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.