Stories I’m Reading


ERIC TAYLOR “Kali.” Short story. First published in All Star Detective Stories, November 1929. No cover image available. Reprinted in The First Mystery Megapack (Wildside Press, ebook, April 2011).

   As a detective pulp, All Star Detective was not in top tier of those being published at the same time, but it did last for some 26 issues between October 1929 and June 1932. Most of the authors they published were unknowns even then, but the list does contain a few whose names are still recognizable today, such as Leslie Charteris, Erle Stanley Gardner, T. T. Flynn, and Johnston McCulley.

   You can let me know if you disagree, but Eric Taylor, is not likely to be one of them. He did write several dozen stories for the detective pulps between 1927 and 1937. Even before that, he began his career with a handful of stories in 1926 for Droll Stories and others in that particular category. Starting in 1937 or so, he switched gears and began writing for Hollywood, churning out scripts for many of the Ellery Queen movies, plus the Crime Doctor and The Whistler films, Universal’s monster movies and so on. He died in 1952.

   The story “Kali” is, however, does not add a lot of weight to his resumé. How the folks at Wildside Press happened to choose this one for one their many collections of old genre stories I do not know. It’s the story of a young guy named Roy who loves a girl named Margaret who is trapped into living in a well-fortified prison of a house with her guardian “aunt” and he new husband, a mysterious Bengali by the name of Ishan Dan Bahaji.

   Margaret will not receive her inheritance if she marries without her aunt’s permission before she is 23, and the Bengali’s influence over the aunt means that that will never happen. Worse, strange things are going on the house, and Roy’s attempts to break in and learn what they might be always end in fierce battles — and sudden deaths — with a small cadde of loyal servants.

   The writing is crude, true, but it also has a lot of momentum. Back in 1929, the secret that lives behind the barred door of the house would have been not only plausible but also something fearfully terrible. Not quite so much today — the title of the tale may give you a bit of a clue — but I have admit that the drive behind the tale is still there.

  RICHARD DEMING “The Art of Deduction.” Short story. Albert Shelton #1. First published in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, June 1973. Reprinted in Alfred Hitchcock’s Tales to Make You Weak in the Knees (Dial Press, 1981) and Alfred Hitchcock’s Anthology #10, paperback, 1982. Collected in The Richard Deming Mystery Megapack (Wildside Press, ebook, 2015).

   Albert Shelton wouldn’t call himself a private eye, exactly. He’d rather say “confidential investigator,” and to prove his skills in a meaningful way, he tries out his detective abilities on the attractive girl sitting on the seat next to him on a plane from LA to Buffalo, where his first job is waiting for him.

   And she seems impressed. Encouraged by this, he sees two men sitting next to each other toward the back of the plane, each handcuffed to the other. When one slumps over, the victim of a medical emergency, he offers his help, which is gladly accepted.

   At which point, things begin to not go as well as he planned. I’ll let our imagination take over, and if I know you as well as I think I do, I have a feeling that you know where this going, but Deming may still have some tricks up his sleeve that you might not be expecting.

   It all works out well in the end, though, and if Albert Shelton never had a followup case, which I don’t believe he did, that’s OK, too. He’ll never forget this one.

MURRAY LEINSTER “The Sentimentalists.” Novelette. First published in Galaxy SF, April 1953. Reprinted in Year’s Best Science Fiction Novels: 1954, edited by Everett F. Bleiler & T. E. Dikty (Frederick Fell, hardcover. 1954).

   Read at this late date, some 65 years later (!!), this definitely falls into the category of traditional (old fashioned) science fiction. I don’t think it could be published today, but to anyone my age or so (plus or minus 10 years), it’s a delightful look back at our not hardly misspent youth.

   Two space-faring aliens, evidently male and female — though who could tell with all those tentacles and eye stalks — are taking a honeymoon across the galaxy, when the male (Rhadanpsicus) decides to stop at one of the outer planets of the system Cetus Gamma, where a disaster involving the local sun is scheduled to take place. The female (Nodalictha) amuses herself by watching the inhabitants of one of the inner planets and unaccountably finds herself fascinated by them.

   It seems that one of the colonists is having problems with his farm, and if his crops don’t come in, he will be forced to call it quits and work for the crooked company who had loaned him the money to begin with. At the end of his rope, he suddenly finds himself flooded with ideas for new inventions that will solve all of his problems. Nodalictha has interceded on his behalf, persuading Rhadanpsicus to help him. (Thank goodness for copy and paste.)

   And so Lon is able at last to marry Cathy.

   There’s no deep message here, as you have probably already guessed. But I for one do not always need messages, and perhaps you sometimes feel that way, too.

Selected by LJ ROBERTS:

PAUL DOIRON “Backtrack.” Short story. Charley Stevens. Minotaur Books, ebook, June 2019. [See also Comment #3.]

First Sentence: There were four doctors staying at the hunting camp.

   Game warden Charley Stevens is called to the winter hunting camp in Maine where four doctors from Massachusetts are staying. However, one of them is missing. It’s up to Charley to find the missing man.

