Pulp Fiction


CORNELL WOOLRICH. “Dipped in Blood.” Novelette. First published in Detective Story Magazine, April 1945. Reprinted in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, October 1964, as “Adventures of a Fountain Pen.” Collected in The Ten Faces of Cornell Woolrich (Simon & Schuster, hardcover, 1965) also as “Adventures of a Fountain Pen.” Film: US title, Oh, Bomb! (Japan, 1964, directed by Kihachi Okamoto).

   There is a small but significant subgenre of both fiction and the movies in which the story follows an object of some importance is followed through its lifetime as it’s passed from hand to hand in small vignettes. It may be a gun, an automobile, almost anything, including a similar chain connecting people in all walks of lives. (If there’s a name to such a subgenre, I don’t know what it is. Maybe someone reading this can help.)

   The object in this richly ironic story by Woolrich is a fountain pen, manufactured to order as a means of assassination by one gangster meant for another. Things go awry, however, as they always do in a Woolrich story, with one final twist at the end, about which I will tell you only that it’s there but nothing more. There are things best to be discovered on one’s own.

   I don’t believe this is one of Woolrich’s better known stories, but what it has is both an ending worth waiting for and people in it who are described to perfection in just a few words or lines. This is why, when back in the 1970s when I first started to seriously read mysteries, if I was asked who my favorite mystery writer was, it was always a tossup between Erle Stanley Gardner, Rex Stout, or Cornell Woolrich, in alphabetical order. That still holds true today.

DAY KEENE “Nothing to Worry About.” Short story. First published in Detective Tales, August 1945. Collected in League of the Grateful Dead and Other Stories (Ramble House, 2010). Reprinted in Best American Noir of the Century, edited by James Ellroy & Otto Penzler (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010).

   There is a long tradition of stories such as this one. It is a prime example of tales in which one half of a married couple plans to kill the other one, but even though the planning is perfect, things do not work out as well as the guilty person had in mind.

   In this one – and far from the very first one in its subgenre – an Assistant State’s Attorney named Sorrell, and someone who should know better but who’s arrogant enough to think he can get away with it, decides to kill his wife, a woman he now hates and who, he is convinced, is holding his career back. But even more, he has another woman in mind already to replace her.

   It doesn’t work out, of course, but in addition to than the well-timed twist in the end, author Day Keene fleshes out the other characters, too, ones that other writers might even have omitted, or at best glossed over. And yet I demur. There’s nothing really new in this one. It’s a good story, but why (I wonder) was it recently selected as one of the “Best American Noir of the Century”?

VICTOR MAXWELL “The Plainly Marked Track.” Sgt. Reardon #1. Novelette. First published in Flynn’s, 8 August 1925. Collected in Threads of Evidence: The Complete Cases of Riordan, Volume 1 (Steeger Books, 2021; introduction by Terry Sanford).

   The genesis of the Steeger collection is both straightforward and complicated. It began with an essay on the primary Mystery*File website by Terry Sanford, a former bookstore owner and present day dedicated pulp magazine collector. In that short piece he discussed several of the series characters who filled the pages of [Flynn’s] Detective Fiction Weekly in the 1920s, 1930s, and into the early 1940s. One of these was a Detective Sergeant named Riordan who appeared in exactly 100 stories over the years.

   The byline on these stories was Victor Maxwell, but it was generally suspected that that was a pen name. Who the real author was was unknown. But then something unsuspected happened. I was contacted by Don Wilde, who told me that he was the step-grandson of the author of the Riordan stories, whose real name was Maxwell Vietor.

   I immediately got Don in touch with Terry, and I’ll let Terry tell the tale from here. Or in fact he already has. (Follow the link, and you will learn all.)

   It may suffice to say, however, that Terry received a load of information and other documents about “Victor Maxwell” and his long life, and he decided to see if some enterprising young publisher might be interested in reprinting some of the stories. Matt Moring of Steeger Books agreed. It’s now ten years later, and the first volume of the first nine Riordan stories has just been published.

   Based on the first story only, you can’t judge the growth and other changes in a series that may take place over a span of some fifteen years, so any description I make of it here, please don’t take it any further than that. Riordan is mentored in this one by a Captain Brady, his boss, who often seems to wonder about how slow he   is on the uptake. When the safe at Ladd’s Emporium is robbed on a Saturday night, the tightwad owner thinks his son is responsible. A plaster cast of a tire track discovered at the scene helps prove otherwise.

   What’s most noticeable about the story is how cool and calm the policemen on the job go about their business. They may have have had all of the CSI stuff cops have today, but working with what they had – and knowing people – goes a long way in cracking the case. I’ll see about tackling the other eight stories in this volume as soon as I can. I’m also hoping that enough people buy this one so that it doesn’t take another ten years before we see the second!

STEVE FISHER “You’ll Always Remember Me.” Short story. First published in Black Mask, March 1938. Reprinted in Best American Noir of the Century, edited by James Ellroy & Otto Penzler (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010).

