Stories I’m Reading


EDMUND CRISPIN “Beware of the Trains.” First published in The (London) Evening Standard, 1949. Lead story in the collection of the same title (Gollancz, UK, 1953; Walker, US, 1962).

   Is it possible to tell to tell an “impossible crime” mystery in ten pages and get away with it? The answer is yes, and “Beware of the Trains” is a fine unadulterated example.

   Crispin’s primary detective character, Gervase Fen, is by profession an Oxford professor, but he has a decided penchant for running into — and solving — all kinds of unusual crimes. In this story he is once again luckily on hand when the engineer of the train he is on mysteriously disappears, even though the police have the small station surrounded, hoping to nab a notorious burglar whom they suspect was on the train, but who is not.

   That the thief may never have been on the train means that the latter part of that previous sentence is not an impossible crime, but where is the driver?

   Fen uses his wits, does some searching, and comes up with the answer, all neatly and tidily done. Another author who specialized in short story impossibilities was Edward D. Hoch, some of whose efforts along these lines have been collected, but not enough of them to suit me.

ISAAC ASIMOV “The Cross of Lorraine.” First published in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, May 1976. Collected in Casebook of the Black Widowers (Doubleday, hardcover, 1980; Fawcett Crest, paperback, March 1981).

    The Black Widowers were a men-only dining club that met once a week in a private room of a Manhattan restaurant. Each evening one of the members brings a guest, who after dinner is questioned as to the reason for his existence. In the conversation that follows, a problem the guest has invariably comes up and is tackled by the members as a group. The solution to the problem, however, also invariably comes from Henry, the waiter.

    There were 66 of these stories altogether. Five collections of twelve stories each were published in Asimov’s lifetime. Some of the stories were original to each volume, otherwise all but two appeared first in EQMM. The last six plus eleven reprints were collected in The Return of the Black Widowers (Carroll & Graf, 2003).

    “The Cross of Lorraine” is the first story in the third collection, and it follows the pattern of all the others. While the guest, named Larri, is only a so-so magician, his fame comes from exposing phony mystics, and a lot of discussion takes place involving sleight of hand and misdirection, which is where Larri’s problem comes in.

   It seems that he lost track of a woman whose company he was enjoying on a bus ride. When he fell asleep, she got off at her stop, and his only clue is a young French lad’s assertion that he saw the double-barred Cross of Lorraine when she did so, but retracking the route, Larri could find no such symbol along the roadway.

   The solution is simple but exceedingly clever. You probably can’t read too many of these in a ow, and shouldn’t even try, but at a slow pace of only one at a time, these old-fashioned and clearly told puzzle stories, for that is what they are, are a lot of fun. They were among Asimov’s own favorite stories to tell as well.

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H. G. WELLS “The Magic Shop.” The Strand Magazine, June 1903. First collected in Twelve Stories and a Dream (Macmillan, UK, hardcover, 1903) and The Country of the Blind and Other Stories (Thomas Nelson, US, hardcover, 1911). Reprinted and anthologized many times. Adapted for The Alfred Hitchcock Hour by John Collier, 10 January 1964, with David Opatoshu as Mr. Dulong. Readable online here.

   One of the many tropes in early science fiction was that of a shop or a building that is there one day, but gone the next. The very notion that one could randomly happen upon a commercial establishment one day and that it would be literally gone the next day is one of those quirky concepts that speculative writers play with so well.

   So it shouldn’t come as any surprise that when I began reading H.G. Wells’s “The Magic Shop,” that one of the first things I thought of was whether the eponymous shop would exist one day and vanish the next. Lo and behold, I was not disappointed. For in this rather whimsical tale, a father and his son visit a magic shop in London wherein they discover a wide array of magical and mystical items for sale. The father, a skeptic, and his son Gip encounter a proprietor who may not be lying when he tells them that he deals in real magic.

   There is something charmingly innocent about this story. The dialogue in particular harkens back to an almost fairy tale like innocence. Indeed, it’s Wells’s ability to conjure up a sense of wonder that makes this story about a magic shop doing its own disappearing act a short, but pleasurable read. Recommended.

ANDREW KLAVAN “All Our Yesterdays.” Lead story in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, March-April 2017.

   The story begins with a horrific view of life (and death) in the army trenches in France in World War I, then tells the story of a survivor identified only as Brooks, as he recuperates in a make-shift hospital facility in Gloucestershire.

   Suffering from uncontrollable blackouts, he finds a friend in Dr. William Haven, to whom he confides his fears that life will never be the same. Brooks believes that the Victorian era was the best time in the world to be alive. Standards have fallen. Women wear trousers now.

   But then when a girl is found brutally murdered, Brooks also fears that he is the one responsible, and we have at last the reason this story was chosen as the lead for this issue, with the life of a young barmaid named Nancy at stake — a tale perfectly told.

   Author of some 30 novels, Andrew Klavan has been nominated for the Edgar Award five times and has won twice, first for Mrs. White in 1984, which he wrote under the pen-name Margaret Tracy, as Best Paperback Original, then for The Rain in 1990 in the same category, a book he wrote as Keith Peterson.

