Pulp Fiction


TICKET TO A CRIME. Beacon Productions, 1934. Ralph Graves (PI Clay Holt), Lola Lane, Lois Wilson, James Burke, Charles Ray, Edward Earle, Hy Hoover, John Elliott. Based on the story of the same title by Carroll John Daly (Dime Detective Magazine, Oct 1 1934). Director: Lewis D. Collins.

   According to IMDb, this is the only movie based on the work of one of the most popular pulp fiction writers of his day, Carroll John Daly. He was a pioneer in the rough and tough PI genre, but his crude writing style has relegated him to an all-but-unknown status except to fans of the field.

   Daly’s most famous character was probably a gun-slinging private eye named Race Williams. Equally violent was a hardboiled police cop by the name of Satan Hall, who in his many adventures racked up nearly as many bodies as Williams. PI Clay Holt, the featured protagonist of this movie as well as the story it was based on, had only six recorded cases, four of them for Dime Detective.

   I’ve not read any of his adventures, but I can tell you this. The movie is not very good. Not if you want anything resembling an actual detective or mystery story. The plot has something to do with some diamonds that are worth $50,000, but beyond that, I cannot tell you more.

   Most of the just over 60 minutes worth of running time are taken up by (1) Holt suddenly coming to realize that his secretary (Lola Lane), who he hasn’t paid in six weeks, is actually beautiful once she takes her glasses off and dresses up for a gala party he invites her to by default (all of the other entries in his little black book turn him down).

   And (2) the humorously antagonistic byplay between Holt and his former buddy on the police force, Detective Lt. John Aloysius McGinnis (James Burke). Without either (1) or (2), there’d be absolutely nothing to see here. Even so, the movie seems to be far far longer than its actual running time.

ROBERT BLOCH “The Cloak.” First published in Unknown, May 1939. First collected in The Opener of the Way (Arkham House, hardcover, 1945). Reprinted many times, including: Dracula’s Guest and Other Stories, edited by Victor Ghidalia (Xerox, paperback, 1972); Magic for Sale, edited by Avram Davidson (Ace, paperback, 1983); Vamps: An Anthology of Female Vampire Stories, edited by Martin H. Greenberg (Daw, paperback, 1987); American Fantastic Tales: Terror and the Uncanny from Poe to the Pulps, edited by Peter Straub (Library of America, hardcover, 2008). Film: Adapted as Part Four of The House That Dripped Blood (Amicus, 1971; reviewed here ).

   The list of places above where this small but obviously effective short story has appeared only scratches the surface, but what’s especially rewarding is seeing it progress from the pages of a 20 cent pulp magazine to a $35 hardcover from the prestigious Library of America.

   It’s one of those stories that begins, more or less, in one of those strange out-of-the-way shops that dot the side streets of the poorer sections of large cities, open for a while and perhaps only to pre-selected customers, only to disappear as mysteriously as they appeared, or to go up in flames, the owners vanished or even destroyed along with it.

   It is Halloween and a man named Henderson is looking for a costume. The shop owner in this case offers him the cloak — not a cloak, but the cloak — and once Henderson puts it one, he is a new man — or is he?

   What he definitely is is the center of attention at the party he attends that night. He is attracted to the neck of his fat host. Most positively attracted to him is a girl dressed as an angel — or is she?

   Told in Robert Bloch’s invariably easy to read writing style, the reader is always one step ahead of the main protagonist, until, that is, he meets the girl above, named Sheila, and once she is met, you are not exactly sure which way the rest of the tale is going to go. You think you do, but you’re not quite sure. Exactly where you should be at this stage of a story well told.

   I’ve asked Dick Etulain, the author of the following book to tell us more about it. He’s most graciously agreed:

RICHARD W. ETULAIN – Ernest Haycox and the Western. University of Oklahoma Press, hardcover, illustrated, 2017.

