Stories I’m Reading


LESLIE CHARTERIS “The Angel’s Eye.” Short story. Simon Templar aka “The Saint.” First published in The Saint Detective Magazine, June/July 1953; reprinted in the September 1963 issue. First collected in The Saint in Europe, (Hodder & Stoughton, hardcover, 1954). TV episode: The Saint, 11 November 1966. (Season 5, Episode 7), with Roger Moore.

   While making various stops along the way in a vacation trip across Europe, Simon Templar, as he always does, comes across a strange request for help, this time in Amsterdam. An employee of a diamond merchant tells the Saint he brought an expensive diamond known as The Angel’s Eye into the office of a well-known diamond cutter to be recut. When he returned later, he was told they did not have the diamond, that it was never brought in, the receipt was forged, and they’d never seen him before.

   The Saint has a certain kind of radar for this sort of thing:

   Something like a phantom feather trailed up the Saint’s spine, riffling his skin with ghostly goose-pimples. And on the heels of that psychic chill came a warm pervasive glow of utter beatitude that crowned his recent feast more perfectly than the coffee and Napoleon brandy which he had not yet touched, nor would ever do. His interest was no longer polite or even perfunctory. It had the vast receptive serenity of a cathedral.

   
   Could you stop reading at this point? I think not.

   If in any dreams I may have ever had of writing mystery fiction and producing passages such as this, I’d pinch myself immediately and wake up.

   

         Back then in January 1968. I said:

TALMAGE POWELL “The Dark, Unfriendly Tide.” Published in Dime Mystery Magazine, May 1945. A man tries to dispose of a girl’s body in the bayou, but the elements betray him. Overly melodramatic. (3)

         Now:

   A man tries to dispose of an ex-girl friend’s body in a Louisiana bayou, but fate is against him, badly. Very atmospheric and readable, but there’s nothing here that couldn’t be foretold from the first paragraph on. (2)

         Back then: January 1968. I said:

BRUNO FISCHER “Deadlier Than the Male.” Novelette. Published in Dime Mystery Magazine, May 1945. A soldier’s buddy comes home from the war to check on his friend’s wife, who seems to have changed. Murder welcomes him at the door. Fairly obvious ending. (2)

         Now:

   While on furlough and with his buddy is still off fighting the war in Germany, Sgt. Peter Cole visits his friend’s wife, whose letters to him have become fewer and fewer, and what’s worse, less passionate. The woman who greets him is beautiful and outwardly caring, but Cole senses something is off.

   Hearing a small noise in the bedroom and his suspicions aroused, he forcibly decides to check it out. What he does not expect is to find is a dead man in a closet. Knocked unconscious almost immediately, the next thing he knows is being woken up by a cop in the alley behind his friend’s wife’s apartment. Both of them head back in, but of course the body is missing.

   It’s a good opening, and Fischer always had a good way with words, so this one starts out with a lot of promise. But sometimes the openings of stories by even good authors fail to fulfill early expectations, and such is the case here. What follows is a decent enough detective story, but it runs a little too complicated, and what Fischer failed to do is make it interesting as well. I wish I could say otherwise, but there were no sparks in this one for me.

Rating: 2 stars.

CORNELL WOOLRICH “Finger of Doom.” First published in Detective Fiction Weekly June 22, 1940. Included in Great American Detective Stories, edited by Anthony Boucher (Tower, hardcover, as “I Won’t Take a Minute.” Reprinted in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, January 1957, as “Wait for Me Downstairs.” Collected in The Ten Faces of Cornell Woolrich (Simon & Schuster, hardcover, 1965) as “I Won’t Take a Minute.” Radio plays: Suspense (CBS), December 6, 1945,    as” I Won’t Take A Minute” and Escape (CBS), March 19, 1949.

   It probably wasn’t the first novel or story to fit the theme, but it came early, and the movie made of it was a big hit at the time. I’m speaking of Ethel Lina White and her book The Wheel Spins (1936), and the Alfred Hitchcock movie The Lady Vanishes (1938) that was based on it.

   Nor do I believe that “Finger of Doom” was the only time that Cornell Woolrich used the story line to good – no, great – advantage. A young man picks up his girl as she leaves from work. They are in love and the wedding day is less than two weeks away. He has an evening of fun planned for them, but first she must do a small errand for her employer. There is a small package she has to drop off for someone living in an apartment building which is on their way.

   She rings the bell, she is allowed in, she goes up – and she doesn’t come down. He waits outside, shifts his feet, walks up and down a little, and waits some more. The young man’s thoughts go from a vague unease, to worry, and finally to near panic.

   Although he has doubts, a policeman comes to help, but no one in the building has seen her, the room she was to deliver the package to is empty, and the final blow comes when they return to her place of work, and another woman working there says her name is the same as the young man’s girl.

