Stories I’m Reading


MAX VAN DERVEER “Sam, the Secret Weapon.” Novelette. Desiree Fleming #2. First published in The Girl from UNCLE Magazine, October 1967. Reprinted in Mike Shayne Mystery Magazine Annual #3, 1973, as “The Secret Weapon.”

   I don’t know much about the author, Max Van Derveer. He never wrote a novel, but during the 1960s and 70s he wrote well over a hundred shot stories and novelettes for Alfred Hitchcock and Mike Shayne, including several of the lead stories about Shayne in the latter magazine.

   Of a handful of those stories which featured recurring characters, three of them were about a female spy named Desiree Fleming. She’s still relatively new on the job in “Sam, the Secret Weapon,” or so it’s implied. She’s been given the assignment of protecting a nerd scientist, or so she believes, but by the end of the case, she’s learned in most definite fashion how wrong she was.

   The story, while far from exceptional, is a deftly concocted mix of action and introspection. It’s a tale that can easily creep on you as you keep reading. At least it did me.

   The fellow who runs the Spy Guys and Gals website has a profile on the entire series, even though there are only three, and at best all three are only novelettes. I don’t know much about Max Van Derveer. Any assistance would be most welcome.

   

      The Desiree Fleming series –

“Why Not Bomb Las Vegas?” Mike Shayne Mystery Magazine, April 1967.
“Sam, the Secret Weapon.” The Girl from UNCLE Magazine, October 1967
“The Courier.” The Girl from UNCLE Magazine, December 1967

TALMAGE POWELL “Her Dagger Before Me.” Novelette. Lloyd Carter #1. First published in Black Mask, July 1949. Reprinted in The Third Talmage Powell Megapack (Wildside Press, Kindle edition, 2020).

   Lloyd Carter’s home base is Tampa, Florida, and has been for thirteen years. He’s been a private eye for almost 21 years, when you count the years he spent in the profession in New York before his wife ran out on him then died when a fast freight “got in the way of the automobile” she and her new lover were in.

   He hasn’t gotten used to the heat in Tampa, though.

   The case in “Her Dagger Before Me” involves a girl, tall and slim but with rather drab brown hair who could easily lose herself in a crowd. Her father, now dead, had been enormously wealthy, but she can’t inherit until she is thirty. In the meantime she is convinced that her stepmother is spending it so fast there will be no money to inherit.

   Carter’s job: to scare off her stepmother’s current boy friend, a smooth operator who’s doing his best to help her spend it. When Crater goes to confront him, however, he finds hm dead. As far as suspects are concerned, there are plenty.

   Powell was the author of hundreds of short stories for both the pulps and the digest magazines that followed them in a career that extended from 1944 to 1982. He was also the author of seventeen novels under both his own name as well as various pen names. This story was early in his career, but the writing is smooth and clear, and the story nicely constructed, with an ending that’s well worth waiting for.

   Now here’s what’s interesting. Of the novels he wrote, five of them featured a PI from Tampa called Ed Rivers. Not only was Rivers based in the same location, but the reasons for him moving there were exactly the same as Lloyd Carter’s. Another similarity is his use of a knife as his weapon of choice. Kevin Burton Smith on his Thrilling Detective website considers Carter and Rivers to be one and the same. I agree.

KEVIN PRUFER “The River Market Murders.” Detective Armand #2. Short story. First appeared in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, September 2006. Probably never reprinted.

   Armand is a homicide detective in Kansas City, a town that hardly ever shows up as the scene of a detective fiction story, except maybe in the pulps. In this tale, River Market is an area undergoing urban renewal, and at least one person is violently opposed to young people moving in and squeezing the former residents out. Several of these newcomers have been murdered, all with the same M.O., but the latest doesn’t quite fit the pattern.

   She’s older, for one thing, and she lives out in the suburbs. Her husband doesn’t know why she’d be downtown. She had no friends in the area, no reason to be there.

   Armand is an excellent detective, and the puzzle continues to gnaw at him. He also can relate to the anguish the woman’s husband is going through. He lost his wife in an automobile accident a year or so ago, and the thought of it often keeps him up at night.

