Monday, February 8, 2016

"Off We Went to Nab a Crook"

"The Ransom of EQMM #1."
By Arthur Vidro.
Short story (~11 pages).
Online at EQMM's "The Mystery Place" HERE.
"You have the right to remain silent. I strongly encourage you to exercise that right, else I'll get your parents here pronto and they'll give you a good whip-ping."
Homer Slocum of Shinn Corners (our first person narrator) is justifiably proud of his collection of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine going all the way back to the very first issue from 1941. When a local newspaper article features Homer's collection, he tolerates the un-wanted attention it brings—until that first issue suddenly goes missing. The police literally laugh in Homer's face, and since they're of no use he's forced to conclude:
I'd have to find EQMM #1 on my own.
Not too long afterwards Homer receives what amounts to a ransom note:
Here is picture proving we have your magazine and have not hurt it. To get it back, leave $500 cash in brown paper bag under elm tree outside police station. Tonight. Midnight. Or else it's curtains for your magazine. Each night you do not pay, we will draw an extra tail through the back-page double-tailed Q. Heck, we’ll even draw extra Qs. With permanent marker.
Once Homer shows them the note, the police stop laughing at least, but it will still fall to Homer to set a trap to catch the extortioner—"the key clue" (that "double-tailed Q") being the tip off, with another one that's been hiding in plain sight all along.

- The FictionMags issue listings for EQMM begin HERE.
- As regular ONTOS readers already know, Arthur Vidro edits that splendid publication (Give Me That) OLD-TIME DETECTION, reviews of which are HERE, HERE, HERE, HERE, and HERE.

The bottom line: "If something is stolen from you, don't go to the police. They're not interest-ed. Don't go to a psychologist either, because he's interested in only one thing: that it was really you who did the stealing."
Karl Kraus

Sunday, February 7, 2016

"Nobody Could Be So Dumb As to Leave All That Evidence"

"Too Dumb to Be Fooled."
By Robert Arthur (1909-69).
First appearance: Detective Fiction Weekly, November 10, 1934.
Short story (12 pages).
Online HERE.
"Can You Spot the One Clue That Will Break the Case of the Foot-Print on the Side of a Dead Man's House? You Can if You Are Too Dumb to Be Fooled"
There's always a tendency to distrust the obvious clues turned up in an investigation; surely, the detective might say, somebody can't be that stupid, can they?

When Andrew Jenkins, a rich, feeble, and cantankerous old man (aren't they always?) has his throat cut while he's asleep, District Attorney Hopkins decides to bypass protocol and investigate this case on his own, assisted by Sergeant Ed Gore (our smug narrator) and Officer Solly Jenkins (not exactly the sharpest tool in the box). By checking alibis and timetables, D. A. Hopkins and the boys narrow the suspects down to three: Arnold and Hank Jenkins, the old man's contentious sons, and Norfolk, the apparently unflappable butler.

After some particulary damning evidence implicating one of the sons is easily found in his room, our three investigators think they've solved it—but to the D. A.'s annoyance, Officer Jenkins isn't convinced. It will take one crucial clue involving a cook stove, this one turned up by the skeptical Solly, to nail down who the killer really is and how he nearly gets away with framing somebody else.

Comment: ". . . our three investigators . . .": Get it?

- Wikipedia HERE - FictionMags HERE - ISFDb HERE - IMDb HERE.
- A website devoted to all things Hitchcock has more information HERE, and one dedicated to Robert Arthur is HERE.
- At The Locked Room HERE, P. J. Bergman has a review of one of Arthur's most popular books, one that you, like us, might have read as a kid.
- Another Arthur story caught our attention in an earlier posting HERE.

The bottom line: "The impossible could not have happened, therefore the impossible must be possible in spite of appearances."
Hercule Poirot

Saturday, February 6, 2016

"A Terrific Haymaker Sent the Detective Crashing into the Office Furniture"

"Disturb the Dead."
By Sam Merwin, Jr. (1910-96).
First appearance: Thrilling Mystery, March 1942.
Short short story (5 pages).
Online at PulpGen HERE.
"A Murder and a Jewel Theft Take Bill Post on a Strange Graveyard Trail"
While insurance investigator Bill Post officially works for Twin-A, the Twin-American Insurance Company, as a practical matter he has to answer to his boss, an impatient man who doesn't like it when Post comes up empty-handed. In this instance, much to Post's chagrin, the police have already nabbed Pete Mydans, a "dapper thief" who likes to sport pink and white carnations in his lapels, on a minor charge; Post, however, knows for sure that Mydans made off with the Mallory jewels worth a cool two hundred grand and has been chasing him everywhere, but now can only do a slow burn when Mydans taunts him from behind bars.