   Cornell Woolrich is the out-and-out master of this kind of “everyday gone wrong” type of story, and even so, this is one of his best. The smallest details fit perfectly, especially in describing the young man’s thoughts standing outside the apartment building where his girl has vanished into. I suspect that everyone reading this has gone through situations similar to this, although perhaps never so serious as this. It must explain why his panic as it grows and grows is so very very contagious.

Rating: 5 stars.

LARRY NIVEN “All the Myriad Ways.” Short story. First published in Galaxy SF, October 1968. First reprinted in Worlds of Maybe, edited by Robert Silverberg (Thomas Nelson, hardcover, 1970). First collected as the title story in All the Myriad Ways (Ballantine, paperback original, 1971). Nominated for a Hugo, 1969.

   “There were timelines branching and branching, a mega-universe of universes, millions more every minute. Billions? Trillions? Trimble didn’t understand the theory, though God knows he’d tried. The universe split every time someone made a decision. Split, so that every decision ever made could go both ways. Every choice made by every man, woman and child on Earth was reversed in the universe next door. It was enough to confuse any citizen, let alone Detective-Lieutenant Gene Trimble, who had other problems.”

   Thus begins one of SF writer Larry Niven’s better known short stories. One of Niven’s strong points as a writer has always been to take complicated scientific ideas and incorporate them into stories that make the commonplace and easy.

   (If you were to ask me what science is involved in the concept of parallel worlds such as outlined above, I’d have to shrug my shoulders and say, “Quantum physics? Maybe??”)

   No matter. The idea of alternate realities branching off from each other has been around for a long time and not only in SF stories. What makes this one kind of unique is that Niven places it in a world in which an epidemic of suicides is taking place. The latest of these is that of the head of Crosstime Corporation which has found a way to transverse these myriad worlds and bring back inventions in those worlds which haven’t yet come to fruition in his own, making him fabulously wealthy.

      [WARNING: Plot details ahead.]

   Niven postulates that faced with worlds in which every choice made in making a decision of any kind, mankind is beginning to feel that there is no point in making choices of any kind, and that suicide is the only solution.

   It’s an interesting idea, but I’m not so sure about that. Right now, in this world, we don’t have the option of traveling across time, but the likelihood of me, say, jumping off a tall building because I no longer feel as though any decision I make is moot, is awfully slim, to say the least. But as food for thought, “All the Myriad Ways” really has me thinking about it. It’s too bad that I’m not a SF writer to put some of these thoughts into words. But I’m working on it.

Rating: Five stars.


JACK VANCE “Phalid’s Fate.” Novelette. First appeared in Thrilling Wonder Stories, December 1946. First collected in The Dark Side of the Moon (Underwood-Miller, hardcover, 1986).

   As a strike against the enemy in the ongoing Earth-Phalid war, Ryan Wratch agrees to have his mind transferred to that of a Phalid that has been captured. Ryan’s own body had been all but destroyed in a Phalid attack, his brothers having been killed in the same incident. The Phalids are insect-like creatures with long black carapaces, oddly jointed legs, and rubbery tentacles with mottled gray undersides, hardly human looking at all.

   The plan is to have Ryan rescued in space by the Phalid, then taken to their hitherto unknown home planet, where he can act against them from the inside. The plan succeeds exceedingly well, and if you don’t realize that there has to be a beautiful female captive that also needs rescuing, you haven’t read all that many space opera stories like this one.

   And that is exactly what this story is. Out-and-out space opera. And I enjoyed it immensely. This was only the third published story in Vance’s long career, and it’s hardly representative of the kinds of story he became famous for. You can tell that he was a writer, though, even at this early stage, or that he was going to be one, especially in passages in which he is describing the Phalids’ home planet, in what I’m going to refer to as what became his well-established baroque style.

DOUG ALLYN “Puppyland.” Dr. David Westbrook #4. First published in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, September-October, 1996. Second place Ellery Queen Award winner in 1996, losing out only to his own story “Roadkill” (5/96). Collected in All Creatures Dark and Dangerous (Crippen & Landru, 1999). Reprinted in Master’s Choice, Volume II, edited by Lawrence Block (Berkley, hardcover, 2000).

   Although he’s written at least eight novels, Doug Allyn is one of those authors who over the years has gained a lot more acclaim for his short fiction than he has for his longer work. He has been, for example, a consistent award winner for his stories in EQMM, sometimes two stories (out of three) a year.

   One of his continuing short story characters is a veterinarian named David Westbrook who plies his trade in a small town in Michigan. And naturally most, if not all, of these stories involves animals. Such is the case in “Puppyland,” in which a small puppy is born with a cleft palate. This means that he can never eat on his own. His only chance for life is to be hand fed for all his meals.

   Which is what his owner, a woman who is disabled herself, is willing to do. But when she is found dead after her respirator fails, her husband immediately blames the dog, whose chew marks are found on the plug to the wall. Dr. Westbrook thinks there is more to the story, however, and he decides to play detective, to good avail.

   But there is more than detective work involved. Even before the dog’s eyes are open, he can be seen to be dreaming. But of what? The woman thinks he is dreaming of Puppyland, “a kind of hound heaven, where [puppies] can run and play all day.”