   The first thing to know is that this story does not feature game warden Mike Bowditch, but focuses on Charley Stevens, who had been Mike’s mentor. The story is also told, very effectively, in retrospect.

   A well-done short story truly is a work of art. Such is the case here. With a nicely done twist, Doiron takes the reader from suspense to something unexpected and poses an excellent question while dealing with the subject of regret.

   The thing with a short story is that one can’t say too much for fear of including a spoiler. What one can say is how much this story may make one think and question what one would do in the same situation. It may also make one want to read much more of Doiron’s work. The good news is that there is an impressive backlist.

   “Backtrack” is a perfect title for this excellent e-short. It really does take great skill to write a story this short which is this impactful.

Rating: Excellent.

CLARK HOWARD “Blues in the Kabul Night.” Novelette. First published in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine September/October 2007. Not known to have been reprinted or collected anywhere.

   Over the course of his writing career, Clark Howard may have written over 200 short stories, not all of them criminous in nature, plus a couple dozen crime novels and collections. This does not include an unspecified number of works of true crime the editor of EQMM mentions in her introduction to this tale.

   Howard hardly ever used a character more than once, and “Blues in the Kabul Night” is no exception. When mercenary for hire Morgan Tenny smuggles himself into war-ravaged Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan, it is for a specific reason. His twin brother is in a high security prison there and scheduled for execution soon, unless Morgan can do something about it.

   Which he thinks he can. Not only does he have a plan, but he also has a local contact. And even more, he has a million dollars in cash to help pave the way. Complicating matters, though, since of course plans like this never run smoothly, is a news reporter, a local Afghani girl who has ambitions of her own: to be the next Christiane Amanpour, and when she gets wind of Morgan’s plans, she doesn’t let go.

   Not only does Clark Howard notch up the suspense extremely well — this is essentially a heist novel in miniature — but the sights of sounds (and smells) of Kabul today (or to be precise, twelve years ago, but have things changed all that much?) are vividly brought to life. A polished gem of a story, and very very well done.

EDWARD M. LERNER “Time Out.” Novella. First published in Analog SF, January-February 2013. Collected in revised and retitled form as the title story of A Time Foreclosed (FoxAcre Press, trade paperback, June 2013). Included in The Time Travel Megapack: 26 Modern and Classic Science Fiction Stories, edited by John Gregory Betancourt (Wildside Press, ebook, 2013).

   As it so happens, I might not have posted this review here if not for one fact, and I couldn’t help but tell you about it. This is the first story I’ve read on my new Kindle. Well, it’s not exactly new, being as it is a hand-me-up from my daughter who’s gotten herself a newer, more up to date model. We had some problems getting it registered to me, but once logged in, I’ve managed to get around well enough to chalk up a Number One.

   And the only thing better than a locked room mystery would have been a time-travel science fiction story, which obviously this is, and it’s a good one. When an out-of-work bank official, now an ex-convict due to one flaw — being too trusting — gets a job as a handyman to a not quite a mad scientist (he himself says he’s only peeved), he has no idea what it is that he’s getting into.

   As our hero gains more and more of his new boss’s confidence, he’s allowed to know more or more about what he’s helping to build. Two guesses, and the second one doesn’t count. In some detail, small incremental steps at a time, they’re building a means to change the world for the better.

   If, of course, they don’t wipe out their world’s entire timeline in the process. The time paradoxes they encounter had my head spinning, such as getting the money to finance their project by being sent financial tips from the future. Until, that is, some of tips turn out to be wrong.

   You can tell that Lerner really had to work hard to make sure this story as coherent as it is, and I still don’t think he did. On the other had, nobody could. The whole tale is impossible to have happened. Unless, of course, it already has. Who would know?

BILL PRONZINI & MICHAEL J. KURLAND “Vanishing Act.” Short story. Christopher Steele #2. First published in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, January 1976. Collected in Stacked Deck (Pulphouse Publishing: Author’s Choice Monthly #2, paperback, November 1991). Reprinted in Tantalizing Locked Room Mysteries, edited by Isaac Asimov, Charles G. Waugh, & Martin Harry Greenberg (Walker & Co. hardcover, 1982).

   Christopher Steele is a working magician who solved one earlier case “Quicker Than the Eye,” a novelette which appeared a few months earlier, also in AHMM, but back in the September 1975 issue. In his preface to Stacked Deck, Pronzini calls both stories “impossible crimes,” which is quite correct, a small genre of detective stories that easily include every true locked room mystery as an even smaller subset.

   In “Vanishing Act,” a magician performing on stage before Steele is schedules to appear is killed in full view of a large audience including a cadre of freshly minted police cadets. The assailant then dashes off stage into a corridor leading nowhere, but in spite of all efforts, no trace of him can be found.

   The telling of an impossible crime mystery is very much like the creation of a magic trick. The fun in each case is in watching and reading them, but magicians have a huge advantage. They can keep their secrets. Detective story writers can’t. To their credit, Pronzini and Kurland make the solution as interesting as the rest of the story.

