Stories I’m Reading


REVIEWED BY DAVID VINEYARD:



CORNELL WOOLRICH
“I’m Dangerous Tonight.” All American Fiction, November 1937 (Volume 1, Number 1). Collected in (among others): The Fantastic Stories of Cornell Woolrich Southern Illinois University Press, hardcover, 1981; Vampire’s Honeymoon, Carroll & Graf, paperback, 1985. Available as a free download (various options) from www.archives.org.

    — “Señor Flatfoot.” Argosy Weekly, February 03, 1940. Collected as “One Night in Zacamoras” in Six Nights of Mystery, Popular Library #258, paperback 1950, as by William Irish. Readable online at www.unz.org.


   THE thing, whatever it was — and no one was ever sure afterwards whether it was a dream or a fit or what — happened at that peculiar hour before dawn when human vitality is at its lowest ebb. The Blue Hour they sometimes call it, l’heure bleue — the ribbon of darkness between the false dawn and the true, always blacker than all the rest of the night has been before it.

   “I’m Dangerous Tonight” is one of those stories that edge the fringe of the supernatural, hint, snap, and pull back from going too far, but only just. It’s almost a Janus Solution story (term coined by Frank McSherry) save the supernatural has a bit more weight than the natural.

   Like many of Woolrich’s plots, it doesn’t bear too much thinking about. The setting is Paris, where a disgraced FBI agent, Frank Fisher, is out to find Fed killer Belden, head of a dope-smuggling ring. Swirling around those events is a cursed dress that seems to make women go mad with evil, and acts as a catalyst to the events that end Fisher’s quest. Fate looms heavy, and every woman who wears the gown feels its siren’s call, “I’m dangerous tonight…”

   Fisher is bitter, guilt-ridden, and -driven. Belden is a back-shooting murderer and dope pusher, and the dress itself is simply evil. It is Gothic noir out of the Weird Menace pulps with just a hint of madness.

   There is always a rational explanation for everything in this world — whether it’s the true one or not. Maybe it is better so.

   If not in the front rank of the master’s work, this is nonetheless a fine example of the kind of power and control Woolrich could exert, grabbing the reader by the lapels and whispering of unkind and uncaring blind fate, here stalking from the fine shops of Paris to the smoky Apache haunted nightclubs, with doomed people briefly finding love and even bad men finding something worse than them moving just beyond the lights.

   No one ever wrote more convincingly of what lurked just beyond the light than Woolrich.

   I chose these two stories, not only because I read them recently, but because they could not be less alike, save the voice for both is distinctly that of Woolrich.

   Where “I’m Dangerous Tonight” suggests something ancient and evil, “Señor Flatfoot” is a straight forward action tale that was well suited to Argosy, and an example of something of the variety of Woolrich’s work, which encompassed, not only suspense and the weird, but also adventure, a hint of science fiction (“Jane Brown’s Body”),international intrigue (“Tokyo 1941”), and romance, as might be expected of anyone successful in a pulp career.

   O’ROURKE was enjoying a gin-and-lime under the arcade fronting the Plaza when the government changed on him. Or around him, whichever way you care to put it.

   “Flatfoot,” which incidentally was the cover story for that issue of the famous pulp, opens with the New York cop of the title in Latin America on a matter or extradition (waiting for his prisoner to get over typhoid in the local hospital), but before he can accomplish that job, he’ll find himself in the middle of a revolution amid beautiful dark eyed and passionate young women, ambitious generals with an eye for wristwatches, and up to his neck in murder.

   While fully in the Woolrich vein, the hero of “Flatfoot” could as easily have come out of Black Mask or one of those Warner Brothers movies about tough New York types in exotic locales. It’s hard not to wonder reading it if maybe you didn’t see Pat O’Brien in the film somewhere and have it stored in your memory palace as half a dozen other films.

   At times you can nearly hear O’Brien narrating.

   Things get more complicated when O’Rourke is recruited to display his skills as a detective to solve a murder that arises, not that you would think it would matter much with all the dead piling up around him.

   Of course O’Rourke ties it up all neatly:

   “I don’t want thanks,” remonstrated O’Rourke, wrinkling his forehead at her. “You don’t thank a duck for swimming or a bird for flying, do you? I just don’t know any different, that’s all. That’s my job; that’s why they call me flatfoot.”

   Neither story is a lost masterpiece by Woolrich (neither is reprinted much either, especially “Señor Flatfoot.”). Both are solid and entertaining pulp tales though, and each in its way shows just how much in control of the material he was as a professional. O’Rourke’s little coda could almost be Woolrich speaking. Writing was his job, and even in a lesser mode he did it well, and with an economy and skill that was admirable.

