Stories I’m Reading

Reviews by L. J. Roberts


ANN CLEEVES “Frozen.” Minotaur, free e-short story, 2021.

First Sentence: Vera woke to a free day and an unexpected longing for exercise.

   It’s her day off, and DI Vera Stanhope takes the opportunity to visit a new bookshop located in a renovated chapel. What she was not looking for was a skeleton unearthed in a cellar baptismal font. Time for Vera to solve this long-cold case.

   Cleeves’ descriptions allow one to see places we’ve not been, in the present and the past— “Standing with her back to old stones, she imagined squads of legionnaires marching… they must have policed the region then, so she saw them as her forbears, as kindred spirits, and felt a connection across the centuries.”

   Bringing us to the present, she carries forth that sense of timelessness with her wonderful imagery— “the building that had once been built to the glory of God, now celebrated the story in all its forms.” Whereupon the mood is effectively broken and the investigation begins.

   Even though the books are separate from the television series, those who watch may clearly hear the voice of actress Brenda Blethyn as Vera. Rather than a negative, it adds a warmth and personal touch to the story. Still, this is not Vera’s story alone, but one which includes her team, including Joe who is still her second in the books, and Holly in a scene that makes one smile. However, if one is looking for in-depth descriptions of the characters, or quantities of backstory, it’s not here. “Frozen” is a short story, after all, and fits in after book eight in the series.

   What is here is atmosphere and Cleeve’s creative use of the weather almost as another character. Nothing is lost in the construction of this fascinating short story. Suspects are identified, clues tracked down with twists and red herrings.

   “Frozen” may be a fairly simple story, but it is well-crafted and, if one has not previously read Ann Cleeves, this a perfect introduction to her writing and the Vera series.

Rating: A

KENNETH GAVRELL “Hurricane Force.” Carlos Bannon #10. Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, August 1991.

   Perhaps because that this is the 10th in the series of recorded cases for Puerto Rico-based PI Carlos Bannon, certain assumptions were made, and it takes a while for the first time reader (me) to realize who Raquel is, for example, (his girl friend) and even the fact that his is, in fact, a private eye. He doesn’t have a client in this one. He works on the case of the death of the wife of the couple living in the apartment next door only for his own curiosity.

   What’s also somewhat different about this one is that it takes place during a hurricane, with the woman’s death first attributed to a awning that had come loose during the high velocity winds during the storm, fracturing her skull. Carlos, however, thinks the dead woman’s husband is acting suspiciously, and he follows up on them. It is only that he is friends with the police that saves him from worse trouble himself.

   The story doesn’t have a lot of depth to it, I admit, but it reads very smoothly, and if I ever came across another of Carlos’s adventures, I’d be sure to read it. There were 15 of them altogether, all of them appearing in AHMM between 1980 and 1998.

UPDATE: Kevin Burton Smith, the man behind the Thrilling Detective website, has quite a bit more about Bannon. Since he quotes me on his site every once in a while, I don’t think he’ll mind if I quote him his time around. This will add to the information about Bannon that didn’t come up for me in this particular story:

   “He was born Carlos Bannon Santiago, sole offspring of a Puerto Rican mother and a gringo father. He divided his childhood between Salinas and New York. After a stint in Vietnam doing his duty for Uncle Sam, and a failed marriage, he headed back to San Juan, where he runs a small detective agency. He has a part-time secretary, Maria, who tries her best to keep Carlos honest, and a sometime assistant, Raul, a young guy who handles some of the scut work. And, occasionally, he calls in his girlfriend, Raquel Nieves, for backup. She’s a private detective herself, for the considerably larger Athena Detective Agency.”

RUSSELL D. McLEAN “Coughing John.” PI Sam Bryson #3. First published in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, July/August 2005. Collected in The Death of Ronnie Sweets (and Other Stories); see below.

   PI Sam Bryson’s base of operations is the small town of Dundee, Scotland, and while “Coughing John” is in many ways a small story, it is also one that is long on attitude and introspection. Dead is a homeless man whom everyone noticed, but whom was also part of the landscape, and when he was found dead, it is only Sam who puts any effort into finding his killer.

   Kids on the street who were simply bored, perhaps? Once Sam learns that the dead man’s name was John Woodrow, an actual name, he knows he needs closure, and the only way to do that is to find out who it was who was responsible for his death.

