Stories I’m Reading


REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:

   

CORNELL WOOLRICH “I Wouldn’t be in Your Shoes.” Novelette. First published in Detective Fiction Weekly, 12 March 1938. Collected in I Wouldn’t Be in Your Shoes (Lippincott, hardcover, 1943), as by William Irish. Reprinted many times.

I WOULDN’T BE IN YOUR SHOES. Monogram, 1948. Don Castle, Elyse Knox, Regis Toomey, and Robert Lowell. Screenplay by Steve Fisher. Produced by Walter Mirisch. Directed by William Nigh.

   At his worst, Woolrich could be wordy, verbose, prolix, repetitive, redundant, tiring and tedious. He could take a metaphor, strap it to the rack, and stretch it till the reader screamed for mercy. But at his best, he could wring poetry out of plot twists and make the pages sing with strange, melancholy music.

   This is Woolrich at his best.

   Tom Quinn starts out on a hot August night as a working stiff, married, and living on the ragged edge of poverty. By the story’s end, it will be Christmas, and he’ll sit on Death Row, framed by circumstances that could only occur in Woolrich’s dark Universe. It begins with him throwing his shoes out the window at noisy cats, builds as the shoes disappear and are mysteriously returned, then twists when he finds money on the street — money taken in a robbery-and-murder committed by someone wearing his shoes. Even his wife begins to doubt his innocence.

   Whereupon Woolrich picks up a familiar theme: The Cop who pinched him begins to doubt his guilt and sets out to find the real killer, a feat achieved with fast-moving prose and a bit of genuine pathos. So Tom is free again. But fate and Woolrich have one last surprise for him….

   In 1948, a producer named Walter Mirisch at Monogram foresaw the end of B-Movies as second-features and began the lengthy and sporadic process of transforming the runty little studio into the less-runty Allied Artists. Mirisch went on to things like West Side Story, Allied Artists gave us Cabaret, but in the meantime, there were still a lot of B’s to churn out, and I Wouldn’t Be in Your Shoes was one of them.

   The thing is, Shoes shows some of the extra care and attention of a producer and studio aiming just a little bit higher. Don Castle and Elyse Knox take the leads as married dancers whose careers have stalled out — not unlike the careers of Castle and Knox themselves — and when he finds the money, they react believably. Screenwriter Steve Fisher wisely keeps in as many of the characters and as much of the Woolrich dialogue as the budget will allow, and he even rings in a familiar twist of his own to skew things a bit more.

   What impressed me most about this, though, was the acting. Everyone involved, down to Second Detective, sounds convincing. And Robert Lowell (who he?) makes a lasting impression as the unlucky guy ultimately tracked down by gumshoe Regis Toomey.

   Don’t get me wrong. This is still a B-Movie programmer, with most of the faults attendant on that art form. But it’s interesting and entertaining to see everyone giving it so much.

   

J. JEFFERSON FARJEON “Secrets in the Snow.” Short story. Included in Best Stories of the Underworld, edited by Peter Cheyney (Faber & Faber, hardcover, 1942; reprinted 1949). Original publication as yet unknown.

   When a Christmas Eve motor-coach gets stuck in a snowstorm, a young woman named Janet, anxious to get to her destination and the house party waiting for her, decides to tag along after her taciturn seat companion, who heads off in the storm in the direction she is going. He tries to dissuade her, telling her that he’s from Scotland Yard and that he’s on a job.

   She persists and begins to follow him anyway. Strangely, however, she discovers another set of footprints also on the trail she is following. Both are moving faster than she can, and she is all but lost when thankfully she comes to a small cottage with a fire going in the fireplace and a hot teapot set out on a small table.

   She is alone, she thinks, but no, a small wizened caretaker pops his head in. But why he is a carrying a shovel, which has been recently used? Then, as she is changing into a warm set of closing, he disappears into the snow, and she hears a small cry out in the darkness.

   Intrigued? If you’re not, you’re a much more a non-curious person than I. Also, if you’ve been reading this blog for a while, this story may remind you of a full-length novel, Mystery in White, which was also written by Farjeon and first published in 1937. A reprint edition came out in 2014, and I reviewed it here.

   The mystery in “Secrets in the Snow”  is wrapped up neatly and efficiently. It’s a crime story, not a detective tale, so fairness to the reader does not come into play, but its lack of length also means it’s short enough to not wear out its welcome.  This one was fun.

