Stories I’m Reading


EDWARD D. HOCH “The Theft of the Mafia Cat.” Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, May 1972. Collected in The Thefts of Nick Velvet (Mysterious Press, hardcover, 1978). Reprinted in Purr-Fect Crime, edited by Carol-Lynn Rösell Waugh, Martin Greenberg & Isaac Asimov (Lynx, paperback, 1989).

   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 1972, his fee is $20,000.)

   In this case Nick is hired by an old friend from the Italian neighborhood in which he grew up to steal the local Mafia don’s favorite pet, a cat named Sparkle, then return it a day later. Needless to say, Nick does both jobs with eclat and ease. Just another day at the office.

   What makes this particular story stand out a little more than some of Nick’s other adventures is that along the way he tells his friend how he got started in his unique way of making a living. The first job he was hired to do was to help someone break into a museum of fine art, which he accomplished by removing a stained glass window and climbing in.

   Turns out that window was worth $50,000 and that was all the woman who hired him wanted. After she was arrested and the window was returned, Nick decided from that point on his career in thievery consisted of stealing only things that were essentially worthless.

EDWARD D. HOCH “The Problem of the Miraculous Jar.” Dr. Sam Hawthorne. First published in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, August 1996. Collected in All But Impossible (Crippen & Landru, 2017). Reviewed by Mike Tooney here. (Thanks to Randy Cox for providing this information.)

   It is November 1939 and even in the small New England town of Northmont, rumors of the impending war are getting stronger by the day. When a married couple are given a welcome home party after their return from a trip to Europe and the Holy Land, no one expects that someone will die later that same evening, including Dr. Sam Hawthorne, one of the attendees.

   Cause of death: cyanide in a jar brought back as a gift from Cana, the site of Jesus’s first miracle, the transformation of water into wine, a feat that seems to have been duplicated here, except that in this case the wine (which was not in the jar when the party was over, only water) is found the next day to have been tainted with poison.

   Question: How could anyone change water into poisoned wine inside a locked house surrounded by unmarked snow?

   Answer: It’s a damned good trick, that’s what it is. Ingenious, in fact, until you know the answer, and then it’s dumbfoundedly easy.

   Except only on occasion, Hoch wasn’t the greatest wordsmith in the world, but his plain-spoken style of writing has to be a lot more difficult to duplicate than you’d think it would be. I also think there is enough plot — with lots of characters complete with backstories, motives, false trails and the like — to fill a complete novel.

   Ingenious, too! Or did I say that already?

THORP McCLUSKY “The Crawling Horror.” First published in Weird Tales, November 1936. Reprinted in Avon Fantasy Reader #6, 1948, and The Macabre Reader, edited by Donald A. Wollheim (Ace D-353, 1959), among others.

   This strange story is told by a farmer to a local doctor who in turn tells it to us. The farmer has rats in his house and barn, but when they begin to disappear, he gives the credit to his several cats. Then the cats start to vanish. Can his dogs be next?

   He is sitting in front of his fireplace, reaches down to pet his dog and … I’ll quote:

   “It was a slimy sort of stuff, transparent-looking, without any shape to it. It looked as though if you picked it up it would drip right through your fingers. And it was alive — don’t know how I knew that, but I was sure of it even before I looked. It was alive, and a sort of shapeless arm of it lay across the dog’s back, and covered her head. She didn’t move.”

   What do you think? What would you do?

PS. Things get worse from here. This is only the beginning.

REVIEWED BY DAVID VINEYARD:


MAX BRAND “Werewolf.” Novella. Western Story Magazine, 18 December 1926. Included in Men Beyond the Law (Five Star, hardcover, 1997; Amazon Encore, softcover, 2013). [Thanks to Sai Shankar for coming up with the latter information.]

   ALL day the storm had been gathering behind Chimney Mountain and peering around the edges of that giant with a scowling brow, now and again; and all day there had been strainings of the wind and sounds of dim confusion in the upper air, but not until the evening did the storm break. A broad, yellow-cheeked moon was sailing up the eastern sky when ten thousand wild horses of darkness rushed out from behind Mount Chimney and covered the sky with darkness.

   You don’t get a much more evocative opening than that for a Western novella called “Werewolf,” and the story lives up to both its title and that opening in ways you won’t expect from Max Brand (who did write some fantastic fiction).

