Pulp Fiction

RAOUL WHITFIELD “Mistral.” Short story. Anonymous (“Benn”). First published in Adventure, 15 December 1931. Reprinted in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, 22 April 1981, and in Hard-Boiled: An Anthology of American Crime Stories, edited by Bill Pronzini & Jack Adrian (Oxford University Press, 1995).

   The unnamed narrator of this short but very tough, hard-boiled tale is an European operative for an international detective agency based in Paris. After finishing one job in Genoa, he heads west along the Riviera coastline to Monte Carlo, Nice and Cannes. Along the way his path keeps crossing that of another man, one with a red and very visible scar on his neck. The man is almost certainly an American. He is unfamiliar with European customs, but he seems to have money, spending one night in a casino playing with thousand-franc chips.

   The narrator is intrigued, but is nonetheless surprised when a bulletin from his home office informs him that a client is on the lookout for him. Reporting in, he is told to back off, and that the client will handle things from that point on. Telling the man, whom he has taken something of a liking to, that his name is Benn, most probably not his real one, and what the score is, he then lets events take their own course from there.

   Telling the story tersely against a backdrop of a continually rising wing (a mistral), Whitfield keeps the tension rising right along with it, to an absolute knockout of an ending. Other than the Pronzini-Adrian anthology, this story may be hard to find, but it’s well worth the effort.

DASHIELL HAMMETT “The Scorched Face.” The Continental Op #17. Novelette. First published in The Black Mask, March 1925. Collected in Nightmare Town (Mercury, paperback, 1948) and The Big Knockover (Random House, 1966). Reprinted in Hard-Boiled: An Anthology of American Crime Stories, edited by Bill Pronzini & Jack Adrian (Oxford University Press, 1995) among others.

   You may certainly correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t think this is one of Hammett’s better known stories, and do you know, I don’t remember reading it before last night (from the Pronzini/Ardian anthology). I know I read The Big Knockover from cover to cover when it came out in paperback, but last night? Nothing came back.

   Here’s something else you can correct me on if I’m wrong, and that’s that I think the story is based on one of Hammett’s own cases when he was a Pinkerton detective. He’s hired here by a distraught father whose two daughters have gone missing. There was a small disagreement about money, but nothing out of the ordinary. What convinces the Op that the girls may be in considerable danger is that one of their female friends commits suicide the same evening after he questions her about them.

   The first part of the tale is filled with plodding legwork — no, plodding is not quite right word. It’s the kind of work a private investigator always has to do before he gets any traction on a case, and yet Hammett’s flair for detail as well as the personalities involved keeps the story in at least second gear until things begin to fall into place. This is about halfway through, and this is when the story really starts to take off, punctuated by short one line paragraphs that the reader (me) simply can’t read fast enough.

   The crime involved is not a new one by today’s standards, but I’ll bet it raised a few eyebrows back in 1925. It didn’t do too badly last night, either.

ROBERT MARTIN writing as LEE ROBERTS – Little Sister. Andrew Brice #1. Stark House Press / Black Gat Book #27, trade paperback, August 2020. Based on the story “Pardon My Poison,” as by Robert Martin, Dime Detective Magazine, April 1948, in which the leading character was Jim Bennett. Introduction by Bill Pronzini. First published as a paperback original by Gold Medal, #229, March 1952, as by Lee Roberts.

   Between 1951 and 1964 and under his own name, Robert Martin wrote fourteen novels in which PI Jim Bennett was the leading character, but back in the 1940s Bennett was the detective of record in several dozen pulp stories, largely but not exclusively for Dime Detective Magazine. Bennett was a down to earth sort of guy, based in Ohio with a steady girl friend whom he later married. He wasn’t flashy, and in quiet contrast to all of the other PI’s of the same era, as Bill Pronzini points out in his introduction to the upcoming Stark House reprint, “he never once gets laid.”