STEPHEN KING “Quitters, Inc.” Short story. First published in Night Shift (Doubleday, hardcover, 1978). Reprinted in Best Detective Stories of the Year: 1979, edited by Edward D. Hoch (Dutton, hardcover, 1979); and Prime Suspects, edited by Bill Pronzini & Martin H. Greenberg (Ivy, paperback original; 1st printing, June 1987). Film/TV adaptations: (1) Anthology film Cat’s Eye (1985) along with “The Ledge” and “General.” (See comment #1.) (2) Bollywood film No Smoking (2007) (3) “Bigalow’s Last Smoke” (1985) an episode of Tales from the Darkside, 09 June 1985 (Season 1, Episode 21). (King is not credited on either of these last two.)

   An agency man named Morrison meets an old friend from another agency in a bar, but while Morrison is in bad shape healthwise – he’s overweight, drinks too much, and more importantly, smokes too much – his friend is in great shape. How’d he do it, he asks. The friend gives him a business card. It says Quitters, Inc., Treatment by Appointment. Go here, he is told. They have a plan that’s guaranteed to get you to quit smoking. 100%.

   Morrison demurs but decides to give it a try.

   If you’ve ever read a Stephen King novel or story, you know you’re in for a gonzo over-the-top tale from here on out. 100%. No doubt about it. And so it is here. Nobody can match Stephen King when it comes to stories like this, but in that regard, this is only a normal Stephen King story.

   Normal, that is, until it comes to the last line. If you ever read this story, you won’t forget it. Never. 100% guaranteed. And not a bad way to lead off an anthology of crime and mystery stories, as Bill Pronzini and Martin H. Greenberg did with Prime Suspects, the first of several similar collections they put together in the late 80s. Other authors include P. D. James, Ed McBain, John D. MacDonald and Donald E. Westlake, just for beginners.

LESTER DENT “Terror, Inc.” Sean Kerrigan #1. Novella. First appeared in Detective-Dragnet Magazine, May 1932. Collected in Terror, Inc.: The Weird Mysteries of Lester Dent (Black Dog Books, trade paperback, 2003.)

   Even though PI Sean Kerrigan was well enough known to be called from New York City to Los Angeles on a case by a local shamus who knows when he’s in over his head, there is no record of his ever showing up in a followup tale. No matter. This one’s doozy, at least in terms of goes on within the telling of the tale.

   It begins on page one, when Kerrigan and the taxi driver who picked him up at the airport follow the instructions given him and drive to find the car where the other PI is to meet them. But what they find are the bones of the man, loose and falling out of the door of the imported sedan, completely bared of flesh.

   Not the usual way to start a detective story, even one that first appeared in a pulp magazine! Admittedly the rest of the story can’t match this, but I doubt that Sam Spade himself would know what to do in having a face-to-face showdown with a master criminal who calls himself the Spark. The latter’s specialty is blackmailing the rich and famous in Hollywood with the threat of a horrible death if they don’t pay up. The man who hired Kerrigan is the seventh who has ended up as skin and bones, without the skin.

   It’s all kind of silly, when you think about it, but this was only Lester Dent’s fourth published story, and long before his long stint on writing most of the Doc Savage stories under the alias of Kenneth Robeson, a task that (eventually) made him famous. (I do not know how long it took for pulp aficionados to figure out who Robeson was, most of the time.)

IT IS PURELY MY OPINION
Reviews by L. J. Roberts

   

ANN CLEEVES “Frozen.” Minotaur, free e-short story, 2021.

First Sentence: Vera woke to a free day and an unexpected longing for exercise.

   It’s her day off, and DI Vera Stanhope takes the opportunity to visit a new bookshop located in a renovated chapel. What she was not looking for was a skeleton unearthed in a cellar baptismal font. Time for Vera to solve this long-cold case.

   Cleeves’ descriptions allow one to see places we’ve not been, in the present and the past— “Standing with her back to old stones, she imagined squads of legionnaires marching… they must have policed the region then, so she saw them as her forbears, as kindred spirits, and felt a connection across the centuries.”

   Bringing us to the present, she carries forth that sense of timelessness with her wonderful imagery— “the building that had once been built to the glory of God, now celebrated the story in all its forms.” Whereupon the mood is effectively broken and the investigation begins.

   Even though the books are separate from the television series, those who watch may clearly hear the voice of actress Brenda Blethyn as Vera. Rather than a negative, it adds a warmth and personal touch to the story. Still, this is not Vera’s story alone, but one which includes her team, including Joe who is still her second in the books, and Holly in a scene that makes one smile. However, if one is looking for in-depth descriptions of the characters, or quantities of backstory, it’s not here. “Frozen” is a short story, after all, and fits in after book eight in the series.

   What is here is atmosphere and Cleeve’s creative use of the weather almost as another character. Nothing is lost in the construction of this fascinating short story. Suspects are identified, clues tracked down with twists and red herrings.

