Review: WILDERS WALK AWAY (1948) by Herbert Brean

Former newspaper reporter turned freelance photojournalist Reynold Frame travels to the village of Wilders Lane, Vermont to get a story and steps back in time. Figuratively, that is, because Wilders Lane has been restored to its pre-Revolutionary War look.

The village is named after its oldest family, the Wilders, whose history is pocked with inexplicable, seemingly impossible disappearances starting with Jonathan’s in 1775 and extending forward to the novel’s mid-20th Century present. The vanishings have given rise to a chant known to everyone in Wilders Lane and surrounding areas:

“Other people die of mumps
Or general decay,
Of fevers, chills, or other ills,
But Wilders walk away.”

In search of lodging, Frame goes to the restored home of the lovely Constance Wilder, her sister Ellen, and their Aunt Mary. As he arrives, Ellen emerges from the house carrying a suitcase. She’s been invited to visit another aunt. Frame gallantly lugs the heavy suitcase to the bus stop for her, then returns to the house where he strikes an agreement with Constance to rent a room for a week.

Later that night, there are suspicions that Ellen has “walked away.” Her mysterious vanishment is of brief duration, however, because Reynold Frame finds her murdered body in a freshly dug grave. This in turn leads to the discovery of Constance and Ellen’s father’s body, also clearly the victim of a murderer. A year or so earlier, at his office, Fred Wilder walked into a storeroom under observation from outside–and disappeared.

A day or two later, at the Wilder home, Aunt Mary leaves Frame and Constance at the dining table, goes into the kitchen to fetch dessert, and vanishes.

Smitten with Constance and possessed of the reporter’s inextinguishable curiosity, Frame is inexorably drawn into the investigation. As the situation deepens, he manages to solve the “walkaways” of the past as well as those of the present, and ultimately identifies the present-day murderer.

Although I employed more intuition and guesswork than deduction a la Frame, I found it relatively easy to identify the murderer. In spite of that, I enjoyed the book a great deal thanks to Brean’s unerring pace and construction.

Brean was undoubtedly influenced by John Dickson Carr, as his sense of history and penchant for the “impossible situation” attest. His writing style is much leaner and his atmospheric effects more understated than JDC’s, but he can be quite engrossing nonetheless. For a little while I thought I’d found in Wilders Walk Away a companion to The Three Coffins and Rim of the Pit for ultimate greatness. That degree of feeling didn’t sustain itself, but I can still recommend Wilders enthusiastically. It’s even better than Brean’s The Traces of Brillhart.

Brean’s work is long out of print, so those who are curious will have to try, e-Bay,, and ABE.books as I did. The search will reward readers with a very clever and entertaining mystery novel.

© 2003 Barry Ergang

Barry Ergang’s impossible crime mystery novelette, “The Play of Light and Shadow,” is available at Smashwords and Amazon.

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