Sunday, 20 January 2013

Penguin no. 1090: The Department of Dead Ends
by Roy Vickers

If you have never read any of the Department of Dead Ends stories, I envy your first reading. (Ellery Queen)

Roy Vickers creates his fictional Department of Dead Ends within Scotland Yard, conceiving of it as a repository for the various pieces of evidence collected in cases which were never solved, and therefore never closed. It also serves as a storehouse for information of a speculative nature, passed along by informers and those inclined to do their bit to assist the police, and filed away against the possibility of one day proving relevant to the solving of a past or future crime. The lack of any apparent contemporary relevance is almost an essential marker of the items which attract the interest of those in the department.

It is presided over by Detective-Inspector Rason, who seems freed from the normal policing constraints of time and pressure imposed by public demand and the need for a timely solution. His concern is with crimes which remain unsolved, and so he can afford to wait for unsought linkages within his collection to reveal themselves. He formulates theories, follows up hunches, and often finds that the investigation of one crime leads to the solving of another. Long after the murders have occurred, and long after the guilty have ceased worrying about the safety of their secrets, he can allow chance and randomness to play a part in solving the crimes.

This is a collection of ten Department of Dead Ends short stories, selected from the 37 that Roy Vickers wrote. I wonder if having them grouped together like this was the ideal way to read them, for apart from the dispiriting aspect of reading murder after murder, this grouping tended to emphasise the features which the stories shared, for in a way they are almost written to a recipe, although it is interesting to note how diverse they are despite their common structure.

Their most interesting feature, however, is how they collectively differ from more-conventional approaches. The Department of Dead Ends stories are all inverted: the reader knows everything of importance about the murderer, such as how and why they committed their crimes, and how they felt about them afterwards. We also know with certainty that the murderer is going to be caught: the mystery in each case is in how this will be effected.

With one exception clearly based upon George Smith of the real-life Brides in the Bath murders, these are ordinary people who commit a single murder, and plan no more. The emotion which drives them to it in this one case, sometimes disappointment with the course of their lives which manifests as an intense jealousy, or the desire to escape from a relationship which offers responsibility without pleasure, seems doused by the murder, and they are set free to restart their lives, all seeming to share a detachment from their crimes and a lack of remorse for their victims. They are all self-focused, primarily concerned with evading responsibility for their actions. And they are initially successful in this, until they are undone by some unnecessary flourish on their part which later attracts the attention of the Detective-Inspector Rason.

The ten stories collected in this volume are: The Rubber Trumpet, The Lady who Laughed, The Man who Murdered in Public, The Snob's Murder, The Cowboy of Oxford Street, The Clue of the Red Carnations, The Yellow Jumper, The Case of the Social Climber, The Henpecked Husband, and Blind Man's Buff.


  1. This sounds rather quirky and a little unusual and definitely worth tracking down!

  2. These remind me a lot of Freeman Wills Crofts stories, though they are better developed.



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