   Anyone who has had, and lost, a pet will enjoy this story, especially the ending.

JOHN ANTHONY “The Hypnoglyth.” First published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, July 1953. Reprinted in Portals of Tomorrow, edited by August Derleth (Rinehart, hardcover, 1954), and A Decade of Fantasy and Science Fiction, edited by Robert P. Mills (Doubleday, hardcover, 1960).

   A word first, if you will, about August Derleth’s Portals of Tomorrow anthology. I never realized it before, but having recently decided to read a long-owned copy, it’s clear that its original intent was that it was to be the first of a “Best of the Year” series of anthologies, this one covering SF for the year 1953. If the subtitle doesn’t give it away: “The Best Tales of Science Fiction and Other Fantasy,” then Derleth’s introduction does, without quite saying so but obvious by reading between the words. Perhaps the publisher had a change of heart somewhere along the way.

   And so, what I’ve also decided to do is to read my way through the book and report back on each of the stories as I do. The year 1953 was maybe six years before I started reading the SF magazines from the local newsstand, so I wouldn’t have had the chance to read them while the ink was still fresh on them. These will be my opinions today, not from back then, often based on seeing them for the first time, not from later collections or anthologies.

   And at first glance, “The Hypoglyth” is a strange choice to begin a book with. Neither the title or author was at all familiar to me. Not even learning that “John Anthony” was the pen name of John Ciardi helped at all. But Derleth was right. This one’s a small gem of storytelling.

   There are only two characters in the tale. One is a returned space traveler  telling a friend about his adventures on a primitive planet he has just visited. To that end, he hands his companion a strange woodlike artifact which is not wood, but which has a small hollow on one side. As the space traveler goes on with his story, the other cannot help but use his thumb to continually stroke the hollow. It is as if he is being hypnotized by it, but if so, to what end?

   I wish I could tell you more, or even hint at more, but I can’t. Suffice it to say that if you play close attention to what the one man tells the other about life on the planet, everything is there to fall into place at the sweetly foreshadowed ending. Emphasis on sweetly, as say a Stanley Ellin story in another genre altogether.

ERLE STANLEY GARDNER “The Bird in the Hand.” Lester Leith n#33. First published in Detective Fiction Weekly, April 5, 1932. Reprinted in The Hardboiled Dicks, edited by Ron Goulart (Sherbourne Press, 1965).

   Outwardly Lester Leith appears to be nothing more than a wealthy man of leisure, complete with a man servant he derisively calls Scuttle. Fully known to him is that Scuttle is in reality an undercover operative named Edward Beaver who works for the New York City Police Department.

   Why? Because while not a crook, exactly, Lester Leith takes great delight in reading about various crimes in the newspaper and finding exceedingly clever ways to relieve the real crooks of their ill-gotten gains.

   And always right under the watchful eyes of Beaver and his superior officer, the very irascible Sgt. Ackley. Boiling over, in fact, the latter is, at the end of every story, having been fooled again, and badly. He never learns, to the delight of the thousands of Gardner’s readers.

   In “Bird in the Hand,” the question is, what happened to a murdered man’s trunk, which has completely disappeared from his hotel room, along with five expensive pieces of stolen jewelry – the dead man known to have been a notorious fence and having had the gems in his possession.

   Among the items Leith gathers together to obtain the jewelry for himself is a skilled female pickpocket and a large cage containing a bird he describes as a “Peruvian bloodhound-canary.”

   The Lester Leith stories are wickedly clever, and this one is one of the better ones. One can only wonder how Gardner was able to come up with so many plots for them all – over 70 of them. I have read enough of them to think of them as formulaic, but the formula is a doozie of one.

Note: I first wrote a review of this story in 1967, and I posted it on this blog a few weeks ago. Follow the link and you can read it here.

LESTER DENT “Angelfish.” Oscar Sail #2. First published in Black Mask, December 1936. Reprinted in The Hardboiled Dicks, edited by Ron Goulart (Sherbourne Press, 1965).

   Miami-based PI Oscar Sail thinks his latest case is a screwy one, and it surely is. His client is a pretty girl named Nan Moberly who needs him to fake an attack on her, complete with gunfire, phony blood and a doctor who’s ready to swear she’s been shot. Sail complies, but stunts like this one seldom work out as planned.

   What follows is a complicated melange of stolen aerial photos, lots of bad guys after them, a cab driver with a wooden leg named John Silver, several deaths, Nan’s kidnapping, and a race by small boat through the wind-raged fringes of a hurricane to save her – one of the most detailed such voyages I’ve ever read.

   This is by far the most hardboiled story in all of Ron Goulart’s anthology. Dent always had a way with words, and he’s at his absolute best in this one. The ending in particular is as chilling a conclusion to a story you will read anywhere. It really is a shame hat he wrote only the two tales of Oscar Sail.

Note: I first wrote a review of this story in 1967, and I posted it on this blog a few weeks ago. Follow the link and you can read it here.

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