Oxfam in Norwich has a nice selection of old Penguins, and my eye always goes directly to the green ones. You probably don’t need me to tell you that green = crime and mystery. One day, the array was not overly appealing – most of the books were Erle Stanley Gardners. Nothing against that, but I’ve got so many of those, most of which will probably remain unread, that I don’t need to acquire any more. By far the most interesting title on display was The Department of Dead Ends (1949) by Roy Vickers. Flicking through, I saw that it contained short stories, which are always nice to have, so I bought it.
Before reading, I made an effort not to check the blurb or the author bio – so as to come to the text without any baggage. This effort was slightly confounded, in the best possible way, by a surprise introduction from Ellery Queen.
Queen does a good job selling the volume as the next great thing (in 1955, when the Penguin edition was published) in detective fiction. Describing each story as its own ‘miraculously English’ twist on the ‘”inverted” detective story’, Queen insists that, after The Department of Dead Ends, the genre will never be the same again. The book and the author are so little-known that Queen’s prophesy clearly did not come to pass; however, the stories are extremely enjoyable.
As you might have guessed by now, each tale inverts the narrative of a typical crime story (and this is pre-Columbo, remember). So, we start with the identity of the murderer, witness the crime, and then view the gathering of evidence. There had already been a few stories like this of course – notably by R. Austin Freeman, Francis Iles, and Q. Patrick. After reading the first story, ‘The Rubber Trumpet’, I thought there was something interesting about it, setting it apart from the others. Put simply, it didn’t feel like fiction. That is to say, it was sensational and implausible enough, but there was something almost calculated in the telling. I realised that it was the focus on small details; the shape of a button or the exact and inelegant number of rubber trumpets bought from a certain shop on a certain day. It felt more like a well-written example of tasteless true-crime journalism.
This feeling grew and grew as I read through ‘The Lady Who Laughed’ and ‘The Man Who Murdered in Public’. The stories, even the oddly stiff-yet-imaginative dialogue evoked the kinds of fictionalised narratives you’d get in big books from the 1940s onwards: Sensational True Tales of Women Who Kill!!!While this may have been a new type of storytelling under the ‘crime fiction’ banner, as journalism it’s the kind of narrative that’s dominated from the Newgate Calendar to New York Timeop eds. About half-way through my reading, I checked Vickers’ bio and, sure enough, he’d started out as a journalist.
So Queen was right in a way: these stories do feel remarkably novel in the context of detective fiction. In another context, they fit an extremely old form, with just one twist – conscious fictionality. But that’s the nature of innovation. It comes one twist at a time.