Three books into the seven-strong output of Herbert Brean, I’m going to suggest that he’s one of the most unjustly-neglected writers of the latter-GAD era — that “latter” prefix being key. Brean’s plots are dense enough for the puzzle fiends of the 1930s, and his social milieu more than matches the requirements of the post-GAD 1950s hankering after domestic suspense, but each school will be disappointed by how much of its rival is present. Thus, puzzle fans lazily insisting he’s in the same bracket as John Dickson Carr and realism fans keen to play up his HIBK credentials each sell him as writing sorts of books he never wrote, and everyone ends up disappointed.
Late one night, journalist William Deacon is surprised in his office by an old school friend with an unusual request. Seemingly everywhere Archie Sinclair goes, people are talking about the singer-songwriter Brill Brillhart — the places they met with him, the dinners they’ve had with him, the appearances he’ll be making later that week — which wouldn’t be so weird if Sinclair didn’t have it on such good authority that Brillhart has been dead for the last two months. So, would Deacon be willing to look into it? And Deacon, with misgivings aplenty, agrees, and soon finds that Brillhart is indeed both dead and seemingly everywhere. How can this be possible?
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.