   Christopher Steele was intended to be a series character, but as Pronzini also tells us, for some reason it never happened. As far as I’m concerned, that’s really too bad. This one was a joy to read.

MICHAEL Z. LEWIN “Good Intentions.” Short story. Albert Samson & “Wolfgang Mozart” #2. First published in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, November 2012. Collected in Alien Quartet: Albert Samson Stories (iUniverse, paperback, November 2018).

   Albert Samson’s client in this one isn’t really a client, not a paying one, anyway. During Samson’s previous encounter with his, the Shamus award-winning novelette, “Who I Am,” the man called himself LeBron James. In this one, he’s “Wolfgang Mozart,” and who know who he’ll want to be known as in the next two. (See below for a complete list.)

   To tell you the truth, I did not know that author Michael Z. Lewin was still writing about Samson’s adventures. The last Samson novel I read was Called by a Panther, which came out in 1991. I now see that there was another one titled Eye Opener, which was published in 2004, some thirteen years later. I missed that one altogether.

   In any case, when “Wolfgang” comes staggering to Samson’s office door, he collapses on the floor. He has been stabbed four times. By four different knives. In the hospital, though, he does not want the police involved. And for good reason. He’s a kind gentle man who can’t say no, and he’s been operating a batter women’s shelter, unlicensed and totally illegally.

   He also believes — a minor quirk — that his father was an extraterrestrial.

   The Samson books have always been a joy to read, but this one, at least, is laugh out loud funny to read, with the zippiest banter/dialogue I’ve read in a long time. And somewhere along the way, Samson has gained a daughter, and she’s a cop on the Indianapolis police force. I don’t remember her from before, but maybe. Quoting from page 109, after he explains to Nurse Matty who she is:

    “And she’s your daughter?” Matty tilted her head. “Her mother must be very beautiful.”

   I think I enjoyed this story more than any other so far this year. It’s a good detective tale, too.

    —

      The Albert Samson & “Wolfgang Mozart” series —

“Who I Am.” EQMM, December 2011. Shamus Award for best PI Story of 2011
“Good Intentions” EQMM, November 2012.
“Extra Fries.” EQMM, May 2013. Shamus nominee.
“A Question of Fathers.” May 2014.

  POUL ANDERSON “Gibraltar Falls.” Short story. Time Patrol series, First published in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, October 1975. Collected in The Guardians of Time (Tor/Pinnacle, paperback, October 1981) and The Dark Between the Stars (Berkley, paperback, December 1981, among others. Reprinted in As Time Goes By, edited by Hank Davis (Baen, trade paperback, February 2015).

   It is the latter anthology, the one edited by Hank Davis, that I’ve just dipped into, with “Gibraltar Falls” being the very first story. The theme connecting all of the tales chosen for inclusion is that of time travel, perhaps my favorite type of science fiction story, combined with romance — romance that is thwarted by chance, perhaps — two lovers separated by time, or death, or even the wrong thing said at the wrong time, but what if one could only go back and make things right? Change the course of history, if only on a very small and almost insignificance scale in the overall scheme of things.

   Such is everyone’s fantasy, looking back at their lives. What might have been, if only …

   Such is the case in “Gibraltar Falls.” Having gone back in time to the end of the Miocene Era to witness the Mediterranean basin being filled by a enormous waterfall flowing from the Atlantic through the Straits of Gibraltar, two members of he Time Patrol meet disaster. She’s pulled in. He, having never told her how much he is in love with her, is unable to save her.

   Can he go back in time, in spite of rules and regulations preventing him, and save her? [WARNING: PLOT ALERT] It turns out that the answer is yes, and while I think it’s a bit a cheat (no further details), this is a fine story, a small personal tale told against the backdrop of the early days of Earth’s history, in Poul Anderson’s usual larger than life style.

PAUL HALTER “The Yellow Room.” Short story. Dr. Alan Twist. Published in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, July/August 017. Translated from the French by John Pugmire. Collected in The Helm of Hades, paperback, October 2919.

   Paul Halter, as some of you may know, is the present day master of the so-called “locked room” or impossible mystery, Falling closely in the footsteps of John Dickson Carr, Halter has written numerous such mysteries, both as full-length novels and in the short form.

   Since his native language is French, he’s so far reached only a niche market here in the US, but fans of “impossible crimes” are always on the lookout for the next one of his tales to be published here. It’s a small niche, but Halter is filling it well.

   Dr. Alan Twist is probably his best known character, a renown British criminologist whom the police of several countries call upon when they’re stumped by cases that seem to have no solutions. “The Yellow Room” takes place in 1938 near Verdun, France. A man has been stabbed to death by a ceremonial dagger in a small cottage surrounded by several inches of snow in which no footprints can be seen. The local commissionaire of police needs help.

   The solution, which I obviously will not divulge here, is both exceedingly clever and yet very simple, once explained. It is the atmosphere of such a story, written and set up in meticulous detail, that makes the crime seem so impossible.

   Halter may be skimpy on bringing his characters to life, but he has other ends in mind. It’s both the the mystery and the challenge to the reader that he hopes to create, which once again is what he does here, just another notch in his belt. Nicely done.

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