Stories I’m Reading


T. T. FLYNN “Bushwhackers Die Hard.” Novelette. First published in Dime Western, January 1933. Collected in Prodigal of Death: A Western Quintet (Five Star, hardcover, 2001).

   T. T. Flynn was one of the more prolific pulp writers, with hundreds of stories in both the detective and western pulp magazines. He tried but never really made the switch over to mass market paperbacks when the pulps began to die out, as some of his contemporary authors did.

   The two featured players in “Bushwhackers Die Hard” are a couple of rambling cowpokes named Lonesome Lang and Tarnation Tucker, who seem to delight in poking their noses into other people’s business, however, rather than poking cows. Even though team-ups such as this were quite commonplace in the western pulps, this appears to be their only recorded adventure together.

   Which begins by finding a dead man beside his buggy, which they had watched fly off the side of a mountaintop road, Investigating, they discover it wasn’t the fall hat killed him. He’d been shot and killed instead while maneuvering his way down the treacherous road. Their services the are offered to the man’s beautiful daughter, unwillingly on her part, as she believes they are on the rancher working against her father.

   Ah, misunderstandings. How could western stories such as this ever have been written without them? Flynn had a smooth and flowing writing style, which serves him in good stead in this average to middling pulp yarn, that and a good sense of what life was like in the west in a time when automobiles were just beginning to appear in such tales.

JOHNSTON McCULLEY “The Man Who Changed Rooms.” Novelette. Creighton Marpe #1. First published in Clues, February #2, 1929. Collected in The Johnston McCulley Megapack (Wildside Press, Kindle edition, March 2015).

   Johnston McCulley is known today, if at all, as the creator of the pulp western hero Zorro, and if it hadn’t been for Walt Disney, even such a dashing character as Zorro may be unknown to readers as some of the other series characters he came up with. Only the most dedicated collectors of old pulp magazines will remember these folks: Black Star, The Spider (the earlier version), The Mongoose, Thubway Tham, Green Ghost, The Thunderbolt, The Avenging Twins, and The Crimson Clown.

   He also wrote hundreds of standalone stories for the pulp magazines in all genres but primarily mysteries and westerns, along with several dozen hardcover novels. As for secret agent Creighton Marpe, I’ve listed this as his first story, but in fact, while there are possibilities in the character, it seems as though there never was another one.

   His task in “The Man Who Changed Rooms” is outwardly a simple one. He’s to take the train from New York City to Kansas City, pick up a top secret document, and bring it back to Manhattan. A job to be completed with code words and the utmost caution. The reason Creighton Marpe is called “the man who changed rooms” is that when he needs a room in a hotel, he books three, and when he buys tickets for a train, he buys at least two.

   Along the way he runs across various operatives for the other side, whom he invariably taunts in jaunty carefree fashion. Also along the way his path crosses that of a fellow agent on his side, Alla Stimney, a young woman he is rather fond of, a fact that causes them problems when both are being held captive by the aforementioned other side.

   There is no depth to the story, nor is the prose anything but rudimentary. but it’s told in such breakneck fashion, the non-sophisticated reader may not even notice. Of course you must realize that I’m paid to notice such things, but somehow or another, I enjoyed the story anyway. Stories taking place largely on trains often have that effect on me.

CATHERINE DAIN “Too Many Cooks.” Short story. PI Freddie O’Neal. First published in Murder Most Delicious, edited by Martin H. Greenberg (Signet , paperback original; 1st printing, March 1995). Collected in Dreams of Jeannie and Other Stories (Five Star, hardcover, 2003).

   Although she may not be actively writing, Catherine Dain is the pen name of Judith Garwood, (1941- ), who among other works has written seven novels chronicling the adventures of Reno-based PI Freddie O’Neal, along with two or three stories she was in.

   From this story we learn that she is unconventional in nature, lives alone, but while she is in close contact with her mother, who lives in town, she does not get along particularly well with her stepfather. You might say that Sue Grafton and Kinsey Milhone were responsible for quite a few other PI’s who followed along in the latter’s wake, and you would be correct.