   This book attempts to resurrect writer Ernest Haycox as a major figure in the development of the fictional Western. It is not a biography; Haycox’s son, Ernest Haycox, Jr., does that in his smoothly written book On a Silver Desert: The Life of Ernest Haycox (2003). Nor is it primarily a work of literary criticism. That book is available in Stephen L. Tanner, Ernest Haycox (1996).

   Rather, my book is a work of literary history, tracing Haycox’s literary career from its origins in the early 1920s to his death in 1950.

   Born in 1899 and reared in Oregon, Haycox contributed to high school publications and then to college outlets at Reed College (1919-20) and the University of Oregon (1920-23). By graduation, Haycox had published several stories in pulp magazines. Hoping to establish strong links to fictional outlets in the East, Haycox traveled to New York City, where he met editors important to his career in the 1920s. Meeting Jill Marie Chord (also from Oregon) on the train east, they married in New York City but soon returned west to Portland, which would be the Haycox home for the remainder of his life.

   By the end of the 1920s, Haycox was a steady contributor to many pulp magazines, including such stalwarts as Adventure, Short Stories, and Western Story Magazine. In 1928, he published his first full-length serial, which appeared the next year as Free Grass, his first novel. In the opening 1930s, Haycox made his first appearance in Collier’s and remained a steady contributor for almost twenty years.

   Hoping to move to the top of writers of Westerns, Haycox experimented with several new wrinkles to chosen genre. He created reflective protagonists (“Hamlet heroes”) and dark and light heroines (passionate and reserved women).

   Even more important, he began to turn out historical Westerns, infusing his lively fiction with historical backgrounds such as building the transcontinental railroad, fighting Indians in the Southwest, and settling Oregon. His most notable historical Western was Bugles in the Afternoon (1944), a fictional recreation of Gen. George Custer and the Battle of the Little Bighorn.

   Immensely successful, Haycox was nonetheless dissatisfied with the restrictions of the Western and entered a period of revolt in the last half-dozen years (1944-50) of his career. Abandoning lucrative serial markets, he set out to write first-rate historical fiction. His best historical novel, The Earthbreakers (1952), appeared two years after his death.

   Talented, ambitious, and driven, Ernest Haycox became a major figure in popular fiction written about the American West. Haycox’s continuing growth, gradual but steady, amply demonstrates an author determined enough to defy popular demands and honest enough to write novels consistent with his changing literary beliefs.

LESLIE T. WHITE “Tough Guy.” Reprinted in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, September-October 2017. This issue’s Mystery Classic, selected and introduced by Jim Doherty. First published in Liberty, 21 June 1941. Reprinted in Liberty Quarterly: 19 Tales of Intrigue, Mystery & Adventure (Vol. 1, No. 1, ca. 1950).

    In his introduction to this story, Jim Doherty makes a solid case for Leslie White as one of the very first practitioners of the police procedural novel. Up for discussion in particular are Me, Detective (1936), a biographical account of White’s own career, Harness Bull (1937), and Homicide (1937).

    Most of White’s work was done for the pulp magazines, producing as he did well over 100 short stories for that market, beginning with “Phoney Evidence” in The Dragnet Magazine, January 1930. To substantiate his case, Doherty describes some of White’s career in police work, and how he used it to give all of his crime fiction a solid, believable setting.

    “Tough Guy” was written toward the end of his pulp fiction days, and that’s even a stretch, as Liberty magazine was not really a pulp. It’s the story of a tough cop named Gahagan who lives for nothing other than his job, a primary part of which is nailing a notorious killer and crime boss by the name of Danny Trumbull.

    Things go awry in his life when the trail leads him to Trumbull’s eight-year-old daughter Penny, who lives alone with her father but who has no idea how totally bad he is. This one starts out in full tilt pulp mode, but by the end, it’s become, as you might have expected, a long way from being a hard-boiled tale of a tough guy cop. Quite the opposite.

