Stories I’m Reading


VICTOR ROUSSEAU “Bat Man.” First published in Spicy Mystery Stories, February 1936, as by Lew Merrill. Reprinted in Pulp Review #5, July 1992. edited by John Gunnison, and in The Best of Spicy Mystery, Volume 1, edited by Alfred Jan (Altus Press, trade paperback, 2012).

   In spite of what you might have thought when you first saw the title of this story, it has nothing to do with character who came along later for DC Comics. No, the narrator of this creepy little story is a fellow named John Charters who wakes up from an operation to find himself with his mind intact but he himself trapped inside the body of a bat.

   The way he works it out is that the doctor who did he deed is also in love with Alice, the love of Charters’ life, and this is he doctor’s cruel way of eliminating the competition.

   What makes this such a creepy story is when Charters manages to escape the hospital his mate (a female bat) finds him, leads him back the cave where other bats are staying during the day, he finds a space waiting for him, squeezed among the others, furry bodies all around, and hanging from the ceiling head downward. As he has a damaged wing, his mate also brings him insects to feed him at night.

   Reading this story is like having a very very bad dream, and it does not get a lot easier to read as Charters soon finds what other instinctive thirsts he has. Since this story was published in one of the Spicy stable of pulp magazines, it should not surprise you if I were to say it involves flying into bedrooms of well-endowed young ladies as they sleep at night.

   Should I tell you it all comes out? No, I don’t believe I will. What I will do is point out that not only did I find this a cut above your average spooky pulp story, but I’m not the only one. As you’ll see from the notes at the top of this review, it’s been reprinted at least two times by others.

  JAMES REASONER “War Games.” Novelette. Markham #5. First published in Mike Shayne Mystery Magazine, April 1982. Kindle reprint, 2013.

   The lead story in the same issue of Mike Shayne Mystery Magazine was a Mike Shayne novelette by Brett Halliday entitled “Deadly Queen,” which is of note especially because it just so happens that was ghostwritten by the same James Reasoner who wrote “War Games.” Between the two stories almost half of the magazine was work by James, one of a very few authors producing the same wordage today of the most prolific pulp writers of the 1920s and 30s. Over a million words a year? That’s a lot of typing!

   “War Games” the last of five stories he wrote about a PI by the name of Markham (not related to the TV detective of the same name). In it he’s called in by the head of a military academy for teenaged boys to find out who left him a threatening note in his desk in his office.

   There are a number of suspects. Colonel Rutledge is the sort of hard-nosed former military officer who runs a tight ship, to say the least. The most obvious suspects are a couple of boys, one of whom he expelled, the other a boy from own he is friends with, and an English instructor who was dressed down publicly for using the book Catch 22 in class.

   The colonel does not mention his granddaughter, who lives on the grounds, but Markham quickly adds her to his own list, as not surprisingly, she is, shall we say, the rebellious type. The story proceeds from here, and it’s a good one.

   The story is too short to learn much about Markham as a person, except that he’s the kind of person who, when he accepts a job, makes sure he finishes it. I was reminded more of Philip Marlowe than I was Sam Spade, say, if you’d like a couple of other PI’s to to compare him to. Even so, more than Marlowe, Markham is a guy I’d like to sit down and have a beer someday, if ever I could.

   And this is the kind of story that makes you wish there were more than just the five. The good news is that three of them are already available as Kindle ebooks, as indicated by a (*) below. What I’d really like to see, though, is a print collection of all five. Back issues of Mike Shayne magazines have become awfully hard to find in the wild, and that issue of Skullduggery? Impossible.


       The Markham series —

All the Way Home. Mike Shayne Mystery Magazine, April 1979
Death and the Dancing Shadows. Mike Shayne Mystery Magazine March 1980 (*)

             

The Man in the Moon. Mike Shayne Mystery Magazine, April 1980 (*)
The Double Edge. Skullduggery, Summer 1981
War Games. Mike Shayne Mystery Magazine, April 1982 (*)

SELECTED BY DAVID VINEYARD:


H. BEDFORD-JONES “The Case of the Kidnaped (sic) Duchess.” Novelette. John Solomon. First published in Argosy, 05 January 1935.

   “The worst kind of a job sir. One that you and me might swing together and ’elp out the most beautiful woman in Europe, Mr. Carson. But it’s a werry dangerous business, sir. That ’ere Duchess o’ Furstein is in a werry bad ’ole and if we give ’er a ’and it means risking our necks.”

