Stories I’m Reading

LOREN D. ESTLEMAN “The Used.” First published in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, June 1982. Reprinted in The Black Lizard Anthology of Crime Fiction, edited by Edward Gorman (1987) . Collected in Desperate Detroit: And Stories of Other Dire Places (Gallery Books, softcover, April 2016).

   Ed Gorman’s Black Lizard anthology cited above is an unabashed homage to Black Mask magazine, and although this story was written as a standalone without a series character in sight, I think it would have fit right in. The protagonist is an accountant who is the star witness against a gangster he used to work for, and who has been promised protection and a new identity by the Feds.

   Not an uncommon situation, especially in mystery stories like this one. But, what if something goes wrong and the defendant gets off? The Feds are no longer interested in him, and he’s on his own, up sh*t creek without the proverbial paddle, that’s where he is.

   The prose is as smooth as silk, told seemingly effortlessly and building in tension as it goes. This may be the best story I’ve ever read by Estleman, terse, taut and stretched to the breaking point. That’s a statement that’s saying something, since Estleman is also the author of 31 top of the line adventures of Detroit-based PI Amos Walker, starting with Motor City Blues in 1980, and still counting.

Rating [on my H/B = Hardboiled Scale]: 8.5

ELIZABETH BEAR & SARAH MONETTE “Boojum.” Short story. First appeared in Fast Ships, Black Sails, edited by Ann & Jeff VanderMeer (Nightshade Books, 2008). Reprinted in three “Best of Year” anthologies edited by Kathryn Cramer & David G. Hartwell; by Gardner Dozois; and by Rich Horton. Also reprinted in Cosmic Corsairs, edited by Hank Davis & Christopher Ruocchio (Baen, 2020).

   Nothing says “space opera” more than pirates in space, and that’s exactly what this story’s about. What’s somewhat unique (though perhaps not entirely) is that the pirates’ ship is a living organism, a boojum, a spacefaring vessel they have named the Lavinia Whateley. She is described as “a vast spiny lionfish to the earth-adapted eye. Her sides were lined with gasbags filled with hydrogen; her vanes and wings furled tight. Her color was a blue-green so dark it seemed a glossy black unless the light struck it; her hide was impregnated with symbiotic algae.”

   What is likely to be even more unique is that when the crew has finished plundering their latest prey, Vinnie finishes it off, hull, engines and all, by, um, eating it. Part of their loot in their latest score are some cylindrical metal containers containing human brains. Captain Song laughs it off, but Black Alice Bradley, a junior grade engineer, is not so sure about it. She is right.

   The cylinders were a shipment intended for the Mi-Go, and they want what they paid for. The Mi-Go come “from the outer rim of the Solar System, the black cold hurtling rocks of the Öpik-Oort Cloud. Like the Boojums, they could swim between the stars.” Black Alice likens them to “the pseudoroaches of Venus … with too many legs, and horrible stiff wings.”

   Black Alice likes living in Vinnie, and hopes someday Vinnie will respond in kind. Luckily she is on the outside of the ship on a repair mission when the Mi-Go show up … but you will have to read anything more than this on your own. This is as far as I go.

   I think that Black Alice, who is the primary protagonist in this one, could be played in a TV show based on it by the young lady who stars in Poker Face, which I reviewed on this blog a while back. She’s a most sympathetic figure, in a definitely non-conformist way.

   Other than the action that’s packed into this one, well, I assume you all recognized the Lewis Carroll reference. But what about the Livinia Whately (from The Dunwich Horror) and the Mi-Go (aka the Fungi from Yuggoth)? This gives the tale a whole new dimension, most certainly so.



A(UGUSTUS) BOYD CORRELL, according to FictionMags, was “born in South Carolina; Newspaperman, writer for Walt Disney, author of magazine short stories; died in Los Angeles.” In 1948 he co-authored a novel, The Dark Wheel (a.k.a. Sweet and Deadly), with Philip MacDonald.

   Correll specialized in short crime fiction, however, with his over two dozen stories being placed in the major detective pulps of the ’40s and ’50s; in the ’60s he generated two episodes for Robert Taylor’s Detectives TV series, and the ISFDb credits him with three works of SFF (Science Fiction-Fantasy). Although we’re sure more of his stories are lurking out there somewhere on the Internet, for the moment we can locate only two of them, both of which are, not surprisingly, movie-related.