   As a detective story, this is a good one, but it’s also one of the darker ones I’ve read recently. Armand finds himself identifying more and more with the victim’s husband, and whether the end of the story is a happy one, I will leave you to decide, if ever you get a chance to read this one.

   Armand’s first appearance was in “The Body in the Spring,” published in the June 2005 issue of AHMM. There were only the two. As to why I thought this one was so well written, I went investigating and discovered that Kevin Prufer is a very well known poet and a Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Houston. His Wikipedia page is here.

RICHARD DEMING “The Juarez Knife.” Novella. Manville Moon #1. First published in Popular Detective, January 1948. Available as an individual story in a Kindle edition (Wildside Press, 2018).

   Not only is this Manny Moon’s first appearance in print, it’s also Richard Deming’s first published work of crime or mystery fiction. Not only did he go on to write hundreds of short stories for the pulp and digest magazines, but he was also the author of dozens of hardcover novels, including three featuring the same Manny Moon, known best perhaps as the private eye with only one leg.

   And in “The Juarez Knife” we learn that he lost the portion of it below the knee in the war, and that to replace it, he’s been fitted with a “cork, aluminum, and leather contraption” that when he tries to get up suddenly at night without it, he finds himself “lying half under the bed on a bruised right elbow.”

   The call is from a semi-crooked lawyer who has a job for him. “Semi-crooked” is my term for him, since he has been indicted once, but nothing more. When he gets to the gent’s office, a young girl goes in before him. When he is called in, the girl has gone out a side door, but his would-be employer is lying across his desk dead, with a knife in his chest.

   As it so happens, the door the girl went though was under watch, and she is the only one who came out. The windows are open, but the ledge outside is too narrow for anyone to have used it, and it’s fourteen stories up. Moon takes her on as a client anyway. He believes she is innocent simply on the fact that after leaving the office she calmly went on to a previously scheduled hairdresser appointment.

   You do not expect stories tin pulp magazines to be traditional locked room mysteries, but this is a good one, and it’s fairly clued as well. The only problem is that the real killer could only be one person, and sure enough, he/she is. Beside the three Manny Moon novels, there were eighteen novelettes and short stories in which he appeared. They’ve never been collected, as far as I know, but a number of them are now available in Kindle format, reasonably priced at only 99 cents each.

REX STOUT “Immune to Murder.” Novelette. Nero Wolfe. First published in The American Magazine, November 1955. Reprinted in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, February 1957, and Ellery Queen’s Anthology #12 (Davis Publications, 1967). Collected in Three for the Chair (Viking, hardcover, 1957).

   I think that Nero Wolfe left his Manhattan brownstone on business more often than Rex Stout wanted us to believe, and when it happened, a big deal was made of it. Strangely enough, though, when Archie and Wolfe make a trip in “Immune to Murder” of over 300 miles by automobile to a fishing camp somewhere up in the Adirondacks, the latter shows only a minor annoyance rather than his usual petulance at being away from home.

   That may be because he’s doing it out of some loyalty to his country, as what he’s been asked to do is cook some fish for lunch at a meeting of ambassadors and various high level financiers. Which he does, but it wouldn’t be a Nero Wolfe story if one of the high level financiers isn’t found dead in the water, having been hit over the head with a heavy stick of firewood.

   Brought in on the case are an Attorney General, a district attorney, a sheriff and three state troopers, all of whom badger Wolfe no end, thinking (improbably) that he, as the only “outsider,” had something to do with it. In his defense, Wolfe consults his own lawyer, some law books, and places a telephone call to the Secretary of State in Washington to make sure he’s on safe ground before identifying the killer.

   The story is fine, but I don’t think it was as much fun to read as those that take place in Wolfe’s own bailiwick. Archie, on the other hand, is Archie, no matter where Wolfe’s cases take them.

C. M. CHAN “The Dressing Table Murder.” Novelette. Jack Gibbons & Phillip Bethancourt #1. First published in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, July 1994. Reprinted in Murder Most Cozy: Mysteries in the Classic Tradition, edited by Cynthia Manson (Signet, paperback, January 1993. Also available individually on Amazon Kindle. June 2016.