    Which does not make it a bad story, by any means. In fact, I enjoyed this one more than any of the other twelve stories in this latest issue of AHMM, many of them (to my mind) rather weak efforts and/or not interesting to me. It’s starting to get difficult to justify spending $7.99 an issue for a magazine that I can’t get excited about any more.

REVIEWED BY DAVID VINEYARD:


BLACKMAIL. Republic Pictures, 1947. William Marshall, Adele Mara, Ricardo Cortez, Grant Withers, Stephanie Bachelor, Richard Fraser, Roy Barcroft, George J. Lewis, Tristam Coffin, Eva Novak. Screenplay: Royal K. Cole & Albert deMond, based on the story “Stock Shot” by Robert Leslie Bellem in the July 1944 issue of Speed Detective. (Added later; see comments.) Director: Lesley Selander.

   So, the folks over at Republic, acquire this story by Robert Leslie Bellem about none other than our pal Dan Turner, the Hollywood Detective, he of the colorful patter and the dames falling at his feet and mostly out of what clothes they are barely wearing, inspiring some of the most outrageous euphemisms for the female anatomy in the history of the English language.

   Assuming it is the English language. With Dan Turner you can’t be sure.

   Anyway, here is our Dan (William Marshall) sporting the moniker Daniel J. Turner, a New York Eye imported to Hollywood to work for big time playboy Ziggy Cranston (Ricardo Cortez, and no relation to Lamont) who owns among other assets a radio network.

   Seems Ziggy has been playing with some rough types, and he is so scared he even pulls a gun on Dan. Lucky for Ziggy, Dan is playing nice and doesn’t slug him the way he did Ziggy’s chauffeur who tried to crease Dan’s pork pie with a wrench by way of greeting.

   Everybody is on edge but Dan, and you don’t want to get Dan on edge.

   Turns out Ziggy is a playboy first class, and somebody is blackmailing him claiming to have evidence he murdered a singer of the very female type. Ziggy swears the chanteuse wasn’t killed by him, but he wants the blackmailer off his back and can’t afford the bad publicity.

   Even though Dan has traveled across the country, he’s not so sure he wants to get involved. Too bad for him, the blackmailers already figure he is involved and would like to do something permanent about that.

   Like six feet under permanent.

   As you might expect, Dan is soon up to his eyebrows in wise cracks, fists, and dames like classy Sylvia Duane (Adele Mara) plus hoods with names like Spice Kellaway, Blue Chip Winslow, and Pinky (Roy Barcroft, George J. Lewis, and Tristam Coffin), a Pepe Le Peu named Antoine le Blanc (Richard Fraser) and a tough cop named Donaldson who would like Dan to quit shooting up the local hoodlums and go back to New York.

   Not our Dan though. Not when Ziggy is arrested for yet another murder, and only Dan has the grey matter needed to untwist the tangled web of who murdered whom and why, and drive Donaldson batty too.

   It’s a pretty fast paced affair you might enjoy if you take off your size twelves and sit back with a bourbon and chaser to ease you over the bumpy parts. The screenplay at least tries to capture something of Dan’s colorful badinage, and if the dames aren’t quite as pneumatic as those in Mr. Bellem’s stories, well, those models didn’t come along until a few years later with the likes of MM, Jayne, Diana D, and Mamie.

   The Marshall guy tries hard, and at times almost succeeds though he’s plenty vanilla for a guy as colorful as Dan Turner. And it is a Republic picture so the fights are first class. Nobody can fault a Republic stuntman when it comes to action.

   But I have to admit I sure wish the censor had shut his sensitive little ears and let Dan riff on some of his favorite anatomical assets. That Bellem music is unique like Krupa on the drums or Harry James on the horn, and this little cinema masterpiece could sure use it, hard as it tries.

COMMENTS BY BARRY GARDNER:


WILLIAM F. NOLAN – The Black Mask Murders. Black Mask Boys #1. St. Martin’s, hardcover, 1994. No softcover edition.