NINA KIRIKI HOFFMAN “Vinegar and Cinnamon.” Lead (and cover) story in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, January-February 2017.

   In a world in which magic exists, but not everyone has the same ability to cast spells, one family undergoes a small tragedy when the twelve year old sister transforms her fourteen year old brother into a rat. It was in fit of anger, and once done, she does not know how to reverse it.

   Luckily Sam decides that he likes being a rat. His sense of sense of smell is enhanced tremendously, for example, even though his vision is restricted to seeing only objects nearby.

   Even emotions have smells: “vinegar surprise, hot-pepper anger from Ma; baking-bread love from Pa; and caramel love and salt-water dismay from Maura.” Maura does her best to change Sam back again and he finally agrees to let her try. Does she succeed? Read this delightfully enjoyable homespun sort of tale and find out.

   Nina Kiriki Hoffman has written 17 novels, some for pre-teens and young adults, including The Thread That Binds the Bones, reviewed by Barry Gardner here on this blog. Her short story “Trophy Wives” won a 2008 Nebula award.

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ROBERT BLOCH “The Chaney Legacy.” First published in Night Cry, Fall 1986. Reprinted many times, including Witches & Warlocks, edited by Marvin Kaye (SF Book Club, hardcover, 1990).

   How does an actor become a monster? What method does an actor have to utilize, what magic must they conjure up in order to become a cinematic fiend? Bela Lugosi didn’t just portray Dracula; he became Dracula. What about Boris Karloff and Peter Lorre? How did they become the characters they portrayed? And what of Lon Chaney, the famed silent film star who portrayed monsters, grotesque villains and strange looking men?

   That’s the obsession plaguing a character named Dale in Robert Bloch’s gripping and creepy little tale, “The Chaney Legacy.” Dale, a researcher of Hollywood lore, is faced with a choice: does he decide to live in a Hollywood Hills bungalow once inhabited by Chaney or does he maintain his romantic relationship with a local broadcaster named Debbie Curzon. True to his obsession with Chaney and the late actor’s films, Dale chooses the house.

   As any fable reminds us, it can be dangerous to pursue a question and a line of inquiry to its rightful conclusion. In his obsessive quest to understand how Chaney became the characters he portrayed, Dale stumbles upon a secret that would have better been left in the past. The secret comes in the form of a makeup kit with a mirror, the very makeup kit that Chaney apparently utilized to “become” the characters he portrayed in the silent films.

   But as any good student of horror fiction knows, sometimes secrets are dangerous. That’s definitely the case in this sublimely bizarre short story by Robert Bloch. Recommended for horror fiction and film fans alike.

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STANLEY ELLIN “Robert.” First published in Sleuth Mystery Magazine, October 1958. Reprinted several times, including Tales for a Rainy Night, edited by David Alexander (Holt Rinehart & Winston, hardcover; 1961; Crest d557, paperback, 1962) and Ellin’s story collection The Blessington Method and Other Strange Tales (Random House, hardcover, 1964; Signet D2805, paperback, 1966).

   Frequent visitors to this blog are likely familiar with the work of Stanley Ellin (1916–1986). A prolific mystery writer and the winner of three Edgars, Ellin sold his first story, “The Specialty of the House” to Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine in 1948. Several of his works were adapted for film and television.

   One of Ellin’s stories, simply entitled “Robert” has, as far as I know, never been adapted to stage or screen. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t vast potential there for such an adaptation. A work of horror and suspense more than a mystery tale, “Robert” concerns the interactions between a schoolteacher named Miss Gildea and the eponymous Sixth Grade student. Robert is not like the other kids. He’s a bit … different. And his difference seems to stem from his having uncanny, if not almost psychic, powers.

   Students and schoolteachers often don’t get along. And there’s always one troublemaker in particular that seems to have it in for the teacher. But Robert really has it in for Miss Gildea, so much so that he confesses that he wished he could kill her. This leads the frantic schoolteacher to rush to the school principal. Big mistake. For from the moment that she makes young Robert her adversary, things start going downhill for her. And fast.

   Overall, “Robert” doesn’t explain why things are happening so much as depict a scenario in which such bizarre things could possibly occur. While the resolution to the story is somewhat anticlimactic, getting there is a thrilling little ride.

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MORRIS HERSHMAN “Pressure.” First published in Manhunt, February 1958, as by Arnold English. Reprinted under his own name in Tales for a Rainy Night, edited by David Alexander (Holt Rinehart & Winston, hardcover; 1961; Crest d557, paperback, 1962).

   Sometimes all that a compelling crime story requires is a scenario, a mere vignette in which two characters face off in primarily one location. This works best in “short and taut” stories, those that focus on a single character’s dilemma and are of a length of no more than 2,000 words or so.

   Such is the case in Morris Hershman’s “Pressure,” a tense, albeit not overly memorable, tale about a gangster’s final confrontation with the police. Hershman conjures up the character of Dapper Phil Rand, an aging gangster from the Prohibition Era who has managed to survive well into the late 1950s. Rand’s gone to jail before and isn’t particularly afraid of going back. The one thing he simply won’t do is rat on the Syndicate.