   In “Too Many Cooks,” she is hired to find out who has been playing nasty tricks on a local live action TV show. It is suggested that she pose as the lady chef’s assistant, but since the best she can do is left the corner of cellophane cover before putting a frozen meal into the microwave, it is decided that it would work better if she pretended to be the author of the lady chef’s would-be memoirs instead.

   The story is too short to go anywhere, and since her job is really that of prevention instead of actually solving a case, it really has only a very little way to go. A brief but enjoyable glimpse into Freddie’s life is all we get here.

Note: I reviewed Sing a Song of Death, number two in the series here:

   

      The Freddie O’Neal novels

1. Lay It on the Line (1992)
2. Sing a Song of Death (1993)
3. Walk a Crooked Mile (1994)
4. Lament For a Dead Cowboy (1994)
5. Bet Against the House (1995)
6. The Luck of the Draw (1996)
7. Dead Man’s Hand (1997)

LAWRENCE G. BLOCHMAN “Dr. Coffee and the Pardell Case.” First published in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, June 1972. Probably never collected or reprinted.

   Lawrence Blochman had a long illustrious career as a mystery writer, starting as an author of thrillers in the 1930s and 40s before converting to more traditional detective fiction after the war. His best known series character in the latter end of his career was Dr. Webster Coffee, chief pathologist at Pasteur Hospital in Northbank, Ohio. He was also the personal medical examiner for Lt. Max Ritter, of the local police department. They appeared together in one novel and two hardcover story collections, plus a few later stories such as this one that have never appeared in book form.

   I called this a locked room story, for indeed it is, for about a day in the story or less. When the victim calls Ritter in a panic, the latter rushes to the scene and finds the dead man shot to death in a locked room with no possible access to it. This particular aspect of the mystery is soon cleared up by Coffee’s colleague Dr. Mookerji, who determines that the dead man could have survived the shot long enough for him to enter the room and lock the door behind him before dying. Not a lot of mystery there!

   Neither Ritter nor Coffee are given much personality in this one. Two full pages are spent on showing what a miserable person the victim was, however, a man who pulled himself up from his bootstraps as a child to become a rich and powerful man – whom everyone hated. From a mystery reader’s point of view, this provides for a whole list of suspects, each one with a motive. It is the opportunity that each of them may have had that Ritter has to look into. Dr. Coffee, when it comes down to it, does not have a whole lot to do in this one.

   Good old-fashioned police work, that’s all that’s needed in this one.

JON L. BREEN “The Babe Ruth Murder Case.” Ed Gorgon #4. First published in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, June 1972. Collected in Kill the Umpire: The Calls of Ed Gorgon (Crippen & Landru, hardcover/paperback, 2003).

   Ed Gorgan is a baseball umpire who somehow seems to keep stumbling across unusual cases of murders. My my count there have been fourteen of such instances (see below), but there may have one or two that I’ve missed, hopefully not more. In “The Babe Ruth Murder Case,” what requires his attention is the shooting of the owner of a sports bar where he and police lieutenant Steve Appleman just happen to be hanging out.

   The fact the victim was well known for his criminal activity, including blackmail, means that there any number of suspects, and many of them who had the opportunity are strong possibilities are connected to his death by the clue on the dead man’s desk: the name “Babe Ruth” in his appointment book for that evening.

   This case is a textbook example, only six pages long, of taking each of the suspects in turn and eliminating them one by one by the application of sheer reason, reminiscent in many ways of many an Ellery Queen story, both long and short. More praise than that I cannot give.

   

      The Ed Gorgon series —

Diamond Dick (ss) Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine Oct 1971
Horsehide Sleuth (ss) Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine Nov 1971
The Body in the Bullpen (ss) Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine May 1972 *
The Babe Ruth Murder Case (ss) Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine Jun 1972 *
Fall of a Hero (ss) Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine Nov 1972 *
Old-Timers’ Game (ss) Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine Apr 1973
Malice at the Mike (ss) Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine Oct 1973
Designated Murderer (ss) Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine Jul 1974 *
The Number 12 Jinx (ss) Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine May 1978 *
Instant Replay (ss) Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine May 1984
Streak to Death (ss) The Second Black Lizard Anthology of Crime Fiction, 1987 *
Throw Out the First Ax (ss) Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine Apr 1992 *
Kill the Umpire (ss) Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine Nov 2002
Insider Trading (ss) ??, 2003 *

* = Included in the Crippen & Landru collection.

