Stories I’m Reading


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.’

FRED MacISAAC “The Corpse Goes East.” Novelette. First published in Ace-High Detective, August 1936. Probably never reprinted.

   Designed by Popular Publications as a companion to Dime Detective Magazine, their mainstay detective pulp, the August 1936 issue of Ace-High Detective was the first of only seven before it was discontinued. One can only guess, but poor distribution and low sales were both probably to blame. The authors appear to be the same as were used in Dime Detective, but I have the feeling that their better material ended up in the latter, and not this new kid on the block.

   Truth in blogging. The cover image you see there to the right is not mine. My copy of this first issue is has no covers, and I had to borrow the image you see from the Internet. My copy is still readable, of course, and over the next few weeks, I will doing so and reporting on the results here. Other authors whose stories are to come are William E. Barrett, Norbert Davis, Thomas Walsh and a handful of others.

   Up first, though, is “The Corpse Goes East,” by author Fred MacIsaac, who wrote hundreds of stories for the pulps, both detective fiction and some very early science fiction. Although he is noted for his many serialized novels in such magazines as Argosy and Detective Fiction Weekly, relatively few of them were published later in hardcover form, and he’s all but forgotten today.

   The leading protagonist in “The Corpse Goes East” is neither a PI nor a policeman in any shape or form, but almost assuredly your next best guess, a young attorney by the name of Tom Franklin. While still struggling financially, he has a girl friend — or he would, if he ever has enough money to ask her out on a date.

   Things pick up between them, though, when the girl comes by his office as a client. Her aunt, it seems, has disappeared, and the niece thinks foul play is involved, most probably at the hands of her much younger gigolo husband. That the aunt is also wealthy has a good deal to to with the motive, if indeed she is no longer among the living.

   What Franklin soon discovers, besides a lack of a trail at all, is that she left her apartment on her own, it was without a stitch of clothing, as her wardrobe is completely present and accounted for. But neither is she (or her body) in the building. It has been searched thoroughly.

   This begins as a detective story, a rather stiff and formally told one, but toward the end the action picks up considerably. Tom Franklin gets by by impersonating a policeman far too often, as far as I was concerned, but maybe that’s only fair, since the police do not deserve any awards for their work on the case. This is a routine story, if ever there was one, and middling enjoyable. On the other hand, though, it would have been considerably less than that if in 1936 you were reading Ellery Queen or John Dickson Carr, two authors with whom Fred MacIsaac was never in the same league.

 MARTIN H. GREENBERG, Editor – Deadly Doings. Ivy, paperback original; 1st printing, 1989.

#10. RAY BRADBURY “The Small Assassin.” Short story. First published in Dime Mystery Magazine, November 1946. First collected in Dark Carnival (Arkham House, hardcover, 1947); also collected in The October Country (Ballantine, hardcover/paperback, 1954) and A Memory of Murder (Dell paperback original, 1984) among many others. Reprinted many times, including Children of Wonder, edited by William Tenn (Simon & Schuster, hardcover, 1953). TV adaptation: “The Small Assassin” The Ray Bradbury Theater (Season 2, Episode 6). Comic book adaptation: Story in Shock SuspenStories #7 (EC Comics, February/March, 1953) by Al Feldstein and George Evans.

   “The Small Assassin” is without a doubt the most well known story in this Greenberg anthology. Given that all of the others are detective or straightforward crime stories, it is also by far the creepiest. It’s the story of a new mother who is convinced from day one that her new child hates her.

   And why not? Forced from the luxurious living space of the womb into a cold, cold world, why doesn’t every newborn child hate his or her mother? For the sake of the world’s population, it’s lucky that there’s only a one in a billion chances that any one of these infants is able to do anything about it. But a one in a billion chance does not mean none.

   The idea has been the basis of more than one story or movie over the years, I’m sure, but my thought is that Ray Bradbury is the one who came up with it first, and his unique style of writing is all it takes to make the story convincing, all the way to an ending that once read will never be forgotten.

       —

Previously in this Martin Greenberg anthology: EDWARD D. HOCH “The Unicorn’s Daughter.”

  DONALD WOLLHEIM, Editor, with Arthur W. Saha – The 1989 Annual World’s Best SF. Daw #783, paperback original; 1st printing, June 1989. Cover art by Jim Burns.

#10. JACK CHALKER “Adrift Among the Ghosts.” Short story. First published in the collection Dance Band on the Titanic (Del Rey, paperback original, 1988).

