Stories I’m Reading


LOREN D. ESTLEMAN “Robber’s Roost.” Short story. PI Amos Walker. First published in Mystery, April 1982. Collected in General Murders (Houghton Mifflin, hardcover, 1988) and Amos Walker: The Complete Story Collection (Gallery Books, hardcover, 2010).

   This was Amos Walker’s first appearance in short story form. While I have both hardcover collections, I read this one in its original magazine form, at the time when, according to the introduction, Estleman had written only two novels about Walker, his long running Detroit-based PI. (I don’t know whether he’s still active. From the information I have, he last appeared in The Lioness Is the Hunter (2017).

   This one’s a good one, based on the crime-ridden history of Michigan’s largest city. He takes a job from a long-retired cop in a nursing home who wants to find out what really happened to his adopted brother when he died some 50 years before. His car apparently fell through the ice while making a bootlegging run while crossing the river into the US from Canada. He’s positive that Eddie was killed by his boss, a former racketeer now also still alive, and he wants Walker to put him in prison.

   There is, of course, more to the story than that, but finding out what really did happen takes all of Walker’s skills as a detective. The story’s breezily told, maybe just a tad too breezily, but only a curmudgeon would cavil at such a small thing as that. Fans of PI stories who haven’t yet caught up with Amos Walker have a real treat coming.

HENRY KUTTNER “Don’t Look Now.” First published in Startling Stories, March 1948. Reprinted many times, including: My Best Science Fiction Story, edited by Oscar J. Friend & Leo Margulies (Merlin Press, hardcover, 1949); The Great Science Fiction Stories: Volume 10, 1948, edited by Isaac Asimov & Martin H. Greenberg (DAW, paperback, 1983); and Tales from the Spaceport Bar, edited by George H. Scithers & Darrell Schweitzer (Avon, paperback, 1987). Collected in Two-Handed Engine by Henry Kuttner & C. L. Moore (Centipede Press, hardcover, 2005).

   Mos Eisley and the spaceport bar. What a perfect scene. One that thousands of long time science fiction fans had read about and pictured in their minds for years. And there it was, having come to life right before their eyes.

   Bars where spacefarers come to talk, lie and swap yarns. Not all of them human. All kinds and shapes of aliens used Mos Eisley as a stopover point, a place to restock and refuel and catch up on the news. Or in some cases the bar is on Earth, and the conversation is between two men, and the Martians are the beings secretly ruling the world that one of the men is trying to convince the other he can see. Most of the time they are invisible, lurking just out the corner of your eye, but when you can see them, they are easily identified by their third eye. Right in the middle of their foreheads.

   This is a classic story, first published way back in 1948, and if you go looking, over 70 years later, I’m sure you can find a book in print that it’s in, or if not, then in ebook format. In those years after the war, there was a certain uncertainty, if not outright paranoia, about the possibility we were not alone in the universe, that mankind had lost control of things, and in “Don’t Look Now,” Kuttner, in his most humorous mode, capitalizes on it most excellently.

MICHAEL COLLINS “A Death in Monecito.” Short story. PI Dan Fortune. First published in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, April 1995. Collected in Fortune’s World (Crippen & Landru, 2000).

   Montecito is a small but exclusive community area located east of Santa Barbara, a fact which is important in how one-armed PI Dan Fortune approaches this case of murder he’s asked by the victim’s lawyer to look into. The woman’s death is assumed to have been perpetrated by a burglar caught in the act by her, but the arrangement of the furniture seems to Fortune’s client to have been changed. But why? No ordinary burglar would not have done that.

   Posing as a would-be buyer of the house, even before it goes on the market, Fortune does his initial investigation at the scene of the crime itself and by talking to the dead woman’s two daughters, as different from each other as night and day, one a rising Hollywood star, the other the owner of a local boutique. There are other suspects as well, if indeed a burglar was not responsible, and the solution to the cases is a nicely woven combination of clues (minor) and personalities (major).

   In spite of the bright clear skies of sunny California, or perhaps brought out all the more out in contrast, a melancholy mode persists throughout the story, as is the case in many of Fortune’s adventures, and the ending doubly so.

HAYFORD PEIRCE “Fire in the Islands.” Short story. Joe Caneili #2. First published in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, April 1995. Collected in Trouble in Tahiti: P. I. Joe Caneili, Discretion Assuree. (Wildside, paperback, 2000).

   Joe Caneili, a former farmboy from Bookbinder, Kansas, had spent twenty-three years in the French Foreign Legion before retiring and setting up shop in Tahiti as probably that island’s only licensed private investigator. There is not a lot of call for his services in that lightly populated economic and political center of French Polynesia, and in this, his second recorded case, it is personal as much as anything else.