   As I said before, this is not a long story, but it may get under your skin as deeply as it does Sam Bryson. I’ve already purchased a copy of the collection, which I’m sure is the best way to find out more about the fellow, and after reading this story, I’d like to do so.

      The Sam Bryson series –

The Death of Ronnie Sweets. Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, June 2004.

Dudman’s Word. Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, December 2004.

Coughing John. Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, July/August 2005.

Regrets. Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, December 2005.

Like a Matter of Honour. Thrilling Detective, Fall 2006.

What Friends Are For. Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, April 2008.

Her Cheating Heart. Spinetingler Magazine, Summer 2008.

Davey’s Daughter. Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, September 2008.

Flesh and Blood. Collateral Damage, 2011.

The Water’s Edge. Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, November 2015.

Collection: The Death of Ronnie Sweets (and Other Stories). Independently published, 2011, Kindle; paperback, 2017. Includes all of the stories above except “The Water’s Edge.”

ROBERT W. TINSLEY “Smuggler’s Blues.” PI Jack Brady #1. First published in PI Magazine, Spring 1989. Collected in The Brady Files, Kindle edition, 2011.

   Jack Brady is a big guy, not easily intimidated. He’s a former Navy SEAL and now a PI whose home base in El Paso TX, which as far as I know is a first among fiction PI’s. At six feet four and 280 pounds, he also finds it difficult to find furniture that fits him. And with El Paso right on the border with Mexico, one suspects that many of the cases he gets involved with involve border incidents of one kind or another.

   This first case, “Smuggler’s Blues,” certainly does. Brady is hired by the brother of a man who died while being smuggled across the border, a Salvadoran who had recently been released from prison there for political reasons. The man supposedly drowned, and his death would have been written off as that, if Brady and his client hadn’t interfered.

   The story is too short to be more than an incident, and by itself leaves little impression. Brady, who tells the story himself has just enough of a way with words to make the telling enjoyable. Efforts to sound like a tough guy are just a little iffy; a little more “down and gritty” would have helped. Chalk this one down as an early one in Brady’s career.

      The Jack Brady stories

“Smuggler’s Blues” (Spring 1989, PI Magazine)
“Killer” (Winter 1989, PI Magazine)
“Graveyard Shift” (April 2002, HandHeld Crime)
“No Good-Bye” (June 2002, HandHeldCrime)
“Beating On The Border” (Summer 2003, Thrilling Detective Web Site)
“Hijack on the Border” (Oct/Dec 2003, SDO Detective)
“Horse of the Same Color” (Fall 2003, Hardluck Stories)
“Grasshopper” (Winter 2003, Hardluck Stories)
“Double Death” (February 2004, Shred of Evidence)
“A Kiss Is Just A Kiss” (April/May/June 2005, Futures)
“For Felina…” (Winter 2004, Thrilling Detective Web Site)
“Out of the Shadows” (June 2005, Mysterical-E)
“The Horse Holder” (Aug/Nov 2005,Shred of Evidence)
“Sweet Dreams”
“The Prodigal”
“Questioning the Dead”
“The Running Man”
“Moby Dick in a Can”

   These last five may be original to the Kindle collection.

RUSSELL BENDER “Heat Target.” PI Dick Ames. Published in Black Mask, October 1936. Not known to have been reprinted or collected.

   Richard “Dick” Ames is set up as a full-fledged private eye, with a license, an office, and a secretary. But in reality he’s a troubleshooter with only one client, that being Jonathan McCrea, the mayor of Terrapin City, Maryland. And his work is really cut out for him in “Heat Target,” apparently his only appearance in print. This one’s a doozy.

   The boy friend of the mayor’s daughter is the problem. He’s been warned to stay away from Felicia (her friends call her Felix), but they’ve been seen together far too often for the mayor’s liking. But when the young lad turns up dead in his hotel apartment, and the mayor was seen entering at exactly the time of his death, Ames suspects it is an all but iron-clad frame-up, but he can’t prove it.

   I liked this one. Bender tells the resulting tale, one chock full of a lot of shootings and other crooked business going on, with a terse, hard-bitten prose that does nothing more than remind you that there’s a reason why Black Mask is considered the best there was when it came to detective pulps in the 20s and 30s.