   When you think of “juvenile delinquents,” what probably comes to your mind first (well, it does mine) are the gangs of young hoodlums who obsessed the country everywhere in the 1950s, largely in big cities but small towns in the middle of nowhere as well.

   Well, what this this story does is to remind you that kids could be bad in earlier time periods as well, but maybe only without the accompanying gangs. The young 14-year-old narrator of “You’ll Always Remember Me” is, for example,  as bad as they come.

   It seems that the older brother of the girl that Martin Thorpe is seeing is about to be hanged for the killing of their father, and he’s run out of appeals. It won’t matter if I tell you that it won’t long for you to decide who really did it. The only question is, is he going to get away with it?

   You’d think that another mysterious, unexplained death would be enough for one story that’s only 18 pages long (in the hardcover reprint anthology), but what I found really chilling was the death of a very sick kitten. I guess it’s all in perspective. One thing’s for sure. The title is absolutely right on.

ROBERT LESLIE BELLEM “Diamonds of Death.” Dan Turner #2. Published in Spicy Detective Stories, July 1934. Reprinted in Hollywood Detective, August 1950, and in The Mammoth Book of Private Eye Stories, edited by Bill Pronzini and Martin H. Greenberg (Carrol & Graf, 1988).

   I think that the best way to review a Dan Turner story may also be the easiest. It could even reflect the only reason for anyone to read a Dan Turner story. Simply quote passages from the story, taken here and there at random. Like this:

   Mitzi was a gorgeous taffy-haired morsel, dainty as a Dresden doll in a combed wool ensemble. It was about ten-thirty at night when she ankled into my apartment, making with the moans regarding an alleged fortune in sparklers which she said had been glommed from her dressing bungalow on the Supertone lot. Now, as I slipped her the brush-off, her blue glims puddled with brine.

         […]

   I fastened the speculative focus on her; wondering if she was leveling or feeding me a line of waffle batter.

         […]

   The defunct ginzo lay sprawled behind a big wheel-of-fortune on the far side of the set, where you wouldn’t notice him unless he was pointed out to you. … [He’d] been handsome until some sharp disciple carved in his cranium with a blunt instrument. Now his scalp was messy with shattered bones and coagulated gravy, and he was deader than canceled postage.

         […]

   Max took a wild swing at the wren’s rod. Maybe she actually hadn’t meant to discharge it, but the impact of Murphy’s mitt made her trigger finger jerk. Ka-Chow! and a tongue of flame licked at the prop man, a bright orange flash of fire that streaked across the set and stabbed him in the thigh. He staggered and went down in a writhing heap.

         […]

   Maybe he wasn’t planning to paste a haymaker on my dimple; I couldn’t tell. But I remembered the last dose of knuckle tonic he’d doled me; my bridgework still ached from it, all the way to the shoestrings. On a lug like Max you couldn’t afford to take chances.

   Me again. I submit to you that prose like this is the work of genius.

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

FREDERICK NEBEL “Hell’s Pay Check.” Cardigan. Novelette. Published in Dime Detective Magazine, December 1931. Reprinted in Hard-Boiled Detectives, edited by Robert Weinberg, Stefan R. Dziemianowicz and Martin H. Greenberg (Gramercy, 1992). Collected in The Complete Casebook of Cardigan. Volume 1: 1931-1932. Altus Press, February 2012).

   From the second paragraph in this story, we learn that Cardigan is “a big, shaggy-headed man with a burry outdoor look,” getting off a train wearing “a wrinkled topcoat” and “a faded fedora that had seen better days.” He’s in Indianapolis on a case, but his home office, that of the Cosmos Detective Agency, is in New York. He comes with a reputation that the local cops are aware of, but it also helps to be working with an agency that has some clout. Local cops are not at all leery about pushing around independent operators.

   His job in “Hell’s Pay Check” is to help the mayor retrieve a check that he paid to a “notorious woman” on behalf of his son, a check that she didn’t cash at a bank; she seems to have gotten paid by another party who has kept the check. If it gets into the wrong hands, the mayor’s career is over.

   The story begins with a bang, and never stops moving. He’s picked up at the railroad station, but when he gets into the mayor’s car, he quickly realizes that the chauffeur is a phoney. A subsequent car chase through the back streets of the city leaves the driver dead, shot to death by his fellow gang members, who think he has turned on them.

   If you’re looking for a hard-boiled detective at work, you need not go much farther than any of Cardigan’s cases, and this is a prime example. He has a nose for trouble, and likewise trouble is never very far behind him. Nebel’s prose has a ferocity and drive to it that simply can’t be matched. Luckily for us,  all of his cases have now been published in total by Altus Press (now Steeger Books) in four thick handsome volumes.

   

FREDERICK NEBEL Cardigan

CARROLL JOHN DALY “Not My Corpse.” Race Williams. Novella. First published in Thrilling Detective, June 1948. (Cover by Rudolph Belarski.) Reprinted in The Mammoth Book of Private Eye Stories, edited by Bill Pronzini and Martin H. Greenberg (Carrol & Graf, 1988).

