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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