EDWARD D. HOCH “The Theft of the Double Elephant.” Nick Velvet. First published in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, February 2004. Not yet collected.

   The particular task that Nick Velvet agrees to take on in this tale is the robbery he knows his friendly adversary Sandra Paris has committed, but what he does not know is how she managed to steal the ordinary Audubon print he is hired to retrieve. It was taken from an apartment on the top of a five story brownstone in New York City. Three different keys are needed to enter the apartment, and at night alarms are always set at the doors and windows.

   Unlike the Porges story (recently reviewed here) in the same issue of EQMM, Hoch takes his time (fourteen pages rather than only four), to describe the layout fully as well as the personal interest Velvet takes in his duel task: I think he took greater pleasure in outwitting Ms. Paris than he did in actually returning the print to its owner.

   As it so happens, this is the Nick Velvet story I asked Mr Hoch about when I interviewed him for the print version of Mystery*File back in August of 2004. You can find it online here. It is not, however, included in the recently published Locked Room Murders Supplement by Brian Skupin. I hope it’s not because there is no murder in it. It’s well constructed and well worthy of inclusion, and I hope to see it in Supplement Two.

ARTHUR PORGES “Stately Homes and the Impossible Shot.” Stately Homes #5. First published in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, February 2004. Collected in The Adventures of Stately Homes and Sherman Horn: Being the Compleat Sherlockian Writings of Arthur Porges (The Battered Silicon Dispatch Box, trade papeback, 2008).

   Based on this story as my only sample to date, Stately Homes must have been Schlock Homes’ indolent brother. All he seems to do for a full quarter of this four page story is stay in his flat he shares with his assistant Sun Wat (from India) and play his violin, all the while depending on the members of the Baker Street Irregulars to do the leg work for him.

   Dead is a man found shot and killed while  sitting at his office desk with his back to the window, which was open ten inches from the bottom. The door to the fourth floor room was under close observation at the time. Obviously the shot came through the open window, but the only angle possible does not match the point of entry of the bullet.

   It sounds good, but the story fails as a story, unless you consider “humorous,” which I allow was the likely attempt, to include stories as poorly thought out as this one. One essential clue to the solution is withheld from the reader until very nearly the end, and that is that the killer was an expert at billiards. Match this up with the fact that the walls of the room were covered with rare coins and medallions. You can take it from there.

   

      The Stately Homes series –

Her Last Bow (ss) Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine Feb 1957
Another Adventure of Stately Homes (ss) The Saint Mystery Magazine (UK) Nov 1961
Stately Homes and the Invisible Slasher (ss) Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine Feb 2001
Stately Homes and the Invisible Giant (ss) Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine Feb 2003
Stately Homes and the Impossible Shot (ss) Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine Feb 2004

WILLIAM J. REYNOLDS “The Lost Boys.” PI Nebraska (*). First published in The Mysterious West, edited by Tony Hillerman (HarperCollins, 1994). Reprinted in The Fifth Grave (Great American Murder Mysteries), edited by Martin Greenberg and Billie Sue Mosiman (Rutledge Hill, paperback, 1998).

   The asterisk in the first line above is there because the name of the PI in this case of two missing boys is never revealed. But he’s based in Omaha, and so is the PI in Reynolds’ six novels and two or three other short stories. It’s been a while since I read any of the novels (over 30 years), so I don’t remember if withholding the leading character’s name was a feature of those or not.

   The mother of the missing boys is our man’s client. She is divorced from their father, a big man back in Monument, South Dakota, and she is sure that he is the one who has taken them. The only industry in Monument is that of extracting granite from a local quarry, and our hero is forced to make his inquiries of the local townspeople under a huge handicap: he does not want to make the reason why he’s asking questions known.

