Stories I’m Reading


ED GORMAN “Our Kind of Guy.” First appeared in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, July 1996. Collected in Famous Blue Raincoat, Crippen & Landru, trade paperback, 1999, and in Out There in the Darkness: The Collected Ed Gorman – Volume One, PS Publishing, hardcover (limited edition), 2007.

   The late Ed Gorman spent over twenty years in the advertising and public relations business before becoming a full-time writer, and I wonder if he ever put that background to better use than in this story.

   Two partners in a multimillion-dollar advertising agency in a small Midwestern town have 64.3 percent of their business tied up with one client, the Hancher Chicken account, and a crisis is brewing. It turns out that Ted Hancher, the CEO of the company has gotten religion and is about to cancel the account. Apparently he no longer wants his company to be associated with the boozing and high life of Bill and Roy, co-owners of the agency. Drinking, smoking, cursing, women? All verboten.

   What to do? They come up with a plan, one involving a local former call girl named Brandy, a motel, a camera, a little blackmail, and hey presto, no more worries. What could go wrong?

   Well, of course something does, and what a tricky twist of the knickers it is that fate plays on the luckless perpetrators of this far from foolproof plan. But wait! Fate steps in again. A double twist. Most stories manage only one. This one has two.

   Combine this with Gorman’s usual semi-sour look at the world he always wrote about anyway, and prose written so smoothly that you think anyone can do it, but you can’t. The result is a noirish gem of the highest magnitude. An absolute winner.

KEITH LAUMER “Ballots and Bandits.” First published in If, September-October 1970. Collected in Retief of the CDT (Doubleday, hardcover, 1971; Pocket, paperback, July 1978).

   After reading and reporting back on a novel by Keith Laumer called Catastrophe Planet a while back, I realized that I hadn’t read any of the series of stories he wrote about an intergalactic diplomatic troubleshooter named Retief in quite a while. I enjoyed them immensely back in the 60s and early 70s, but as time went on, I started to forget how good they were.

   Shame on me. I read this one a couple of days ago, and I found it as funny as I remember all of Retief’s adventures for the CDT were. Retief is “fighter” spelled backwards, or so I’m told (well, it’s close), and what the initials CDT stand for is Corps Diplomatique Terrestrienne. The stories themselves are wicked, satirical jabs at diplomatic missions around the world, and the US in particular, based on Laumer’s previous career in the foreign service.

   The only difference being that instead of traveling around the world, Retief’s job takes him to all kinds of alien planets all over the galaxy. What’s the same is the dunderheadedness of all ambassadors and their ilk — all Retief’s superiors, but none of them, not one, can maneuver their way through an interworld diplomatic crisis if their lives depend on it. And often they do.

   In “Ballots and Bandits” Retief and entourage (well, technically speaking, he’s part of the entourage) are on the planet Oberon where the enemy Groaci have recently been sent packing, and the various races on the planet are about to have independent elections for the first time.

   Two problems: Ambassador Clawhammer thinks the Terrans should have their say in the matter, and worse, the various races on Oberon have mistakenly taken the idea of election battles and political war chests far more literally as the people of other worlds do. The question is, which is better, being pushed around by local hoodlums, of being exploited from afar?

   Retief is the kind of guy that cuts through diplomatic double talk with total impatience, and as a mere Second Secretary solves the problem as a man who thinks with his head instead of using it as only a place to rest his hat. And in the process this time around he teaches the Oberonians the Rituals of “Whistle-stopping, Baby-kisisng, Fence-sitting, and Mid-slinging, plus a considerable amount of Viewing-with-Alarm.”

   Great stuff. I’ve only scratched the surface of what made me laugh out loud with this one, and more than once.

CHARLIE JANE ANDERS “A Temporary Embarrassment in Spacetime.” First published in Cosmic Powers, edited by John Joseph Adams (Saga Press, trade paperback; 1st printing, April 2017).

    Browsing at Barnes & Noble yesterday, a brand new science fiction anthology called Cosmic Powers caught my eye. I bought it almost immediately, brought it home, and I’m already three stories and 70 pages into it. The overall theme, according to the editor, John Joseph Adams, in his introduction are “stories of larger than life heroes battling menacing force, in far-flung galaxies, with the fate of the universe at stake.”

   Well, yippee! As long as the authors don’t go all early Edmond Hamilton on us, or E. E. Smith, Ph.D., this is the kind of science fiction I’m always on the lookout for, and so far, I’m happy to tell you, they haven’t. The stories are huge in scope, but up close and personal in scale. (I hope that makes sense.)