   One of the early ideas of science fiction — or could it possibly be true? — is that all of the signals of every radio or TV show ever aired are still heading out from Earth, and if intercepted they could take the would-be listener, no matter how many light years away, back to the past and all of this planet’s cultural history, a high percentage of which is now considered lost.

   The signals would be awfully weak, of course, and they would need to b amplified. It would also take an alien listener, as it is in this story, years and years to translate, assimilate and sort the worthwhile from the trash. But if that alien listener, perhaps, was a prisoner alone in space, for crimes committed on its own world, with years and years on its hands tentacles, then of course then it could be done.

   There’s only one flaw, and of course I can’t tell you that, for that’s the point of the story. But it’s a flaw worth realizing, and one I think I will remember for quite a while.

   During the 1980s and 90s Jack Chalker as an author will himself be remembered for his many SF and fantasy sagas. all several books long (Dancing Gods, Well of Souls, etc.) than for his short fiction, which in number were not many, but this one is a good one.

       —

Previously from the Wollheim anthology: B. W. CLOUGH “Ain’t Nothin’ But a Hound Dog.”

 MARTIN H. GREENBERG, Editor – Deadly Doings. Ivy, paperback original; 1st printing, 1989.

#9. EDWARD D. HOCH “The Unicorn’s Daughter.” Short story. Simon Ark #? First published in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, 06 January 1982. Collected in The Quests of Simon Ark (Mysterious Press, hardcover, 1984).

   The Simon Ark stories make up one of Edward D. Hoch’s strangest series. Ark himself is said to be a two-thousand year old Coptic priest whose mission on earth is to uncover and destroy the devil’s work on Earth, and yet — and I may be wrong about this — most of his investigations usually end with entirely mundane explanations. (I believe I recall earlier stories concluding on ambiguous notes.)

   In “The Unicorn’s Daughter” Simon Ark is called in to find out why a would-be author jumped to his death through a window of a publisher’s office twenty-eight stories high. The only clue is his address on the title page of his manuscript: Catskill NY, which is where the publisher takes Ark, where they find a strange “gingerbread house gone wild,” to quote the narrator of the story.

   An interesting start to what might have been a challenging investigation, but I found the working out of the rest of the story both overplotted and underwhelming, along with yet another mundane solution. You’re going to have to count me as being among the not-so-very-big fans of the Simon Ark stories.

       —

Previously in this Martin Greenberg anthology: JOHN JAKES “No Comment.”

 MARTIN H. GREENBERG, Editor – Deadly Doings. Ivy, paperback original; 1st printing, 1989.

#8. JOHN JAKES “No Comment.” Short story. Original to this anthology. Not reprinted elsewhere.

   This is the story of Slub Canal, a subdivision somewhere close to Buffalo NY and the series of deaths from cancer caused by the ongoing toxic daily waste-dumping pollution from Metrochem. Everyone knows this, or they do as soon as a loved one dies, their limbs glowing greenishly in the dark.

   The company’s continuing response? “No comment,” primarily from spokesman Buddy Wood. One day a long time worker there has had enough, and the conclusion to the story gives a gruesome double twist to the meaning of the title.

   I guess you could call this a “feel good” story on the part of the author, and you have to commend him for that. But as a story, the ending is all too predictable, and the result is little more than a acreed on the behalf of vigilante environmentalism.

   John Jakes wascovered here on this blog not too long ago, as the author of the science fiction story “Half Past Fear,” reviewed here.

       —

Previously in this Martin Greenberg anthology: HELEN NIELSEN “Woman Missing.”

T. T. FLYNN “Barred Doors.” Short novel. Mike Harris & Trixie Meehan #7. First appeared in Detective Fiction Weekly, May 18, 1935. Probably never reprinted.

   I may be wrong, but whenever female private eyes have come up for discussion on this blog, especially those who primarily appeared in the pulp magazines, the name Trixie Meehan has never been mentioned. It’s true that she always played second fiddle to Mike Harris, her fellow operative for the Blaine Agency, but she’s her own woman with her own cases, and the fact that every so often she’s able to give Harris a helping hand is no reflection on her ability.

   In “Barred Doors” Harris is given the job of tracking down the secretary who seems to have disappeared with a half million dollars worth of unregistered Liberty bonds taken from the safe of the agency’s client, Sir Douglas Carter MacClain.