   If I were to make any kind of criticism as to how Nebraska (I’ve gone ahead and said it) handles his investigation, I’d be guilty of Monday morning quaterbacking, as the story’s a good one, strongly told. What I enjoyed even more than the case itself, though, was the descriptive way Reynolds brings to life a one horse town in the middle of nowhere, and a very isolated nowhere to boot.

        The Nebraska novels —

The Nebraska Quotient (1984)
Moving Targets (1986)
Money Trouble (1988)
Things Invisible (1989)
The Naked Eye (1991)
Drive-By (1995)

FIRST YOU READ, THEN YOU WRITE
by Francis M. Nevins

   

   A few weeks ago I received an email from bookseller Lynn Munroe, asking me a question about the uncollected short stories of Cornell Woolrich. The result was that I got interested in how many uncollected stories there were and how many might be worth collecting. It will take more than one column to explore these questions but let’s start here.

***

   For the first two years in which Woolrich published crime-suspense stories, the number of uncollected tales is zero. Why? Because I brought together all three of the tales that first came out in 1934 and all ten of those that appeared in ‘35 in the collection DARKNESS AT DAWN (1985). Woolrich’s output grew exponentially in 1936: a total of 26 crime stories, earning him a total of $4,300, which was a respectable annual salary back then.

   Some of them—for example “The Night Reveals” (Story, April 1936), “Johnny on the Spot” (Detective Fiction Weekly, May 2, 1936), “The Night I Died” (from the same magazine’s August 8 issue) and “You Pays Your Nickel” (Argosy, August 22, 1936), which is usually reprinted as “Subway”—rank among his most powerful short stories. Others from that year—including, I fear, most of the dozen that remain uncollected—are pretty terrible.

   The year kicked off with one of the worst tales he ever perpetrated; perhaps the worst of his career. The mild success of the Popular Publications pulp chain with weird-menace magazines like Dime Mystery inspired rival entrepreneur Ned Pines of Thrilling Publications to launch a competing monthly called Thrilling Mystery, which debuted in October 1935 under editorial director Leo Margulies (1900-1975).

   During its 50 issues the magazine offered a parade of strange cults, diabolic rituals, gruesome murders, sadistic villains, slavering beasts and (of course) beautiful young women shivering in peril. Woolrich dipped his toes into these weird waters just once. Like the 1935 classic “Dark Melody of Madness” (better known as “Papa Benjamin”) and the 1937 classic “Graves for the Living,” “Baal’s Daughter” (Thrilling Mystery, January 1936) is about hapless innocents falling into the clutches of repulsive religions.

   But this version of the story is so sloppily and luridly written, so overloaded with stupid inconsistencies and grotesque twaddle, that to claw one’s way through its pages is an act of masochism. Narrator Bob Collins visits his psychiatrist friend Dr. Dessaw to ask for help in freeing his fiancée Gloria’s dotty aunt from a Westchester cult.

   As Woolrich Coincidence would have it, the head of the cult is Dessaw, who drugs Bob and spirits him to the religion’s headquarters mansion on the banks of the Hudson, where in rapid order our hero is stripped to his shorts, flogged by a tongueless black giant, menaced by a man-eating panther, tortured with boiling oil injected into his veins, forced to kneel before a woman calling herself the reincarnated goddess Ishtar, forced to help lure Gloria to the mansion for ritual sex with with the god Baal who of course is Dr. Dessaw, and so on and on long past our endurance.

   The narrative throbs with clunkers like “The fiend on the throne stood up and turned to me as I quivered there, ashen-faced” and “I was prone there, at the mercy of the he-devil and the she-devil….” How desperate must Woolrich have been to have cranked out this garbage?

***

   Of the dozen uncollected Woolrich stories from 1936, Detective Fiction Weekly was the original home of seven, including two that might well deserve collection. Not, though, the first pair we consider here. “Blood in Your Eye” from the March 21 issue is an insanely bad cop story set in an anonymous city on which Woolrich sticks the label Los Angeles.