SZU-YEN LIN “The Miracle on Christmas Eve.” First English translation published in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, May 2016. Reprinted in The Realm of the Impossible, edited by John Pugmire & Brian Skupin (CreateSpace, softcover, August 2017).

   The Realm of the Impossible is an anthology of — guess what? — locked room mysteries and other tales of impossible crimes, both new and old, written by authors from all over the world. If you’re a fan of the genre, as I am, if you don’t have have copy already, don’t hesitate. Put it on your Christmas wish list right now.

   Szu-Yen Lin is a young author from Taiwan with one detective novel already translated into English, that being Death in the House of Rain (2017), which I have not seen, but from the description, is filled with impossible crimes of all kinds.

   In this particular story, though, a father helps his young son stand up to the ridicule of his friends who do not believe in Santa Claus. Inviting them all for a Christmas Eve sleepover, they close up the boy’s room by sealing up the door and single window. Then all the boys and the father go to sleep on mats in the narrow hall just outside the locked door of the bedroom.

   They are awakened to the sound of music in the room. Entering the sealed room, to their wondering eyes they find: a Christmas tree, a dozen gifts in wrapping paper and a music box still playing. Even the non-believers are now convinced that, yes, indeed, there is a Santa Claus!

   While there certainly is no crime involved in this story, it certainly is a mystery story. One could only wish that the spooky magic of this cleverly contrived tale did not disappear as quickly as amateur detective Ruoping Lin comes up with his explanation, but that is totally mitigated by the secondary story of the relationship between a father and a son he loves (or a daughter, equally well).

   There is no instruction manual that hospitals give out to new fathers, but if you know of any such, this story will serve that purpose like few others I can think of.

E. R. PUNSHON “The Avenging Phonograph.” First published in Black and White, UK, 12 January 1907. Collected in The Ash-Tree Press Annual Macabre 2000, edited by Jack Adrian, and Bobby Owen, Black Magic, Bloodshed and Burglary: Selected Short Stories of E. R Punshon (Ramble House, US, 2015).

   Before hitting upon the idea of writing detective novels to make a living, with some 35 cases of police constable Bobby Owen produced between 1933 and 1956, E. R. Punshon was a prolific author of dozens of tales for the British weeklies of the teens and 20s of the last century.

   Only a handful of these had even a hint of the supernatural or the macabre, and a trace of the latter is all that’s in “The Avenging Photograph.” It is the mayor of a small identified town who has committed murder and who is greatly relieved when the coroner’s jury brings in a verdict of suicide.

   Perhaps it is only conscience working its way through his mind, but suddenly the mayor has this almost undeniable compulsion (not really a conscience!) to tell someone — anyone! — that he did it. That he was the killer.

   Not being a king able to talk to the reeds, he finds himself buying a recording phonograph, one of those new machines which you can speak into and have your voice preserved on a wax cylinder inside.

   I won’t tell you more, except to say that the ten pages of this rather understated story should make a solid impression on anyone happening to read it, an opportunity, I imagine, not very likely to occur in its original publication, a magazine so rare that I doubt more than five copies may even exist.

BRAM STOKER – Dracula’s Guest. Published posthumously in the collection Dracula’s Guest and Other Weird Stories (George Routledge & Sons, UK, hardcover, 1914). Reprinted many times including: Weird Tales, December 1927; The Ghouls, edited by Peter Haining (W. H. Allen, UK, hardcover, 1971; Pocket, US, paperback, April 1971); Dracula’s Guest and Other Stories, edited by Victor Ghidalia (Xerox, US, paperback, 1972); Werewolf!, edited by Bill Pronzini (Arbor House, US, hardcover, 1979); The Vampire Archives: The Most Complete Volume of Vampire Tales Ever Published, edited by Otto Penzler (Vintage Crime/Black Lizard / Vintage Books, softcover, 2009); The Big Book of Rogues and Villains, edited by Otto Penzler (Vintage Crime/Black Lizard, softcover, October 24 2017). Film: Among others “inspired” by the story, Universal’s film Dracula’s Daughter (1936) was supposedly based on the tale, but nothing of the plot was used.

   It is generally stated and accepted that this story, somewhat complete in itself, was the the first chapter of the original manuscript of Dracula, but deleted for reasons of length. It is told by an unknown narrator, but presumably it was Jonathan Harker who very foolishly ignores the advice of his innkeeper and the coachman of his carriage to get out to investigate on foot a village said to be unholy and abandoned for some 300 years.