   I can honestly say this is the strangest story I have ever read by Brand, and as honestly say it is one of the most satisfying, mixing all those elements of mythology and classical literature with a rousing good adventure story set in the more or less modern West (modern enough for telephones anyway).

   On that bitter night Chris Royal (“There were no political parties in Royal County or in Royal Valley, for instance. There were only the Royal partisans and their opponents.”) walks into Yates Saloon to escape the storm where Cliff Main, gun happy brother of killer Harry Main, is looking for trouble over a girl both like.

   Words are exchanged, and there is the smell of cordite in the air.

   Cliff Main is dead and Chris Royal alive.

   At least until Harry Main comes to avenge his dead brother. Chris doesn’t much fancy his odds against Harry Main. His crossbred hound, Lurcher would have better odds, and Lurcher isn’t much to look at. Being convinced that he’s a coward, like the hound Lurcher, who isn’t much good but is loyal to Chris and loved by him, and that he has no chance against Main, Chris hightails it for the high country.

   Which is where this story turns decidedly weird.

   Because something is trailing Chris, and it isn’t Harry Main … “it was no animal of flesh and blood at all, but a phantom sent to cross his way with a foreboding of doom.”

   He’s not far off.

   An old Indian Chris meets fishing in the river sets the philosophical tone of the tale. He warns Chris that no man can escape his fate, and when they hear the wolf that had trailed Chris the night before he explains it is a werewolf:

   “There are two kinds of werewolves,” said the chief, holding up two fingers of his hand. “The first are the ones which have been men and become wolves. They are only terrible for a short time, and then they become stupid. Then there are others. They are the wolves that cannot become men until they have killed the warrior who has been marked out for them.”

   That old Indian is more than a convenient literary device, I warn you.

   Chris masters his fear after that and returns home to face Harry Main, his preternatural calm in the face of almost certain death almost unnerving the mankiller, but even with Main out of the picture there remains that second kind of werewolf, the one that cannot become a man again until it has killed the warrior marked for it, and in that game a worthless cowardly dog named Lurcher get a chance to redeem himself as his master has.

   It is an odd duck of a story by any measure, part Western revenge story, part tale of redemption of man and dog, part dog story, and part … well you decide, but I will reveal this much, werewolf in this story is both a metaphor and not a metaphor.

   If you ever wondered what Max Brand might have written for Weird Tales, this is the story.

CORNELL WOOLRICH “Vampire’s Honeymoon.” Lead story in the collection Vampire’s Honeymoon, Carroll & Graf, paperback original, 1985. First published in Horror Stories, August-September 1939.

   First of all, there’s a reason why this story wasn’t reprinted until the C&G paperback collection came along, almost 50 years after its first appearance in a what’s called a weird menace or “shudder pulp.” It really isn’t very good.

   The title tells it all, or nearly so. A man, a well-educated fellow, goes to a party engaged to one girl, and leaves with another — a beautiful woman who he meets on a fourth-floor terrace as she seems about to jump — or float? — off. No one knows who she is, nor did anyone see her enter.

   They are engaged the next day and are soon married. The husband, as it turns out, is not the brightest bulb in the box. He cannot figure out why is suddenly afflicted with anemia, with small bites in his neck. Large mosquitoes, he tells the doctor. We the reader know better.

   All of the standard tropes about vampires are part and parcel of this tale: his new wife cannot be seen in mirrors, she stays inside in bed all day, is immune to bullets, and I’m sure I’m not giving anything away by telling you that a wooden stake is part of how the story ends.

   The story isn’t totally simplistic — Woolrich was too good a writer for that to be true — but it only hints at creepiness and once read, I doubt that anyone will remember it more than a day later. The other stories in the collection, all fairly long, may be better, and you may find me talking about them on this blog as time goes on.

   For the record, though, in case I don’t, their titles are “Graves for the Living,” “I’m Dangerous Tonight,” and “The Street of Jungle Death.” I may be mistaken, but I don’t believe that any of these are vampire stories.

K. G. McABEE “Dyed to Death.” Black Orchid Novella Award winner, 2015. Published in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, July-August 2015.

   I don’t know about you, but I’d like to think that the winners of the Black Orchid Novella Award, sponsored by The Wolfe Pack (The Official Nero Wolfe Society), would all fall into the same general pattern of story telling as this one. That is to say, there is a crime to be solved, a detective to do it, with the story narrated by his (or her) assistant on the case.