   That’s the voice of John Solomon, ship’s chandler, mysterious millionaire, operator of one of the best private espionage operations in the World, the short, stout (think Edmund Gwenn as Santa but minus the beard) Cockney adventurer who first appeared under the by-line Allan Hawkwood, but who, by 1935, was appearing under Bedford-Jones’ own name and commanding the cover of Argosy with the little Cockney’s adventurers.

   This one is a mystery novelette that begins in foggy London where engineer Carson, an American, and one of a long line of engineers, grocers, doctors, and the like to act as assistant to Solomon’s myriad schemes in all ports of call, has received an urgent message to join him before they sail that night for Europe to assist the Duchess o’ Furstein.

   If this sounds all very Holmesian, keep in mind Bedford-Jones also wrote a Holmes pastiche so successfully it passed for a lost Conan Doyle story among some scholars.

   But our guide here is Solomon, not Holmes, though he is just as high-handed, clever, and dangerous to know as the Baker Street sleuth, if less cerebral and more given to flashing guns.

   Carson has hardly arrived at the tobacconists where he’s been summoned when Solomon rushes by, drops a wallet, which he commands Carson to hide, and seconds later is in the hands of a constable accused of picking the pocket of a ’toff, soon to have Carson “up to his neck in emeralds, Sicilian palaces…” as the wallet belongs to Sir Basil Lohancs, who has already kidnapped the duchess, and is delivering her to London on his yacht that werry, I mean very, evening.

   Baghdad on the Thames was never more so. Heady stuff in the pulp era.

   The Duchess has been using her wealth, estates, and is threatening to use her fabulous emeralds, to continue social work in Palermo. Lohanc’s can’t have that. The result as Solomon says is that the Duchess is in “a werry bad fix, as the old gent said when ’e buried ’is third wife.” Lohanc is a bad one “Money, brains and nor scruples whatever, sir. What ’e goes after ’e gets, that’s ’is boast,”and later, “Murder don’t mean nothing to ’im.”

   Scotland Yard and the French police have been fooled, and now the Duchess’s only hope is Solomon and Carson, boarding a yacht full of kidnappers and potential murderers to make a rescue on the fog bound docks with the information her loyal Sicilian maid died getting to them. Without getting all Sax Rohmer on us, Bedford-Jones evokes Limehouse and its environs and a sense of romance built out of the reality and not vague menace and shadows. His Limehouse is that of Thomas Burke and Arthur Morrison.

   Solomon gives Carson an automatic and instructions to get on the yacht while it works its way up the Thames to London, an impossible job. “There ain’t nothing impossible, sir, if so be you ’as a ’ead,” Solomon advises and he proves right, Carson getting on board and making contact with the Countess. Now what ever happens depends on Solomon and his plans, and as always Solomon’s plans are played close to the vest, Carson is captured and drugged by Lohanc and Dr. Vecchhi the murderous doctor in his pay.

   Meanwhile the usual close calls, disasters, and last minute rescues follow until the last possible moment when Solomon plays his last card, the love of a Sicilian whose wife died to protect her mistress.

   If it strikes you that with a little bit of tweaking here and there, this might well be the outline for a thriller by John Buchan, or later Victor Canning, you aren’t far off.

   It’s no great mystery, but as action adventure goes, it’s splendidly told, replete with villains who deserve their just rewards, noble heroes and heroines, and always, the presence of John Solomon, one of the great captains of pulp fiction, part adventurer, part avenger, and always righter of wrongs, cherry cheeked and wispy haired man about adventure. There is nothing quite like him or his kin in most modern fiction today.

   For anyone interested you can download or read this at Internet Archive under their Pulp Collection. The issue also includes a dog story by Albert Peyson Terhune and serial chapters by F. Van Wyck Mason, Theodore Roscoe, and Fred MacIsaac, a pretty good issue.

J. LANE LINKLATER “Mystery of the Mexicali Murders.” PI Alan Rake. First published in 10-Story Detective, January 1941. Reprinted in The Noir Mystery Megapack (Wildside Press, Kindle edition, 2016).

   Although the author of several hundred stories for the pulp fiction magazines, J. Lane Linklater, the pen name of Alexander William Watkins (1892-1971), certainly qualifies as an unknown author today.

   He did write seven hardcover mystery novels, all with a private eye character named Silas Booth. I’ve always meant to read one, but for some fault of my own, I never have.

   One series he wrote for Detective Fiction Weekly had lawyer Hugo Oakes as the leading character, and Monte Herridge wrote about him earlier on this blog here.