   This may be the reason why the Jim Bennett of the earlier pulp version of this story gets replaced by Andy Brice in this one. The setting is still Ohio, PI Andy Brice is still a nice guy, but yes, one big difference is, he does get laid. He’s hired by the older sister of a younger girl, who if the word “sexpot” hadn’t been invented yet, they’d have had to come up the word, just to describe her. She is the kind of girl who cannot seem to keep her clothes on properly, at least whenever she’s in the same room as Brice. Her bigger problem, though, when she comes home on night in a doped-up daze, what they also find in the trunk of her car is the body of a dead man.

   It isn’t the younger girl whom Brice spends the night with, however, and wishes for more, but his client, the older sister. And while on the case for her, Brice is also poisoned and shot at, while other characters fare much worse. There are a lot of characters to keep track of, many of them men with eyes for Linda, the little sister, but Martin’s prose is smooth and easy and keeps things running like a well-tuned engine.


ROBERT WALLACE “The Mark of the Beast.” Dexter Wynne #1. First published in Thrilling Detective, February 1933. Facsimile edition published by Adventure House, paperback, January 2012.

   Robert Wallace is a house name known to have been assigned to the work of eight or more authors. Unless there is someone who reads this and knows, I have no way of telling you which one of them wrote this particular story.

   Billed as “a complete book-length novel,” it is the longest story in the magazine, but even so, it takes up only 33 pages. In it, private eye Dexter Wynne is asked by a client to check into a mysterious telegram from his sister, telling him that she is afraid of something in the mysterious house where she is living with their stepfather.

   Wynne asks his client, Harry Bates to stay while he investigates, but when he gets there, he find Bates has gotten there ahead of him, dead on the road, with half his face torn away. More than one death follows, making the guilty person all the more apparent as soon there is no one left to suspect. Lots of hidden passageways add to the atmosphere, or at least that was the intent. The build-up to the conclusion fails badly, with a rather prosaic explanation making the whole affair rather shoddy and shopworn.

   I have not said anything about Dexter Wynne, the PI in this tale, and whose only appearance this probably was. There is a reason for that. There is nothing to say. His name could have been chosen out of a hat.

   It is wonderful to have artifacts such as the magazine this story first appeared in reproduced in such a beautiful format, but I’ve sampled the rest of the stories in it, and I haven’t found any of them to be any better than this one. Not all of the detective pulps published in 1933 were of Black Mask caliber.


      Complete contents:

The Mark of the Beast by Robert Wallace
The Banding Murder Case by Allan K. Echols
The Black Ram by Perley Poore Sheehan
The Face That Came Back by Wayne Rogers
The Den of Skulls by Jack D’Arcy
Death Talks Backs by John H. Compton
The Trail of the White Gardenia by Donald Bayne Hobart
The Coward by Ken Rockwell
Reflections by John Lawrence
The Crumpled Clue by J.S. Endicott

TALMAGE POWELL “Her Dagger Before Me.” Novelette. Lloyd Carter #1. First published in Black Mask, July 1949. Reprinted in The Third Talmage Powell Megapack (Wildside Press, Kindle edition, 2020).

   Lloyd Carter’s home base is Tampa, Florida, and has been for thirteen years. He’s been a private eye for almost 21 years, when you count the years he spent in the profession in New York before his wife ran out on him then died when a fast freight “got in the way of the automobile” she and her new lover were in.

   He hasn’t gotten used to the heat in Tampa, though.

   The case in “Her Dagger Before Me” involves a girl, tall and slim but with rather drab brown hair who could easily lose herself in a crowd. Her father, now dead, had been enormously wealthy, but she can’t inherit until she is thirty. In the meantime she is convinced that her stepmother is spending it so fast there will be no money to inherit.

   Carter’s job: to scare off her stepmother’s current boy friend, a smooth operator who’s doing his best to help her spend it. When Crater goes to confront him, however, he finds hm dead. As far as suspects are concerned, there are plenty.