(1) “The Corpse That Played Dead” (Thrilling Mystery, Winter 1943) Online here.

   Film actor Ronald Edwards’s movies always lose money, so why does Panamint Studios boss Emil Friml keep making films with Edwards in them? For Friml, the main concern is that somebody is trying to kill Edwards while he’s making a war movie, falling sandbags and flame-throwers blasting real flames at his leading man. This is enough for Friml to call in the studio’s unofficial detective, Jimmy Lee, our first-person narrator. In spite of Lee’s presence right there on the sound stage, though, someone succeeds in doing Edwards in just as they’re filming a battle scene on a bridge:

   “I jumped up from the pile of scenery and started for the prop bridge, with Jane and her brother close behind. I leaned over the actor. A dark red worm of blood was jerking and twisting from his temple, and his throat moved convulsively. He sighed and gurgled. Then the blood stopped jumping, and merely seeped as though no more was left in his body. . .

   “As I started for the door, the background lights, casting their eerie glow of red, suddenly blinked out. The stage was in total darkness. I let out a yelp of surprise and was smacked flat as someone rushed past me. Jane screamed — a long, piercing cry that echoed and reechoed through the building.

   “I heard a thumping as I pushed to my feet and held my hands out to avoid another collision. There was a swishing, grating noise as though a body were being dragged across the floor, then a bump — and silence. . .

   “I started, when I glanced at the spot where the corpse had been. The body was gone.”

   Lee doesn’t realize it at the time, but the apparently pointless act of the body being dragged across the floor is the key that will unlock how — and who — murdered failed matinee idol Ronald Edwards.

   Here’s a nice bit of descriptive writing that also serves to delineate the character of the studio boss:

   “One moment he wasn’t there, and the next he was. In the ghostly light of the background flares, he looked like Scrooge and the devil rolled into one. His withered leg swung like a pendulum between his good one and the mahogany crutch which supported him. His head, a tremendous load for such a scrawny neck, was covered with a fuzz of colorless hair. His ears were pointed and belonged on a character from a child’s fairy story book. I had seen him often, but I was always startled when I faced him.”


(2) “Death on Location” (Mammoth Mystery, January 1946). Online here.

   “It seemed to be a very good location for filming a horror movie. In fact it was so good the most horrible of all creatures kept everybody’s nerves on edge and finally ran off with the heroine.”

   Tom Ferguson’s normal occupation is scouting for movie locations, but when he embarked on this particular expedition he never anticipated finding an old woman with her throat torn out — or getting attacked by a swamp monster that walks on two legs (a “gibbering thing that smelled of putrefied flesh”), a creature straight out of a nightmare that, oddly, seems a mite too protective, not of its territory per se, but of some small shiny, round things that your average monster wouldn’t think twice about, but which would definitely excite human interest, enough human interest to lead to murder . . .

INTRO. This is the fifth and final story in the February 1936 issue of Dime Detective that I covered in its entirety in my column “Speaking of Pulp” in the April/May/June, 1979 issue of The Not So Private Eye.

   The cover illustration is taken from the final story, a long novelette by T. T. Flynn entitled “Bride of the Beast,” which sounds more like a horror story from Dime Mystery than it docs a detective story. Flynn was an extremely prolific detective story writer from the pulps. He’s never seemed to have gathered much attention, but his stories are always filled with action, and more, they seem to know where they’re going.

   In this one, a circus is about to go bankrupt — strange things are happening on the midway! Trouble-shooter Steve Waring is sent out by the bank to find out what’s going on, and on his first night on the job an elephant rider in the opening procession is decapitated, almost in full view of the horrified audience.

   The circus atmosphere is excellent, the menace is effectively scary, and no holds are barred in producing sudden and violent death. It ends with a furious train ride through the night and with the nightmarish capture of a crazy killer about to torture Joan Wells, tied and helpless, running the circus in her father’s absence, with a twisted replica of love. Hence the title. I guess it sounds like corn, but it’s still the best story in the magazine.