   He had few other recurring characters in the stories he wrote for the pulp magazines, but as far as I know, “Mystery of the Mexicali Murders” is the only appearance of private eye Alan Drake, a fellow who reminds me a bit about a fellow who Dashiell Hammett often wrote about.

   Here is the first paragraph of the story:

   The small plane from the north circled and came down. It had one passenger, an undersized, stocky man in whose volatile, fleshy face was explosive energy. His perspiring cheeks glistened in the light from the airport office as he walked toward it. He carried one very battered handbag. Billions of stars glared down at him from the sky over the great Imperial Desert.

   This is, of course, Alan Rake. He is here in the area along the border between California and Mexico after receiving an urgent telegram from the head of a big fruit shipping outfit, but when the man is shot dead in front of him when he first meets him, he decides to stay on the case and see if there’s some way he can still get paid the $5000 that was promised him.

   The case is a complicated one, with lots of suspects and a setting that is over 100 degrees during the day and not much better at night. One girl in particular, a young spitfire with flashing eyes named Edna, catches his attention.

   But more than the characters, and who it was who killed Warnbecker, takes second place to the setting, a cantaloupe-growing area that Linklater must have known well to describe it in as much depth as he does, including its vast underbelly of criminal activity. Rake mixes in well, seeing and observing, and quite remarkably, thinking too.

   Linklater was no Hammett — I should make that totally clear — but a better editor could have helped make the ending a lot tighter, and if so, this might be the small gem of a story that it almost is.

R. DJÈLÍ CLARK “A Dead Djinn in Cairo.” Novella. Special Investigator Fatma el-Sha’arawi #1. First published online by Tor.com. Also available in Kindle format, May 2016.

   In an alternate history version of Egypt, circa 1912, Fatma el-Sha’arawi, a special investigator with the Egyptian Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments, and Supernatural Entities has a problem to solve: who, or what, killed the djinn, twice as tall as a human with aquamarine scales, whom the authorities have found lifeless and drained of blood in his apartment.

   The first thought is that he has been killed by the ghuls that have been infesting the city, but if that were the case, they would never have left his body behind. A closer look suggests that he committed suicide, but since djinns are nearly immortal, the question as to why has no answer.

   Fatima’s world is now a strange steampunk conglomerate of exotic Cairo and demons from another plane of existence. It seems that forty years ago, a mystic by the name of al-Jahiz bore a hole to the Kaf, another-realm of magic, allowing not only the djinns and ghuls to cross over, but angels (of some variety) as well, perhaps better described by the following paragraph:

   Fatma sat back in a red-cushioned seat as the automated wheeled carriage plowed along the narrow streets. Most of Cairo slept, except for the glow of a gaslight market or the pinprick lights of towering mooring masts where airships came and went by the hour. Her fingers played with her cane’s lion-headed pommel, watching aerial trams that moved high above the city, crackling electricity illuminating the night along their lines.

   There are flying machines, mechanical beings, and a clockwork threat to Fatima’s entire world, but with a kickass female priestess’s assistant named Siti, worldwide catastrophe is narrowly averted at nearly the last instant.

   I apologize for giving the ending away, in a very general sense, but it’s the telling that’s the more important here. This is a world of enchantment that Fatima lives in, one that is fascinating to visit but you really wouldn’t want to visit there:

   The Clock of Worlds stood here she has last seen it — a towering contraption of plates and wheels. Only now they moved with harmonious ticks or precision, and the numerals on those large plates glowed bright. A deep blue liquid had been poured around the machine. The djinn’s missing blood, she presumed. In an larger circle sat the bodies of ghuls in a pile of twisted limbs. Their heads had been removed and their stomachs slit to reveal the devoured flesh of an angel…

   There is a definition of the word “enchantment” that describes what’s happening here, isn’t there?

PAUL BISHOP “Bandit Territory.” PI Blue MacKenzie. Novelette. First published in Paul Bishop Presents… Bandit Territory: Ten Tales of Murder & Mayhem, edited by Paul Bishop (Wolfpack Publishing, paperback, 2019).

   What I cannot tell you, first of all, is whether or not this is Blue MacKenzie’s first appearance in print, or if it so happens that it is, whether there are or will be future cases for him to tackle.

   Blue may be the first fictional PI to also be a bodybuilder, as well as a Vietnam veteran and a former CIA agent. Now at a formidable 275 pounds of pure muscle, he certainly isn’t the kind of guy I’d care to have been hired to track me down.

