Stories I’m Reading


MANNING COLES “Handcuffs Don’t Hold Ghosts.” Novelette. Tommy Hambledon. First published in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, May 1946. Collected in Nothing to Declare (Doubleday, 1960). Reprinted in The Saint Mystery Magazine, January 1964. Also reprinted in Great Spy Novels and Stories, edited by Roger Elwood & Sam Moscowitz (Pyramid, paperback, August 1965).

   I don’t remember the title, but one of intrepid British agent Tommy Hambledon’s adventures was one of the first “grown up” mysteries I remember reading. (It was in one of the Detective Book Club’s 3-in-1 volumes I checked out of the local library, circa 1956.) It was a strange exciting affair, and all I remember of it was its very remarkable ending, one that came as a complete surprise to me, having (I think) something to do with an identity kept secret all through the book.

   I’ve been a fan ever since.

   As time went on, I began to appreciate the serio-comic approach the Coles’ took to spy fiction all the more. Hambledon’s adventures are deadly serious, but sometimes he does get into the darnedest situations!

   “Handcuffs Don’t Hold Ghosts” starts out in truly superb fashion, which means it can only go down from there, but there’s a last couple of paragraphs that completely makes up for any sag that comes in the middle section. Hambledon and his good friend Chief Inspector Bagshot are listening to the radio, logs on the fire, and in particular a presentation by the BBC being a live production of two psychic investigators looking for ghosts in an old *haunted* mansion. First, under very spooky situations, one of the investigators disappears, then the other, following by the announcer, then the two radio technicians who come in to see what’s going on. All on live radio.

   Brrr.

   Turns out that Tommy knows the owner of the house, and the next day he and Bagshot go in person to investigate. Tommy also knows more about the old fellow than he lets on, so there’s no attempt to make this a fair play mystery. It’s more of a thriller than a detective story, but as I said there up above, the last couple of paragraphs more than make up for any letdown after that totally fabulous opening.

   What’s really going on, I can’t tell you, but I may as well give you a hint, along with the obligatory [WARNING!]. The story first appeared in 1946, soon after the war ended, and people in Britain especially were still wondering what was happening to all of the Nazis, especially those at the top echelon, some of whom were captured and others were not.

   If that’s too much of a hint, I apologize.

FRANCIS K. ALLAN “The Lost Hours of Murder.” Published in Dime Mystery Magazine, August 1948. Probably never reprinted.

   The final story in this issue, “The Lost Hours of Murder,” by Francis K. Allan, is the second of two full “novels” contained therein, and as such runs to all of nineteen and a half (pulp-size) pages.

   Allan, by the way, was an extremely prolific writer for the detective pulps. During the years right after the war you could hardly pick one up and not read one of bis stories. In 1945 and 1947 he had a couple of hardcover novels published, but then none from then on until 1976, when he wrote Death in Gentle Grove, which I’m sure nobody else but me remembers. I do because it was one of the first books I did when I started writing reviews for the Hartford Courant.

   (I might be wrong, but it’s my impression that Allan went on to law school and better things, thus explaining the 30 year gap in his writing career.)

   “The Lost Hours of Murder” concerns a guy who wakes up on what he thinks is Thursday but discovers when he gets to  work that it is really Friday, and his partner, with whom he apparently quarreled in the interim, has mysteriously disappeared. It’s a classic situation, but even in full “novel” length, Alla’s tale is crowded, without all the space he needs to do anything with it.

   Cornell Woolrich, say, might have done better with the premise, which is a good one, but as it is, only the first half of this one holds any interest at all. There’s no hint of any supernatural influences at work, which was common in stories published in Dime Mystery Magazine, just a straight-forward mystery story, interesting for the moment but also instantly forgettable.

         ___

Final Thought: Unfortunately, maybe that last phrase would apply just as well to pulp magazines in general. It would make a great epitaph, wouldn’t it? “Throwaway literature at its finest!”

– Slightly revised from Mystery*File #30, April 1991.

GIGI PANDIAN “The Locked Room Library.” Published in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, July/August 2021.

   I can’t be the only one who’s noticed that the stories EQMM has been publishing over the past few years have become more and more straight crime-oriented than it was in its early days, when detective fiction was the rule. This current issue suggests that the editors are well aware of the fact as well. As stated in the introduction to this, the lead story, this issue is dedicated to the classical mystery, and to my mind, it’s about time, too.

   Even though this is an “impossible” crime, if not an out-and-out locked room mystery, it does take place in an about-to-open privately owned Locked Room Library, where fans of the traditional mysteries of the 30s and 40s can come and check out books difficult to find anywhere else.

   Someone is trying to sabotage the effort, however, and stolen from a well-secured glass case is a letter from John Dickson Carr to Frederic Dannay (co-author of the Ellery Queen books) stating he had written an alternate ending to The Burning Court, perhaps without the quasi-supernatural conclusion it was published with.

   This sounds better than it reads, I’m sorry to say. The writing is lackluster, the characters not at all memorable, and worse, there’s a ghost involved, or so the thief tries to make everyone believe. Nor does the thief’s motive seem strong enough to for him/her to go to all this amount of trouble.

