WILLIAM E. BARRETT “Skeleton Key.” Novelette. First published in Ace-High Detective, August 1936. Probably never reprinted.

   To pulp readers of long standing, William E. Barrett is best known for his fifteen stories in Dime Detective Magazine about a chap nicknamed Needle Mike. As described in relation to all fifteen being reprinted in two volumes by Altus Press, Needle Mike was “[A] millionaire playboy with a yen for excitement, young Ken McNally disguises himself as the gray-haired, gold-toothed, jaundiced-looking proprietor of a seedy tattoo parlor in the ‘tenderloin’ district of St. Louis. His unusual occupation frequently brings him into contact with underworld denizens who, willingly or accidentally, embroil him in criminal activities.”

   Totally outrageous and totally unforgettable. William E. Barrett, the author, however, were no mere pulp writer. He later became a well-known bestselling novelist, with [according to Wikipedia] three of his books made into films:

      The Left Hand of God, starring Humphrey Bogart.

      Lilies of the Field based on his novel The Lilies of the Field, featuring Sidney Poitier.

      Pieces of Dreams, based on The Wine and the Music.

   “Skeleton Key” was never made into a film, but perhaps it could have been. It begins on a dark and stormy night (not Barrett’s words, but is true) as a young fellow named Jeff Madison is forced to stop at an isolated cabin for shelter and finds himself confronted with a very strange scene: a dead man with three knives in his chest sitting at a table across from a skeleton. On the table are a pair of dice.

   One man is there before him, and two more in separate automobiles soon stop, also forced to stop in the storm, or so they say. With no way to contact the authorities, all five go to bed for the night. Which of course is when the action begins.

   That’s the setup, and it’s a good one. The explanation is much more complicated, and after all the resulting gunfire ended, Jeff Madison finally learns what was behind it all. Did I forget to tell you that Madison has a secret of his own? On his way to the cabin he found a suitcase filled with $50,000 in cash. I’m afraid I did. How do you like that? Not surprisingly, it is the key to everything.


Previously reviewed from this first issue of Ace-High Detective: FRED MacISAAC “The Corpse Goes East.’