   Mitchell, a rambunctious young homicide dick, is the only one who sees the truth when a murder victim is found in a rooming house with the image of his killer apparently imprinted on his eyes. Instead of sharing his insight, Mitchell throws down his badge in disgust at his colleagues’ willingness to believe medieval superstition and goes out to solve the crime lone-wolf style.

   The hunt takes him to two venues that Woolrich was to use over and over, a manicurist’s booth and a dance hall. For this one you have to accept that neither a roomful of cops nor the medical examiner can tell the difference between genuine and glass eyes, but the climax is violent and the central gimmick Guignol-gruesome.

   Just two weeks later, in the magazine’s April 4 issue, came “The Mystery of the Blue Spot,” which Woolrich submitted as “Death in Three-Quarter Time.” In a lifetime of reading whodunits I’ve never come across an alibi gimmick as wacko as this one. Homicide cop Dennis Small happens to be in the Curfew Club on the night when the specialty dancer Emilio is shot to death in his dressing room just a few minutes after he and his partner Lolita have finished performing a bizarre new number.

   All the evidence points to chorus line dancer Mary Jackson, for whom Emilio was about to dump Lolita. This tale too is never likely to be reprinted or collected so I might as well give away the solution: Lolita herself killed Emilio before the dance, then rigged herself in a crazy costume and went out into the spotlight and convinced a clubful of people that she was both herself and her partner! The story becomes interesting only in the final scenes when Woolrich makes us empathize with her for two crucial noir reasons: she had lost her love and she’s about to die.

   For the next uncollected story we jump into the summer months. “Nine Lives” from the June 20 number is set in the waterfront district around New York’s South Street. Demon newshawk Wheeler stumbles onto the story of an old bum who’s been treated by three sinister strangers to booze, food, clothes, and to an insurance policy on his life. The best scene finds Wheeler bound, gagged and left for dead at the bottom of an old-fashioned bathtub filling with water, but even in this serial-like incident there’s nothing terribly urgent.

   Later that summer, in the August 15 issue, came “Murder on My Mind,” the earliest appearance in Woolrich and perhaps the earliest in crime fiction of a plotline which was a staple of film noir classics like SO DARK THE NIGHT (1946, directed by Joseph H. Lewis) but ultimately goes back to the Greek tragedy OEDIPUS TYRANNUS.

   Marquis, the detective narrator, is assigned with his partner Beecher to the brutal murder of a harmless cigar-store clerk, but as the investigation goes forward, countless tiny details push Marquis and the reader closer and closer to becoming convinced that the murderer is Marquis himself.

   This tale has never been reprinted or collected as it first appeared but a heavily revised and less crudely written version was included as “Morning After Murder” in the paperback collection BLUEBEARD’S SEVENTH WIFE (Popular Library pb #473, 1952, as by William Irish).

   The trademark Woolrich combination of breathless urgency and plot flubs permeates the long story which he submitted as “Right in the Middle of New York,” but it’s so packed with action and tension that one barely notices that nothing in it makes sense, not even the published title, since no murder is committed at all in “Murder in the Middle of New York” from the September 26 issue.

   Tony Shugrue, a relatively honest protégé of mobster Chuck Morgan, is set up by his mentor with phony references and gets hired by wealthy Cole Harrison as chauffeur for his beautiful and spoiled daughter Evelyn. Unaware that he’s married, Evelyn makes several passes at her driver, and for a while we’re reminded of the romance between another flighty heiress and her chauffeur in Woolrich’s 1927 pre-crime novel CHILDREN OF THE RITZ.

   Finally Tony realizes that Morgan plans to kidnap Evelyn, hold her for ransom, kill her and leave him to take the fall. From this point on the story morphs into a wild roller-coaster ride crammed with thrills, anguish and suspense as Tony fights to save himself and his wife and Evelyn from the gang. Some of the dialogue creaks—“‘Rats!” he hissed viciously through his teeth. ‘Lower than rats, even!’”—and the crucial scene requires Tony literally not to recognize his wife at close quarters.