   Powell was the author of hundreds of short stories for both the pulps and the digest magazines that followed them in a career that extended from 1944 to 1982. He was also the author of seventeen novels under both his own name as well as various pen names. This story was early in his career, but the writing is smooth and clear, and the story nicely constructed, with an ending that’s well worth waiting for.

   Now here’s what’s interesting. Of the novels he wrote, five of them featured a PI from Tampa called Ed Rivers. Not only was Rivers based in the same location, but the reasons for him moving there were exactly the same as Lloyd Carter’s. Another similarity is his use of a knife as his weapon of choice. Kevin Burton Smith on his Thrilling Detective website considers Carter and Rivers to be one and the same. I agree.

RICHARD DEMING “The Juarez Knife.” Novella. Manville Moon #1. First published in Popular Detective, January 1948. Available as an individual story in a Kindle edition (Wildside Press, 2018).

   Not only is this Manny Moon’s first appearance in print, it’s also Richard Deming’s first published work of crime or mystery fiction. Not only did he go on to write hundreds of short stories for the pulp and digest magazines, but he was also the author of dozens of hardcover novels, including three featuring the same Manny Moon, known best perhaps as the private eye with only one leg.

   And in “The Juarez Knife” we learn that he lost the portion of it below the knee in the war, and that to replace it, he’s been fitted with a “cork, aluminum, and leather contraption” that when he tries to get up suddenly at night without it, he finds himself “lying half under the bed on a bruised right elbow.”

   The call is from a semi-crooked lawyer who has a job for him. “Semi-crooked” is my term for him, since he has been indicted once, but nothing more. When he gets to the gent’s office, a young girl goes in before him. When he is called in, the girl has gone out a side door, but his would-be employer is lying across his desk dead, with a knife in his chest.

   As it so happens, the door the girl went though was under watch, and she is the only one who came out. The windows are open, but the ledge outside is too narrow for anyone to have used it, and it’s fourteen stories up. Moon takes her on as a client anyway. He believes she is innocent simply on the fact that after leaving the office she calmly went on to a previously scheduled hairdresser appointment.

   You do not expect stories tin pulp magazines to be traditional locked room mysteries, but this is a good one, and it’s fairly clued as well. The only problem is that the real killer could only be one person, and sure enough, he/she is. Beside the three Manny Moon novels, there were eighteen novelettes and short stories in which he appeared. They’ve never been collected, as far as I know, but a number of them are now available in Kindle format, reasonably priced at only 99 cents each.

JOHN S. ENDICOTT “Double Murder.” Novelette. First published in Thrilling Detective, November 1942. Reprinted in Thrilling Detective Pulp Tales, Vol. 1, edited by Jonathan W. Sweet (Brick Pickle Media, paperback/Kindle, 2019).

   Even though John S. Endicott has dozens of story credits for the detective pulp magazines, it wouldn’t be of much help for me to print a list of then all. “Endicott” was a house name, used as a cover by many authors. For what purpose, I don’t really know, but some of the authors whose stories are known to have been published under that byline are Norman Daniels. George A. McDonald and Donald Bayne Hobart.

   For almost of its run of over 20 years and 213 issues, Thrilling Detective was a second or third-rate pulp magazine, but “Double Murder,” whoever wrote it, is a solid notch better than average. The hero is a police detective named Mortimer Tracy who treats a bum to a meal but is suspended from the force when the guy turns out to be an escaped homicidal maniac who knifes two people to death after absconding with a knife from the diner. (Tracy, whose only appearance this probably is, does his best to be known only as Tracy.)

   Working on his own, Tracy is not that sure about what actually happened, and decides to investigate on his own. The rest of the story is a well-written combination of a hardboiled tale with a puzzle story. The first is to be expected in a pulp story from the early 40s; the second not as much. It makes a story all the more pleasurable when it catches you a bit off guard like this.

   The publisher, Brick Pickle Media, already has three collections such as this one, with (I am hoping) more in the works. Even if not all the stories are as good as this one, the Kindle editions are inexpensive enough that I’m quite sure I will be purchasing and downloading more of them as time goes on.

