Stories I’m Reading

THOMAS M. DISCH “Voices of the Kill.” First published in Full Spectrum, edited by Lou Aronica & Shawna McCarthy (Bantam Spectra, paperback original, September 1988). Reprinted in The Year’s Best Fantasy: Second Annual Collection, edited by Ellen Datlow & Terri Windling (St. Martin’s Press, trade paperback, 1989). Collected in The Wall of America (Tachyon, softcover, 2008).

   Thomas M. Disch was an author almost as well-known for his poetry as he was for his unique blend of science fiction and fantasy. While “Voices of the Kill” is a fantasy tale through and through, it is poetry as well, and in a way as opaque to me as most poetry is.

   It is the story of a man who, living alone in a cabin along a stream, falls in love (of sorts) with the flowing water, or (perhaps better said) is seduced by the stream, lying at night as he does in its waters and soothing embrace, listening to it talk to him.

   I do not know why Nixie asks him to place a twenty dollar bill under a stone in its (her?) depths. When William’s cousin Barry comes to visit, the overnight stays in the stream must end. When the two travel down it to its outlet into the sea, Nixie is annoyed.

   And what is the significance of the black woman in a pea-green swimsuit who is playing there with her son on the beach? (She does return.)

   In spite of these and other questions I cannot answer, the effect of this story is one I cannot get out of my head. Good poetry (and fantasy) can have an amazing effect on one’s mind. It is no wonder this was the lead story in the Full Spectrum anthology where it first appeared.

STUART PALMER & CRAIG RICE “Once Upon a Train.” Hildegarde Withers & John J. Malone. First appeared in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, October 1950. Original title or published later as “Loco Motive.” Collected in People vs. Withers & Malone (Simon & Schuster, 1953; Award paperback, 1965). Filmed as  Mrs. O’Malley and Mr. Malone (MGM, 1950, with Marjorie Main as Harriet “Hattie” O’Malley and James Whitmore as John J. Malone).

   In Ellery Queen’s introduction to the collection of Withers-Malone stories, of which there were six, they say that this was the first known collaboration between two mystery writers on a tale in which their respective primary characters showed up to solve a case together. This could  very easily be true.

   When Malone, a somewhat disreputable Chicago lawyer finds that his most recent client, a city official accused of embezzling $30,000 from municipal funds, and a man he has just gotten off from  those charges, is on a train headed for New York City — and  without paying him — what is there to do rush to the station and board the very same train.

   Along with several other people crying for his scalp, as it is clear that the man’s innocence is still very much in doubt.  It is no wonder that his body is found at length very much dead. And in whose train compartment? None other than the horse-faced schoolteacher Miss Withers, whose accommodation adjoins Mr. Malone’s.. As they furiously move the body back and forth between their separate compartments as needed, which  is often,  they still manage to find time to solve the case together.

   Which case is one the screwballiest detective stories you can imagine, with a laugh or a chuckle every other paragraph, if not oftener.

   When they made a movie out of this, they had to change Miss Withers name to Mrs. O’Malley for copyright reasons, and no, Marjorie Main is not my idea of Miss Withers, either, but James Whitmore did passably well as Mr. Malone, if not better.


JOHN D. MacDONALD “Ring Around the Redhead.” First published in Startling Stories, November 1948. First reprinted in Science-Fiction Adventures in Dimension, edited by Groff Conklin (Vanguard Press, hardcover, 1953). First collected in Other Times, Other Worlds (Fawcett Gold Medal, paperback original, October 1978).

   I don’t imagine that any young SF reader coming across this story in the (at the time) most recent issue of Startling Stories had any idea that the author would become rich and famous a few years later as the John D. MacDonald you and I know today as, for example, the author of the series of mystery novels for which he is most remembered, thous about “salvage expert” Travis McGee.

   Nor did, I suppose, those fans of the Travis McGee books happen to know that he started out writing SF stories — as well as mysteries — for the pulp magazines of the late 1940s. I don’t know if all of his early SF work were later collected in Other Times, Other Worlds (1978), but there are sixteen of them, and ones MacDonald much have felt worth reprinting at the time.

   “Ring Around the Redhead” is, well, one of them, and it begins with a defendant in court having been accused of murdering his next door neighbor, and in a most vicious fashion: the dead man had been decapitated as if by a mammoth pair of tin snips. When the defendant, an amateur tinkerer, gets to tell his story to the jury, it really is quite a story. Having strangely discovered a mysterious ring in his workshop in the basement, he learns by trial and error that by reaching through it, he can bring back, among other items, valuable jewels, for example. (This is why he is seen arguing with the neighbor, who has discovered this.)

   One day, then, he brings a beautiful girl back through the ring, a redhead, who is wearing next to nothing but strangely still something.

   Hence the title of the story, which has no other objective than to be fun and amusing. No deep scientific principles are discussed in this tale. What this tale reminded me of, more than anything else, are the SF stories very common back in the early 30s, based on speculation but not a whole lot of down-to-earth physics – but, in this case, a tale that’s a whole lot better written.

   Nonetheless, without a solid background in science, JDM must have decided that science fiction was not a field where he had much of a future. Considering how things worked out for him, this was a wise choice.