   In “Bandit Territory,” the lead story in the anthology edited by Bishop with the same name, he’s been hired by a music producer to find his number one client, a singer by the name of Charity Ross. Her latest CD is almost ready to released, but she’s disappeared and is now completely out of sight.

   The trail leads Blue to a defunct bodybuilding outfit being investigated for fraud by the FDA. While the connection is not clear, the owner has disappeared the same night as Charity. No coincidence that.

   Paul Bishop, the author and a 25 year veteran of the LAPD, has also written a number of full length crime novels, and his smooth, easy style of telling a tale, even short ones, goes down well, with an every so often knack of coming up with an especially pungent observation or clever choice of phrasing. If there are other stories about Blue MacKenzie, I’d definitely like to know about them.

JOHN L. FRENCH “Message in the Sand.” PI Matthew Grace. First published in the collection Past Sins: The Matthew Grace Casebook (Padwolf Publishing , paperback, March 2009).

   The collection Past Sins that includes this story contains 17 stories about Matthew Grace, but in how many of them he’s working as a PI, I do not know. In the first few I skimmed through, he’s a crime scene investigator for the Baltimore police department.

   Since that the job that the author also has had for many years, I’m sure the details are right, and that’s the expertise that carries over to the cases that Grace is involved in when he starts his new career as a PI.

   This one begins with the discovery of the arm (only) of a notorious gangster buried in the sand along a stretch of the Maryland shoreline. That has nothing to do with the case that Grace is hired to work on, that of a missing daughter working a summer job in the same area before heading off to college in the fall. Or does it, as you may very well ask.

   It’s by the numbers from this point on, but sometimes the numbers add up to a very good story, and that’s what we have here, one on the grittier side. Grace has the right connections to do the job well, and is more than tough enough when the going gets a little rough. You can’t ask for much more from PI story, can you?

C. L. MOORE “Shambleau.” Novelette. Northwest Smith #1. First published in Weird tales, November 1833, First reprinted in Avon Fantasy Reader #7, edited by Donald A. Wollheim (Avon, softcover, 1948). First collected in Shambleau and Others (Gnome Press, hardcover, 1953).

   It begins as a well-constructed space opera should, taking some place in the future, but somehow ineffably combined with the legends of the past:

   MAN HAS CONQUERED Space before. You may be sure of that. Somewhere beyond the Egyptians, in that dimness out of which come echoes of half -mythical names — Atlantis, Mu — somewhere back of history’s first beginnings there must have been an age when mankind, like us today, built cities of steel to house its star-roving ships and knew the names of the planets in their own native tongues — heard Venus’ people call their wet world “Sha-ardol” in that soft, sweet, slurring speech and mimicked Mars’ guttural “Lakkdiz” from the harsh tongues of Mars’ dryland dwellers. You may be sure of it. Man has conquered Space before, and out of that conquest faint, faint echoes run still through a world that has forgotten the very fact of a civilization which must have been as mighty as our own.

   The story than continues with Northwest Smith rescuing a strange female but still alien creature from a mob intent on destroying her. Once they are both safe, Smith sees her in the passage that hints at even more eroticism to come. This would have been heady stuff back in 1933.

   She had risen soundlessly. He turned to face her, sheathing his gun and stared at first with curiosity and then in the entirely frank openness with which men regard that which is not wholly human. For she was not. He knew it at a glance, though the brown, sweet body was shaped like a woman’s and she wore the garment of scarlet — he saw it was leather — with an ease that few unhuman beings achieve toward clothing. He knew it from the moment he looked into her eyes, and a shiver of unrest went over him as he met them. They were frankly green as young grass, with slit-like, feline pupils that pulsed unceasingly, and there was a look of dark, animal wisdom in their depths — that look of the beast which sees more than man.

   The attraction between Smith and the Shambleau (for that is who she is) continues, until two nights later, as they share living (and sleeping) space, straight from pages of H. P. Lovecraft:

   She unfastened the last fold and whipped the turban off. From what he saw then Smith would have turned his eyes away— and he had looked on dreadful things before, without flinching — but he could not stir. He could only lie there on his elbow staring at the mass of scarlet, squirming — worms, hairs, what? — that writhed over her head in a dreadful mockery of ringlets. And it was lengthening, falling, somehow growing before his eyes, down over her shoulders in a spilling cascade, a mass that even at the beginning could never have been hidden under the skull-tight turban she had worn.