   Jack Gibbons is a Detective Sergeant based in Scotland Yard, while his close friend Phillip Bethancourt is the brilliant idle rich amateur who is allowed to follow along on his difficult cases as someone to bounce theories off of. Well, it’s actually more than that. It’s Bethancourt who is the more likely to come up with the theories and insight that Gibbons finds he does not always have on his own.  The former is more likely to let the latter do all of the footwork.

   In “The Dressing Table Murder,” their first recorded case together, a woman has been found dead in front of her bedroom mirror, killed by an instantaneously acting poison while putting her makeup on for the day . The reason I’ve called this a locked room mystery is that there is no food or drink in the room with her that contains any poison. The only other person in the house is the maid, who was in sight of the front door at all times, and the back door of the house is locked.

   The two detectives do not spend a lot of time working on this aspect of the case, however. Most of their investigation is spent on confirming alibis of the various members of her immediate family – it seems unlikely she would allow anyone else to get close to her at her dressing table – and their finances, or the lack of them. Only after exhausting all of the possible lead sin this direction do they get back to the “how” of the matter, which is neatly done — but largely by a modest amount of misdirection by the author.

   The two detectives do make for a most congenial pair, and their first case together is smoothly told. This was the first of twelve short works they shared detective duties on, all appearing in AHMM up through the May 2002 issue. A few years later they started to appear together again in paperback novels, four in all, beginning with The Young Widow in 2005, all under the author’s full name, Cassandra Chan.

ISAAC ASIMOV “All in the Way You Read It.” Black Widowers #13. Short story. First published in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, September 1974. Collected in More Tales of the Black Widowers (Doubleday, hardcover, 1976) and in The Best Mysteries of Isaac Asimov (Doubleday, hardcover, 1986) as “The Three Numbers.”

   The Black Widowers were a dinner club of six members based in Manhattan who met once a month for a meal and discussion, invariably centered about the solution to a puzzle presented to them by a guest brought by one of the members. The pre-dinner discussion in “All in the Way You Read It” is about the strangeness of the English language; the problem to be tackled always comes after dinner.

   To illustrate the former first, consider the word “unionized.” A labor leader might reasonably read this as “union-ized,” while a physicist might see it as “un-ionized.” And just for fun, here’s another: what common word in the English language changes its pronunciation when its first letter is changed to a capital letter?

   The answer comes into play when after the evening meal, that night’s guest brings up the question he has brought. He is trying to open a safe for which he has copied the combination on a piece of paper. He has written it by hand, and it looks like this:

         

   I’m not sure if this one’s easy, or it’s a stumper, but with all of the misdirection provided, I didn’t get it. Either way, one of the amusements of these stories, and Asimov wrote quite a few of them, is that it is invariably Henry, the waiter that serves them, who comes up with the solution. Which he does in this one, too. Nothing noir or hard-boiled about this one!

CHARLES B. CHILD “The Thumbless Man.” Short story. Inspector Chafik J. Chafik #24. Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, December 1961. Published earlier in Collier’s, 21 January 1955 as “Invisible Killer.” Collected in The Sleuth of Baghdad (Crippen & Landru, July 2002).

   If my count is correct, there were 31 stories about Inspector Chafik of the Baghdad Police, the first of them appearing Collier’s, the last four in EQMM. Charles B. Child was the pen name of British author C. Vernon Frost, (1903-1993), who finally had 15 of the tales collected in The Sleuth of Baghdad by Crippen & Landru in 2002.

   In “The Thumbless Man” the victim of a vicious strangulation was the first in line of several men making their way, one-by-one, through a tunnel leading to a burial chamber in a tomb uncovered in an archaeological dig in Akkar, outside Baghdad. No one was inside, and yet the man is dead, with the marks on his throat strangely indicating the killing was done by hands having no thumbs.

   Bit by bit, following very small physical clues but guided by the personalities of the people tat the camp, Chafik not only deduces who did it, but how, a murder which was quite cleverly planned out. Chafik reminds me of Charlie Chan in some ways, keeping his thoughts to himself, but making appropriate but sometimes cryptic statements as he goes about his job.

