Stories I’m Reading

   L. M. MONTGOMERY “The House Party at Smoky Island.” Short story. First published in Weird Tales, August 1935. Reprinted in Startling Mystery Stories, Fall 1968, and Visions from the Edge: An Anthology of Atlantic Canadian Science Fiction and Fantasy (Pottersfield Press, trade paperback, 1981). First collected in Among the Shadows (Bantam Starfire, paperback, 1991).

   Whenever I read a ghost story — which isn’t often, but on occasion I do — I want a story that gives me shivers and goosebumps. No gross out gruesome stuff for me. There’s an obvious difference between chills and shock and disgust. You know where the line is as well as I do, and “The House Party at Smoky Island” stays completely on the right side of it.

   It helps, though, when a tale takes place on an island somewhere in the isolated wilderness– of central Ontario, for example, and Lake Muskoka in particular. The manor house in full of people, but it has rained all week, and by Saturday night the guests have been on each other’s nerves for far too long.

   One of the married couples is especially on edge. She has become more and more obsessed with the thought that he killed his first wife. She does not know this for a fact. She only suspects it. As Saturday night arrives, with the wind howling and the rain pouring down, there is a call for each of the members of the house party to tell the rest of the company a ghost story, which only builds up to what happens next.

   And that’s all I can tell you without telling you the whole story, but if ever a ghost story can give you a brief shiver or shill at exactly the right moment, this one will.

   You may have recognized the author’s name, or you think you may have, and if so, you are correct. This is the same L. M. Montgomery who wrote Anne of Green Gables and all of its sequels, plus many other stories meant for children. She is one of Canada’s most well-known and beloved authors, and this is a rarity: the only story she wrote for the pulp magazines.

  AUGUST DERLETH “The China Cottage.” Solar Pons. Short story. First published in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, March 1965. First collected in The The Casebook of Solar Pons (Mycroft & Moran, hardcover, 1965), as “The Adventure of the China Cottage.” Reprinted in Alfred Hitchcock’s Games Killers Play (Dell, paperback, 1968.

   I wonder if this story marked the first appearance of Solar Pons’ brother Bancroft, a man of some size and weight and who worked, not surprisingly, for the British Foreign Office. Dead in a locked room is an eccentric breaker of codes and ciphers, found slumped over the latest set of papers he was working on.

   But as it turns out, Pons quickly deduces that the papers and the secrets that may have been in them were not the reason for his murder, and the problem of the locked room is disposed of almost as quickly. If it was indeed murder, the killer simply walked out of the room, closing the door behind him. Or her.

   No, the puzzle, as Pons finally works it out, and I hope I’m not giving too much away, has to do with the china cottage of the title, an ordinary incense burner in the shape of … a cottage. It is imagined, by me at least, that at one time these were quite popular in England.

   As a consulting detective whose cases you may decide to follow when you’ve read the entire Holmes canon several times over, Solar Pons certainly has his fans, even today, but I’ve always found his tales to be a mixed bag. This one’s better than many, but in my opinion, no way near the best of them. I found the shift in focus from a case in Bancroft’s purview to a much more domestic one disconcerting, but your opinion may vary.

 EDWARD D. HOCH “The Theft from the Onyx Pool.” Nick Velvet #2. First published in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, June 1967. Collected in The Spy and the Thief (Davis, digest-sized paperback; 1st printing, December 1971 (Ellery Queen Presents #3) and The Thefts of Nick Velvet (Mysterious Press, hardcover, 1978.)

   The charm of the Nick Velvet stories to me is how clever they are, and in fact, they have to be. Not only does Nick have to figure out how to steal the essentially valueless objects he’s hired to obtain, but he also has to work out why he was hired to steal them in the first place. (In this story originally published in 1967, his fee is $20,000.)

   In this case Nick is hired by a young woman of some beauty and obvious social standing to steal the water from a famous writer’s pool. She does not want the pool drained. She wants him to steal the water. That’s the job. Nick, being am inquisitive fellow, once again needs to know why.

   Two detective stories in one, both cleverly worked out to the finest detail. How did Hoch do it, over and over again, and this time in only eleven pages?

  EDWARD D. HOCH “The Spy Who Came to the Brink.” Short story. Jeffrey Rand #3. First appeared in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, December 1965. Collected in The Spy and the Thief (Davis, digest-sized paperback; 1st printing, December 1971 (Ellery Queen Presents #3.)

   As you might easily deduce from the title, the 1971 collection of tales reprinted from EQMM is evenly split between those of Jeffrey Rand (7) and those with master thief Nick Velvet (also 7). I’ve always liked the Velvet stories more, but the ones with Rand are also extremely good.

   Rand is head of Britain’s Department of Concealed Communications — a spy agency, that is to say, one dealings primarily, but entirely, with codes and ciphers. It’s a job that keeps him busy, with dozens of his adventures to have been told, many of which have taken him around the world several times over.

   In “The Spy Who Came to the Brink,” Rand must puzzle out why a small time TV actor who has gone to great length to steal a secret diplomatic code is shot to death on orders from Russia before he could do so.