   There’s probably no one better suited to do a novel featuring Dashiel Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and Erle Stanley Gardner as detectives than Nolan, a Hammett expert of the first order and [editor] of The Black Mask Boys (1985), a homage to the pulp. This, the first book in a projected series, is narrated by Hammett, and plans call for the narration to rotate among the three in future volumes.

   I’m not going into the plot any more than to tell you it involves gangsters and a maguffin, as I didn’t enjoy the book enough to finish it. Though obviously a labor of love on Nolan’s part, I couldn’t reward it with the same feeling.

   It isn’t badly done, I just don’t particularly care for the type, and using mystery writers for the characters didn’t change my feelings as I’d thought it might. Nolan’s a competent writer, and if you like Kaminsky’s Toby Peters books I think you’d like this too.

— Reprinted from Ah Sweet Mysteries #14, May 1994.

             The Black Mask Boys series —

The Black Mask Murders (1994).
The Marble Orchard (1996).

Sharks Never Sleep (1998).

CONVENTION REPORT: PulpFest 2017
by Walker Martin

   Once again, five over the top book, art, and pulp collectors, squeezed themselves into a big van in order to attend PulpFest 2017 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Luckily we rented the biggest van that they had because we needed all the space when we drove back to New Jersey. It was a 15 passenger van which we converted into larger cargo space by taking out some seats.

   In my opinion, after attending almost all the pulp conventions since 1972, this is the best hotel that we have ever had for our shows. Sure the hotel rooms cost $125 each night but they were worth it. Not only were we close to all the action taking place in the dealers room and program room, but we had a free buffet breakfast, the best I’ve ever seen at a pulp convention. It had to be worth $15 to $20. I devoured so much food at breakfast that I skipped lunch each day.

   Yes, there were cheaper hotels down the road, but staying at the host hotel helps the convention because if they reach a certain number of rooms then big discounts kick in. These discounts are necessary in order for us to have future PulpFests. I have always stayed at the host hotels because they are so convenient and help the conventions meet expenses.

   The past several years in Columbus, Ohio, we lacked a hospitality room because the hotel wanted us to buy their alcohol and use their bartenders. However at the Double Tree hotel we had our own room, and thanks to abebooks.com, the PulpFest committee was able to buy pizzas and craft beer. I would have to say that this was the best beer I’ve ever had at a pulp show. And instead of the usual snack items, the pizza was a real treat.

   Right outside the hospitality room was a nice restaurant that also served pizza and beer. They had live entertainment also. All the hotel employees were friendly and helpful. This is a big plus because I’ve stayed at hotels where the employees have attitude problems and don’t want to be bothered.

   Attendance was 350 and the dealer’s room seemed fairly busy each day. There were over 100 tables, most crammed with pulps, vintage paperbacks, digest magazines, DVDs, and original artwork. I always have a table at PulpFest and I sold pulps, DVDs, books, and cancelled checks from the Popular Publication and Munsey files.

   I bought quite a bit including artwork like an interior illustration by John Fleming Gould and a large wraparound cover painting for an early Lion Book. The painting covers the front and back of the book and was used on the Lion book titled The Naked Year (The Inheritors) by Philip Atlee.

   The blurb says “They groped for excitement in an age of boredom” and the image shows a big party with some two-fisted drinking and a bit of kissing with some good looking women. I’ve always had a weakness for these risque, sort of sleazy paperback novels.

   One funny thing however, I had just told several of my friends that I would not be buying any original art because I have run out of wall space and I have many pieces of art just leaning against bookcases or the wall. What a liar I am. Once a collector, always a collector! I then promptly go over and buy a large cover painting. One big blunder that I never would have made in my younger days, I failed to recognize an Edd Cartier drawing, illustrating a scene from The Wheels of If by L. Sprague de Camp, and from Unknown, one of my favorite magazines. One of my younger friends snapped it up (by younger, I mean 30 years younger). I spent the rest of the convention cursing my stupidity and bemoaning the onset of senility.