   While it’s good to see someone writing stories like this, I don’t this is the one to convert anyone to the traditional type of puzzle story, if they’re not already so inclined.

ARTHUR LEO ZAGAT “Man of Granite.” Novella. Published in Dime Mystery Magazine, August 1948. Probably never reprinted.

   Back in August, 1948, Dime Mystery Magazine cost fifteen cents. (I don’t know how they got around that, but they did.) It had been around since December, 1932, as Dime Mystery Book, and lasted until October 1950, by which time it was known as 15 Mystery Stories. The stories throughout its run were often a blend of mystery and supernatural fiction, with the latter usually explained away in the final two paragraphs.

   The cover of this issue shows a man being subdued by a cloaked and hooded figure in black, with chalk-white hands holding a knife to the victim’s throat, but to me, it’s not as horrifying a sight as it might seem. It’s effective but just little too static for me, especially for a pulp cover. You opinion may vary.

   The lead story, “Man of Granite,” by Arthur Leo Zagat, takes place during a single night that a young babysitter named Arlene Morgan is not likely to forget. Ever.

   Why don’t I quote to you the first paragraph? It’ll do two things. It’ll set the stage more than I could in simply telling you about it, and it’ll also show you exactly how a pulp story almost always began: right at the begin, daring you, if you will, to put the magazine down before it’s over. (And these were also the day when authors who lost their readers were also authors who were soon out looking for another line of work.)

   It wasn’t being alone in the house, except for the baby, that made Arlene Morgan uneasy. She’d done a lot of baby-sitting since her sixteenth birthday, last May, and she’d gotten used to the silence of an empty home and the noises within the silence: old wood whisperings to itself, scurrying inside ancient walls, ivy rustling against windows dark at night.

   
   This is the story, as it turns out, of a Golem, the stone monster of Frankfort, but what he is doing in this story, and what relationship he has with the parents of the child Alene is watching, it’s still not clear by story’s end.

   Several twists in the story have taken place by then. Even so, a final twist in the last few paragraphs shatters the reconstruction of the night’s events that Arlene’s father has carefully put together, shattering it to bits, leaving the reader to put everything back in order, if it’s something that can be done.

   It’s an unsettling end to an unsettling sort of story, full of dankness and noises in the night. It’s clumsily told at times, so at first thought it’s not quite clear if Zagat (a prolific but rather obscure SF and mystery writer in his day) fully intended the ending to be as perfectly matched to the story as it is – at least in the way I’m looking at it – of if it’s purely coincidental.

   It’s probably a little of both, but on reconsideration, I’m going to give Zagat the full benefit of the doubt, and say this is nicely inspired ending after all – in spite of (or maybe because of) all the loose ends.

– Slightly revised from Mystery*File #30, April 1991.

   

VINCENT STARRETT “Footsteps of Fear.” First published in The Black Mask, April 1920. Collected in The Quick and the Dead (Arkham House, hardcover, 1965). Reprinted in The Big Book of Rogues and Villains, edited by Otto Penzler (Black Lizard, softcover, 2017).

   Dr. Loxley has it made, or so he thinks. He has killed his wife Lora, but the police are not on his trail – not as the killer, that is. He made his plans well in advance, and to all intents and purposes is considered dead as well, as he (under his own name) has completely vanished. But under a new name and a new profession, he is doing quite well: as the frosted glass door outside his outer office says, he is now William Drayham, Rare Books, Hours by Appointment.

   He is friends with his neighbors on the same floor, and he does not need to leave his building. It has all the amenities he needs: restaurants, barber shops, and so on. And as a big plus, the sign on the door was “formidable enough to frighten away casual visitors.”

   This may have been an inside joke included here on the part of the author, a well known bookman of his era. Stories in this very first issue of Black Mask were far from the hardboiled fare for which it later became famous.

   It is, however, reminiscent of one that magazine’s better known writers, Cornell Woolrich, with a twist in the ending that brings a severe comeuppance to the former Dr. Loxley. In spite of the new name and facial features, he becomes more and more convinced that his plans have fallen short, and a zinger of an ending worthy of a story on Alfred Hitchcock’s television show ensues, well thirty or forty years ahead of its time.

   Here below is a list of the other stories in that same issue of Black Mask, taken from the online Crime Fiction Index. Only Harold Ward’s name, he being a long time pulpster, is vaguely familiar to me. I’m going out on a limb here, without reading any of the other tales, but I suspect none of the others have anything very much to offer modern day readers. This one by Starrett may be the only one that’s ever been reprinted.
   

      The Black Mask [Vol. I No. 1, April 1920]

Who and Why? · J. Frederic Thorne
The Stolen Soul · Harold Ward
The House Across the Way · Sarah Harbine Weaver
The Peculiar Affair at the Axminster · Julian Kilman
The Puzzle of the Hand · Stewart Wells
Piracy · Harry C. Hervey, Jr.
The Mysterious Package · David E. Harriman & John I. Pearce, Jr.
A Small Blister · David Morrison
Hands Up! · Ray St. Vrain
Footsteps of Fear · Vincent Starrett
The Dead and the Quick · Gertrude Brooke Hamilton
The Long Arm of Malfero · Edgar Daniel Kramer

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

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