   It isn’t that he knew too much, as Rand finally concludes, but rather that he knew too little. Hoch had a devious mind as a writer, second to none, and how he managed to tell short stories as short as this one (ten pages) and still include a strong amount of actual detective work in them, is a absolute mystery to me.

BILL PRONZINI “Incident in a Neighborhood Tavern.” Short story. “Nameless” PI. First published in An Eye for Justice, edited by Robert J. Randisi (Mysterious Press, 1988). Collected in Small Felonies (St. Martin’s, 1988). [See comment #5 for other collections this story has appeared in.] Reprinted in Under the Gun, edited by Edward Gorman & Robert J. Randisi (Plume, 1990).

   Bill Pronzini’s “nameless” PI is sitting in a bar talking to the owner about a series of robberies local merchants have asked him to look into, the police having made no headway in the case. It’s that time of he evening, just before seven, when only two other customers are in the place, when in comes a hopped up kid with a gun. Object: robbery.

   The story’s only eight pages long, but not only does this turn out to be a pretty good detective story, but what makes this story all the more compelling is Pronzini’s ability to describe what it must feel like to be facing the wrong end pf a gun, the other end in the hand of someone who obviously doesn’t care if it goes off or not.

   You’ve got to keep your head in situations such this, and “Nameless” does just that, in more ways than one.

ERLE STANLEY GARDNER “Night Birds.” Novelette. El Paisano, aka The Roadrunner #1. Argosy Weekly, August 5, 1933. Probably never reprinted.

   This is the first of five recorded adventures of yet another of Erle Stanley Gardner’s series characters he created for the pulp magazines in the 20 and 30s. Known as both El Paisano and the Roadrunner, and yet no other name, he is a man of mystery, flitting across the Mexican border and back with ease, invariably leaving dead villains, gang leaders and various henchmen in his wake.

   What makes him such a formidable foe is that he can see in the dark far better than most men. Whether better able to see unsavory characters with knives waiting for him in the night, or young beautiful women he can then follow across darkened rooms without them knowing, it makes his tales of adventure and narrow escapes all the more interesting.

   Being the first time any of Gardner’s readers had met this new hero, he spends considerable time making his abilities clear, but not to the expense of the story, which consists of a dead man in an alley, pursuit, rescue (in an inadvertent way) by a slip of a girl with her mind focused on a suitcase filled with a fortune in stolen money.

   It all ends well, but only once the young slip of a girl is fully convinced that the Roadrunner is on her side, which she finally does. There’s otherwise not a lot of depth to this tale, but I certainly wouldn’t mind reading another.

STUART PALMER “The Riddle of the Dangling Pearl.” Novelette. Hildegarde Withers. First published in Mystery, November 1933. Collected in Hildegarde Withers: Uncollected Riddles (Crippen & Landru, 2002). Reprinted in The Big Book of Reel Murders: Stories that Inspired Great Crime Films, edited by Otto Penzler (Vintage Crime, softcover, forthcoming November 2019). Film: The Plot Thickens, RKO, 1936, with Zasu Pitts as Miss Withers and James Gleason as Oscar Piper.

   Things were different back in 1933. When Inspector Oscar Piper of the NYPD gets a call from an associate curator at the Cosmopolitan Museum of Art asking for police assistance, he being shorthanded at the moment, sends schoolteacher Miss Hildegarde Withers to act in his stead.

   It’s a good thing she’s on hand, though, for as soon as she arrives she sees the man she is to meet falling down a long flight of stairs and landing on the floor below, quite dead. This is only the prelude to several other extraordinary things happening at the museum that day, including the disappearance of a extremely valuable Cellini cup, ordinarily kept under close guard at all times.

   While I was reading this early Miss Withers tale, I was somewhat annoyed by the clutter of characters, much more than usual, I thought, not to mention the flurry of activity surrounding them, almost non-stop. Once finished, though, and looking back, it’s easy to see how well the story was constructed, brick by brick, and everything in its place, precisely when needed.

   While there’s no depth to either the characters or the story, it is a lot of fun to read.

   I’ve not seen the movie based on this story in a long time, but I have to agree with Otto Penzler’s assessment in his introduction to the story that Zasu Pitts was the wrong person chosen to replace Edna May Oliver in the leading role. He adds that “The screenplay provides a different motive for the murder, different suspects, and a different murderer.” He does go on to say that the movie retains the same comic tone as the story, however.

THOMAS WALSH “Murder Twist.” Short story. First published in Ace-High Detective, August 1936. Probably never reprinted.

   I haven’t taken the time to check this theory out, but it’s my sense of things that most Edgar winners for Best First Novel come from nowhere, so to speak, or in other words are brand new to the mystery field. Not so in the case of Thomas Walsh, whose novel Nightmare in Manhattan (Little Brown, 1950) was indeed a winner, but he’d been writing short mystery fiction since 1933, when a story titled “Double Check” appeared in the July issue of Black Mask magazine.