   Here’s a lengthy description of Ames himself:

   “He was a large, indolent looking man, broad of shoulder, slim of waist; but the indolence was in the careless grace of his walk, in th manner in which he slouched on a chair, slouched against tables, bars, telephone poles. He had a rugged face. There was a strength about him, but it was the strength of a dozing, stretching lion. His movements were slow but you knew instinctively that he could move as fast as hell.”

   I think I might have cast Robert Mitchum in the role if they’d ever made a movie of this one.

   Strangely enough, while Russell wrote quite a few stories for the detective pulps, he wrote only two others for Black Mask: “Body-Guard to Death,” (novelette)   October 1938 and “Copper’s Moll,” (short story) July 1940. Based on this one only, I’d have thought there’d have been more. There should have been.

Note: Some other information about Bender can be found in the comments following Paul Herman’s recent overview of the entire issue of the October 1936 Black Mask.

FRITZ LEIBER “The Sadness of the Executioner.” Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser. First published in Flashing Swords #1, edited by Lin Carter (Dell, paperback original, July 1973). Collected in Swords and Ice Magic (Ace, paperback, 1977).

   Although this is nominally a Fahfrd and the Gray Mouser story, they don’t appear the ninth page of this 15 page tale, which is basically little more than long vignette. No, the main protagonist before then is Death, and in particular the death that services the World of Nehwon, and he has fallen behind on his duties. So far, as the story begins, he has to choose 200 of those now living to pass through to the other side.

   To that end, 196 have done so. He has four remaining, and two of them are our duly fated heroes, neither of who are aware of their upcoming destiny. Nonetheless destiny, or fate, has a way of stepping in, and Death being a sportsman, in spite of his inevitable cheating, decides to let it have its way.

   It was Leiber who is said to have coined the phrase “swords and sorcery” as a subgenre of the larger world of fantasy, and while a minor tale, “The Sadness of the Executioner” is a prime example.

   And as Lin Carter so states in his introduction to the story, Leiber’s finely tuned fantasy resembles in no way that of Robert E. Howard, creator of Conan the Barbarian, among other similar and inimitably ruthless characters, and the other major author in the field. Which is why I still read Leiber’s work, while tales of Conan lie today with their pages unopened, at least by me.

SARA PARETSKY “The Case of the Pietro Andromache.” PI V. I. Warshawski. Novelette. First published in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, December 1988. Collected in Windy City Blues (Delacorte, hardcover, 1995). Reprinted in Sisters in Crime, edited by Marilyn Wallace (Berkley, paperback, 1989), and in Women on the Edge, edited by Martin H. Greenberg (Dutton, hardcover, 1992).

   I believe, but I am not positive about this, that this is one of few stories “Vic” Warshawski is in that is not told in first person. She’s brought in only after the fact, after her good friend Lotty has been arrested for killing another doctor in the hospital where she works. They didn’t get along to begin with, but the other man’s death occurred after Lottie had bitterly accused him of theft, that of a valuable sculpture that went missing in Europe during World War II.

   Paretsky’s writing is as smooth as usual, but leaving the story to be told in third person allows Vic to do all of the detective work off stage, only to be revealed later, in a “gather all the suspects together” final scene. Even though there is one solid clue in the form of a piece of dialogue that we, the reader, are privy to, the ending I found to be mystery story light and very disappointing.

ROGER TORREY “Jail Bait.” Pat McCarthy & Margie Chalmers #1. Published in Black Mask, October 1936. Not known to have been collected or reprinted.

   This is Roger Torrey’s homage to The Maltese Falcon, as you might decide to call it. I lost track after a while, but there are at least four, maybe five, passages where PI Pat McCarthy tells somebody that while he disliked his partner, now dead, he didn’t kill him and he’s obliged to find out who did do it, because … well, for two reasons. The first because it wouldn’t be good if he didn’t, and secondly because to clear his name for good, what better way to do so than to find the real killer.

   McCarthy is the kind of guy who’s left several jobs with other agencies across the country, all because he has a temper and doesn’t necessarily get along with people, especially cops, and he really would like to keep this one, which he bought into as an equal partner. This means looking into the cases that Dakin was working on. The most obvious of these was a case involving city-wide police corruption.