   A large batch of London Mystery Magazine was delivered to me and now I only need 16 issues out of 132. When I went to the bookstores in London and Hay On Wye, I couldn’t find a single issue. I also found three boxes of bound men’s adventure magazines. Completely unreadable of course, unless you love to read about Nazis partying with girls in their underwear, but the artwork is exceptional. I bought all of them of course, mainly bound volumes of Saga and Man’s World from the fifties and sixties. My descent into the depths of depravity continues but so what? The WW II vets loved these magazines and what’s good enough for those guys is good enough for me!

   Pulp T-shirts have become very popular especially since Altus Press started cranking out all sorts of pulp titles. For those readers who are into fashion I wore my lucky Fred Davis T-shirt, the one given to me by Davis’ granddaughter many years ago, and shirts showing the logos of Black Mask, Short Stories, and Adventure. All well dressed pulp collectors wear such T-shirts.

   Artist Gloria Stoll returned as Guest of Honor and she was fabulous. Though in her nineties, she was witty and very interesting concerning her seven years as a pulp artist in the forties. She then went on to have a career painting in a more abstract style. David Saunders did a nice job interviewing her and showing a slide show of her covers and career.

   The Munsey Award was won by Phil Stephensen-Payne, who is one of the main men behind The FictionMags Index and Galactic Central. These sites are excellent online sources for information about the writers and the cover art. I visit them just about every day. Phil lives in the UK and couldn’t attend the convention, but I had the pleasure of reading his acceptance speech for him. A remarkable pulp scholar indeed! Sometimes we complain about the validity of some awards but this is an example of an award that they got right. Congratulations, Phil!

   PulpFest is known for its great programming, and there was so much going on that I could fill pages talking about each night. I’ll just mention a few that I found to be excellent or of great interest. Author Chet Williamson read from Psycho Sanitarium; Garyn Roberts talked about 100 years of Robert Bloch; Jeffrey Marks covered the characters of Erle Stanley Gardner; Matt Moring discussed Dime Detective; Philip Jose Farmer was covered; and finally Tom Krabacher and I discussed “Hard-Boiled at 100: The Don Everhard Stories of Gordon Young.” My conclusion was that these stories were more about a gentleman adventurer who acted as a sort of Robin Hood, doing good and fighting criminals. I like Young’s Hurricane Williams south sea stories a lot more and the Don Everhard series is inferior to such novels as Days of ’49 and Huroc the Avenger.

   The auction was of interest and had many items worth bidding on. I managed to get some rare Western Story magazines. I have over 1250 issues, 1919-1949 and only need a few. I obtained two exceptionally rare 1919 issues in dime novel format and an issue from 1925. Other items of interest were a complete run of Amra, volume two, #1-71. I wanted this but lost out since I didn’t want to pay a very high price.

   Fred Cook’s rare copy of the Argosy Index went for $400. I’ve never seen a copy for sale. Some Shadow and Doc Savage premiums went for high prices. Tom Krabacher, who has written the definitive article on Gordon Young, wanted a large travel trunk once owned by Gordon Young but it went to someone else for $425. All in all there were almost 300 lots.

   Each year the convention publishes The Pulpster, which is a magazine full of interesting articles about the pulps. This issue was number 26 and edited by William Lampkin. There were articles on women in the pulps by Ron Goulart and Bill Pronzini; several pieces on Robert Bloch; an article about Mary Elizabeth Counselman by Tony Davis; Curt Phillips on preserving pulps; several other articles including one by me on collecting Detective Fiction Weekly. This is an excellent magazine and we should thank Bill Lampkin for editing and Mike Chomko for publishing it.

   One book I noticed made its debut at the show. Pride of the Pulps is a collection of magazine studies by Ed Hulse. The articles originally appeared in his Blood ‘n’ Thunder magazine, but they have been extensively revised and expanded. The magazines covered are Adventure, All-American Fiction, Famous Fantastic Mysteries, The Popular Magazine, Short Stories, and the 1920’s issues of West.