Things take a turn for the better, though, when our insurance investigator discovers solid connections between Mydans's carnations, a murdered undertaker, "a hulking hairless Hibernian whose rough hands and weather-beaten face gave the lie to his neatly-pressed dark suit," and a "long-jawed man with a red face, loud clothes and a glittering diamond horseshoe tie pin"—the last being especially out of place in a chilly graveyard at midnight.

- Since we've already encountered Sam Merwin in science fiction mode in the previous posting, you can find offsite links to his other work THERE, while a brief discussion of another one of his mystery stories is HERE.

The bottom line: "That skull had a tongue in it, and could sing once. How the knave jowls it to the ground as if ’twere Cain’s jawbone, that did the first murder!"

Thursday, February 4, 2016

"The Web of Deception of Which He Was Beginning to Think Himself the Center"

By Sam Merwin, Jr. (1910-96).
First appearance: Thrilling Wonder Stories, August 1953.
Short story (17 pages).
Online HERE.
"Out in space, out in the silence and the darkness between worlds, where the hours drag so slowly, there's always time for murder!"
It's 2073, and Ivan Rutherford Y Barra, the Permanent Secretary of the United Planets, has his hands full, with spaceships crashing on landing, which is bad enough, but the crashes are more than just disasters resulting in a terrible death toll. They threaten the political stability of the Solar System and, as Rutherford slowly comes to realize, are acts of sabotage:
"Venus threatens to bypass Earth entirely in favor of direct trade with Mars and Ganymede. Mars and Ganymede threaten to occupy Titan and other Saturnian satellites by force unless mandate restrictions are changed."
Not only are his hands full but they're also, in a very peculiar way, tied, because the people he suspects of conspiracy and mass murder are cloaked in diplomatic immunity, keeping him from using up-to-date methods to get at the truth:
"Jacques," said Rutherford when his aide's voice trailed off, "have you ever heard of proof? I know it's old-fashioned but police did use to capture and convict criminals before sera and hypnotism came into use. They went out and dug up the facts."
Commodore Willis said, "The way I heard it, they just rounded up all the suspects and beat hell out of them until someone confessed."
While going Old School appeals to Rutherford, he figures it won't be necessary to go that far:
The Permanent Secretary of the United Planets was an incurable crime mystery-story addict. Of all honors that had befallen him he prized most highly his membership in the Mystofans, a small association of like addicts who met bi-weekly in the Old City house to discuss the more arcane aspects of their hobby. Hypnotics and truth sera had rendered crime detective [sic] a mere matter of questioning for almost a century, had thereby eliminated not only most major felonies but the literature about them as well.
Rutherford's "addiction" will serve him well when he finds his main agent dead in his own study:
. . . [He] lay on his back, sprawled out on the carpet. His mouth was open, his skin even yellower than it had been the night before. He was as dead as a man can be.
For the Permanent Secretary:
It was his first contact with murder—he had already so labeled it in his mind—and while he enjoyed it vicariously in fiction he found the fact not only undra-matic but frightening. Belching unhappily Rutherford decided he could not eat another mouthful.
He decides to keep the whole thing quiet, confiding only in Commodore Willis:
WHEN the space-aide had left Rutherford rose and paced the carpet. He felt a stirring in his adrenal glands, a rising sense of excitement. Like Nero Wolf [sic], his idol, he was going to bring the human elements of a criminal conspiracy together and, instead of applying the twenty-first century commonplaces of hypnotics and truth sera, was going to confront them with material elements amounting to proof. And if he handled the situation correctly he was going to save the Solar System from disaster.
Applying Wolfeian methods to the situation, Rutherford arrives at a motive and whodunnit:
"The oldest motive for crime outside of hunger—power. Our chief conspirator is a man who, through sublimation of his craving to rule the System, is willing in the name of the highest possible motives to let part of that System destroy itself so that he can seize the reins. He is socially as dangerous as a Communist—or a Puritan."
Comment: A cute idea that almost works: someone in the future being forced by circum-stance to apply the outdated approach to crime solving used by the "ancient" sleuths found in detective fiction from over a century earlier—but, seriously: "Aggie" Borden, Nero "Wolf", and "Archy" Goodwin, not to mention easily avoided grammatical errors (e.g., "have received ultimate from both sides")? Sloppy.