   The setting in “Dyed to Death” is sometime in the 1920s, somewhere in the South, and dead is a mischievous minx who in her short life was a flirt (if not outright hussy) who enjoyed the hold she easily could have on any man she wanted. When her body is found, dyed purple, downstream from the local fabric and clothing mill, it is up to village constable Guy Henson to find out who did it.

   Assisting him by tagging along as he investiages and taking constant notes as he interviews possible suspects is a young teenage boy by the name of Sam Nicholson, whose chief qualification for the job is his love of reading stories in magazines such as Black Mask and being a big fan of such authors as Dashiell Hammett, Sax Rohmer and Edgar Rice Burroughs.

   As is the case in many of Rex Stout’s own stories, it isn’t the mystery itself that will be remembered most when the mystery is solved, it’s the overall ambience and the camaraderie between the two leading characters that is most likely to stay with you. This story also takes place in a time when accidents in the local mill were common, and shrugged off, even fatal ones. And when dumping purple dye into the local river as common waste was also far from a rarity.

   Unfortunately, while this tale seems to cry out for another in a series, it hasn’t happened, at least not yet. In fact this seems to be K. G.McAbee’s only major work in the realm of crime fiction. According to one online source, she’s primarily a writer of science fiction, horror, gothic, steampunk, and fantasy. But no mistake about it, this one major venture of hers into detective fiction is a good one.

IT IS PURELY MY OPINION
Reviews by L. J. Roberts


CHARLES FINCH “Gone Before Christmas.” Charles Lenox #10.5. eBook novelette. Minotaur Books, December 2017. Setting: London-1887.

First Sentence: The two brothers stood motionless upon the top step of a fine London townhouse, each with arms crossed, assessing a correspondingly motionless pair of trees propped against a railing.

   Lt. Ernest Austen of the Grenadier Guards has disappeared. Charles Lenox is trying to establish his detective agency, the first of its kind, but having little luck. Even Scotland Yard is so baffled, they’ve agreed to having Lenox consult. Solving this case would give him credibility and recognition. But can he solve it?

   One of the many things to love about Finch’s writing is his use of humor, whether it’s about life, death— “Death is the great spiritual adventure toward which all living things mush lean forward in hope and humility, in neither fear or anger.” –and Christmas trees.

   It is always interesting learning about the customs of a period, and that they relate to Christmas makes them even more so. The tradition of Lenox’s father is quite progressive for the time. Yet one of the best things about a prequel, is to learn more about the protagonists and their history.

   Finch creates wonderful analogies— “France and England were rather like an unhappy couple out to supper at friends’: not presently at war, except in the sense that they were continually at war.” His descriptions are evocative— “There was evidence all over it of wealth, and ancient lineage—tapestries on the walls, enormous hunting scenes in oils, tables of marble….”

   His use of language is a treat— “…he discovered that the next train was in ninety minutes. He set out to see the wonders of Ipswich for himself. When that was finished, he had eighty-seven minutes left….” It is elements such as these, along with learning bits of information such as how the term “butler” came to be, that makes reading Finch such a pleasure.

   “Gone Before Christmas” is a lovely story for the holidays with just the right balance of seriousness and sentimentality.

— For more of LJ’s reviews, check out her blog at : https://booksaremagic.blogspot.com/.
REVIEWED BY DAVID VINEYARD:


DONALD BARR CHIDSEY “Flight to Singapore.” Short novel. Argosy, 3 August 1940. Available online here.

   For wisdom is greater than rubies; and all things that may be desired are not compared to it.

   Pick up any issue of the major pulps like Adventure, Argosy, Blue Book, Popular, or the like and you could be guaranteed to find at least one stem winder of a story inside, that would at least have made a first rate B-film and maybe more.

   The names that graced those pages include the famous of course like Burroughs, Brand, Merritt, Woolrich, Mundy, Lamb, and such, but also half-forgotten names that once guaranteed a headlong tale well told and usually much more, names like Robert Carse, Georges Surdez, H. Bedford-Jones, George F. Worts, Gordon Young, and the prolific and popular Donald Barr Chidsey.

   Some, like Chidsey, Carse, and Surdez even had post-pulp careers in hardcover for a time, but it is their pulp work that resonates today.