   As you’ll have already gathered, if you’ve been paying attention, the emphasis [in the stories in this issue of this magazine] has not been on ordinary detective work, This had probably been even more true in earliest days of Dime Detective, which was first published in the early 1930s but the trend away from grotesque mystery had not yet eliminated it from the magazine by 1936, as we’ve just seen. Many people tell me they prefer the 1940s version of DD, when the accent changed slightly from the incredibly fantastic to the merely screwy.

   Give me a hand, will you? Help me clean up these little shreds of brown paper that are all over the floor here …

BRETT HALLIDAY “Dead Man’s Clue.” PI Mike Shayne. First published in This Week, 28 November 1954. Reprinted in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, September 1957 and in Ellery Queen’s Anthology #9, 1965 Mid-Year Edition, in both two latter cases as “Not–Tonight-Danger.”

   As I’m sure most of you who read this blog on a regular basis already know, both “Brett Halliday” and his fictional character Mike Shayne were the brainchildren of author Davis Dresser. Over the years, though, especially after Mike Shayne Mystery Magazine had begun, but including the novels themselves, Dresser started farming out the telling of the tales to other writers, including such luminaries as Ryerson Johnson, Robert Terrall, Dennis Lynds, James Reasoner, Richard Deming, Hal Charles, and more.

   But as far as is known now, only one of the stories was written by Dresser’s then wife, Helen McCloy, and by some non-pure coincidence, this is the one. It’s unusual in a way, as it’s almost entirely a puzzle story, making it no surprise that the editors of EQMM picked up it for inclusion in both their magazine and a later anthology they did.

   It begins with a client coming to Shayne with a strange confession. To warn his wife about being careless about her purse, he “steals” it from her in a crowd of people, only to discover he’d stolen the wrong one. In one those equally strange coincidences that happen in fiction more often they do in real life, a valuable diamond medallion had been stolen that same evening in the same hotel.

   When Shayne’s client is found murdered, though, any idea of coincidence is immediately rejected. The only clue is a strip of paper with writing on it found in the stolen purse belonging to someone else, thus transforming the tale from that of an ordinary PI story to that of a clever puzzle to be unraveled. Shayne is up to the task, however, in the hands of behind the scenes author Helen McCloy, known for her many works of classic detective fiction. It ends perhaps a little more quickly that I might have liked, but this is still a small “gem” of a story,

INTRO. These are the third and fourth stories in the February 1936 issue of Dime Detective that I covered in it entirety in my column “Speaking of Pulp” in the April/May/June, 1979 issue of The Not So Private Eye.

   The next couple of shorts can be disposed of rather quickly. “Postlude to Murder” by Donald S. Aitken features a private eye named Barker on the trail of a missing nephew who doesn’t know he’s suffering from hydrophobia. Once located, he’s immediately kidnapped. Somehow the story’s just too short for all these bizarre happenings to begin to become convincing.

   Next up, Robert Sidney Bowen is a pulp author probably more famous for his flying stories. He did all the science-fictional Dusty Ayres (and his Battle Birds) air war novels, for example, but he also did a couple of hardcover private eye novels in the late 1940s.

   In “The Flying Coffin” his hero is Kip Lacey, ace trouble-shooter for Central Airways, a nice combination of both writing worlds. A strange case; once again, not surprisingly, the emphasis is on the bizarre. A corpse traveling incognito as air cargo is kidnapped, then turns up later as the victim of a hit-and-run accident. There are some noticeable loose ends in the final wrap-up, but only because Lacey’s loyalty is to the airline, and not to the cops.

WILLIAM E. BARRETT “The Tattooed Cop.”  Novelette. Needle Mike. First published in Dime Detective Magazine, February 1936. Collected in The Complete Cases of Needle Mike, Volume 2 (Steeger Books, November 2022).

INTRO. This is the second story in this issue of Dime Detective that I covered in it entirety in my column “Speaking of Pulp” in the April/May/June, 1979 issue of The Not So Private Eye. To answer the question I brought up in the first paragraph, the answer is Yes.
   Let’s go on, I’ve never been sure if William E. Barrett, author of the “Needle Mike” stories is the same person who later wrote such bestsellers in the 50s as The Left Hand of God, but it could be. After all, if MacKinley Kantor could go on to better things from [beginning in]  the pulps, so perhaps could a few others.

