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.
22 thoughts on “#260: Wilders Walk Away (1948) by Herbert Brean”
“I’m quite a fan of the seemingly incomprehensible being revealed as commonplace. . .”
I’m trying to wrap my head around the idea that the solutions to The Plague Court Murders or Rim of the Pit describe “commonplace” events! 🙂 Curtis’ references to Queen and Carr make this more appealing to me, but I trust TomCat, too. What to do, what to do!
Oh, yeah, don’t misunderstand: I’m a fan of the seemingly incomprehensible being revealed as terrifyingly Machiavellian, too. I suppose the answers here are a little more sedate than might be anticipated, so I wanted to prepare people for a possible slight disappointment.
Weirdly, the more impossibilities I read, the more I enjoy the slightly banal solutions such as these, so long as they’re appropriately set up in advance. It’s not so much about clewing or foreshadowing, but more a sense of feeling as a reader that it’s fair to go “Yeah, okay, that’d work — I expected more, but maybe that’s because I got a bit swept up in it”. That’s been an important realisation for me!
LikeLiked by 1 person
Helen McCloy’s Mr. Splitfoot has a nice banal solution . . . but then, I figured that one out immediately. Still, I like to be able to say I could wrap my head around a solution rather than slowly decipher the mammoth tasks in store for the murderers in the two books I mentioned above. Yes, they play fair! But I seem ill-equipped mentally to play their game. This isn’t a bad thing; it’s just frustrating for a person who used to regard himself as smart. (And who’s feeling even more vulnerable now that he’s trying to learn bridge!!!) 🙂
LikeLiked by 1 person
It has banal aspects, no doubt, but there’s an element of cleverness to it that elevates it above that for me.
As for Bridge, I’m jealous — have been fascinated by it ever since I started reading Christie. We expected blog updates!
Brad: Delighted to hear that your intellect will be applied to the best card game of all ;-). If I may offer my OTHER blog for your possible assistance: https://intermediateduplicate.wordpress.com may be of interest. And I’m happy to help if you care to contact me there directly. My apologies for adding non-mystery content here.
LikeLiked by 1 person
Given the huge number of GAD mysteries featuring Bridge, I’m pretty sure this still qualifies as mystery content. Either way, no apology needed — have you seen some of the conversation had on this site?
LikeLiked by 1 person
“Curtis’ references to Queen and Carr make this more appealing to me, but I trust TomCat, too. What to do, what to do!”
I would recommend starting with Brean’s Hardly a Man is Now Alive, because that one does deliver on its wonderful premise and should deserve the reputation Wilders Walks Away enjoys. If you want some convincing, Barry Ergang posted a very enticing review on the GADWiki, which you can read here.
You know what, I might re-read it myself! 🙂
That does sound pretty tempting; Brean’s two ‘Traces of…’ novels are available on Kindle, and I recently got …Brillhart in paperback, but he stops there in easy availability. Aaaah, well, maybe he’ll be picked up for reprinting at some point…
The Traces of Brillhart is comparable with the Carr’s comedic H.M. novels and the impossibility is an unusual one: a heelish song writers appears to be absolutely indestructible and immune to death. Some coincidences are necessary to explain the whole plot, but that should be acceptable in a light, comedic mystery novels. You should read it with a twinkle in your eye. The Traces of Merrilee is a regular detective story with a shipboard setting.
I sure hope he gets reprinted. I think I only need two more of his titles and that includes one more Reynold Frame title.
LikeLiked by 1 person
The only book by Brean I’ve read so far is The Clock Strikes 13 and I remember quite enjoying it – the setting and premise were both strong hooks for me. I have a few more of his titles, all the Reynold Frame books and maybe one or two more, including this so I’ll have to see about dipping back into his work.
Personally, I don’t have nay big problem with book which involve a crossover between detective and crime fiction, it’s a matter of emphasis as much as anything for me and (probably because I’m not usually one for rigid definitions of anything) I don’t have any real difficulty adjusting.
I mention the crime fiction aspect because it sounds like — and would be perfectly valid to go in expecting — a classic Golden Age puzzle plot, and I think doing so would be to the detriment of the book: I don’t think Brean tried to write that sort of novel, I just don’t see him as a fiendish puzzle plotter. The developments herein more closely resemble a sort of Boys’ Own thriller at times, and of detection there is very little sight. Adjusted expectations will, I think, help others enjoy this where they may not have believing it to be kin to Carr.