   The story “Flight to Singapore” by Donald Barr Chidsey, is one of those tales, one in a series about Prince Mike of Kammorirri and his bodyguard/pal George Marlin, who finds himself a beat cop and insurance tec now Captain of the Guard, Chief of Police, and head of the Army of the small principality of Kammorirri in Southeast Asia, where Prince Mike’s father, the Sultan, fights to keep his little nation free of being “protected” by the Western powers by keeping almost all contact with the outside world at bay.

   Not an easy task when his heir and pride is Prince Mikuud, Phni Luangha, late of Princeton, a most modern young man who flies his own plane and fights his own fights with the help of his friend George Marlin, who struggles to call him Your Highness when they visit the outside world.

   It starts as George is escorting a rare wanted visitor out of the country and encounters an eager missionary, a type the Sultan especially loathes, but in the pulp world these things can move fast and soon the “Missionary” has drawn a gun and had it shot out of his hand by George and the jungle is hot with gunfire.

   Three men, Langford (the phony Missionary), Kelt (the pilot), and a brutal Australian named Claessens, have found rubies in Kammorirri, the last thing the Sultan needs as the palace drips of them and such treasure would inevitably be an invitation by some Western nation to protect the hell out of the small principality.

   How Prince Mike, with George Marlin’s fast gun and fists, outwits the bad guys, avoids the crisis in treasure by convincing the outside world the rubies are worthless, and cleans up the mess is the crux of a fast moving and entertainingly told tale that encompasses pitched jungle battles, fancy flying, lost temples, well meaning Europeans who have to be protected and held at bay, and just about everything but a romantic interest.

   I don’t know how many of these Chidsey wrote. I do know of at least one other, that being “Run, Tiger!” which appeared in the August 9, 1941 issue of Argosy, and there may be more. “Flight to Singapore” is an entertaining take on the Westernized modern Asian trope that had begun appearing alongside the Yellow Peril several decades earlier, where Number 1 Son and Mr. Moto are both the lead and the brains of the operation, and the plot and action move along at a pace and in high style.

   It’s a shame Prince Mike and George Marlin never got a full length novel adventure. One was well deserved.

LESLIE CHARTERIS “The National Debt.” Simon Templar “The Saint.” Novella. First published as a non-Saint story in The Thriller, UK, 06 April 1929, as “The Secret of Beacon Inn.” Reprinted in All Star Detective Stories, US, March 1931. Rewritten and collected as a Saint story in the book Alias the Saint (Hodder & Stoughton, UK, hardcover, May 1931) and in the US as part of the larger compilation Wanted for Murder by the Doubleday Crime Club in 1931. Reprinted many times in several collections and formats. TV adaptation: As “The Crime of the Century,” The Saint, starring Roger Moore (Season 3, Episode 22; 1965.)

   The history of The Saint over the years is a highly complicated one, and if any of the information above is incorrect, please set me straight. I read this particular story in a paperback entitled Alias the Saint published by Charter in the 1980s, I believe, but as an overall collection, it contains only two of the three stories originally published under that title in the UK in 1931.

   That this was not originally a Saint story, but was cobbled into one when the character proved to be so popular in other stories, helps explains why the Saint spends quite a bit of his tine doing his crime-solving duties under the name of Ramses Smith, as the leading character was so named in the Thriller version.

   Specifics of how he gets onto the trail of a trio of miscreants is not gone into. Suffice it here to say that the three have grandiose plans of some kind, but definitely criminous. To that end they have forced a young female chemist to work on their project with them. How? By drugging her with a doped cigarette, then killing a detective from Scotland Yard and making her believe she did it.

   Enter the Saint. He barges into the inn of the original title where the villains have set up a laboratory for the kidnapped girl to work in. Proving that the direct approach works, and delightfully so, Templar drives up, and improvising as he goes, declares that he’s working for Scotland Yard and if they don’t serve him a meal, he will arrest them all and take them in.

   This is not a whodunit by any means. For the Saint it’s only a matter of “what are they up to?” Before the story ends, he has found out, escaped from a cellar room filled with a deadly gas, and (of course) rescued the girl, all in Leslie Charteris’s usual breezy fashion, glossing over messy details as he goes. The story’s so much fun to read, though, that only nitpickers like me would even bring them up.

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.

Next Page »