   On Walpurgis Night, no less. Needless to say, he soon realizes that he has made a dangerous mistake. Some thoughts. First of all, how modern Stoker’s writing is. This is story that could easily pass as having been written last week, if not yesterday. Secondly, it is wonder how well this story anticipates all those Hammer horror films that came along so many years later.

         BONUS:

   Here are the stories included in the Rogues and Villains anthology:


      THE VICTORIANS

At the Edge of the Crater by L. T. Meade & Robert Eustace
The Episode of the Mexican Seer by Grant Allen
The Body Snatcher by Robert Louis Stevenson
Dracula’s Guest by Bram Stoker
The Narrative of Mr. James Rigby by Arthur Morrison
The Ides of March by E. W. Hornung

   19TH CENTURY AMERICANS

The Story of a Young Robber by Washington Irving
Moon-Face by Jack London
The Shadow of Quong Lung by C. W. Doyle

      THE EDWARDIANS

The Fire of London by Arnold Bennett
Madame Sara by L. T. Meade & Robert Eustace
The Affair of the Man Who Called Himself Hamilton Cleek by Thomas W. Hanshew
The Mysterious Railway Passenger by Maurice Leblan
An Unposted Letter by Newton MacTavish
The Adventure of “The Brain” by Bertram Atkey
The Kailyard Novel by Clifford Ashdown
The Parole of Gevil-Hay by K. & Hesketh Prichard
The Hammerspond Park Burglary by H. G. Wells
The Zayat Kiss by Sax Rohmer

      EARLY 20TH CENTURY AMERICANS

The Infallible Godahl by Frederick Irving Anderson
The Caballero’s Way by O. Henry
Conscience in Art by O. Henry
The Unpublishable Memoirs by A. S. W. Rosenbach
The Universal Covered Carpet Tack Company by George Randolph Chester
Boston Blackie’s Code by Jack Boyle
The Gray Seal by Frank L. Packard
The Dignity of Honest Labor by Percival Pollard
The Eyes of the Countess Gerda by May Edginton
The Willow Walk by Sinclair Lewis
A Retrieved Reformation by O. Henry

      BETWEEN THE WORLD WARS

The Burglar by John Russell
Portrait of a Murderer by Q. Patrick
Karmesin and the Big Flea by Gerald Kersh
The Very Raffles-Like Episode of Castor and Pollux, Diamonds De Luxe by Harry Stephen Keeler
The Most Dangerous Game by Richard Connell
Four Square Jane by Edgar Wallace
A Fortune in Tin by Edgar Wallace
The Genuine Old Master by David Durham
The Colonel Gives a Party by Everett Rhodes Castle
Footsteps of Fear by Vincent Starrett
The Signed Masterpieces by Frederick Irving Anderson
The Hands of Mr. Ottermole by Thomas Burke
“His Lady” to the Rescue by Bruce Graeme
On Getting an Introduction by Edgar Wallace
The 15 Murderers by Ben Hecht
The Damsel in Distress by Leslie Charteris

      THE PULP ERA

After-Dinner Story by William Irish
The Mystery of the Golden Skull by Donald E. Keyhoe
We Are All Dead by Bruno Fischer
Horror Insured by Paul Ernst
A Shock for the Countess by C. S. Montanye
A Shabby Millionaire by Christopher B. Booth
Crimson Shackles by Frederick C. Davis
The Adventure of the Voodoo Moon by Eugene Thomas
The Copper Bowl by George Fielding Eliot

      POST-WORLD WAR 2

The Cat-Woman by Erle Stanley Gardner
The Kid Stacks a Deck by Erle Stanley Gardner
The Theft from the Empty Room by Edward D. Hoch
The Shill by Stephen Marlowe
The Dr. Sherrock Commission by Frank McAuliffe
In Round Figures by Erle Stanley Gardner
The Racket Buster by Erle Stanley Gardner
Sweet Music by Robert L. Fish

      THE MODERNS

The Ehrengraf Experience by Lawrence Block
Quarry’s Luck by Max Allan Collins
The Partnership by David Morrell
Blackburn Sins by Bradley Denton
The Black Spot by Loren D. Estleman
Car Trouble by Jas A. Petrin
Keller on the Spot by Lawrence Block
Boudin Noir by R. T. Lawton
Like a Thief in the Night by Lawrence Block
Too Many Crooks by Donald E. Westlake

ROBERT BLOCH “The Cloak.” First published in Unknown, May 1939. First collected in The Opener of the Way (Arkham House, hardcover, 1945). Reprinted many times, including: Dracula’s Guest and Other Stories, edited by Victor Ghidalia (Xerox, paperback, 1972); Magic for Sale, edited by Avram Davidson (Ace, paperback, 1983); Vamps: An Anthology of Female Vampire Stories, edited by Martin H. Greenberg (Daw, paperback, 1987); American Fantastic Tales: Terror and the Uncanny from Poe to the Pulps, edited by Peter Straub (Library of America, hardcover, 2008). Film: Adapted as Part Four of The House That Dripped Blood (Amicus, 1971; reviewed here ).