   A great convention for collectors of old fiction magazines is now part of history but I’m looking forward to the next year at this fine hotel. Thanks to Paul Herman for the use of his photos in this report. I’d also like to thank the Pulpfest committee for another job well done. Thank you: Jack and Sally Cullers, Mike Chomko, Barry Traylor, William Lampkin, and Chuck Welch. Your hard work is very much appreciated!

A 1001 MIDNIGHTS Review
by Marcia Muller


FREDRIC BROWN Night of the Jabberwock

FREDRIC BROWN – Night of the Jabberwock. E. P. Dutton, hardcover, 1950. Paperback editions include: Bantam #990, April 1952; Morrow-Quill, 1984. Based on two pulp stories: “The Gibbering Night” (Detective Tales, July 1944) and “The Jabberwock Murders” (Thrilling Mystery, Summer 1944).

   This entertaining novel, which takes place in one bizarre night, is a perfect example of Fredric Brown’s somewhat eccentric view of the world. Doc Stoeger, editor of the Carmel City, Indiana, Clarion, sometime philosopher and devotee of the works of Lewis Carroll, has just put the small-town paper to bed. He has a drink in his office, wanders over to Smiley’s Tavern for a couple more, and laments the fact that nothing ever happens in Carmel City.

FREDRIC BROWN Night of the Jabberwock

   What wouldn’t he give, Doc says, for just one important story? Then, just as he is about to go home, things start to happen. At first they are mundane: Tuesday’s rummage sale is canceled and there is now a nine-inch hole in the front page; a messy divorce story needs to be rewritten because the charges against the husband were not true. But these are nothing like the surprise that visits Doc later at home.

   The surprise is a man with the unlikely name of Yehudi Smith, who claims to be a member of a group of Lewis Carroll enthusiasts called the Vorpal Blades (a name taken from Through the Looking Glass). Smith invites Doc to a midnight meeting in a haunted house, and Doc is fascinated enough to accept. However, other events intervene: Doc’s best friend is injured in an accident and no one can find out what happened; the bank is robbed in a strange way; an escaped lunatic is run to earth; and big-time criminals are on the loose.

   By the time Doc keeps his appointment with Yehudi Smith and the Vorpal Blades, he has covered and, for various reasons, had to suppress more major stories than most editors do in a year. And when he and Smith go to the haunted house, Doc is embroiled in an Alice-like adventure that leads him not down a rabbit hole or through a looking glass, but to the sheriff’s office.

    Night of the Jabberwock is definitely not a novel for reformed alcoholics or those with strong principles against the consumption of alcohol. Doc partakes of enough drink so that, in reality, he would have passed out by chapter 3. In spite of that — and the fact that there are enough holes in the plot to drive a liquor truck through — no reader will ever forget this one astonishing night in Carmel City, Indiana.

         ———
   Reprinted with permission from 1001 Midnights, edited by Bill Pronzini & Marcia Muller and published by The Battered Silicon Dispatch Box, 2007.   Copyright © 1986, 2007 by the Pronzini-Muller Family Trust.

Three 1001 MIDNIGHTS Reviews
by Bill Pronzini


FREDRIC BROWN – The Fabulous Clipjoint. E. P. Dutton, hardcover, 1947. Bantam #1134, paperback, 1953. David R. Godine, trade paperback, 1986.

   Fredric Brown’s vision of the world was paradoxical and slightly cockeyed. Things, in his eye, are not always what you might think they are; elements of the bizarre spice the commonplace, and, conversely, elements of the commonplace leaven the bizarre. Madness and sanity are intertwined, so that it is often difficult to tell which is which.

   The same is true of malevolence and benignity, of tragedy and comedy. Brown seems to have felt that the forces, cosmic or otherwise, that control our lives are at best mischievous and at worst malign, that man has little to say about his own destiny, and that free will is a fallacy. The joke is on us, he seems to be saying on numerous occasions. And it is a joke that all too frequently turns nasty.