   Race Williams had a long career in the pulp magazines, ranging in time from 1923 to 1955, and he showed up in a few book-length adventures as well. He was a tough guy with both his fists and his guns, and he wasn’t afraid to show it. If Mickey Spillane didn’t read Race Williams’ adventures before coming up with the idea for Mike Hammer, I’d be awfully surprised.

   In his heyday, all through the 1920s and early 1930s, Carroll John Daly was one of the hottest PI writers around. By the time “Not My Corpse” appeared, in June 1948 issue of one of the lesser detective pulp magazines, his luster had faded considerably, and Race Williams’ antics had tamed down considerably – but not completely, and it’s still a cracking good yarn.

   After a series of young girls have been tortured and killed, Race decides that the common factor connecting them is that they inadvertently saw something they shouldn’t, and that the killer is tracking them down, one by one, going from one to the next. A solid tip suggests that one more girl is going to be the next victim, and Race is determined to stop him.

   There are flashes of good writing in this tale, with memorable turns of phrasing, and Race is his usual cocky, confidant self, which is all to the good. The plot is a little rickety, though, and there’s too much that’s never hinted at as to the killer’s actual motive; it takes a flood of details on his dying bed before the whole story is told.

   A mixed bag, in other words, but while Carroll John Daly is often given a bad rap today as a lousy writer, he wasn’t.

MADELEINE SHARPS BUCHANAN – The Subway Murder. NYPD Homicide Lt. Ransom #1. Serialized in five parts in Detective Fiction Weekly, February 8 through March 8, 1930. Hardcover editions: A. C. McClurg & Co., 1930; Grosset & Dunlap, no date stated.

   If Lieutenant Ransom was given a first name in this better than average detective novel, first serialized in the pulp magazine Detective Fiction Weekly, I seem to have missed it. It’s also quite possible that this was not his first and only appearance in print, but I can’t find a reference to a later case he was involved in, or even an earlier one.

   I’ve not been able to research this, but The Subway Murder may actually be the first defective mystery in which the victim is killed in a subway, as Ransom briefly wonders to himself early on. Given that the Manhattan subway system opened in 1904, though, there’s a good chance that another author came up with the same idea before Mrs. Buchanan did.

   The dead girl is a young woman of no great beauty, and it takes Ransom and Jim Pensbury, his chief aide, some time to identify the body. What they discover astounds them. The woman had led two lives, married, in fact, to two different men. One is a lowly salesman for a hosiery firm; the other is a rich millionaire, who does not at first recognize the woman, she is so poorly dressed.

   It is quite a puzzle, then, that faces Ransom and Pensbury. It takes a lot of legwork on their part, and any number of interviews with people with whom they come in contact, all somehow connected with the case, which is a deliciously complicated one.

   There is also a matter of $70,000 worth of radium that has gone missing, so there’s plenty to plot to keep the reader interested all the way through, with only an ending that feels a little flat. No big twist at the end, in other words, just a matter of good police work that slowly but surely eliminates all of the possible solutions, one by one, until there is only one left.

   Madeleine Sharps Buchanan, the author, had only seven novels published in hardcover, but she wrote several dozen others that were serialized in pulp magazines such as DFW, Clues, and Detective Story Magazine. There’s probably little hope of putting together a set of consecutive issues of any of them to put a full novel together. On the other hand, you could hunt down the novels in book form, but for example, there are only two copies of the hardcover edition of this one now offered for sale online, the lowest asking price (on eBay) being just under $100. I’d like sample her work a little more, but it looks like it may be a bit of a challenge.

TOD ROBBINS “Spurs.” First published in Munsey’s Magazine, February 1923. Collected in Who Wears a Green Bottle? And Other Uneasy Tales (Philip Allan, UK, 1926). Reprinted in Best American Noir of the Century, edited by James Ellroy & Otto Penzler (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010), as well as several other anthologies. Film: Freaks (1932; produced and directed by Tod Browning).

   There is no doubt that the Tod Browning’s notorious cult film Freaks is far more known than the short story it’s based on. The film takes the basic story and expands on it by a magnitude of three or four, if not more, but the story itself still manages to hold its own as a small gem of comeuppance and pure edginess.

   To wit: When a dwarf in a traveling sideshow inherits a small fortune from an uncle, he decides it is full time he declared his love for the star of the circus’s high wire act, a veritable Amazon of a woman. To perhaps the reader’s surprise, if not Jacque Corbeé’s, who in spite of his size, is superbly confidant that she will say yes, she does indeed. Say yes, that is.

   Of course it is his money she is after, but fate being what it is, things do not progress anywhere near what she envisions. The other members of the circus — freaks, if you will – play only a secondary role in the story, mostly during the dinner after the wedding, in which a small melee breaks out – each of the participants convinced that the success of the show depends largely to their presence in it.

Next Page »