Wilders Walk Away – Herbert Brean (1948)

WildersWalkAwayIt took me a while to track down a copy of this book for the price that I wanted to pay for it – mostly because I’m a stickler for getting an edition with a cover that I want – and finally won out when a friend got me the IPL edition for Christmas.  Leave it to fate that immediately after finishing reading this, I stumbled upon a vintage Pocket Books edition for $5, but that’s my life…  And hey, an IPL is always more than welcome in my home.

Wilders Walk Away has this interesting reputation: an excellent read, a unique take on the impossible crime, and yet not a book to read solely for the impossible elements.  And, as it happens, if you want to save yourself some time, I’m basically going to grouse on and one about those exact points below.

I’m a sucker for a golden age mystery set in England.  You can have the New York big city and Los Angeles tinsel in your mysteries if that’s your thing, but not me.  I’ll take a big country house and some old money; thank you very much.

Somehow though, I’m becoming a sucker for New England mysteries.  Ellery Queen had me falling in love with small town New England with the Wrightsville novels, and now I find myself getting similarly wrapped up in the Vermont setting painted by Herbert Brean.  Main Street on parade, the local newspaper, the corner diner; these are the type elements that tend to come to the forefront of these northeastern mysteries.

Brean delivers a vivid New England through the lens of Reynold Frame, a freelance photographer/writer trying to scrape up some cash by putting together an article on the small town of Wilders Lane.  The photos are sure to sell; Wilders Lane is frozen slice of time cut straight out of the Revolutionary War.  Each house is maintained with a proper sense of period (visitors can tour any house by day) and littered with antique furniture worthy of a good photo spread.

It’s through Frame’s casual research of the town while setting up his shots that he starts to get a suspicion that something’s off.  Something is, and it all ties back to the Wilder family.  Going back nearly two hundred years, the Wilders have a habit of “walking away” – never to be seen again.

It all started back in 1775 when Jonathan Wilder went down to the cellar to fetch a bottle of wine for his house guests and never returned; despite the cellar having no exits.  1917 may provide a more startling example.  John Wilder walked down the beach, in view of multiple witnesses, on his way to deliver some letters to the post office.  He never returned – his tracks simply stopped midway down the sandy stretch.

The latest Wilder disappearance occurred a year before Reynold Frame showed up in Wilders Lane.  Fred Wilder walked into his office on the second floor of his downtown business to fetch some papers and never emerged, in spite of the one window opening to a 25 foot drop to the crowded street below.  Frame’s arrival in Wilders Lane coincides with a fresh disappearance, and the journalist finds himself torn between the sure money of completing his photo spread and the allure of solving a century’s worth of mysteries.

Two locked room disappearances and a vanishing set of footprints on a sandy beach may sound like we’re in the impossible crime territory of the likes of John Dickson Carr, Clayton Rawson, or Hake Talbot.  Somehow we’re not.  Although the impossibilities have a puzzling setup, Brean doesn’t seem to be writing that kind of novel – a fact perhaps made most obvious in that none of the solutions even attempt to be that clever.  And yet wrapped within the larger story, it all comes together in a satisfying way.

In part that’s due to the shear amount of discovery spread throughout the novel.  We get – I don’t know – five or six separate mysteries that Brean doles out leisurely, and then the boomerang effect of each puzzle being unravelled at it’s own pace.  The consequence is that there’s no big bang of a reveal, but you can hardly flip 20 pages without some new twist or major revelation being thrown at you.  Most importantly, it’s all tied together by some excellent writing.

Herbert Brean captures just as much of small town New England as Ellery Queen could have hoped for with the Wrightsville series, and Brean’s mystery has the advantage of being stronger than either Calamity Town or The Murderer is a Fox (both in presentation and in resolution).  On that charge alone, you can imagine why this book has earned the reputation as must read.  The writing of these three books is somewhat similar, although Brean has this great habit of littering his text with footnotes on subjects as diverse as the mystery of the Mary Celeste to a flat out recipe for a New England pastry.  Like, seriously, there is an actual complete pastry recipe included as a footnote.  And no, I didn’t try my hand at it.

Wilders Walk Away is an outstanding read.  It won’t be the best mystery you read this year, but it may be one of the better books nonetheless.  Somewhat reminiscent of Virgil Markham’s The Devil Drives, this is that story that you didn’t realize you wanted, yet hits all of the right notes.  There’s a sense of adventure – perhaps verging on pulp – in all of this, and I wish that more authors had tried their hand at something less orthodox.  I’ve got by eye on a few other titles that seem off the beaten path by the likes of Frederic Brown, James Ronald, and Joel Townsley Rogers, but for all I know they might be a million miles from this.  In the meantime, I’ll be hunting down the rest of Brean’s library, although so far they don’t seem trivial to come by.