   The list of places above where this small but obviously effective short story has appeared only scratches the surface, but what’s especially rewarding is seeing it progress from the pages of a 20 cent pulp magazine to a $35 hardcover from the prestigious Library of America.

   It’s one of those stories that begins, more or less, in one of those strange out-of-the-way shops that dot the side streets of the poorer sections of large cities, open for a while and perhaps only to pre-selected customers, only to disappear as mysteriously as they appeared, or to go up in flames, the owners vanished or even destroyed along with it.

   It is Halloween and a man named Henderson is looking for a costume. The shop owner in this case offers him the cloak — not a cloak, but the cloak — and once Henderson puts it one, he is a new man — or is he?

   What he definitely is is the center of attention at the party he attends that night. He is attracted to the neck of his fat host. Most positively attracted to him is a girl dressed as an angel — or is she?

   Told in Robert Bloch’s invariably easy to read writing style, the reader is always one step ahead of the main protagonist, until, that is, he meets the girl above, named Sheila, and once she is met, you are not exactly sure which way the rest of the tale is going to go. You think you do, but you’re not quite sure. Exactly where you should be at this stage of a story well told.

DAVID CHRISTIE MURRAY “The Case of Muelvos Y Sagra.” Collected in The Investigations of John Pym (White, UK, hardcover, 1895). Previously published in the newspaper Star, issue 5014, 28 July 1894, available online here. Also reprinted online here from a bound volume of the magazine The Woman at Home (1894).

   I believe (but am not sure) that all six of the stories in the hardcover collection The Investigations of John Pym were published first in the British magazine The Woman at Home. “The Case of Muelvos Y Sagra,” is the first of them, and the first few pages are devoted to describing John Pym as a man who loves to learn everything about everything but who never manages to put it to practical use.

   Until, that is, he finds that all of his accumulated knowledge can be used to solve crimes that stump the minds — and imaginations — of more ordinary men. Narrating this tale is his good friend Ned Venables, a journalist who lives in the same house on the floor above. Ill is a young child whose strange symptoms come and go, and his doctor fears that the next attack will mean his death. A most relevant fact is that if he were to die, the estate the boy is an heir to will go to a man named Josef Muelvos y Sagra, a scoundrel if ever there was one.

   You may go read the story if you like and come back — it is quite short — but if you were to ask me, Mr Conan Doyle, if he were aware of this story might have a good case of copyright infringement worth pursuing. The tale is very reminiscent, shall we say, of “The Adventure of the Speckled Band,” which appeared in The Strand Magazine only two years before. Perhaps it is a homage to be this reminiscent, but I don’t think so.

SELECTED BY L. J. ROBERTS:


WILL THOMAS – An Awkward Way to Die. Cyrus Barker & Thomas Llewellyn. Minotaur Books, eBook, novelette, 85 pages. August 2017.

First Sentence: The telephone set jangled on the corner of Cyrus Barker’s desk, and we both turned our head to stare at it.

   The personal tobacconist to Private Inquiry Agent Cyrus Barker has died. He was murdered in his shop. His body found in his humidor. It is up to Scotsman Barker, and his Welsh assistant Thomas Llewellyn, to find the killer.

   If one has not previously read Will Thomas, this is a wonderful introduction to his Barker and Llewelyn series.

   Thomas’s dialogue and subtle wry humor are always a pleasure to read— “Someone had died,” I stated. “Aye,” the Guv answered, “It is Vasilos Dimitriadis.” “Your tobacconist?” “The same.” “Isn’t he the one who blends your tobacco for you but won’t say what is in it?” “Not ‘isn’t,’ Mr. Llewelyn. ‘Wasn’t.’ Scotland Yard has required our presence immediately. Come along.”

   With the story set in Victorian England, Thomas cleverly calls out the dismissiveness toward women and prejudice towards foreigners— “It was always easier to blame a foreigner, as if England had no criminal class of its own.” —demonstrating that little has changed over time.

   “An Awkward Way to Die” is a clever story with the solution proving that it’s all about noticing the details. It is a delight to read, as is the entire series.