   The first story in the book, “A Temporary Embarrassment in Spacetime,” by Hugo award-winner Charlie Jane Anders, is a pretty good example. In fact, compared to the deadly dull military SF being published (what I’ve seen of it), it could be faulted in going too far in the other direction; that is to say, making too light of the affair — which in this case consists entering the realm of a huge blob of existence called The Vastness, escaping with a device called a hypernautic synchrotrix on a spaceship called the Spicy Meatball, one of the two perpetrators thereof (one male and one female) being someone who calls on a pair of gods totally new to me (“Thank Hall and Oates!”), and all this in only the first eight pages, with 26 more to go.

   I enjoyed this one. I think the author manages to keep both feet on the right side of fun versus slapstick, but this may very well be one of those situations where simply said, your mileage may vary.

ELEANOR ARNASON “Ruins.” First published in Old Venus, edited by Gardner Dozois & George R. R. Martin (Bantam, hardcover, 2015). Reprinted in The Year’s Best Science Fiction: Thirty-Third Annual Collection, edited by Gardner Dozois (St. Martin’s Griffin, trade paperback, 2016).

   The stated goal of the anthology Old Venus is to showcase new stories based on the vision that SF writers had of the planet back in the 40s and early 50s; namely, a water-drenched planet with all kinds of exotic flora and fauna, a world where humans could live, but it would be a struggle.

   I don’t own a copy of that book, a companion edition to a similar anthology called Old Mars, but now that I’ve read this story in editor Dozois’s most recent best of the year anthology, which I’m slowly working my way through, I know I need to have it.

   In “Ruins” a young female photographer named Ash Weatherman is hired by a representative of National Geographic to put together a small guided tour of some of the more interesting locales on Venus. She agrees, finds a local crew,and off they go.

   This is all great fun. None of the sights and sounds the group comes across would out of place in an old back issue of Planet Stories, to pick a most obvious example. But all is not what it seems, neither with the people she hires as guides, or with the story itself. The crossbreeding of Terran wildlife with that on Venus was caused by a meteor glancing off Earth and hitting that other planet, or was there a second one as well?

   There are also two factions on Venus that ring strangely out of place. The CIA has a strong outpost there, with their primary protagonists being remnants of the Soviet Union, which collapsed economically by trying to keep their colony on the planet going, and this new expedition finds themselves caught up in the crossfire.

   Nor is this all that they find, hence the title. This is the kind of story, extremely well-written, that gave science fiction its grand sense of wonder in the past. It’s good to see that there are authors who can still provide us the same thrills today.

KAREN JOY FOWLER “Private Grave 9.” First published in McSweeney’s Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales, edited by Michael Chabon (Vintage Books, 2003). Collected in What I Didn’t See and Other Stories (Small Beer Press, 2010). Reprinted (and lead story) in The Mammoth Book of the Mummy, edited by Paula Guran (Prime Books, 2017).

   This story takes place in Mesopotamia around the same time that Howard Carter was looting King Tut’s burial site over in Egypt. The unnamed narrator is there at the dig as its official photographer when two things happen: First the discovery of a body of a royal princess in a tomb also containing the remains of seven other women, quite possibly her servants.

   Secondly, and perhaps even as importantly: the arrival of a mystery writer (à la Agatha Christie) hoping to soak up some atmosphere for her next book, and looking for signs of conflict between the various members of the expedition. She finds none, not at first, but as time goes on, she does create some.

   Or do the murderous thoughts that come into his mind come from the princess, Tu-api, rather than the presence of Miss Whitfield? One of the narrator’s photos of the princess mysteriously shows a ghostly image of her face, or is it only his imagination?

   This story is extremely well written, with many fine scenes and phrases to keep the reader turning the pages. To me, however, this is a story in which something is always on the verge of happening, but that something never really does. Nor by story’s end has anything much changed, except to the narrator, who cannot seem to relate what he has found out about himself to anyone except himself.

   But as to whether his discovery translates well to the reader, well, all I can suggest is that is something that will depend on the reader. As for me, I was disappointed, but I also have to tell you there are depths here that make this a story well worth reading.

DASHIELL HAMMETT

DASHIELL HAMMETT “The Tenth Clew.” Continental Op short story #6. First published in Black Mask, January 1, 1924. Reprinted in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, July 1945; revised ending. Also, among others: The Return of the Continental Op (Jonathan Press #J17, paperback, 1945; Dell #154, paperback, 1947); The Continental Op (Vintage V-2013, paperback; November 1975; edited by Steven Marcus); all with the original ending.