10 thoughts on “Wilders Walk Away – Herbert Brean (1948)”

  1. WWA does seem to be a pretty-good impossible-crime novel that’s pretty well devoid of any influence at all by Carr or anyone else who ever wrote in the subgenre.

    The recipe is an interesting detail. Of course, nowadays there are plenty of paperback “culinary mysteries” that have eight or ten recipes at the back of the book. The ones I’ve read don’t seem to have any detection, though; the heroine just realizes who did it, goes to confront them, and they prove she’s right by trying to kill her.

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  2. “…may sound like we’re in the impossible crime territory of the likes of John Dickson Carr, Clayton Rawson, or Hake Talbot” — this. I think, is something that more should be done to address, because it would set up a lot of frustrated expectations were people to come to it expecting that sort of book. As you say, it’s not even slightly trying to do that sort of thing — the solutions individually are potentially disappointing (that beach one is…grrr, I still grind my teeth at nights over that), but the overall shape of it is far, far smarter and more satisfying that its individual parts. For me, it’s more that sort of Harlan Coben-esque smalltown Americana thriller — not standing up to scrutiny in the way these sorts of detective plots do, because it is not in any way a detective plot, not does it pretend to be.

    I’ve read Brean’s Traces of Brillhart (and found it less successful), and have had Hardly a Man is Now Alive — the sequel to WWA — on my shelf for a while now, so shall attempt to read that fairly soon after my return from hiatus. If there’s a way you’re able to borrow them from me — if, say, you wanted to come to Bodies next year — I’m having to save you a potentially long and fruitless search for those titles 🙂

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    1. The solutions to each of the impossible disappearances are the exact opposite of what you’d want someone to think an impossible crime is all about. And yet, if you strip away that expectation, you just have these wonderful mini-mysteries, each of which is tied up in a way that just works within the story.

      I wasn’t aware that Hardly a Man is Now Alive is a sequel to WWA, although I have heard good things about it and it seems to be easy enough to get hold of. The rest of Brean’s books – yeah, that is going to take some patience.

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      1. Easy? EASY?!? I waited yeeeeeears before finding a copy. You Americans, you don’t know what suffering is…

        IIRC, Hardly… and The Clock Strikes Thirteen are Reynold Frame books, though I don’t know if they’re in the same style. Have never seen a copy of Clock… even for crazy money, so I expect you to trip over a pristine set of Dell mapbacks of it that someone drops outside your front door tomorrow morning.

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      2. Speaking of easy – a used bookshop in town that I’d never been to provided me with a green Penguin Hollow Man, a Dell map back The Skeleton in the Clock, and a Berkley edition of The Emperor’s Snuff Box that I’ve never seen before – each for $2. I mention this not to rub it in, but because they also have maybe 100 Erle Stanley Gardner books (including his titles as AA Fair); all nice old editions of the Pocket Books variety. I haven’t gotten into Gardner yet, so I didn’t purchase any, but figured you might have some recommendations. And of course, let me know if there are some titles that you’re having a difficult time tracking down…

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      3. Buy em all! Gardener’s an investment you won’t regret.

        I mean, the Fair books are great, the Doug Selby DA series is great, and most of the pre-1950s Masons are very enjoyable and creative. If the Two Clues novella pair is there, get it — they’re perfect Americana tales in the Wilders idiom for how beautifully they capture the ins and outs of a small town.

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      4. …something that more should be done to address, because it would set up a lot of frustrated expectations were people to come to it expecting that sort of book.

        You’re right that a lot of readers, expecting something in the vein of Carr or Talbot, walk away disappointed. Barry Ergang addresses this in his review that can be found on the GADetection Wiki. However, the fact remains that Brean has written much better mystery novels that are completely overshadowed by Wilders Walks Away.

        Hardly a Man is Now Alive is everything readers expected from Wilders Walks Away, but with the impossibilities, which I think was Brean’s Achilles Heel, downplayed, but everything else is very Carr-like – including a historical sub-plot harking back to the Revolutionary War. The Clock Strikes Thirteen is one of the more successful fusions of the detective and thriller story set on an isolated island in the middle of an outbreak of a weaponized bacteria. I also liked The Traces of Brillhart, but, you know, JJ sort of disagrees.

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