   Enter “Coffee,” a cop who is willing to offer Rand a deal of a lifetime: protection and relocation to South America if he’s willing to name names. But Rand’s not willing to do that, so Coffee decides he is going to have to play hardball and apply some pressure, albeit not the physical kind. Rather, he tells the press that Rand’s singing like a canary, that Rand is spilling the beans on the Syndicate. Then he lets Rand out of the police station.

   What happens next tells us a lot about Dapper Phil Rand. Will he return to Coffee and catch a plane to South America or will he find a way to convince the Syndicate that it was all a ploy? What happens next is a portrait of a greying gangster under pressure.

DASHIELL HAMMETT “The Gutting of Couffignal.” Black Mask, December 1925.   [+]   RAYMOND CHANDLER “Red Nevada.” Black Mask, June 1935. Both stories have been reprinted many times, including a joint appearance in Great Action Stories, edited by William Kittredge & Steven M,. Krauzer. Mentor Book, paperback original, May 1977.

   I came across the Kittredge & Krauzer paperback one day a short while ago, and I decided to bring it along on a recent cross-country flight I made. I’m glad I did. Other than the stories above, it also includes stories by Mickey Spillane (“I’ll Die Tomorrow”), Len Deighton, Fredric Brown, Robert L. Fish and a number of others, the names of most of whom I’m sure would be readily recognizable to everyone who visits this blog on a regular basis.

   But the two authors featured at the top of those listed on the front cover are Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, the two most famous proponents (if not out and out creators) of the “hard boiled” school of writing, bar none. And while the two stories the editors selected are alike in some way, in others they are as different as night and day.

   The plot of “The Gutting of Couffnignal” is the simpler and more straight forward of the two. The Continental Op has been hired to watch a table filled with wedding gifts overnight on a island in San Pablo Bay off the California shore, connected only by a single bridge.

   An easy job, or it would have been if a gang of robbers armed with machine guns and other weapons doesn’t attack the island, blowing up the bank and a jewelry store with dynamite, and killing scores of people in the process. With the help of a family of Russian expatriates, the Op assumes the responsibility of coming to the aid of the entire island, and that he does.

   The action is fast and furious, but the Op shows that all the while he’s on the move, he’s thinking too, and the ending is as hard boiled an ending as you imagine. It’s a story that once begun, you won’t put down until you’re done, with Hammett fully in charge with clear,clean prose.

   “Nevada Gas,” Raymond Chandler’s tale of personal warfare between some top gangsters in the city of Los Angeles, is as hard boiled as Hammett’s, but the story is a lot more complicated and filled with some subtle nuances that can easily take you more than one reading before you decide you’ve caught them all.

   Two scenes in particular stand out. In the first a heavy set crooked lawyer named Hugo Candless is taken for a ride in a limousine mocked up to look like his own, but it is not, and what’s more, it’s rigged to delivered a dose of fatal gas to anyone who finds himself trapped in the back seat.

   The second, almost unnecessary to the plot finds a guy named Johnny De Ruse, who’s also the main protagonist, having escaped the same trap himself, going to a gambling place and faking his way into seeing the one responsible by making a scene in a crooked casino room.

   As opposed to the Hammett story, Chandler’s zigs and zags, giving the reader only brief glimpses of a connected tale, but connected it is. Chander’s prose is lot more ornate, and the ending is much more quiet, but to my mind, it’s equally effective.

   Question: If you’ve read both, which story did you like better? Which author tickles your fancy more?

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WILLIAM SHARP “The Graven Image.” First collected in The Gypsy Christ and Other Tales (Stone and Kimball, 1895). Reprinted in Great Tales of Terror, edited by S. T. Joshi (Dover, 2002). (Follow the link to read the story online.)

   Sometimes a story can leave you with an indelible sense of horror, indeed of terror. Skilled horror writers know exactly what imagery and settings can instantly evoke a sense of dread in the reader. Locales such as an abandoned mansion, a campground at twilight, and an uncharted island all can be utilized to great effect in transporting the reader into a realm of literary danger.

   In William Sharp’s “The Graven Image,” the reader is treated vicariously to a night’s stay in a haunted bedroom, a setting that should lend itself to a solidly constructed short story. Unfortunately, the setting itself is unable to carry the story to a satisfying conclusion.

   The tale follows the narrator, Cornwall native James Trenairy, as he recounts his disquieting stay at “The Mulberries,” an old house in Kensington, London inhabited by both the living … and the dead. Although the story is most certainly a well written and captivating supernatural tale, it nonetheless feels incomplete, as if it’s more of a vignette than a complete short story. The reason for this is as simple as it is oft neglected, particularly in stories that aim more for shock value than for dramatic effect. Other than resolving to never stay in the house again, the protagonist undergoes no fundamental character or life change as a result of his experiences.

   That’s not to say that Sharp wasn’t more than capable of both building tension in the story and envisioning a situation that surely would evoke a sense of horror in readers. It’s just that the story concludes without us wondering exactly how this horrible experience, described in exquisite detail, will affect the psyche of one James Trenairy.

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