   He was beyond wondering, but he realized that. And still it squirmed and lengthened and fell, and she shook it out in a horrible travesty of a woman shaking out her unbound hair — until the unspeakable tangle of it — twisting, writhing, obscenely scarlet — hung to her waist and beyond, and still lengthened, an endless mass of crawling horror that until now, somehow, impossibly, had been hidden under the tight-bound turban. It was like a nest of blind, restless red worms … it was — it was like naked entrails endowed with an unnatural aliveness, terrible beyond words.

   Smith lay in the shadows, frozen without and within in a sick numbness that came of utter shock and revulsion.

   What comes next I leave to your imagination. But read it yourself, you should. You’ll never forget it. It is difficult to believe that this was C. L. Moore’s first published story. I do not know how long it took SF fans of the day to learn that “C. L.” stood for “Catherine Lucille,” nor what their reaction was wen they did, but I am indeed curious.

BRYNN BONNER “Jangle.” Novelette. Session Seabolt #1. First appeared in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, May 2007.

   Many of you, and I’m willing to wage a majority of you, are collectors of one thing or another: books, magazines, records, DVDs, comic books, Lego sets, Star Wars toys, whatever. And even if you’re not, I think you can identify with those of us who do haunt library sales, old used book and record stores, tag sales (garage sales, perhaps, where you live), hoping that the next place you visit will be The One.

   Such is the case in this short tale. Session Seabolt is the owner of a used record store, and when she’s not in the shop, she loves to go browsing all of the garage sales in the area:

   But now in the gray light inside the garage I stood frozen — awestruck by what I was holding in my hand. The noxious smells of used motor oil, insecticides, and mildew flooded my nostrils and I willed myself not to hyperventilate.

      […]

   My hands shook as I tucked the album into the middle of the stack I had set aside and hugged them to my chest, hoping nobody had noticed my reaction.

      […]

   I nodded and stretched the smile wider, feeling a snake of guilt slithering up my spine. The man had no clue what he had.

   It’s happened to me. I know the feeling. The author (not her real name) has nailed it perfectly.

   What Session has found is almost irrelevant at this point, but since I’m sure you’d like to know — I know I was, and Ms Bonner puts off telling us for as long as she can. An early pressing of Bob Dylan’s first LP, the one containing several tracks that didn’t appear on the version finally released to the public. Some of the early ones did get into circulation, and they’re worth thousands of dollars.

   To assuage her guilt, Session also takes an old stereo set, complete with turntable and speakers. I might have done the same.

   The rest of the story is not nearly as good as the beginning — it gets a little too complicated, and I don’t think I need to go into it. Well, here’s a hint: it has more to do with the other stuff she bought than the Dylan LP. I’ve told all there is to know about the really good part.

      —

PostScript:   According the introductory notes, this was to be the first of series. It was, but the second known Session Seabolt story didn’t come along until “Final Vinyl,” which appeared in the Sept-Oct 2012 issue of EQMM.

CARROLL JOHN DALY “The Egyptian Lure.” Novelette. Race Williams #18. First published in Black Mask, March 1928. Reprinted in The Snarl of the Beast: The Collected Hard-Boiled Stories of Race Williams, Volume 2 (Altus Press, 2016).

   Race Williams doesn’t call himself a Private Eye. He’d rather be thought of as a Confidential Agent, and in fact that’s what it says in the lettering clients see on his office door. By the time this story appeared, Williams was already a long-time fixture at Black Mask magazine. Readers had been enjoying — and heartily approving — his adventures since the first June issue of 1923.

   In “The Egyptian Lane” he’s, well, lured to the dive / strip joint of the same name by an envelope stuffed with money, with no name attached to the brief note accompanying it. It’s a tawdry joint — the owner of the joint is a Greek by the name of Nick — and it takes Williams a short while to track down the beautiful dancing girl who once lived in a convent but who is now his new client.

   He takes her under his wing, but thanks to a clever ruse of the men who are after her, he loses her again. Calling himself a dunderhead, there’s no way in hell the thugs who’ve abducted her can escape his wrath. Nor do they! The hunt the follows, urged on by his anger and consuming desire for vengeance, is what readers of Black Mask were waiting for, and that’s exactly what they got.

   And so did I. Race Williams is correct is not thinking of himself as any kind of “detective.” His methods are crude but effective, and a gun is his constant companion. The story is well told, the settings (from the dirty streets of Manhattan to the barren wastes of New Jersey) are well described, and the pace? It never lets up.

Next Page »