excellent, interesting tales. The title story was… interesting. It could be a crime tale, it could simply be a “literary” short story. Whatever one would call it, it’s worth reading. “Isaac’s Journey” felt a bit like something Borges would have written, and “The Resignation Letter of Señor de Santiesteban” is a delightful almost-“straight” ghost story. I’ve already posted about “Lord Rendall’s Song”.

Marías was a good discovery. I will have to check out some of his novels, too.


Image: The Novel Reader, Vincent van Gogh, 1888. Sourced from WikiArt.

Reading The Rector of Veilbye: the First Modern Crime Novel

The Rector of Veilbye, by Danish author Steen Steensen Blicher, is considered the first modern work of crime fiction. Published in 1829, it predates Poe’s mystery short stories by a little over a decade, and Sherlock Holmes by almost fifty years. The story is based on an actual Danish murder case from 1629. It’s well-enough loved in Denmark to have been made into a movie there three times; the second version was Denmark’s first sound film.

Jpg 1Poster for the 1922 silent film version, known in English as The Hand of Fate
Image: Danish Film Institute

Unlike Sherlock Holmes stories or The Murders in the Rue Morgue, The Rector of Veilbye isn’t a whodunit or puzzle-style murder mystery. It’s much more like a modern psychological crime story, albeit with a twist at the end. The story is told first as the journal entries of Erik Sørensen, the district judge of Veilbye, and then as the journal entries of the pastor of Aalso, the parish next to Veilbye. Sørensen is engaged to the daughter of Soren Quist, the rector of Veilbye, which puts Sørensen in a very awkward position when the temperamental Quist is accused of murdering one his servants in a fit of rage.

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