- Sam Merwin is the subject of a Wikipedia article HERE, a FictionMags list HERE, the ISFDb HERE (naturally), and some of his other stories can be found on Project Gutenberg HERE.
- "Martin Kane" is mentioned in the story; at the time it was published everybody knew who Kane was—"television's first private eye":
Played by actor William Gargan on both radio and television, Kane was an affable kinda guy, sporting a spiffy bowtie and smoking a pipe, and looked for all the world like somebody's uncle, but under the veneer, he was hard and determined, and nobody's patsy.
But still further under that, he was still a kind of a doofus.
Which doesn't necessarily make these shows any less watchable, although some of the entertainment value was definitely unintentional. — Kevin Burton Smith, The Thrilling Detective Web Site (HERE).

The bottom line: "Diplomacy is the art of saying 'Nice doggie' until you can find a rock."
Will Rogers

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

The Tie That Binds

"A Man Called Spade."
By Dashiell Hammett (1894-1961).
First appearance: The American Magazine, July 1932.
Collected in The Adventures of Sam Spade (1944; for sale HERE) and A Man Called Spade (1945).
Anthologized in, e.g., The Super Sleuths Revisited (HERE and HERE; for sale HERE).
Short story (12 pages).
Online (with images) at Comic Book Plus starting HERE (set page selector to 30 and then to 76); also online (without images) HERE.
Detective Sam Spade gets a phone call from a man saying his life is in danger, but he arrives too late to prevent a murder. Before Spade can isolate the killer, however, he and the police squad will encounter and have to sort through the significance of, among other things, a rebellious young heiress; a crazy Russian; newlyweds, one of them an ex-con; a religious fanatic; a shabby judge; an occultic symbol on the dead man's chest; a necktie that doesn't fit and blood on the tie-pin; and an almost perfect alibi—almost.

~ "There ought to be a law making criminals give themselves up."
~ "There's something funny about that woman."
~ "I hurt a knuckle stopping him and the job only lasted an afternoon."
~ "There's a lot of deviltry going on in this world."
On the Black Gate website Sherlockian Bob Byrne compares this story with Hammett's other efforts:
"A Man Called Spade" is far and away the longest of the three short stories [Hammett wrote about the detective]. Spade arrives at a prospective client’s apartment to find Falcon stalwarts Tom Polhous and Lieutenant Dundy there and the no-longer-prospective client murdered, a five-pointed star with a 'T' in the middle outlined in black ink above his heart.
Dundy’s antagonism towards Spade in The Maltese Falcon is noticeably absent in this story. The two men work together, with Spade having carte blanche in questioning people.
Except for the opening and closing scenes, which take place between Spade and his secretary, Effie Perrine, the entire story takes place in Max Bliss’s apartment and feels like it is more of a play than a story. It is, quite simply, dull and pales in comparison to The Maltese Falcon.
Dundy is completely adrift in this case and while the police help with the hard evidence, Spade’s mind alone identifies the murderer. A red herring in the case is lifted directly from a Continental Op story from a few years before. Of the three stories, this one most feels like it was hurriedly written to generate some cash.  . . .
Mike Grost agrees:
"A Man Called Spade" is the first, longest, and weakest of the three works. As Richard Layman has pointed out, Hammett reused the initial situation of his early Op tale "The Tenth Clew" (1924) in this story. "A Man Called Spade" has all new characters, and all new writing - it does not reuse any of the text of the earlier story. Even odder, it has a brand new puzzle plot, different from the one in the original tale. Both stories' puzzle plots, while completely different from each other, show the influence of Freeman Wills Crofts.
Spade also works closely with the police. The single cop Sergeant O'Gar of the earlier Op series, is expanded into a pair in the Spade tales, Lieutenant Dundy and Sgt. Tom Polhaus. There are other named policemen too. They played a prominent role in The Maltese Falcon, and show up again as continuing characters in a subsequent Spade story, "They Can Only Hang You Once." The basic setup of the two short tales is pretty much the same as S. S. Van Dine's Philo Vance books, with the detective acting as friend and consultant to a well characterized squad of police. It is quite different from the earlier Op work. In the Spade tales, the equal relationship between the private eye and the police has disappeared. Instead the police are shown as being basically in a support-ing role to Sam Spade, who functions as a genius detective in the Philo Vance tradition. The police here are honest, and do routine investigative tasks, with Spade coming up with the ultimate answers as to whodunit. Unlike the Op, the solitary Spade has no agency to call on, and does little private detective work. Instead he mainly helps the police question suspects, and then solves the case. — "The Sam Spade Short Stories," A Guide to Classic Mystery and Detection
You can read The Adventures of Sam Spade online HERE:
(1) "Too Many Have Lived" (1932)
(2) "They Can Only Hang You Once" (1932)
(3) "A Man Called Spade" (1932)
(4) "The Assistant Murderer" (1926)
(5) "Night Shade" (1933)
(6) "The Judge Laughed Last" (1924)
(7) "His Brother's Keeper" (1934)