   The only drawback to highly enjoyable stories such as this, however, is the question, not answered, is why the killer decided to go to such lengths to commit such a murder, one bound to produce more questions than one set up to look like an accident, for example. That would be my approach, how about you?

   

POUL ANDERSON “The Martian Crown Jewels.” Short story. Freehatched Syaloch #1. First published in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, February 1958. Reprinted in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, April 1959; in A Treasury of Great Science Fiction, Volume One, edited by Anthony Boucher (Doubleday, hardcover, 1959); and in (among others) Ellery Queen’s Murder – In Spades! (Pyramid, paperback, 1969) as “The Theft of the Martian Crown Jewels.” Collected in Call Me Joe: The Collected Short Works of Poul Anderson #1. (NESFA Press, hardcover, 2009).

   If you are roughly the same age as I, and if you’ve read the story yourself, there’s a good chance that you did so in the two volume set of the Treasury edited by Anthony Boucher (see above) and given out as a premium to untold new members of the SF Book Club back the 1960s and for many years beyond. It’s also been reprinted many times; I didn’t begin to list them all.

   One reason for the story’s popularity, I think, is that there really aren’t many examples of combining traditional detective stories with hardcore SF, and this is a good one. The detective on the case is Martian private detective Freehatched Syaloch, but this seems to have been his only appearance in print. Missing are the Martian crown jewels, which have been on display on Earth, but on their state secret return to Mars, via Phobos, one of the planet’s moons, they have completely disappeared.

   The rocket they were on was unmanned. They were definitely loaded onto the ship on Earth, but once the ship landed on Phobos, they are nowhere to be seen. The chances of the ship having bee being boarded along the way in the vast expanses of space is impossible, but yet, they are nowhere on the ship, which is hastily taken apart, piece by piece, to be sure.

   While he wrote a few out-and-out mysteries, Poul Anderson was far better known as the writer of hundreds of both fantasy and science fiction stories, but this is no fantasy. As a combo of both mystery and SF, it’s far stronger as SF, with just enough skill on Anderson’s part to cover its somewhat weaker standing as a impossible crime puzzle. Are all the facts the reader needs to solve the theft on his or her own? The answer is yes, if you follow the basic rule that when all the possibles are eliminated, keep on looking!

JOHN S. ENDICOTT “Double Murder.” Novelette. First published in Thrilling Detective, November 1942. Reprinted in Thrilling Detective Pulp Tales, Vol. 1, edited by Jonathan W. Sweet (Brick Pickle Media, paperback/Kindle, 2019).

   Even though John S. Endicott has dozens of story credits for the detective pulp magazines, it wouldn’t be of much help for me to print a list of then all. “Endicott” was a house name, used as a cover by many authors. For what purpose, I don’t really know, but some of the authors whose stories are known to have been published under that byline are Norman Daniels. George A. McDonald and Donald Bayne Hobart.

   For almost of its run of over 20 years and 213 issues, Thrilling Detective was a second or third-rate pulp magazine, but “Double Murder,” whoever wrote it, is a solid notch better than average. The hero is a police detective named Mortimer Tracy who treats a bum to a meal but is suspended from the force when the guy turns out to be an escaped homicidal maniac who knifes two people to death after absconding with a knife from the diner. (Tracy, whose only appearance this probably is, does his best to be known only as Tracy.)

   Working on his own, Tracy is not that sure about what actually happened, and decides to investigate on his own. The rest of the story is a well-written combination of a hardboiled tale with a puzzle story. The first is to be expected in a pulp story from the early 40s; the second not as much. It makes a story all the more pleasurable when it catches you a bit off guard like this.

   The publisher, Brick Pickle Media, already has three collections such as this one, with (I am hoping) more in the works. Even if not all the stories are as good as this one, the Kindle editions are inexpensive enough that I’m quite sure I will be purchasing and downloading more of them as time goes on.

   Other stories in this first collection are: “Murder’s Mandate,” by W. T. Ballard; :Murder Trap” by Johnston McCulley; and “Shed No tears fo Me” by Frederick C. Davis.

« Previous PageNext Page »