   Brown employed a deceptively simple, offhand style that allows his fiction to be enjoyed by those interested only in entertainment and also pondered by those interested in the complex themes at its heart. The Fabulous Clipjoint, his first novel and the recipient of an Edgar from the Mystery Writers of America, is a good example.

   On the one hand, it is a straightforward detective story that introduced the Chicago-based team of private eyes Ed and Am Hunter. Ed, the narrator, is young and idealistic; Ambrose, his uncle and a retired circus performer, is much more pragmatic and somewhat jaded- the voice of experience.

   When Ed’s father, Wally, is shot down in a dark alley, Ed enlists his uncle’s help and sets out to find the murderer. Their quest leads them into the seamy underbelly of 1940s society, the world of second-rate criminals, cheap bars, sleazy carnival folk; from a sideshow spieler named Hoagy to a beautiful tramp named Claire Raymond to assorted thugs and tough cops, and finally to a killer.

   On the other hand, there are deeper meanings to the narrative — underlying themes of obsession, a young man’s bitter and tragic coming of age, and the manipulation of those dark cosmic forces that Brown believed are in control of our fives. The handling of these themes is what makes the novel so grimly powerful. Not Brown’s best book, and not for every taste, but unquestionably much more than just another hard-boiled detective tale.

   Brown wrote six other Ed and Am Hunter books, none of which, unfortunately,approaches The Fabulous Clipjoint in quality. Among them are The Dead Ringer (1948); The Bloody Moonlight (1949, which has a werewolf theme); Compliments of a Fiend (1951); and Mrs. Murphy’s Underpants (1963).

FREDRIC BROWN – Knock Three-One-Two. Dutton, 1959. Bantam A2135, paperback, 1960. TV adaptation: “Knock Three-One-Two.” Thriller, 13 December 1960 (Season 1, Episode 13). Film: The Red Ibis (France, 1975; original title: L’Ibis rouge).

   Knock Three-One-Two has one of the most compelling (and chilling) opening lines in all of crime fiction: “He had a name, but it doesn’t matter: call him the psycho.” It is the best of Brown’s later novels, and one of his two or three best overall. It is also — in theme, mood, and final message — his most frightening work.

   On the surface, Knock is a straightforward mystery that interweaves the lives of a maniacal rapist/strangler who preys on women alone at night in their apartments; a liquor salesman named Ray Fleck who is addicted to gambling; a Greek restaurateur, George Mikos, who is in love with Fleck’s wife, Ruth; a mentally retarded news vendor named Benny; Dolly Mason, a promiscuous and mercenary beauty operator; and several other characters.

   But as the opening lines intimate, this is not a whodunit: The identity of the psycho is irrelevant to the plot; rather, he is a catalyst, an almost biblical symbol of evil. The suspense Brown creates and sustains here is of the dark and powerful sort perfected
by Cornell Woolrich, yet uniquely Brown’s own in style and handling. It all builds beautifully, inexorably, to a shocking and ironic climax- Brown at his most controlled, dealing with material at its most chaotic.

   Equally good are Brown’s two other major suspense novels, The Screaming Mimi (1949) and The Far Cry (1951). Mimi is the story of an alcoholic Chicago reporter named Sweeney and his search for both a beautiful woman and a Ripper-style killer; it is also an allegorical retelling of “Beauty and the Beast.” The Far Cry, set in New Mexico, has been called Brown’s tour de force — a fair judgment, for the treatment of its theme of a love/hate obsession is uncommon and its denouement is both horrific and surprisingly bleak for its time.

FREDRIC BROWN – Mostly Murder. E. P. Dutton, hardcover, 1953. Pennant P-59, paperback, 1954.

   Brown wrote excellent short fiction, including dozens of mordant short-shorts — a demanding form at which he proved himself a master. It can be argued, in fact, that except in a half-dozen or so cases, he was a better short-story writer than he was a novelist.

    Mostly Murder, his first collection, contains eighteen of his best early stories., from Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine and such pulps as Black Mask and Dime Mystery.

