Stories I’m Reading


“A Clever Little Woman,” by the author of “Nick Carter.” Nick Carter. First published in the New York Weekly, 24 November 1894. (Real author unknown.) Reprinted in The Great American Detective, edited by William Kittredge & Steven M. Krauzer (Mentor, paperback original, October 1978).

   Of all the dime novels and other fictional exploits of Nick Carter (“Master Detective”) it is unclear why the editors of The Great American Detective chose this one to lead off their anthology of … guess what? Stories about great American detectives. But it’s not bad and in fact, it’s quite readable and only slightly stilted and not at all as fusty as you might expect a non-literary piece of fiction written in 1894 might be.

   Nick is hired to learn who forged a check purported to have been signed by an old man with heart trouble. Only indeed by accident and happenstance was the deed discovered. Filling Nick Carter in on the details is the daughter of a distant relative from upstate New York who is currently living with the family, a bright young lady who has brought a good deal of recent cheer to the household.

   Only someone with uninterrupted access to Mr. Brandon’s checkbook could have forged the check, so all of the recent callers to the house must be investigated. Nick Carter does a good job of it, but today’s readers will know who the guilty party at once. (I assuming that those of you reading this are as good a detective in these matter as I am, which is a very low bar to hurdle, I assure you.)

GEORGE C. CHESBRO. “Candala.” Robert “Mongo the Magnificent” Fredrickson. First appeared in An Eye for Justice, edited by Robert J. Randisi (Mysterious Press, hardcover, 1988: A PWA Anthology). Collected in In the House of Secret Enemies (Mysterious Press, hardcover, 1990).

   Mongo the Magnificent appeared in quite a few novels by author George C. Chesbro as well as short fiction such as this one. You may have read some of them, but in case not, I’ll introduce him to you formally now as Dr. Robert Frederickson, private detective, criminology professor, martial arts expert, ex-circus acrobat, and dwarf. A unique individual, to say the least.

   Most of the work that I’ve read in which he appears has always seemed to be, including the cases he takes as a PI, to have more than a hint of mysticism to them, whether it’s actually there or not. So it is with “Candala,” in which he plays a dual role as college professor as well as a PI.

   He’s hired by a girl from India whose would-be fiancé, one of Mongo’s better students, has suddenly shut her out of her life, and she wants to know why. [WARNING: Plot Alert] With even that small amount of build-up, it probably will not surprise you if I tell you that he has not found another romantic interest, but what has happened has roots in the caste system still endemic in their homeland (at least at the time the story was written).

   Most fictional PI cases involve cheating spouses, missing children, dealings with mob bosses and the like. This, as you can tell, is not one of them. There’s no overt mysticism in it, but the hint is there, and it turns out to be a case I’m sure Mongo will never forget.

HARLAN ELLISON “Pretty Maggie Moneyeyes.” Novelette. First appeared in Knight, May 1967. First collected in I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream (Pyramid, paperback original; 1st printing, April 1967; cover by Diane Dillon & Leo Dillon). Reprinted in Best SF: 1967, edited by Brian W. Aldiss & Harry Harrison (Berkley, paperback original, 1968), among others. Nominated in 1968 for both the Hugo and Nebula awards for 1967.

   The soul of a blue-eyed, dyed blonde scrabbling her way from poverty, is trapped in a Vegas slot machine, and Kostner is betrayed into playing one time too many. An accurate expression of life as typified by Las Vegas. (5)

— June 1968.

PHILIP K. DICK “Faith of Our Fathers.” Novelette. First appeared in Dangerous Visions, edited by Harlan Ellison (Doubleday, hardcover, 1967; cover art by Diane Dillon and Leo Dillon). Collected in The Best of Philip K. Dick (Del Rey, paperback, 1977). Nominated for the Hugo Award in 1968 for Best Novelette of 1967.

   A civil servant in Hanoi, which incidentally seems to have won the war, is given an anti-hallucinogen so that he can see the reality behind the television image of the Absolute Benefactor. But is it reality when people see twelve versions? Or is it God? Barely succeeds as a story. (3)

— June 1968.

   

JANE LINDSKOLD “The Drifter.” First appeared in A Girl’s Guide to Guns and Monsters, edited by Martin H. Greenberg & Kerrie Hughes (Daw, paperback original, 2010). Collected in Curiosities (CreateSoace, trade paperback, 2015).

   To begin with, here’s the first paragraph:

   Prudence Bledsoe rode into town on a big buckskin stallion. She was on the trail of trouble, and it didn’t take much to see that she’d found it.

   

   Jane Lindskold is an author known for her stories of mythological fantasy – werewolves, shape-shifters, satyrs, merfolk, and unicorns, according to her Wikipedia page – but she wisely holds off on telling the reader was exactly the “trouble” is that she is on the trail of, but you can take it from me that that Wikipedia description is right on the mark.

   I will tell you this. Prudence Bledsoe is the kind of woman that when she rides into town, people notice. Not many women ride into town, you see, a drifter, you might say, on horseback, not one of the usual arrivals on the train or by stagecoach. That first sentence also lets us know that she is a woman on a mission, and I think the townsfolk know that, too.