   For when the husband of the house next door burns down the house next door, Caneili’s home next door, which he rents from the couple, go up in flames with it, along with all of his possessions, as sparse as they are. His assignment, find the husband, who has disappeared. His client, the wife. It isn’t much of a case, and the husband, widely known as a practical joker, is not difficult to find. But the story is fun to read, largely because of the light, semi-humorous touch Peirce uses to tell the tale.

   Hayford Peirce, the author, is better known as a SF writer, often using time travel in his work and having, according to one reviewer, a Jack Vance style of writing, which is not a bad style to be using at all. He has also written several stories about extra-sized Commissaire Alexandre Tama, also of Tahiti, whose cases sometimes overlap with Caneili, as it happens here. His adventures have also been collected in paperback form by Wildside Press.
   

      The Joe Caneili series —

The Stolen Grandfather (ss) Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine July 1985
Fire in the Islands (ss) Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine April 1995
The Missing House (nv) Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine July 1995
A Matter of Face (ss) Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine February 1998
The Girl in the Picture (ss) Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine Sep/Oct 1999
Le Père Noël on Christmas Island (ss) Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine Januay 2012
Crime Wave Batters Tahiti (ss) Trouble in Tahiti (Wildside Press, 2000)
The Lethal Leeteg (ss) Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine August 2013

BILL PRONZINI “One Night at Dolores Park.” Short story. Nameless PI. First published in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, April 1995. Collected in Spadework (Crippen & Landru, 1996) and Dago Red: Tales of Dark Suspense (Ramble House, 2015). Reprinted in The Year’s 25 Finest Crime and Mystery Stories: Fifth Annual Edition, edited by the staff of Mystery Scene magazine (Carroll & Graf, 1996) and A Century of Noir: Thirty-two Classic Crime Stories, edited by Mickey Spillane & Max Allan Collins (Berkley, softcover, 2002).

   When this story was written, the section of San Francisco dubbed Dolores Park was falling into urban decay, complete with drug dealers, burglaries and constant intimidation, with people moving out left and right. And in this short tale, that’s where Bill Pronzini’s Nameless PI has quite a night for himself. (Also noted, but only incidentally, one of the characters mistakenly calls him Orenzi.)

   Nameless is there in the first place on a stakeout to serve some papers on a resident who’s a reluctant witness in case handled by the lawyer who hired him, then he himself is a witnesses to a would-be mugging of another resident, a woman who really ought to have known better.

   But do muggers generally have guns? Nameless intervenes and takes the would-be victim safely home, only to find himself in the midst of a marriage that’s falling apart as decisively as the neighborhood in which the couple find themselves living. This is a powerfully done tale of parallel and contrast, and yes, of course, it’s a detective story, too.

TERENCE FAHERTY “The Cardboard Box.” Sherlock Holmes. Short story. Published in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, January/February, 2019. Currently nominated for the Macavity Award for Best Short Story.

   With all due respect to the author, the editors at EQMM and everyone who voted for this story, you can count this as among the many many stories I haven’t read. I got no further into the story than this passage from the first page. I don’t know about you, but I found the following snippet of dialogue impossibly clumsy and awkward. To me it sounds like nothing Arthur Conan Doyle ever wrote. If I’m wrong, feel free to tell me so.

   Suddenly, Holmes’s voice broke into my reverie. “You are quite correct, Watson. It is a preposterous way to settle a dispute.”

   “Huh?”

   “Forgive me for indulging in my little mind-reading act. I’ve been reading yours like a large-print edition ever since you attracted my attention by discarding your newspaper. Do you recall what caused your train of thought to leave the station?”

   “Huh?” I said again.

   You can read the entire story online. Look for it here. (Follow the link.)

EDWARD D. HOCH “The Problem of the Snowbound Cabin.” Short story. Dr. Sam Hawthorne. First published in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, December 1987. Collected in Nothing Is Impossible (Crippen & Landru, hardcover/paperback, 2014). Reprinted in Never Shake a Family Tree, edited by Billie Sue Mosiman & Martin H. Greenberg (Rutledge Hill, paperback, 1998), and perhaps elsewhere.

   This is the quintessential story in the small but potent subcategory of locked room mysteries called “murder in a cabin surrounded by snow with no footprints leading in or out.” Although neither of them is interested in skiing, Dr. Sam Hawthorne and his nurse April are taking a platonic vacation together up in Maine in January. And as ever, wherever the good doctor goes, murder seems to follow right along with him.

   What makes this one special is that there is not only one solution to the mystery, nor two, but three. The first one doesn’t count, however, is that it’s the old canard that someone can be stabbed by an icicle, killing him, and having the weapon melt, leaving no clue to be found. Dr. Hawthorne makes quick riddance of this suggestion. The second solution is quite adequate, and I’m sure that several other mystery writers have used variations of it at one time or another.

   It does have the quality of being realistic, though, while the real solution is, shall we say, rather far-fetched – but certainly doable. What you have do when reading any one of Hoch’s miracle mysteries, and they’re short enough that you shouldn’t forget this: almost every element of the story is important. Keep an eye on everyone and everything. Every fact is not to be ignored. More than likely the one you pass over quickly is the one you had to keep your eye on.