   Among them are his masterpiece of psychological horror “Don’t Look Behind You,” a tour de force in which the reader is the intended murder victim; an unusually dark and powerful treatment of the “impossible crime” theme, “The Laughing Butcher”; an ironic little chiller, “Little Apple Hard to Peel”; a Woolrichian tale of terror and suspense, “I’ll Cut Your Throat Again, Kathleen”; the wryly humorous “Greatest Poem Ever Written”; and two of his best short-shorts. “Town Wanted” and “Cry Silence.” An outstanding collection.

   A second gathering of Brown’s criminous stories, The Shaggy Dog and Other Murders (1963), is likewise first-rate. Also well worth reading are several recent collections: Homicide Sanitarium (1984), Before She Kills (1984), Madman’s Holiday (1985), and The Case of the Dancing Sandwiches (1985), all limited editions of obscure but entertaining pulp stories; and Carnival of Crime (1985), which contains some but not all of his short mysteries, including several from Mostly Murder, and a complete checklist of Brown’s published works.

         ———
   Reprinted with permission from 1001 Midnights, edited by Bill Pronzini & Marcia Muller and published by The Battered Silicon Dispatch Box, 2007.   Copyright © 1986, 2007 by the Pronzini-Muller Family Trust.

BENNETT FOSTER – Gila City. Five Star, hardcover, 2003. Leisure, paperback; 1st printing, September 2004. A fix-up novel comprised of six stories reprinted from the western pulp magazines; details below.

   To call it a novel is, truthfully, an exaggeration. What this book actually consists of is a series of connected but individual stories from the pulps, each with its own definitive ending. What’s more than a bit strange about this is that the stories did not all come from the same magazine. Chronologically, and in the same orderas they appear in this book, they jumped from title to title, as follows:

        “Mail for Freedom Hill” Dime Western, November 1946.
        “Pilgrim for Boothill’s Glory Hole” Star Western, February 1947.
        “Dandy Bob’s Cold-Deck Cattle Deal” Dime Western, April 1947.
        “The Joke in Hell’s Backyard” Dime Western, July 1947.
        “Gila’s Four-Rod Justice” New Western, December 1947.
        “Duggan Trouble at Salada Wash” Dime Western, March 1948.

   All of the stories take place in the small western town of Gila City, Arizona. It’s within a day’s ride of Tucson, if that helps you place it geographically. Some of the same townspeople appear now and then, as needed, but the villains generally come and go within the time and space of a single story. (More often than not they don’t even survive to the end of the story.)

   The two primary protagonists, on the other hand, are the same throughout: First and foremost, Dandy Bob Roberts, local gambler and sharply dressed gent of sharper than average wit. He is also not averse to doing a little cattle rustling on the side. His natural-born tendency toward illicit ventures always seem to turn around on him, though, often making a small town hero of him. His stature in town seems somehow to keep rising, mostly because of the interference of Old Man Duggan, town drunk, stable hostler and teller of tall tales, and a constant pain in the behind to Dandy Bob.

   For example: When a dude from the East (or pilgrim, as he’s referred to here) happens to come to town looking for a mine to buy, Bob decides to salt the Widow Fennessy’s holdings. Old Man Duggan, having the same idea, unknowingly manages to switch Bob’s high grade ore back to a bag of useless rock. It all works out in the end, though. An inadvertent explosion in the mine exposes a new vein of gold, starting the Widow Fennessy into thinking a lot more favorably of Old Man Duggan as suitable marriage material.

   Which is more plot detail than I’d usually provide, but it should give you the general gist of these gently humorous stories, along with the not idly stated fact that they are gently humorous. Dandy Bob in one story actually becomes the owner of the saloon he’s been plying his trade in all these years, and in another tale Old Man Duggan somehow manages to get himself elected Justice of the Peace, but alas neither position or status is permanent.

   Totally ephemeral, in other words, but also a more than adequate way to spend one’s time while flying cross country on an airplane.

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