Stories I’m Reading



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.

RICHARD SALE “A Nose for News.”  Daffy Dill #2. First published in Detective Fiction Weekly, December 1, 1934. Reprinted in The Hardboiled Dicks, edited by Ron Goulart (Sherbourne Press, 1965).

   In this early entry in Richard Sale’s long-running series about newspaper reporter Daffy Dill, he loses his job at the Chronicle because of a revival reporter’s malfeasance: he managed to change the word “cook” in one of Daffy’s by-lined stories to ‘crook,” and the cook in question is boiling mad. Daffy’s editor at the paper has to let him go, but with promise that if he comes up with a story big enough, he’ll hire him back.

   Top stories are hard to come by, of course, but after doing a favor for a young lady whose brother has gotten into trouble with gambling debts, she returns the favor by telling Daffy she’s going to falsely arrange a kidnapping story for herself in which Daffy will be required to be the go-between.

   And of course you as the reader will immediately know that she will somehow end up being kidnapped for real. I don’t imagine that any such scenario would ever happen in real life, but I also think that any reader who has gotten this far into the story will go along with the gag and continue on anyway, sitting back and see just how Richard Sale gets Daffy Dill out of this particular jam.

   Sale went on to wrote several dozen stories about Daffy Dill, mostly for Detective Fiction Weekly, but more than that he went on to become big name as a both a screenwriter and director. You can check out his Wikipedia page here.

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.

FRANK GRUBER “Death on Eagle’s Crag.” Oliver Quade #8. First published in Black Mask, December 1937. Reprinted in The Hardboiled Dicks, edited by Ron Goulart (Sherbourne Press, 1965).

   At the beginning of this fanciful, not to mention far-fetched tale, Oliver Quade, also known as The Human Encyclopedia, has somehow found his way to an isolated resort located at the top of a mountain, doing what he does best: trying to sell the owner a set of encyclopedias. She may be better at resisting, though, than he isat selling them when one of the guests is found dead along a walking path.

   Remains of a bashed-up rattlesnake are found beside him, with vicious bite marks on his leg, but Quade quickly deduces it was a well-planned murder. The resort’s handyman is about to head down to notify the authorities when a car full of gangsters, escapees from a local prison, comes driving up the hill. Coincidences pile up quickly. The dead man, as it turns out, was a thief,and once the gang of crooks realize he must have hidden eighty grand worth of stolen cash on the grounds, they decide to stick around and keep all of the real guests hostage while they look for it.

   Even while it incorporates a small token of goofiness, making the story is quite a bit of fun to read, it is amazing how Gruber manages to turn the story around on itself as he does, making it perhaps the most violent one in The Hardboiled Dicks, the anthology of stories from the detective pulps Ron Goulart put together in the mid-sixties. There’s nothing very deep to this one, but somehow I’ve managed to remember the basic plot, all these many years later.

   Oliver Quade, who manages to find the money while under a lot duress in this one, was in 15 stories in the pulps. He wasn’t quite as inventive as MacGyver was in using his head to get out of jams, but selling encyclopedias for a living obviously gave him a decided edge over a lot of tough bad guys in his day.

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.

RAOUL WHITFIELD “China Man.” Jo Gar #18. Published under the name Ramon Decolta in Black Mask, March 1932. Reprinted in The Hardboiled Dicks, edited by Ron Goulart (Sherbourne Press, 1965). Collected in West of Guam: The Complete Cases of Jo Gar (Altus Press, 2013).

   Jo Gar is attacked in his office by someone who appears to be a Chinese coolie, but strangely enough the knife thrower misses his mark, even at close range. Gar tries to follow him, but loses him in the crowds in the streets of Manila under the stress of an approaching hurricane.

   Returning to his small cramped office, he finds a note from his client slipped under the door. The man, an importer of valuable jade, had come early and left. The note accuses a “China man” as the person who has been stealing from him.

   Then his client turns up murdered, knifed to death, and his body dumped into a river.

   This may sound like a complicated case, but in spite of what also seems like a story with a lot of action, neither is true. What makes the story work as well as it does is the setting, that of what had to have been a really exotic, foreign land to most readers of Black Mask in 1932, the streets and other sights of the Philippines. And to tell you the truth, it probably still is to most people living in the US today.

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.

MICHAEL BISHOP “Allegra’s Hand.” Novelette. First appeared in Asimov’s SF, June 1996. Collected in At the City Limits of Fate (Edgewood Press, hardcover, 1996).

   I called this a science fiction story, and it is that, but it’s far from a space or planets story. A young girl new to her school catches the head counselor there, as well as a host of bullies. It’s not difficult to see why. She wears a glove on her left hand, a long-sleeved one that goes up her arm to almost her elbow.

   Why? What is she hiding? Why won’t she tell anyone? She is clearly intelligent, perhaps more than her years. But taunted one day too far, she punches the boy bullying her in the stomach with the hand in the glove, leaving a huge circular bruise. I won’t tell you her secret, as the mystery is a major factor in the first half of the story, one her counselor (female, and a first person narrator) works to unravel.

   Which she eventually does, gaining Allegra’s trust at last, slowly and carefully. It is quite an affliction, shall we say, that Allegra has to face. Luckily she has her father on her side, and she doesn’t have to face her future alone, not for a while yet.

   It’s in essence a quiet, melancholy story and I think a memorable one. But as Mrs. Hewit tells a colleague, “Beth, I go bump against more hopeless, intractable cases than Allegra’s almost very week. None more unusual, I grant that, but many sadder and a few even harder to envision tuning out acceptably.”

   As for me, I agree. It won’t be easy, but I think Allegra is a survivor.

   Michael Bishop has been writing SF since 1970, and his work has won or has been nominated for any number of awards. Even so, his stories are not flashy, and I don’t believe they’ve ever gained the attention they should have.

FREDERICK NEBEL “Winter Kill.” Kennedy of the Free Press & Captain Steve MacBride #32. Novelette. First published in Black Mask, November 1935. Reprinted in The Hardboiled Dicks, edited by Ron Goulart. (Sherbourne Press, 1965). Collected in Winter Kill: The Complete Cases of MacBride & Kennedy, Volume 4: 1935-36 (Altus Press, 2014).

   Russ Parcell is a cad, no way to get around that. A rich father’s son who drinks a lot, gambles a lot, and although married, runs around with cheap floozies a lot. He owes one gambling boss over $8500, which in 1935 would have been considered a lot of money, and the gambling boss is anxious to collect. It doesn’t make sense, then, for him to have killed Parcell, does it? The latter was found in the street,hid body frozen to death and covered with snow.

   It is Kennedy of Free Press who figures out it was murder. Someone had poured water on him and sent him wandering out in the cold in a drunken stupor. It is also Kennedy who does most of the investigative work on the case, although Captain Steve MacBride is there for police backup whenever he’s needed.

   It is also Kennedy who shows any personality in this particular story. He’s short and thin, and at times he can be almost invisible in a room, almost a shadow on the wall so that others also in the room can easily forget he’s there. He also drinks a lot, but whether he’s ever actually drunk is not easy to tell. He often learns a lot by pretending he’s had few too many.

   MacBride, on the other hand, could just as well be another generic cop. Luckily for Kennedy, he doesn’t mind putting up with the latter’s various foibles.

   The case, unfortunately, while long and involved, is not a particularly gripping one, and most of Kennedy’s legwork is done off screen, or with the motives for what he does do not revealed to the reader. The Kennedy-MacBride series was both a long one and very popular with the readers at the time. This particular story may not show them at their best.

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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