   Other stories in this first collection are: “Murder’s Mandate,” by W. T. Ballard; :Murder Trap” by Johnston McCulley; and “Shed No tears fo Me” by Frederick C. Davis.

J. J. des ORMEAUX “The Poisoned Bowl.” Novelette. First published in Clues Detective Stories, April 1939. Reprinted in The Mammoth Book of Perfect Crimes and Impossible Mysteries, edited by Mike Ashley (Running Press, softcover, 2006), as by Forrest Rosaire.

   I used the term “Locked Room Mystery” up there in the heading, but that’s only in the loosest of terms. “Impossible Mystery” is far better: in “The Poisoned Bowl” a man falls dead of an instantly fatal poison with several people standing around him and no one giving him anything to eat or drink, including himself. How could it be done?

   It’s an interesting question, and J. J. des Ormeaux, a modestly prolific pulp writer whose real name was Forrest Rosaire, does his best to confuse the issue by a lot of hand-waving and other such means of distraction. Lots of coincidences, in other words, not to mention keeping relevant information from the reader. The final result is a veritable hodge-podge of a story, but … it all does make sense in the end, sort of.

   A question is, could a better writer (or editor) have taken this story, cleaned it up and made something more presentable out of it? Answer: There’s a germ of a good story at the base of it, so I’d like to think so, but in all honesty, without the hand-waving and the holding back of vital information from the reader, it would be awfully tough. Fun to read, especially if you love pulps, but all in all, no cigars for this one.




STUART TOWNE – Death Out of Thin Air.  Don Diavolo #1. Coward McCann, hardcover, 1941. First published as a pair of stories from Red Star Mystery magazine: “Ghost of the Undead” (June 1940) and “Death Out of Thin Air” (August 1940). Kindle edition: Mysterious Press, 2012.

   Don Diavolo, The Scarlet Wizard, looked out across the footlights at the applauding audience that filled the great Manhattan Music Hall. His dark eyes beneath the scarlet half-mask held an engaging, devilish twinkle and his lips bore a mysterious half smile. His lithe, athletic figure bowed formally from the waist and the spotlight that centered on him made the red of his faultlessly tailored evening clothes glow like flame.

   Fresh from the pages of the too short-lived Red Star Mystery, the scarlet-clad magician detective plunges into two full blooded pulp adventures combating clever villains and outwitting frustrated police Inspector Church in both the title piece “Death Out of Thin Air” and its companion “Ghost of the Undead.” Like his creator Clayton Rawson’s other sleuth, the Great Merlini, Don Diavolo, Nicolas Alexander Houdin, is a magician sleuth mystery man who specializes in solving Impossible Crimes, though of a more fantastic and melodramatic nature than his more literary companion.

   In “Undead” Don Diavolo finds himself pitted against “the living ghost of a medieval” murderer, none other than the original Bluebeard, Gilles de Rais, that has already struck terror in the heart of London:

   … the silent figure once more crossed the window-sill. Beyond it there was no support but empty air!

   It looked back once and the lamplight shone for a moment on its face. The face, if it could be called that, was black, and its features were unutterably grotesque and hideous. White pointed teeth gleamed between the bestial lips. The Thing had the face of a bat!

   And on the woman’s neck, on the blue vein that throbbed there faintly now, were two small red incisions….

   Now the hideous thing is in New York about to terrorize Manhattan and only Don Divallo stands between the grotesque killer, Count Draco, and his murderous plans after a beautiful woman forces her way into Diavolo’s dressing room at gunpoint and is murdered with two puncture wounds to the neck as a vampire bat invades the room behind her.

   “Undead” even features a pretty good dying message clue that would have pleased Ellery Queen.

   In “Thin Air” Don Divallo is faced with invisible killers who fade in bright light in front of the eyes of reliable witnesses, and comes to the aid of hard-nosed Inspector Church, his police ally/nemesis who, as usual, is more concerned Don Diavolo is up to no good than catching the real killer after he witnesses the murder of Sergeant Healey by an invisible killer in a locked room with no possible exit but the front door. The case also involves the infamous necklace of Marie Antoinette that started the French Revolution, and, as Diavolo, framed for the crime, tells Church, “… an Invisible Man, but he’s a different sort than you expect.”