   Naturally there is a gangster involved and the gangster’s ex girl friend, who has lately been seen gong out on the town with the missing secretary. There is a kidnapping involved, and a strange form of blackmail, or so it is revealed, but with both Mike Harris and Trixie Meehan on the case, everything eventually works out justice finally prevails.

   The story is suitably complicated and well told, but to me, there’s just not enough zip to it to make it more than just a step above average, but above average it most certainly is. There doesn’t seem to be anything of a romantic nature between Mike and Trixie, just a lot of light bickering and back-and-forth banter, nothing more serious than that.

   Having sold off a large number of my DFW collection, I may not get a chance to read another of their adventures, but I’d like to. There were sixteen of them between 1933 and 1951, all but the last published in Detective Fiction Weekly. That final one appeared in Detective Tales, some ten years after the previous one. (It is possible that this last one is a reprint of an earlier story under a new title.)

FRANK GRUBER “The Sad Serbian.” Short story. Sam Cragg #1. First published in Black Mask, March 1939. Reprinted as “1000-to-1 for Your Money,” Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, March 1950. Also reprinted in The Black Lizard Big Book of Pulps, edited by Otto Penzler (Vintage Crime, softcover, November 2007).

   I’d say that a skip-tracer definitely falls into the same category as a private eye, wouldn’t you? This was Sam Cragg’s only solo adventure. The very next year found him teamed up with Johnny Fletcher in The French Key (Farrar, hardcover, 1940) in the first of 14 novels they appeared in together.

   To tell to you the truth, though, I’m not at all sure the Sam Cragg in this story is the same Sam Cragg who teamed up with Johnny Fletcher in all those books. In this one he tells the story himself, and he’s both observant and articulate, while the Sam Cragg in the Fletcher books is little more than a second banana or even a musclebound stooge, if you will. Fletcher is the brains of the pair, Cragg is the brawn.

   And here’s another “to tell you the truth.” While always having an old pupwriter’s gift for words, Frank Gruber’s choice of stories to tell and I are often not entirely on the same wavelength, and “The Sad Serbian” is no exception. It has something to to with a Serbian prince and a scam of some kind he’s pulling on Chicago’s Serbian community, somehow in conjunction (or competition) with a giant 300-pound Amazon of a woman.

   The story’s both too complicated and worse, uninteresting, to me at least, a deadly combination in a story if ever there was one. One saving grace, though, is the interplay between Cragg and Betty, the secretary of the outfit he works for. There should have been more of it. Maybe in a followup story of Sam on his own there would have been.


[ADDED LATER.]   My review of The Limping Goose (Rinehart, hardcover,1954), including a list of all 14 Johnny Fletcher and Sam Cragg books can be found here.

  LESTER del REY, Editor – Best Science Fiction Stories of the Year: Second Annual Edition. E. P. Dutton, hardcover. 1973. Ace, paperback, December 1975.

   #11. PHYLLIS MACLELLAN “Thus Love Betrays Us.” Short story. First published in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, September 1972. Reprinted in The Best from Fantasy and Science Fiction: 20th Series, edited by Edward L. Ferman (Doubleday, hardcover, 1973).

   I have been remiss. It’s been over a month since I reviewed the previous story in this anthology. At this rate, when I’m done, an event that is still four stories off, neither you not I (and especially I) will have any way to look back and put the book into any kind of overall perspective.

   But I can say this now. I admire Lester del Rey’s willingness to pick stories by authors who were not very well known then and even more so now. Phyllis Maclellan’s SF writing résumé consists of seven short stories and one novel, Turned Loose on Irdra (Doubleday, hardcover, 1970), which seems to escaped the notice of almost everyone.

   But even so, “Thus Love Betrays Us” is a good one, and is well worth being chosen for this Best of the Year anthology. When biologist Alex Barthold is dropped off by an exploratory ship on the planet Deirdre to learn what he can about it as a one man expedition, what he does not know is that the ship will never return. Until superiors realize that something has gone wrong, he will be as alone as he can be.

   This on a planet on which there is no day or night, only an ever present gloom on a place in which the only plant life is various forms of moss. He sends reports out, but replies never come back. He’s all alone on a world that seems to close in on him more and more every day.

   Until, that is, he comes across a strange truly alien being whose life he happens to save. They become friends, he thinks, but aliens are aliens, and friendship may or may not be friendship in the sense that Barthold assumes to be reciprocal. This, in the end, is the point of the story, most literately told. No Planet Stories tale, this.

          —

Previously from the del Rey anthology: C. N. GLOECKNER “Miscount.”

Next Page »