   Where Margie Chalmers comes in is that she was Dakin’s beautiful blonde girl friend, and she introduces herself in this one by coming for him gun in hand. McCarthy escapes a bullet by the narrowest of margins and eventually calms her down, enough so that he manages to persuade her to help in trapping Dakin’s killer. Even so, there’s no indication that the two of them are going to continue as a crime-fighting duo, but apparently it was so, as they appeared together in thirteen more tales, all for Black Mask between this one in 1936 on through to the February 1940 issue.

   All in all, though, this is no more than an average story, well padded with incidental and somewhat repetitive byplay, such as with a pair of cops who hold a grudge against him, and the feeling is mutual. It’s good enough, though, to wish that someone might read this and decide to put together a collection of all the McCarthy/Chalmers stories.

ERLE STANLEY GARDNER “Slated to Die.” First published in Argosy Weekly, January 11, 1936. Delbert “Del” Free #1. Novelette. Probably never collected or reprinted.

   Del Free, whose first and most likely only appearance this was, is one of those gentlemen of leisure in Erle Stanly Gardner’s pulp stories who every so often seeks out adventure by poring carefully over the personal ads of local newspapers and sees what he can find. Here’s the one that catches his eye to start this story off:

At eleven o’clock tonight drive your
car to place where you had your puncture
about a month ago when you walked in to
the Big-E-Garage. Park it and wait. We
will blink our lights three times. Every-
one well. Sends love.   A. B. C.

   This, of course, would catch my eye, too, if I had the free time and a lust for doing something out of the ordinary. Free scouts out the area, finds a car he thinks may be Valere’s, blinks his lights three times, and finds himself way over his head in, of all things, a kidnapping scheme, and caught between a girl who is trying to pay off the gang who are holding her father ransom, the gang members themselves, and yet another gang who also has read the same personal ad that Free has.

   The result, from the point of view of the reader of the story itself, is a long, involved tale of who is where, doing what, being captured and threatened with torture before escaping, and in general racing around not knowing exactly what is going on, the latter on the part of all three parties.

   There is no deduction in this tale. It is pure action from start to finish. Not one of Gardner’s better tales, but even so, third rate Gardner is a lot better than a lot of his competitors.

   One other thing. Most of the rest of this issue of Argosy Weekly is taken up by small chunks of serial installments, which is why most pulp collectors today are not all that interesting in buying single issues of the magazine. There are four such installments in this issue: various portions of novels by Borden Chase, H. Bedford-Jones, Karl Detzer, and Dennis Lawton.

   Question: Did those people who bought copies of Argosy from their local newsstand back in 1936 read a given issue straight through and throw them away, or did they stack them up at home and then read novels that had been serialized only once they had all the parts together? It’s too late to ask anyone who was there then, but maybe some of you just happen to remember how their grandparents handled this.

JACOB HAY “The Opposite Number.” First published in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, December 1966. It is unknown (to me) whether or not it has ever been reprinted or collected.

   I first read this story in August of 1967, which is well over 50 years ago. Who thought then I’d be writing about it now? Not I, that’s for sure. But I reviewed it then in a diary format which I’ve been reposting here on this blog, mostly for my amusement but hopefully for others as well.

   I gave this particular story 3 stars out of five, but I wrote very little about it, so when I expressed some interest in reading it again, my friend Sai Shakar quickly found that issue, scanned the story, and sent it off to me by email in PDF format.

   It’s the story of Evan Pulsifer, a low level Intelligence analyst for the CIA. His particular field of expertise is the small African country of Sundala. Into the office every day, and home by five. Until, that is, the arrival of Colonel Nogaanami Falsaki, his Opposite Number from that country, who, also being in a dead end job, but being somewhat more ambitious than Pulsifer, has a plan.

   What if, he suggests, that there were a CIA plot to overthrow the Republic of Sundala? Wouldn’t that start the wheels of progress (if not war) rolling? To their mutual benefit? Off Pulsifer goes to Sundala, and between bouts of polo and the Sunda Shakes, his efforts to calm the situation find him promoted to his next post – in Paris!

   This is the P. G. Wodehouse version of the espionage business, and as such, while extraordinarily humorous, if not laugh-out-loud funny, goes a tad over the top for me. Good, in other words, but not great. As I said at the top, I gave it 3 stars then, and being maybe a Mr. Grumpy more than I should be, 3 stars now.

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