   But who’s Needle Mike, you may be saying. He’s actually the son of a millionaire, and he relieves the monotony of his existence by posing as the disheveled operator of a run-down tattoo parlor on the wrong side of the St. Louis tracks. He appeared in a long series of stories in Dime Detective during the middle 30s, and this one’s about “The Tattooed Cop.”

   In it, the identification of a dead cop with a tattoo on his chest gets Mike (or Ken McNally) into deep trouble with a tough gang of marijuana peddlers who prey on gullible college boys and girls looking for a cheap thrill. It reads pretty well — an interesting premise, that you’ve got to admit —  up until the moment Mike gets a mammoth hunch about a doped-up weed addict he finds in an upstairs room in the gang’s hideout. He’s right, of course, and the story becomes little more than confused action from that point on.

CARROLL JOHN DALY “Corpse & Co.” Novelette. Race Williams. First published in Dime Detective Magazine, February 1936. Added later (see comments #7 and #13): Collected in The Adventures of Race Williams (Mysterious Press, trade paperback, 1989), and in Just Another Stiff, The Collected Hard-Boiled Stories of Race Williams, Volume 5 (Steeger Books, 2019).

INTRO: This pulp fiction PI review has been excerpted from a column I did for the April/May/June, 1979 issue of The Not So Private Eye, a fanzine published by Andy Jaysnovitch for several years in the late 70s. In this particular column, titled “Speaking of Pulp,” I dissected, if you will, the complete February issue of Dime Detective Magazine. It was a long column, so I’ve decided to break it up and post it here story by story.

   And so with no further ado, here’s what I had to say about story Number One:
   The lead novel is a Race Williams yarn, written by a name you should recognize. The story is entitled “Corpse & Co.”, and it’s written of course by Carroll John Daly. It’s called a novel on the contents page out of courtesy only, for it runs only 33 pages long. Still, in terms of actual wordage, my calculator works that out to be the equivalent of 70 to 75 pages of today’s average hardcover novel. So call it a third of a novel.

   And it reads that way as well. Maybe I have bad luck whenever I pick up a pulp to read a Daly story in it. His stories, whether a Race Williams adventure like this one, a Satan Hall yarn, or whatever, they always seem as though they were installments of unannounced serials. What I mean is I get the idea that a series of connected Daly stories would follow in consecutive issues of a given magazine, each supposedly complete in themselves, but always seeming to begin in the middle of a plot, and never winding up the loose ends completely. I’ve never taken the time to check this out, and so perhaps I stand to be corrected.

   Anyway, the focus of all the action this time around is a previous case in which the bodies that Williams so happily provided in the final scene were conveniently disposed of by one Gentle Jim Corrigan. To avoid bringing in the feds, and to save Mary Morse’s business and reputation, Williams agreed to this course of action. Of course that leave Miss Morse open to a bit of blackmail, and that’s this story. Since her jewelry business is still floundering, Race refuses her case at first (no dough in it), until he’s forced to take it when the blackmailer gets the bright idea that Williams will make a handy target for tommy-gun practice and is better off dead just on general principles.

   As a prime example of the supreme self-appointed vigilante, Race Williams was probably the founder of that particular school of tough private eyes. Mike Hammer turned out to be a more than willing student of his a number of years later, with the principal difference being that Hammer has never yet turned a willing dame down. Florence Drummond, alias The Flame, says to Williams, “Brains are something you haven’t got.” Mary Morse is in love with him, and he treats it as a minor complication.

   Dirty Harry, of movie fame, is another who shoots first, in the name of the law, and worries about the law,only afterwards. But while Race Williams lives by his guns, and that’s the extent of the story. Not much is said about constitutional law and the rights of criminals here. Here’s the last line: “When better corpses are made, Race Williams will make them.”