   But the irresistible Woolrich urgency sweeps away all nitpicking into the ash heap and suggests that this one of the uncollected dozen may deserve being revived.

   I feel the same way about “Afternoon of a Phony” from the November 14 issue—so much so that it was reprinted in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine (June 2012) at my recommendation and with a new introduction by me.

   The story is something of a departure for Woolrich, a charming, clever and bizarre whodunit where the detective role is played by a con man. Clip Rogers steps off the train at the Jersey seaside resort of Wildmore and is instantly mistaken by the brainless local cops for Griswold, the supersleuth from Trenton, whom they’d sent for to help solve the bludgeon murder of a woman in one of the town’s vacation hotels.

   What complicates the case beyond the local yokels’ power to unravel is that the woman’s eight-year-old son, who witnessed the crime in the middle of the night but is too young to understand its meaning, has identified as the murderer a man with a perfect alibi. Rogers exposes the real killer rather neatly, but the story becomes distinctively a Woolrich tale only afterward when, as in “The Mystery of the Blue Spot,” a criminal motivated by lost love takes center stage and, for a page or two, becomes a deeply sympathetic character. His comment that the impostor Rogers is more humane than any cop he’d ever met is evidence that when Woolrich drew genuine cops as brutal thugs he wasn’t doing it inadvertently.

   His final 1936 appearance in Detective Fiction Weekly was one of his weakest, but for anyone with a little knowledge of law, it’s a coffee-out-the-nose classic. The year’s last issue, dated December 26, included “The Two Deaths of Barney Slabaugh,” in which Woolrich dusted off his favorite James M. Cain plot twist, backdated it forty years, and threw in so much of the tinny insult humor and gangster stereotypes from the current James Cagney movies that the illusion we’re in the New York of the 1890s isn’t sustained for a microsecond.

   Manhattan racket boss Emerald Eddie Danberry is persuaded by his shyster lawyer Horace Lipscomb that the proper way to kill rival mobster Barney Slabaugh is to take the man prisoner, frame himself for Barney’s murder beforehand, and get himself acquitted in court. Then, Lipscomb explains—foreshadowing an infamous recent comment by Donald Trump?—even if Danberry were to murder him in full view of a thousand people he could never be prosecuted for it.

   Danberry asks for the name of this marvelous rule of law. Lipscomb replies: Why, it’s the Statute of Limitations! (Cue the coffee.) Fighting DA Barry McCoy, one of the city’s few uncorrupt officials, tries to snooker the plot, and fate works another Cain trick to help him out in this super-pulpy tale, which is full of police brutality, casual racism and enough Woolrich-style wisecracks to sink an aircraft carrier.

***

   So much for eight out of the dozen, and quite enough for one column. I’ll finish the tabulation next month. With perhaps a bonus thrown in to boot.

BILL CRIDER ‘Who Killed Cock Rogers?” Sheriff Dan Rhodes. First published in The Mysterious West, edited by Tony Hillerman (HarperCollins, 1994). Collected in The Blacklin County Files (Kindle edition, 2012).

   Here are the first two paragraphs that slide us right into the story with infinite ease:

   Mrs. Janelle Tabor, an attractive widow in her early forties, was spattered with cow manure. It was green, mostly, and it didn’t go well wit her yellow blouse. It didn’t smell good, either.

   “And it’s all your fault, Sheriff Rhodes!” she said. wagging her finger in his face.

   And here are the last three paragraphs, as the author winds up his tale:

   “Too bad for ever’body,” Hack said. “Hard to believe all this was caused by a truckful of cows.”

   “It wasn’t the cows,” Rhodes aid, “It was the manure.”

   Hack chuckled. “Ain’t it always?” he said.

   In between is a tale of murder, that of a radio host whose technique of choice was to boost his ratings by any controversial means he could. Bill’s way with a story stands out, as always: a hint of dry downhome Texas humor (well, more often than not, more than a hint) along with a serious crime to be solved, one that both he and Dan Rhodes take very seriously. This story is no exception.

Next Page »