   “Frozen” may be a fairly simple story, but it is well-crafted and, if one has not previously read Ann Cleeves, this a perfect introduction to her writing and the Vera series.

Rating: A

KENNETH GAVRELL “Hurricane Force.” Carlos Bannon #10. Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, August 1991.

   Perhaps because that this is the 10th in the series of recorded cases for Puerto Rico-based PI Carlos Bannon, certain assumptions were made, and it takes a while for the first time reader (me) to realize who Raquel is, for example, (his girl friend) and even the fact that his is, in fact, a private eye. He doesn’t have a client in this one. He works on the case of the death of the wife of the couple living in the apartment next door only for his own curiosity.

   What’s also somewhat different about this one is that it takes place during a hurricane, with the woman’s death first attributed to a awning that had come loose during the high velocity winds during the storm, fracturing her skull. Carlos, however, thinks the dead woman’s husband is acting suspiciously, and he follows up on them. It is only that he is friends with the police that saves him from worse trouble himself.

   The story doesn’t have a lot of depth to it, I admit, but it reads very smoothly, and if I ever came across another of Carlos’s adventures, I’d be sure to read it. There were 15 of them altogether, all of them appearing in AHMM between 1980 and 1998.
  
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UPDATE: Kevin Burton Smith, the man behind the Thrilling Detective website, has quite a bit more about Bannon. Since he quotes me on his site every once in a while, I don’t think he’ll mind if I quote him his time around. This will add to the information about Bannon that didn’t come up for me in this particular story:

   “He was born Carlos Bannon Santiago, sole offspring of a Puerto Rican mother and a gringo father. He divided his childhood between Salinas and New York. After a stint in Vietnam doing his duty for Uncle Sam, and a failed marriage, he headed back to San Juan, where he runs a small detective agency. He has a part-time secretary, Maria, who tries her best to keep Carlos honest, and a sometime assistant, Raul, a young guy who handles some of the scut work. And, occasionally, he calls in his girlfriend, Raquel Nieves, for backup. She’s a private detective herself, for the considerably larger Athena Detective Agency.”

RUSSELL D. McLEAN “Coughing John.” PI Sam Bryson #3. First published in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, July/August 2005. Collected in The Death of Ronnie Sweets (and Other Stories); see below.

   PI Sam Bryson’s base of operations is the small town of Dundee, Scotland, and while “Coughing John” is in many ways a small story, it is also one that is long on attitude and introspection. Dead is a homeless man whom everyone noticed, but whom was also part of the landscape, and when he was found dead, it is only Sam who puts any effort into finding his killer.

   Kids on the street who were simply bored, perhaps? Once Sam learns that the dead man’s name was John Woodrow, an actual name, he knows he needs closure, and the only way to do that is to find out who it was who was responsible for his death.

   As I said before, this is not a long story, but it may get under your skin as deeply as it does Sam Bryson. I’ve already purchased a copy of the collection, which I’m sure is the best way to find out more about the fellow, and after reading this story, I’d like to do so.
   

      The Sam Bryson series –

The Death of Ronnie Sweets. Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, June 2004.

Dudman’s Word. Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, December 2004.

Coughing John. Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, July/August 2005.

Regrets. Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, December 2005.

Like a Matter of Honour. Thrilling Detective, Fall 2006.

What Friends Are For. Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, April 2008.

Her Cheating Heart. Spinetingler Magazine, Summer 2008.

Davey’s Daughter. Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, September 2008.

Flesh and Blood. Collateral Damage, 2011.

The Water’s Edge. Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, November 2015.
   

Collection: The Death of Ronnie Sweets (and Other Stories). Independently published, 2011, Kindle; paperback, 2017. Includes all of the stories above except “The Water’s Edge.”

ROBERT W. TINSLEY “Smuggler’s Blues.” PI Jack Brady #1. First published in PI Magazine, Spring 1989. Collected in The Brady Files, Kindle edition, 2011.

   Jack Brady is a big guy, not easily intimidated. He’s a former Navy SEAL and now a PI whose home base in El Paso TX, which as far as I know is a first among fiction PI’s. At six feet four and 280 pounds, he also finds it difficult to find furniture that fits him. And with El Paso right on the border with Mexico, one suspects that many of the cases he gets involved with involve border incidents of one kind or another.

   This first case, “Smuggler’s Blues,” certainly does. Brady is hired by the brother of a man who died while being smuggled across the border, a Salvadoran who had recently been released from prison there for political reasons. The man supposedly drowned, and his death would have been written off as that, if Brady and his client hadn’t interfered.