CONNIE WILLIS “The Sidon in the Mirror.” Novelette. First published in Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, April 1983. Reprinted in Isaac Asimov’s Space of Her Own, edited by Shawna McCarthy (Davis, digest softcover, 1983). Also reprinted in The Year’s Best Science Fiction: First Annual Collection, edited by Gardner Dozois, and The Best Science Fiction of the Year #13, edited by Terry Carr. First collected in Fire Watch (Bluejay Books, hardcover, 1985). Nominated for both Nebula and Hugo awards for Best Novelette of 1983.

   Some novelettes by some SF writers are nothing but fluff and padding. On the other hand, there are novelettes by other SF writers that are dense enough to have enough story content to fill two full novels and maybe more. “The Sidon in the Mirror” is one of the latter.

   Consider then the protagonist, a pianobar player with two eight-fingered hands who is also the “mirror” of the title, a man who can absorb the characteristics of others – not physically – but their thoughts and inner beings. Sidon is the third largest city in Lebanon, but that may (or may not) be important. In the story, a sidon is an animal having a ferocious unpredictable temper. It cannot be tamed; if you try, it may seem as though you are succeeding, but turning your back on it is not a thought worth considering.

   A sidon is also (in the story) what the miners on the all-but-dead star called Paylay (after the Hawaiian volcano Pele?) call their taps into the similarly dangerous gas-mines through the crust and into the core below. The man (mirror), named Ruby by the proprietor of the bar slash brothel, is there (perhaps) on a mission of revenge. It is not clear, but a blind girl named Pearl whom he befriends is somehow the crux of the story.

   The crust is thick enough that one can walk on Paylay, but if one stands still long enough, the bottoms of you feet will suffer severe blisters.

   So, there you are. Just a hint of who and what this story is about, told in something like Gothic overtones. And at the moment you probably know as much how it all ends as I do, and I have the advantage that I’ve actually read the story. I’ll take that back. I’ve absorbed the story rather than simply read it, and so I’m wrong. I do know more than you do. Until you’ve read it yourself, that is, and I think you should. This is a good one, a story told well beyond the capabilities or visual imagery of a Stanton A. Coblentz and maybe even a Stanley G. Weinbaum.

   Way beyond. Like night and day.

IAN WATSON “Slow Birds.” Novelette. First published in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, June 1983. Reprinted in The Year’s Best Science Fiction: First Annual Collection, edited by Gardner Dozois, and The Best Science Fiction of the Year #13, edited by Terry Carr. Lead story in the collection Slow Birds and Other Stories (Gollancz, UK, hardcover, 1985). Nominated for both Nebula and Hugo awards for Best Novelette of 1983.

   Before starting this review in earnest, a description of the Slow Birds of the title is probably a good idea. The setting isn’t stated, but it appears to a rather cut-off area of perhaps a future United States, but if so, an appreciably altered one. The slow birds are a hazard the small population has learned to live with. They are not alive, far from it. They have tubular metal bodies, rounded in front and tapering to a point in back, about the length of a man and the girth of a horse with small wings used for stabilizing, not for propulsion.

   They appear and disappear at random and fly through the air at a constant speed of three feet per minute at the height of a man’s shoulders. Objects they can push their way through, they do. If they can’t, they bank around them. Graffiti on them identifies them, one from another. Eventually one of two things happen. They vanish on their own, or they explode, leaving a circle of flat glass having a radius of two and half miles on the ground below.

   One way to describe how well the inhabitants of five villages which lie close to each other have adapted is to tell you about the competition has developed between them on Mayday every year: a windsail/skating race on a circle of glass next to one of the villages. Jason Babbidge, the story’s primary protagonist has hopes of prevailing against last year’s winner, but as told in some detail, he fails.

   It’s the detail that matters, not necessarily that he fails. Later the same day, Jason’s younger brother climbs onto one of the slow birds, determined to learn, once and for all, where they go when they vanish, only to appear again later. Does he survive the trip? It takes a lifetime for him to return again, with finally an answer.

   When I started this review I was going to tell you what he learned, but now I have decided not to. You may have some idea what the slow birds and why they do what they do, and I did as well. What I did not expect to happen is to have the story turned inside out in such a cosmic mind-blowing fashion, from the scale of a small annual semi-friendly competition to what I will tell you is the exact opposite.

   If ever after I finished a science fiction story by saying to myself “Wow,” this one was it.

   Five stars.

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