   Despite his penchant for footnotes explaining the historical veracity of the tricks used in the story, it should be admitted going in that Stuart Towne is hardly as scrupulous as his more restrained Clayton Rawson persona, and Don Diavolo, as that red costume and opera cape suggest, is given to a deal more melodrama than the Great Merlini.

   I can’t see Merlini tooling around Manhattan in white tie and tails in a scarlet Packard.

   Along the way the Don Diavollo books often include a colorful cast of grifters, magicians, con-men, and other theatrical types, Diavolo’s assistant/valet Chan, several beautiful women assistants, his manager, trick designer, the theater owner, and favorite publicist as well as murderous bad guys and cunning plots which Diavolo solves with flair, if not quite as carefully staged as a Rawson, John Dickson Carr, or Hake Talbot impossible crime, but what the stories lack there they make up for in speed and pulp style energy.

   Hardly the only magician detectives in the mainstream or the pulps, Merlini and Diavolo are still standouts in a company that includes Walter Gibson’s Norgil, and though no magician, the impossible crimes of Edward D. Hoch’s Nick Velvet. Other sleuths who show a fair hand at misdirection would include the Shadow and Arsene Lupin both given to performance art as much as crime prevention. No few writers have even trotted Harry Houdini out as amateur sleuth, notably Daniel Stashower in a series of well done mysteries.

   There are two collections of Towne novellas from Mysterious Press available in E-book form, this, and Death From Nowhere, and both are worth the effort, bright and entertaining pulp adventures with a bit more going for them than just the speed and invention of the average pulp mystery. While far from perfect they move fast enough you may not pause to overthink things, and the mystery and detective angle is much better developed than the usual pulp hero mystery. Don Diavolo may not have had a long run on the pulp stage, but his act is worth catching.

POUL ANDERSON “Flight to Forever.” Novella. First published in Super Science Stories, November 1950 First reprinted in Year’s Best Science Fiction Novels: 1952, edited by Everett F. Bleiler & T. E. Dikty (Frederick Fell, hardcover, 1952), and The Mammoth Book of Vintage Science Fiction: Short Novels of the 1950s, edited by Isaac Asimov, Martin H. Greenberg, & Charles G. Waugh (Carroll & Graf, softcover, 1990), among others. Collected in Past Times (Tor, paperback, 1984) and Alight in the Void (Tor, paperback, 1991), among others.

   This is one of Poul Anderson’s earliest stories, written when he was only 24, and a better story of Gosh Wow time travel, I can think of none better. And I do not mean that disparagingly! This tale was written back when time-traveling machines could be constructed in a garage, or if not, then in a single scientist’s laboratory, with only a modicum of assistance. Such a scientist is Martin Saunders, and his machine has been working perfectly. Inanimate objects have been sent farther and farther into the future, and in case they have also returned.

   Until now. An object sent 100 into the future has not come back, and Saunders an assistant decide to take a trip there themselves and see if they can’t figure out what went wrong. Now you and I know that this might not be the wisest thing to do, but this was also in the age (1950) when scientists did not think things out too clearly ahead of time before jumping into either homemade spaceships or time machines as they should.

   The problem does not consist of getting there. It seems, however, that there is a limit of only 70 years in going backward in time. The solution: keep going ahead into the future until they reach such a time when scientists have figured out a way to overcome the difficulty in going backward in time. Ahead they go, each stage of the in larger and larger increments of time. Fifty tears, a hundred years, a thousand years, five thousand years. Empires come and go, as they discover, oftentimes with barbarians at the gates. Some people they find are friendly; others not. A million years, a million million years, and on to the end of time?

   Well, I will leave it to you to read this to see if Saunders ever finds his way home again, but wow, what a trip he makes!

Next Page »