    “The Tenth Clew” (or “Clue,” as it is on the front cover of the magazine) is the lead story of the latter collection, which I happened to notice in a box of paperbacks I was going through and decided to read. It’s been a while since I read anything by Hammett, and long since time, I decided, that I should.

    I’d forgotten, though, that Mike Nevins had made a point of talking about this story in his June 2011 column for this blog. When I got to the end of what was otherwise a very enjoyable story, I was taken aback and asked myself what it was that I’d missed.

DASHIELL HAMMETT

    It turns out that it was a major mistake by Hammett and his editor way back in 1924, one that Fred Dannay fixed when he ran the story in EQMM some twenty years later, but then reverted back to the original ending most if not all of its appearances since.

    Since Mike did such a good job in discussing it, I won’t talk about it here, as I’d intended to. Go read about it in that old column of his, then by all means come back. Let me talk about this instead.

DASHIELL HAMMETT

    I don’t claim that the thought is original to me, and I’m sure it isn’t, but it’s worth bringing up again. It occurred to me that Hammett may have been having some fun with the readers of this story, which reads from the very beginning as a straight-forward detective mystery, complete with clues — nine of them, in fact, duly noted by the Op and O’Gar, the detective sergeant assigned to the case.

    Unfortunately the clues, very confusing in and of themselves, also do not lead anywhere, including the fact that the victim was killed by being hit over the head by a typewriter. The Op’s conclusion? The tenth clew? That the other nine clues do not mean anything, and he proceeds to solve the case by assuming exactly that.

    So much for the puzzle stories of Agatha Christie and the like. I’m no purist, and I enjoyed this one, even with the botched up ending.

DOUG ALLYN “Animal Rites.” Published in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, July 1996. Reprinted in All Creatures Dark and Dangerous (Crippen & Landru, 1999).

    It cannot be easy to write a full-fledged detective story in the confines of a short story or even a novelette, but this issue of EQMM has at least three that qualify, the best of them being this 26 page tale by Doug Allyn, who has been a regular contributor to the magazine since 1985.

    “Animal Rites” was the third appearance of Dr. David Westbrook in the magazine. Westbrook was an animal veterinarian whose office was located in the northern end of Michigan’s lower peninsula, not far (I can easily imagine) from the small town where I grew up. It is hard to say how many stories could be placed in such a protagonist in such a setting, but Allyn managed to write nine of them, seven of them included in the collection published by Crippen & Landru in 1999. (Two appeared after the book came out.)

    In this particular tale, David is caught between two sides of a panel debate on live TV. The topic is the hunting of animals for sport, yes or no? Tempers are raised, a confrontation breaks out, and the next day one of the participants is dead. One of the others confesses, but based only on their instincts, neither David nor the local sheriff is convinced.

    It takes a vivid dream to bring into his consciousness the clue David needs to solve the case, but the reader can easily pick up on it as well. The characters are interesting, the setting (to me) like home, and a reasonably fair mystery. All the right ingredients.

    Another good detective story is this issue is “The Thief of Nothing,” by Jeffry Scott, in which Detective Inspector Scipton agrees to help an elderly lady who is convinced that someone is continually breaking into her home, but never taking anything. Scipton helps solve the case, but surprise of surprises, another one as well, plus (and a big plus) in the course of the events he meets a woman who may be the one he’s looking for. At least she thinks so.

    I’m not sure how many stories the late and much missed Edward D. Hoch wrote about Nick Velvet, a thief noted for never stealing anything of value, a fact agreed upon even by the police. In “The Theft of the Bogus Bandit,” Nick is forced to keep that reputation as rock solid as ever when an imposter using his name begins a spree of holdups in which not only does he steal diamonds and the like, but while doing so also severely attacks the people he is stealing from. Nick, naturally, is outraged.

EDMOND HAMILTON “What’s It Like Out There?” Thrilling Wonder Stories, December 1952. First anthologized in The Best from Startling Stories, edited by Samuel Mines (Henry Holt, hardcover, 1953). Reprinted elsewhere many times. The first Hamilton collection in which it appeared was What’s It Like Out There and Other Stories (Ace, paperback, 1974).

   I’m working my way through the latter collection, if reading only the first story so far qualifies as “working my through” it. Although he had an extraordinarily long writing career, “What’s It Like Out There?” is probably Hamilton’s most well remembered story, and it came along toward the beginning of what I consider the last third of it.

   In his early days — the 20s and 30s — Edmond Hamilton was an out and out “space opera” kind of guy, writing stories with titles such as Crashing Suns, The Star-Stealers and The Comet-Drivers, all appearing first in Weird Tales. In the 1940s his career took a nosedive (my opinion) when he spent most of writing time dreaming up new adventures for Captain Future, again for the pulp magazines.

