At some point between 1940 and 1960, puzzle-oriented detective fiction began an inexorable shift into what has now become know as crime fiction, wherein plot machinations took a back seat and character, setting, and ambience became more prevalent. Where detective fiction was mostly interested in the fiendish puzzle, crime fiction was more about the challenge to the status quo, and the effect this has on the people involved. And Wilders Walk Away, Herbert Brean’s debut novel, might just be the perfect peak between the two, because I do not remember having read a puzzle that was so intricately invested in the status quo. What emerges is necessarily a little confused about what it wants to be.
Freelance writer Reynold Frame comes to the picturesque, perfectly preserved 17th century Vermont town of Wilders Lane looking for a photo story about lost Americana. Nothing could be simpler: take some photos of the locals and their faithfully-maintained old style houses, interview the entrenched families who trace their genealogy back two or three hundred years in the same place, and tug at a few heartstrings yearning for a simpler time. All well and good, except each chapter starts with an epigram from a Sherlock Holmes story, so you know something else is afoot.
A long history of miraculous disappearances later, and Frame is impaled on the horns of a dilemma: continue with his simple task of writing about the town, or look into the history of the Wilders and their habit of simply vanishing into thin air in impossible circumstances — from a room with only one watched exit, from a cellar with the same, from the middle of a sandy beach (complete with footprints ending in the middle of undisturbed sand for twenty feet either side). And then the disappearances start to get slightly closer to home and slightly more recent…
This is the puzzle aspect, and sets up anticipation for a classic piece of GAD invention. And, being honest — and I can see why TomCat is among those unimpressed by this — it isn’t actually that type of book at all. To get the most out of it, I would recommend going into this as a prototype for the small town thriller which made the names of modern authors like Harlan Coben and Linwood Barclay, because the foot it has so firmly placed in the crime fiction camp makes it much more successful as that kind of book.
Frame proves remarkably adept at untangling the skein which has so enraptured the small-mindedness of the people in the town, but there’s very little here that qualifies as detection or clues. Even come the end, when he sits down and outlines how he put it all together, there’s really nothing conclusive…more just a sense of how something might have been that happens to be correct. He resolves all but one of the disappearances in the same way, and while I’m quite a fan of the seemingly-incomprehensible being revealed as commonplace, your mileage may vary (that beach disappearance, for one, is going to irritate a lot of people). The storeroom vanishing and the nature of the discovery is nicely handled, but if you’re hoping for Hake Talbot levels of ingenuity you’re going to come away clutching at Rake Turbot instead.
It is beautifully written, however:
He made two stiffish drinks and they sipped them, sitting before the fire she had lighted. Rain still slashed at the windows, but within, the drinks and the fire made a warm, bright island in the dark sea of fear and death which pressed around them.
I consider myself fortunate that I realised the GAD failings in this early and was able to adjust my expectations. The implied Sherlockiana is both a complete blind and rather spot on: there’s nothing here like the level of rigour the Holmes canon has become known for, but equally a lot of those stories relied on ridiculous jumps and nonsense logic to force a conclusion (you may disagree; fight me…) and this is what we get here. It is grade A nonsense having a grand ol’ time, and as such good fun if you’re not looking for a detective classic. The layering of separate plots is very classical, no doubt, but the rest is a step into modernity that many people won’t be expecting or, perhaps more fairly, aren’t looking for in this sort of undertaking. I loved its straddling of conventions and expectations, though, and actually quite enjoyed being underwhelmed as a result, if that makes sense (and it’s still true even if it doesn’t). Caveat emptor, however.