As for more Brean books, I’ve recently acquired Traces of Brillhart, which I believe is another detective, and am interested to see what he does with the setup. Watch this space…!
Don’t get me wrong, I think you’re right to point out the fact the book doesn’t follow the classic GAD prescription and so may disappoint someone going in with that expectation – I’m just remarking that I take a more flexible approach to crime/detection than some and I’m maybe not as bothered by a higher crime quotient as some. Except with Christie’s cack-handed attempt at writing thrillers – I can’t be doing with those at all, under any circumstances.
It’s an interesting one, isn’t it? At what point do you start to suspect the type of book you’re reading? True, going into a Carr or a Queen or a Brand you pretty much know what you’re getting because a) they’re well-know and b) they’re consistent, but when is it usually safe to make a judgement on the type of book you’re reading? Committing too early, if one did so here, would cause all manner of problems; equally, with Walter S. Masterman I’m usually not sure what I’m reading until it’s over! Is there an ideal amount of a book to be in flux over your expectations? Seems a lot of narrative fun could be had with that…
Herbert Brean drove me crazy for years, for a peculiar reason. Pocket, at about the time it published the edition above (#582), made an error in the final pages of a few of its editions. They used to use the last few pages to list “other mysteries you may enjoy” and the error was that they ascribed one of Herbert Brean’s titles to John Dickson Carr. For YEARS I had people coming to me, waving some old Pocket edition, saying, “See, it says right here John Dickson Carr wrote this novel I’ve never heard of and I WANT IT!!!” And nobody would believe that Pocket had made the mistake. For a while I used to keep a copy of the Brean title around just to show people …
Anyway, great analysis! I’ve always thought of Brean as a peculiarly American writer. It always seemed to me as though he was following the lead of Ellery Queen in the Wrightsville novels, trying to show what crime looks like in small-town USA.
Now I have to go down to my local bookstore looking for Rake Turbot novels. See, it says right here in this very knowledgeable blog that such a writer exists … 😉
LikeLiked by 3 people
Oh, wow, that would be infuriating…! Mind you, I’ve often found myself wondering (perhaps “hoping”) if the titles by, say, Rupert Penny and Norman Berrow reprinted by Ramble House actually were their complete catalogues. What if there’s something which was too hard to find and so falls out of memory because we all assume that what’s been reprinted is all there is? Gah! That way madness lies..,.
Incidentally, Rake Turbot’s masterpiece is undoubtedly Ram of the Pot, though The Hingeman’s Candyman is also very atmospheric. Haven’t seen a copy of either outside of the British Library…
LikeLiked by 2 people
Wilders Walk Away was a great disappointment to me, primarily because it’s reputation was such that I had great expectations and the book simply didn’t deliver.
Yeah, that’s an experience I think a lot of people will have, and why I’m trying to address it above an adjust the expectations of people going in. I can completely understand your reaction to it, Ronald, and I think it’s a book that is so finely poised between the two that anyone going in expecting one or t’other — dense GAD puzzle or small town crime novel — will come away feeling the same. It’s a shame, but there you go — sometimes I wonder if we’re trapped by our own expectations: how many ‘classics’ would we enjoy more if we were free to stumble across them unawares?
Pingback: Wilders Walk Away (1948) by Herbert Brean – In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel
Thanks for your review. I’ve finally read the book, and very much agree with the main points of your analysis: (1) it’s a very successful hybrid of Impossible-crime GAD and small-town thriller (with a dash of romance thrown in), and (2) it’s very well written.
I rather feel sorry for those readers who came to it with the wrong expectations and walked away (😉) disappointed
Delighted that you’ve enjoyed this so much; Brean deserves to be better known, but I suspect the wild variation in tone and content of his books makes him an unappealing prospect for reissues. Still, this and especially Hardly a Man is Now Alive deserve far better than the obscurity they’ve found themselves in.
Hardly a Man Is Now Alive is the next title of his I plan to read. I put in an inter-library loan request yesterday. It has rather few entries in WorldCat and is not available from anywhere in the two networks my library is a member of, which is another indication of Brean’s obscurity.
Good luck tracking it down; hopefully you consider it worth the effort when you eventually get your hands on it!