   The story is too short to be more than an incident, and by itself leaves little impression. Brady, who tells the story himself has just enough of a way with words to make the telling enjoyable. Efforts to sound like a tough guy are just a little iffy; a little more “down and gritty” would have helped. Chalk this one down as an early one in Brady’s career.
   

      The Jack Brady stories

“Smuggler’s Blues” (Spring 1989, PI Magazine)
“Killer” (Winter 1989, PI Magazine)
“Graveyard Shift” (April 2002, HandHeld Crime)
“No Good-Bye” (June 2002, HandHeldCrime)
“Beating On The Border” (Summer 2003, Thrilling Detective Web Site)
“Hijack on the Border” (Oct/Dec 2003, SDO Detective)
“Horse of the Same Color” (Fall 2003, Hardluck Stories)
“Grasshopper” (Winter 2003, Hardluck Stories)
“Double Death” (February 2004, Shred of Evidence)
“A Kiss Is Just A Kiss” (April/May/June 2005, Futures)
“For Felina…” (Winter 2004, Thrilling Detective Web Site)
“Out of the Shadows” (June 2005, Mysterical-E)
“The Horse Holder” (Aug/Nov 2005,Shred of Evidence)
“Sweet Dreams”
“The Prodigal”
“Questioning the Dead”
“The Running Man”
“Moby Dick in a Can”

   These last five may be original to the Kindle collection.

RUSSELL BENDER “Heat Target.” PI Dick Ames. Published in Black Mask, October 1936. Not known to have been reprinted or collected.

   Richard “Dick” Ames is set up as a full-fledged private eye, with a license, an office, and a secretary. But in reality he’s a troubleshooter with only one client, that being Jonathan McCrea, the mayor of Terrapin City, Maryland. And his work is really cut out for him in “Heat Target,” apparently his only appearance in print. This one’s a doozy.

   The boy friend of the mayor’s daughter is the problem. He’s been warned to stay away from Felicia (her friends call her Felix), but they’ve been seen together far too often for the mayor’s liking. But when the young lad turns up dead in his hotel apartment, and the mayor was seen entering at exactly the time of his death, Ames suspects it is an all but iron-clad frame-up, but he can’t prove it.

   I liked this one. Bender tells the resulting tale, one chock full of a lot of shootings and other crooked business going on, with a terse, hard-bitten prose that does nothing more than remind you that there’s a reason why Black Mask is considered the best there was when it came to detective pulps in the 20s and 30s.

   Here’s a lengthy description of Ames himself:

   “He was a large, indolent looking man, broad of shoulder, slim of waist; but the indolence was in the careless grace of his walk, in th manner in which he slouched on a chair, slouched against tables, bars, telephone poles. He had a rugged face. There was a strength about him, but it was the strength of a dozing, stretching lion. His movements were slow but you knew instinctively that he could move as fast as hell.”

   
   I think I might have cast Robert Mitchum in the role if they’d ever made a movie of this one.

   Strangely enough, while Russell wrote quite a few stories for the detective pulps, he wrote only two others for Black Mask: “Body-Guard to Death,” (novelette)   October 1938 and “Copper’s Moll,” (short story) July 1940. Based on this one only, I’d have thought there’d have been more. There should have been.
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Note: Some other information about Bender can be found in the comments following Paul Herman’s recent overview of the entire issue of the October 1936 Black Mask.

FRITZ LEIBER “The Sadness of the Executioner.” Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser. First published in Flashing Swords #1, edited by Lin Carter (Dell, paperback original, July 1973). Collected in Swords and Ice Magic (Ace, paperback, 1977).

   Although this is nominally a Fahfrd and the Gray Mouser story, they don’t appear the ninth page of this 15 page tale, which is basically little more than long vignette. No, the main protagonist before then is Death, and in particular the death that services the World of Nehwon, and he has fallen behind on his duties. So far, as the story begins, he has to choose 200 of those now living to pass through to the other side.

   To that end, 196 have done so. He has four remaining, and two of them are our duly fated heroes, neither of who are aware of their upcoming destiny. Nonetheless destiny, or fate, has a way of stepping in, and Death being a sportsman, in spite of his inevitable cheating, decides to let it have its way.

   It was Leiber who is said to have coined the phrase “swords and sorcery” as a subgenre of the larger world of fantasy, and while a minor tale, “The Sadness of the Executioner” is a prime example.

   And as Lin Carter so states in his introduction to the story, Leiber’s finely tuned fantasy resembles in no way that of Robert E. Howard, creator of Conan the Barbarian, among other similar and inimitably ruthless characters, and the other major author in the field. Which is why I still read Leiber’s work, while tales of Conan lie today with their pages unopened, at least by me.

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