   Whether “What’s It Like Out There?” was his first story written for readers at an adult level, I’m not sure, but from what I’ve read, it turned heads around in SF fandom almost immediately. It’s the story of a survivor of the second expedition to Mars, who before making his way home in Ohio from the hospital where he spent a number of weeks recovering, has to stop along the way to visit the families and loved ones of his friends who didn’t make it.

   He would like to tell them the truth — that their loved ones died in vain, perishing on a cruel and uncaring planet, with their only purpose for being there being the uranium people on Earth need to continue going about their merry and equally uncaring ways — but he finds that he can’t. People on Earth still need their heroes, he discovers, no matter how little they actually care, except when of course it’s personal, and even then, as he discovers, most are happier not knowing the truth.

   There are lots of nuances in this story that the preceding paragraph does not begin to go into. Last night was the first time I’d read this story in years, and it surprised me as to how much I read into it this time that I suspect I didn’t before. More than I remembered, at any rate.

SELECTED BY JONATHAN LEWIS:


ED GORMAN “The Order of Things Unknown.” First published in Lovecraft’s Legacy, edited by Robert E. Weinberg & Martin H. Greenberg (Tor, hardcover, 1990; St. Martin’s, trade paperback, 1996).

   Truthfully, I had no idea where this story was going. Not until I read a little further and got to learn a little more about the protagonist’s sordid past. Apparently, some years ago Richard Hanson murdered an innocent small town girl he picked up on the roadside. His was a vile act, a disgusting murder in every sense of the word. And apparently, this Hanson became a compulsive serial killer of women. During the day, he was a normal family man with a job, wife, and kids. But he also killed and he never knew exactly why he did it and what drove him to such depths of moral depravity.

   The why is the crux of the matter in Ed Gorman’s gripping homage to H. P. Lovecraft. In “The Order of Things Unknown,” Gorman engages in genre blending, mixing a dark crime story with cosmic, supernatural themes once found in Weird Tales and other similar pulps. That question of “why” – why does an average man engage in such unspeakable atrocities? – is answered with reference to the same dark forces that haunted Lovecraft’s imagination.

   Maybe Hanson isn’t a free agent, acting in accordance with free will. Maybe he’s at the mercy of dark forces beyond his control, a mere puppet on the play strings of an ancient god. Overall, a haunting read, one that demonstrates how well versed the late Ed Gorman was with the philosophical and theological issues that so concerned Lovecraft during his short, tumultuous life.

SELECTED BY JONATHAN LEWIS:


LORD DUNSANY “The Strange Drug of Dr. Caber.” Included in The Fourth Book of Jorkens (Jarrolds, UK, hardcover, 1947; Arkham House, US, hardcover, 1948). Reprinted many times including Alfred Hitchcock’s Sinister Spies [edited by Robert Arthur], Random House, hardcover, 1966.)

   There is a long tradition of tall tales being told being told by a single narrator in a gentleman’s club or bar. These include, among others, L. Sprague de Camp and Fletcher Pratt’s Tales from Gavagan’s Bar, Arthur C. Clarke’s Tales from the White Hart and Isaac Asimov’s Black Widowers and Union Club mysteries.

   The story in this particular entry in the category is but one of over 150 short stories written by Irish author Lord Dunsany, beginning in 1925, in which the leading character is a chap called Jorkens. “The Strange Drug of Dr. Caber.” is a (very) short fictional work is as much a puzzle as it is a crime or spy story.

   The tale begins in the Billiards Club where the unnamed narrator and others become involved in a debate as to whether pulling off a murder is easy or difficult. There is about to be an emerging consensus “that murder cannot successfully be committed,” when Jorkens. one of those present, begins to relate the story of one Dr. Caber.

   It is Dr. Caber’s tale that is thus presented for the remainder of the story. And it’s a clever one, perhaps more of a vignette than a short story, but nevertheless one I found to be a compelling read. In 1938, a group of likely British secret agents approached Dr. Caber in order to obtain his services for a most delicate project: kill “Norman Smith,” the pseudonym for a German spy in England.

   Caber reluctantly takes on the project and assures the men that he is going to be able to have “Smith” killed. But he will not mess with the enemy agent’s vicious huge Alsatian dog and he won’t utilize poison. He will merely have Smith pricked with a syringe and lead the man to believe he has been poisoned. As it turns out, Smith ends up dead soon enough.

   How Dr. Caber pulls this off and the role the Alsatian plays in the affair is the key to unlocking the puzzle.

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