   Walsh gradually graduated to the slicks, magazines such as Collier’s and The Saturday Evening Post, many of them later being reprinted in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine. Almost all of these, if not out-and-out police procedurals, were cases solved by policemen largely working alone but in their ordinary tours of duty.

   Such a one is “Mystery Twist,” in which a cop named Gannet — his only appearance, I believe — tackles what appears to be a straightforward suicide, that of a woman whose grieving husband claims she jumped out of a window on the 20th floor of an apartment building.

   Gannet is the kind of cop who doesn’t like to take anything for granted, however, but it takes some psychological prodding on the part of his immediate superior, Inspector Powell, to make sure he follows up on his instincts in cases such as this.

   As the title of the story suggests, there is a twist in tale, and I’m going to pat myself on the back by telling you that I figured it out as quickly as Gannet did. But if the story’s well told, and this one definitely is, then the facts should point to the conclusion all along the way, shouldn’t they?

J. ALLAN DUNN “In the Grip of the Griffin.” Novelette. Gordon Manning vs. the Griffin #30. First published in Detective Fiction Weekly, May 18, 1935. Reprinted in In the Grip of the Griffin: The Complete Battles of Gordon Manning & The Griffin, Volume 3 (Altus Press, 2015).

   The first of this long saga of 31 stories was, I believe, “The Crime Master,” which appeared in the November 30, 1929, issue of Detective Fiction Weekly. IN this and stories yet to come, Gordon Manning remained continually on the trail of the notorious madman and supervillain known only as the Griffin, his real identity unknown.

   Readers of “In the Grip of the Griffin” were treated to more of same — capture, escape, capture again, rescue, and so on — but what they didn’t realize it at the time, but there was but one more to go: “The Seventh Griffin” (DFW, Oct 5, 1935). I haven’t read that one, but I have been told that the series did have a finale, and I kind of hope it was a good one.

   The Griffin was the key reason why the series lasted as long as it did. It is the evil villain who attracts readers, not the mild-mannered adventurer (in this case Gordon Manning) whose sworn duty is to bring the mad killere to well-deserved justice. (Who remembers the fellow who chased Fu Manchu all around the globe, back in the day? Almost nobody.)

   In this case the Griffin sends one of his henchmen to break into Manning’s home — object: eliminate him — not knowing that Manning is ready and waiting for such a contingency. Once the tables are turned, however — and I hope I’m not revealing too much — the tables are turned again, with Manning bands in the hands of the Griffin. And in what better place to be held captive than a mausoleum located below an abandoned cemetery.

   All ends well for Manning, though, have no doubts about that. Narrow escapes in these kinds of stories are only to be expected. On the other hand, the Griffin is shot and wounded as he makes his own escape one more time. You shouldn’t expect a lot of characterization in stories such as this one, and in fact, there isn’t any at all. But they are in fact a lot of fun to read. Not too many at once, though!

  WILLIAM E. BARRETT “Skeleton Key.” Novelette. First published in Ace-High Detective, August 1936. Probably never reprinted.

   To pulp readers of long standing, William E. Barrett is best known for his fifteen stories in Dime Detective Magazine about a chap nicknamed Needle Mike. As described in relation to all fifteen being reprinted in two volumes by Altus Press, Needle Mike was “[A] millionaire playboy with a yen for excitement, young Ken McNally disguises himself as the gray-haired, gold-toothed, jaundiced-looking proprietor of a seedy tattoo parlor in the ‘tenderloin’ district of St. Louis. His unusual occupation frequently brings him into contact with underworld denizens who, willingly or accidentally, embroil him in criminal activities.”

   Totally outrageous and totally unforgettable. William E. Barrett, the author, however, were no mere pulp writer. He later became a well-known bestselling novelist, with [according to Wikipedia] three of his books made into films:

      The Left Hand of God, starring Humphrey Bogart.

      Lilies of the Field based on his novel The Lilies of the Field, featuring Sidney Poitier.

      Pieces of Dreams, based on The Wine and the Music.

   “Skeleton Key” was never made into a film, but perhaps it could have been. It begins on a dark and stormy night (not Barrett’s words, but is true) as a young fellow named Jeff Madison is forced to stop at an isolated cabin for shelter and finds himself confronted with a very strange scene: a dead man with three knives in his chest sitting at a table across from a skeleton. On the table are a pair of dice.

   One man is there before him, and two more in separate automobiles soon stop, also forced to stop in the storm, or so they say. With no way to contact the authorities, all five go to bed for the night. Which of course is when the action begins.

   That’s the setup, and it’s a good one. The explanation is much more complicated, and after all the resulting gunfire ended, Jeff Madison finally learns what was behind it all. Did I forget to tell you that Madison has a secret of his own? On his way to the cabin he found a suitcase filled with $50,000 in cash. I’m afraid I did. How do you like that? Not surprisingly, it is the key to everything.


Previously reviewed from this first issue of Ace-High Detective: FRED MacISAAC “The Corpse Goes East.’

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