MARCIA MULLER “The Holes in the System.” Rae Kelleher #2. First appeared in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, June 1996. Reprinted in Detective Duos, edited by Marcia Muller & Bill Pronzini (Oxford University Press, 1997). Collected in McCone and Friends (Crippen & Landru, softcover, 2000).

   From what I have been able to determine, this is the second story in which Rae Kelleher, Sharon McCone’s assistant at the All Souls Legal Cooperative, gets the top billing. I do not believe that there was a third one, but as I’ve only discovered an earlier one after this review was first posted, I could very easily be wrong again. (See comment #3.) No matter. I just finished reading this one, and it’s a good one.

   Rae is asked to look into a case brought to them by the Texas-born owner of a pawn shop in San Francisco by the name of the Cash Cow. It seems that he has recently hired a young deaf and mute boy he found on his doorstep, and he would like to find the boy’s mother, who has disappeared.

   Even though Rae tells the story, fans of Sharon McCone should know that not only does she shows up to help crack the case, but this time around we get to see her through the eyes of someone else, one who considers her a mentor as well as a boss, and a friend.

   What we also get is a mystery story in which some detective work is actually done, has its amusing moments, and as a bonus, is a story in which the mean streets that Raymond Chandler talked about come into play as well. Quite an accomplishment for a tale only 22 pages long!

LESLIE T. WHITE “Tough Guy.” Reprinted in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, September-October 2017. This issue’s Mystery Classic, selected and introduced by Jim Doherty. First published in Liberty, 21 June 1941. Reprinted in Liberty Quarterly: 19 Tales of Intrigue, Mystery & Adventure (Vol. 1, No. 1, ca. 1950).

    In his introduction to this story, Jim Doherty makes a solid case for Leslie White as one of the very first practitioners of the police procedural novel. Up for discussion in particular are Me, Detective (1936), a biographical account of White’s own career, Harness Bull (1937), and Homicide (1937).

    Most of White’s work was done for the pulp magazines, producing as he did well over 100 short stories for that market, beginning with “Phoney Evidence” in The Dragnet Magazine, January 1930. To substantiate his case, Doherty describes some of White’s career in police work, and how he used it to give all of his crime fiction a solid, believable setting.

    “Tough Guy” was written toward the end of his pulp fiction days, and that’s even a stretch, as Liberty magazine was not really a pulp. It’s the story of a tough cop named Gahagan who lives for nothing other than his job, a primary part of which is nailing a notorious killer and crime boss by the name of Danny Trumbull.

    Things go awry in his life when the trail leads him to Trumbull’s eight-year-old daughter Penny, who lives alone with her father but who has no idea how totally bad he is. This one starts out in full tilt pulp mode, but by the end, it’s become, as you might have expected, a long way from being a hard-boiled tale of a tough guy cop. Quite the opposite.

    Which does not make it a bad story, by any means. In fact, I enjoyed this one more than any of the other twelve stories in this latest issue of AHMM, many of them (to my mind) rather weak efforts and/or not interesting to me. It’s starting to get difficult to justify spending $7.99 an issue for a magazine that I can’t get excited about any more.

DAVID GERROLD “The Thing in the Back Yard.” First published in Fantasy & Science Fiction, Sept-Oct 2014. Collected in Entanglements and Terrors (DG Media, softcover, 2015).

   For an author who’s been around for almost 50 years (I believe his firs published work was “Oracle for a White Rabbit,” which appeared in the December 1968 issue of Galaxy SF), why has it taken so long for me to have read anything he’s written? (I have seen the Tribbles episode he wrote for Star Trek, but then so has every SF fan in the world, at least those of a certain age.)

   Better late than never, I say, and “The Thing in the Back Yard” begins in very familiar territory: Bob’s Big Boy restaurant in Toluca Lake CA, a true landmark of its kind. I’ve never stopped in, but I’ve passed by in a car many, many times. This is where the narrator of the story tells his friend Pesky Dan Goodman about the problem he’s been having with burglars getting into his home and stealing stuff.

   Pesky Dan Goodman’s solution: hire a troll. Not a mere garden gnome, but a real life troll. Big mistake. Trolls grow, and the more you hate them, the more they grow. And the more territorial they get.

    Pesky held up a hand to stop me. “Just meet him. Trust me on this.”

    “Last time I trusted you, I nearly got my passport revoked –”

    “Clerical error. You did get it straightened out, didn’t you?

    “Only because my sister is on first-name terms with our congressman.”

    “Well, there you are. No harm, no foul.”

    “I don’t think you’re getting my point.”

    “Sure I am. You need security. Emmett-Murray needs a quiet little corner. You won’t even know he’s there.

   This falls into the category of Famous Last Words. This also is the funniest story I’ve read so far this year.

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