   I know. From experience!

ANNE McCAFFREY “A Proper Santa Claus.” Short story. First published in Demon Kind, edited by Roger Elwood (Avon, paperback, 1973). Collected in Get Off the Unicorn (Del Rey, paperback, 1977). Reprinted in Christmas Stars, edited by David G. Hartwell (Tor, paperback, 1992) and Treasures of Fantasy, edited by Margaret Weis & Tracy Hickman (Harper, softcover, 1997), among others.

   Anne McCaffrey is best known for her many books of SF and fantasy in several long-running series, especially her Pern novels. But she was no slow hand at writing short fiction as well, as this small tale demonstrates full well. Please note that in what follows, I will need to tell you more than you may like to know!

   It begins when a young boy named Jeremy is about three years old. It seems that he has a special talent. Whenever he draws something or creates something out of clay, and if he does in a proper way, it becomes real. If he draws a cookie on a piece of paper and cuts it out, it is dry but very tasty, but when he paints a glass of Coke, it’s flat, because he forgot to draw in the bubbles.

   This remarkable ability stays with him until kindergarten, when at Christmas time he draws Santa Claus bringing him lots of presents. A conflict arises when he can’t do it in a proper way, after his teacher tries to tell him what a proper Christmas is all about, and his special talent is gone forever.

   An obvious fantasy, but I’d like to think that it’s also a sort of a “growing up” tale that applies to everyone. Short but extremely well done.

HARLAN ELLISON “Find One Cuckaboo.” PI Sheckley Scodell #1. First published in The Saint Mystery Library #11, edited by Leslie Charteris; paperback original, 1st printing, February 1960. Collected in Again, Honorable Whoredom at a Penny a Word (Edgeworks Abbey, trade paperback, September 2014).

   I’m not 100 percent positive, but in all likelihood this was the first and only appearance in print of New York City based PI Sheck Scodell. In the early days of his writing career Harlan Ellison scraped out a living writing all kinds of stories, not only science fiction, but crime stories, too, mostly in the lowest level magazines, such as Guilty, Trapped, Pursuit, and so on, and I wouldn’t be surprised to be told he wrote westerns as well.

   Of these, several others were private eye tales, three with Jerry Killian and one with Big John Novak (who in reality was three foot two). You can read more of them by following the links to the Thrilling Detective website. Scodell describes himself as being a dead ringer for the man in all of these shirt advertisements: “the fellow with the slight moustache, wearing a black eye patch, smiles at a wench..”

   He also admits that he’s not always the brightest bulb on the block, and that’s probably why he was hired on this case, which if the word wacky hadn’t be invented, they’d have to in order describe this one properly.

   It seems as though one of three eccentric sisters, all in their fifties and each a  millionairess several times over, has been raped and murdered. All three of them hated each other, even though they lived together in the same house, but nonetheless the two remaining ones have taken up with guns and have vowed to kill the culprit on sight.

   Their financial advisors call on Sheck for help. His job: stop them.

   This one comes straight from the old pulp magazines, but with a somewhat distasteful twist to it that the pulps most certainly wouldn’t have allowed their writers to get anywhere near. It’s one of those tales in which all kinds of crazy things happen but they all get straightened out in the end. Ellison always had  imaginative ideas and a very readable way with words, even when he was first starting — and probably getting a fraction of a cent a word — and “Find One Cuckaboo” is no exception.

NANCY SPRINGER “Milk of Human Blindness.” Mr. Jefferson #1. First published in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, September 1996. Probably never reprinted.

   There can’t be a lot of business in Lancaster PA – the heart of Amish country – to keep a private eye in business, so it could very well be that this particular story was not only the first but also the last recorded case for Mr. Jefferson, as his client in this tale calls him. If so, that’s a shame, because as an introduction, it works fine, but it also leaves the reader (me) wanting more.

   Jefferson, by the way, is black, and he has kind of a sour outlook on life, with most of it taken up by doing repo and process serving. His client in this case is a young girl named Sarah, maybe eleven, twelve years old, and having found $200 on the street, she wants Jefferson to find out who her real parents are. Unfortunately when she discovers who lost the money (not drug money, as she thought), she needs the money back.

   And she agrees to go to work for Jefferson, to pay off her bill. And Jefferson, on his part, finds that yes, indeed, he needs the help, being as he is, not nearly as up to date in the new world of computers as he should be. By the story’s end and between the two of them, they have solved her case, and they’re ready for another. I hope there was one, but alas perhaps not.

PostScript: Nancy Springer is far better known as a fantasy writer, with several novels to her credit, but she also has written a long series of young adult mysteries about Enola Holmes, the fourteen-year-old sister of the far better known Sherlock Holmes, some twenty years older. A movie adaption of one the books is said to be currently in production.

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