PHILIP K. DICK “The Defenders.” Novelet. First published in Galaxy SF, January 1953. First reprinted in Invasion of the Robots, edited by Roger Elwood (Paperback Library, April 1965). First collected in The Book of Philip K. Dick (Daw, paperback original, February 1973). Along with two of Dick’s other stories, “The Mold of Yancy” and “The Unreconstructed M,” the basis for his novel The Penultimate Truth (Belmont, paperback original, 1964).

   The story begins with a married couple unhappily having breakfast together. The war news is good, but there is an uneasiness to their conversation that suggests that not all is well. Gradually it is revealed they are several miles underground, and the war on the surface is being fought with robots (called leadies) on each side. Because of uncontrolled radiation, the Earth itself is uninhabitable.

   Strangely enough, the husband is called into his lab to learn that one of the leadies that has been brought down for a progress report is not radioactive after all. Baffled, a team including our protagonist is sent to the surface to investigate.

   I will not spoil your enjoyment of this story by telling you what they learn, but if you have read enough of Philip K. Dick’s work, I imagine you can guess what the twist is well enough on your own.

   Of course, though, that’s the point of the story, but what Dick also manages to do is describe living conditions not on, but inside the Earth so well that we, the reader, can feel the oppression of a life that is so subtly unbearable, although it has been made as palatable as technology can do it.

   It’s short for a novelette, only 25 pages long, but I think it was long enough to make a noticeable impression on SF readers of the day. My only personal unhappiness with it is that the ending seemed to me to be an overly happy one. To me, it was a case of too quick, too soon.

BILL CRIDER “See What the Boys in the Locked Room Will Have.” First published in Partners in Crime, edited by Elaine Raco Chase (Signet, paperback, 1994). Not known to have been collected or reprinted.

   The gimmick of the Partners in Crime anthology is not a difficult one to figure out, just from the title. It’s a collection of original mystery stories in which two detectives pair up to solve various cases together. In large part,  these are detectives created by the same author, some created especially for this anthology. In one instance, though, two authors bring their respective characters together to solve the case (Margaret Maron and Susan Dunlap).

   In “See What the Boys in the Locked Room Will Have,” Bill Crider created a brand new pair of protagonists, collaborative mystery writers Bo Wagner and Janice Langtry. He plots, she writes, he types. It’s an uneasy relationship, in more ways than one, but it seems to work. So well that when a strange death occurs in the same town where they live, the police call them in asking for help.

   A man both Bo and Janice knew well has been shot and kills in his study. There is no gun to be found, but with the room under observation when the shots are heard, there is no one who could have committed the crime.

   It’s a good mystery, with lots of clues, and even though it’s a rather short tale, the deductions come fast and furious. Bo’s recreation of the crime takes up more of the space, but it’s his partner in crime writing who manages to put  the facts together correctly, to his chagrin. As the author of this fully engaging story, Crider has to do a fast bit of handwaving, perhaps, to make it all work, but I was satisfied, and so should you, if you’re ever able to get yours hands on a copy.

Bibliographic Note: Bo Wagner and Janice Langtry appeared together in two later stories:

   “The Case of the Headless Man,” Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, March 1997.

   “At the Hop,” with Judy Crider,   Till Death Do Us Part, edited by Jill M.Morgan and Martin H.  Greenberg, Berkley, paperback, 1999. Nominated for the Anthony Award for Best Mystery Short Story of 1999.

BILL PRONZINI “Gunpowder Alley.” John Quincannon & Sabina Carpenter, 1890s San Francisco. First published in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, August 2012. Reprinted in The Best American Mystery Stories, edited by Otto Penzler & Lisa Scottoline (Houghton Mifflin, softcover, 2013). Combined with one or two other stories to form The Dangerous Ladies Affair, by Marica Muller and Bill Pronzini (Tor, hardcover, 2017).

   One time Secret Service Agent John Quincannon and his partner, a former Pinkerton detective named Sabina Carpenter, have joined forces to establish their own agency, Carpenter & Quincannon: Professional Detective Services, and have had many cases together, mostly individually but on occasion working together. This is a purely professional, as much as Quincannon would wish otherwise. I have not read many of the stories that come after this one, so I do not know whether they ever do get together romantically. Will he? Will she? I cannot tell you.

   Quincannon works on this case pretty much solo, but when he finds himself stumped, he always has Sabina to tell his woes to, and not too incidentally, obtain useful advice.

   Dead by a fatal gunshot wound is a blackmailer Quincannon had been hired to follow. He is found in the back room and living quarters of the his tobacco shop on a dingy street called Gunpowder Alley. What stumps Quincannon is that the dead man, along with the gun that did the deed, is in a room that can be entered only through two locked doors, with no access through the barred windows.

   It is quite a puzzle, and it is no wonder that Quincannon is totally stumped, but after a little of Sabina’s support, he at length figures out how the killing was done. The solution is very meticulously worked up – this is one of those mysteries that once the explanation is given, you the reader (unless you are more clever than I) knocks him or herself on the side of the head and says “Duh.”

   Adding to the pleasure of reading this story is the equally meticulously described setting: 1890s San Francisco, where glitter and dark dismal streets and alleys exist almost side by side.

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)


   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)


   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.

Next Page »