   Jane Lindskold is a very good writer. Besides setting up the story as she does in the very first sentence, she also conveys the dustiness and the on-the-edge of nowhere feeling of the town and the townspeople. Cattle and sheep have been gruesomely killed, she learns, and young children have gone missing. And at length, Prudence Bledsoe’s own personal secret is revealed.

   This is not a classic unforgettable story, but any means, but it’s an effective one, and it’s a fine choice for the leading one in a collection entitled A Girl’s Guide to Guns and Monsters.

ANNE McCAFFREY “Weyr Search.” Novella. Dragonriders of Pern #1. First appeared in Analog SF, October 1967, Reprinted in Nebula Award Stories Three, edited by Roger Zelazny (Doubleday, hardcover, 1968), among others. Nominated for the Nebula AwarD in 1968 for Best Novella of 1967. Winner of Hugo Award that year for that category.

   The traditions and ballads of Pern glorify the dragons and their masters, but the time of crisis is past, at least for the time being, and forgetfulness has come easily, A new Weyrwoman is needed for the dragon queen about to be hatched, and dragonmen venture forth to find a suitable girl.

   Well written, but there exists too much feeling of looking on from the outside, A sequel is definitely demanded. The map is of little use.

Rating: ***½

— June 1968.

ROBERT SILVERBERG “Hawksbill Station”. Novella. First appeared in Galaxy SF, August 1967. Reprinted in World’s Best Science Fiction: 1968, edited by Terry Carr & Donald A. Wollheim (Ace, paperback, 1967). First collected in The Reality Trip and Other Implausibilities (Ballantine, paperback, 1973). Expanded to the novel of the same title (Doubleday, hardcover, 1968). Nominated for both the Hugo and Nebula Awards in 1968 for Best Novella of 1967.

   Governments of the 21st Century have found Hawksbill Station, located two billions years in Earth’s past, an excellent spot for deported political agitators. Jim Barrett, with greatest seniority, is the acknowledged king whose kingdom is going completely insane. A crisis seems to form with the new arrival of Lew Hahn, who is strangely different.

   The ending is a letdown from what goes before, is perhaps too simple in comparison with the masterful construction that precedes. It could be the background for a much longer story.

Rating: ****

— June 1968.

ROGER ZELAZNY “Damnation Alley.” Novella. First appeared in Galaxy SF, October 1967. First collected in The Last Defender of Camelot (Pocket, 1980). Reprinted in Supertanks, edited by Martin H. Greenberg et al (Ace, 1987). Expanded into the novel of the same title (Putnam, hardcover, 1969). Nominated for a Hugo Award in Best Novella category (placed third). Film: 20th Century Fox, 1977, with Jan-Michael Vincent (as Tanner) and George Peppard.

   Damnation Alley is the cross-continent route from Los Angeles to Boston, some years after the Bomb. The plague has hit Boston, and Hell Tanner is one of the drivers sent out with the essential serum [they need]. Armored cars are necessary to avoid radioactivity, mutated monsters, and violent storms.

   Tanner is an ex-convict, a Hell’s Angel gangleader, who is forced into leading the caravan with the promise of a full pardon. It is his story, his changing reaction to the job he must do, with side glimpses into the resiliency of man. There is, of course, a tremendous build-up of tension and emotion as Boston gradually becomes reachable.

   Zelazny’s picture of a new world is both beautiful and horribly terrifying: do you believe that?

Rating: *****

— June 1968.

   

BILL PRONZINI. “Booktaker.” Nameless PI. First appeared in Shosetsu Shincho, 1982, apparently a Japanese collection of four novellas, presumably in English. Also collected in Casefile, St. Martin’s Press, hardcover, 1983; PaperJacks, Canadian paperback, 1988. Reprinted in Locked Room Puzzles, edited by Martin H. Greenberg & Bill Pronzini (Academy Chicago, paperback, 1986).

   Nameless is hired in this one by a bookseller friend to investigate the recent thefts of several etchings and old maps, $20,000 worth in 1982 money. (This from the store where Nameless built the bulk of his pulp magazine collection, back when they could still be obtained at reasonable prices.)

   There are only three keys to the room, the owner’s and those of two employees. There are also security devices at all of the ways in and out of the store. It must be an inside job, but which of the store employees is responsible, and the even bigger question is how is he doing it?

   To keep an eye on the situation, Nameless goes undercover in the shop as a new employee, using the name Jim Marlowe. And lo and behold, another rare map disappears, almost literally under Nameless’s eyes and nose.

   It is indeed quite a mystery. Only a chance comment by Nameless’s girl friend Kerry helps lead to the solution to the case, but the culprit is not named until both she and Nameless are nearly run off a dangerous canyon road by another car.

   Wonderful! Without trying to exaggerate too much, this one has everything. Who doesn’t love a bookstore mystery? And a locked room mystery built right into it?
   

[NOTE]: This is the third of four reviews that went missing during the loss of service undergone by this blog over this past weekend. Unfortunately all of the comments for it have permanently disappeared.

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

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