Stories I’m Reading


DOROTHY B. HUGHES “The Homecoming.” Short story. First published in Murder Cavalcade (Duell Sloane & Pearce, 1946, the first MWA Anthology). Reprinted in Rex Stout’s Mystery Monthly #9, 1947, and Verdict, July 1953. Also reprinted in Best American Noir of the Century, edited by James Ellroy & Otto Penzler (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010).

   There isn’t a lot that’s new in this chilling short story of a jilted lover’s leap into madness and revenge. When “Hero Jim” comes home from the war as just that, while stay-at-home Benny’s contribution to the war effort was limited to working in his home town’s recruiting center, it’s no wonder that the latter feels the way he does when Nan takes up with Jim again.

   No, it’s the telling that will this tale stuck in your head for a while. Hughes’s prose is both poetic and incisive. The reader knows exactly what is going to happen and can’t look away. An ordinary writer whose talent was confined to the level of the pulp magazines at the time simply wouldn’t have been up to the challenge. Dorothy B. Hughes simply nails it in “The Homecoming,” a small noirish gem of a tale.

   And one quite worthy of an author whose novel-length work was responsible for movies such as The Fallen Sparrow (1943), In a Lonely Place (1950), and Ride the Pink Horse (1947), each one an absolute classic of the film noir genre.

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”?

FREDRIC BROWN “Before She Kills.” Novelette. Ed & Am Hunter. First published in Ed McBain’s Mystery Book #3, 1961. Collected in Before She Kills (Dennis McMillan, 1984).
Reprinted in The Mammoth Book of Private Eye Stories, edited by Bill Pronzini and Martin H. Greenberg (Carrol & Graf, 1988).

   Ed and Am Hunter are a rather unique uncle-nephew private eye team based in Chicago. “Am” is short for Ambrose, who is the uncle. Ed is the one who tells their stories; at least he is for this one. According to the cover of the magazine where this one first appears, this is their first case that appeared in novelette form. There were six novels before this one, then followed by another novelette and one final novel.

   In “Before She Kills” they’re hired by a man who suspects that his wife plans to kill him. To that end Ed poses as the man’s semi-estranged half brother whom his wife has never met. The woman is a former strip-tease dancer who once married has decided that sex is something she never wants to do again. To that particular end, their client has found another woman to love and to love him. Secretly they have a young son together.

   There’s nothing here that’s terribly exciting. There’s certainly no mean streets to go down. What there are, though, are a lot of ways the story could go from here, and Fred Brown does with it what he always seems to do: find yet another way for the story to end – one that’s not quite expected but one that’s quietly quite pleasing all  around. As mentioned earlier, there’s nothing really outstanding about this particular tale, but it’s a good one.

MacKINLEY KANTOR “Gun Crazy.” Short story. First published in The Saturday Evening Post, February 3, 1940. Collected in Author’s Choice (Coward McCann, 1944). Reprinted in Best American Noir of the Century, edited by James Ellroy & Otto Penzler (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010). Film: United Artists, 1950, with Peggy Cummins & John Dall; directed by Joseph H. Lewis.

   Every fan of film noir, even if they’ve haven’t managed to see the movie based on this short story by Pulitzer Prize winning novelist MacKinley Kantor, is certainly well aware of it. Not many films of its genre have, after all, been selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress. The short story itself? Not so many have even heard of it.

   The story follows its main protagonist, Nelson Tare, from the time he and his family move into the small town of Elm City. He was very young at the time, still talking baby talk. When the narrator of the story, about the same age as Nelly at the time, asks him if he wants to play, his answer is “Dot any duns?”

   Translation: “Have you got any guns?”

   The young kid is obsessed with guns, all through life. The story veers from the movie — or maybe that should be the other way around — in that in the movie both he and his female partner in robbing banks and other crimes (sharpshooting Antoinette McReady, aka Ruth Riley in the story) are the primary focus of the film, while in MacKinley Kantor’s version, her role is restricted to just over a couple of pages.

   That doesn’t stop the story from being one of the darker tales I can imagine ever published in the family-oriented Saturday Evening Post. You can’t read this one without sitting on the edge of your seat the entire time it takes to read it. I always thought that was an overused cliché, but this is one time I found it to be true.

FREDRIC BROWN. “Murder Set to Music.” Novella. First published in The Saint Detective Magazine, January 1957, as “Murder to Music.” Reprinted in The Saint Mystery Library #3, paperback original, 1959, edited by Leslie Charteris.

   Two jazz musicians have been friends and played in the same bands since it seems forever. Not even the fact that one married the girl that both were in love with has affected that friendship. Now that they’re partners in a car dealership, and their days on the road are behind them, they only occasionally think of those days.

   Not until the leader of one of the bands comes to town with his new group is either one of them tempted to take their instruments out of their cases. Ralph, the unmarried one, tells the story from there, pretty much starting when Danny, the married one, opens the door to his apartment and is slugged in the face by a short stocky man wearing a mask.

   There is a long stretch of the story in which nothing much seems to be happening. The story is lengthy, over 50 pages long in its paperback version, but Fred Brown was such a good writer, the reader is pulled along in the flow of the tale he tells. And you just know that a Fred Brown story is going to have a Fred Brown ending. Or does it? Is the lack of a Fred Brown ending the Fred Brown ending?? I’ll never tell.

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.

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