- Wikipedia's article about Hammett is HERE; there's a long Hammett bibliography at FictionMags HERE; and he even has an entry on the ISFDb HERE.
- Sam Spade has his very own Wikipedia article HERE and a much shorter FictionMags listing HERE, while not surprisingly The Thrilling Detective features a very thorough article about "the blond satan" HERE.
- The Argonaut: Journal of the San Francisco Museum and Historical Society (Winter 2011) has a comprehensive, well-researched, and nicely-illustrated article entitled "Dashiell Hammett's San Francisco in the 1920s," by Monika Trobits HERE (PDF, 29 pages), that practically gives us a guided tour of Sam Spade's Baghdad by the Bay.

The bottom line: "Of course, to be serious for a moment, there's no such thing as a nice murder or a perfect murder. It is always a sordid, despicable business, especially if you don't have a good lawyer."
Alfred Hitchcock

Sunday, January 31, 2016

"'Your Name?' Said the Police Car in a Metallic Whisper"

"The Pedestrian."
By Ray Bradbury (1920-2012).
First appearance: The Reporter, August 7, 1951.
First reprinted in F&SF, February 1952.
First anthologized in The Best Science-Fiction Stories: 1952 (1952) and first collected in The Golden Apples of the Sun (1953) and numerous times since (HERE).
Filmed for TV in 1989 with that guy from M*A*S*H (HERE).
Short short short story (2 pages).
Online HERE (original) and HERE (PDF reprint).
"A jaundiced view of the world of A. D. 2131"
When utopia arrives, you can be sure there'll be somebody who won't think it's so wonderful:
. . . what a rare, incredible thing; in a city of three million, there was only one police car left. Ever since a year ago, 2130, the election year, the force had been cut down from three cars to one. Crime was ebbing; there was no need now for the police, save for this one lone car wandering and wandering the empty streets.  . . .
Comment: There really isn't anything we can add to the countless tributes offered over the years about Ray Bradbury's limpid prose, each word fitting perfectly in its place, the reader's senses stimulated, the emotions continually engaged.
- Wikipedia has background on "The Pedestrian" HERE (WARNING: SPOILERS) and an extensive article about Bradbury HERE; the ISFDb (HERE) and FictionMags (HERE) have plenty of bibliographical info; and there's a tribute site HERE.
- Note: The date mentioned in the story was changed in subsequent editions to 2053.

The bottom line: "A turn or two I'll walk to still my beating mind."

Saturday, January 30, 2016

"Surely There Is No Blackmail in a Straightforward Business Proposition of This Character"

"Mr. Clackworthy Goes to Jail."
By Christopher B. Booth (1889-1950).
First appearance: Detective Story Magazine, August 27, 1921.
Short story (10 pages).
Online at Comic Book Plus HERE (set page selector to 26).
The old saying about needing a thief to catch a thief still applies when Mr. Amos Clack-worthy, a "master confidence man," and his cohort in crime known as The Early Bird set about catching a worm from The Bird's past, a swindler who once called himself Chicago Charlie, but who under another alias is now quite well situated in a small Midwestern town which he all but owns outright thanks to his dubious talent at corrupting people, especially public officials.

But bringing down this fatcat will prove far more difficult than Clackworthy anticipates when he and The Early Bird wind up in a place where, in all his years as a master conman, Clack-worthy has never been: jail.

Comment: Mr. Clackworthy and his sidekick are very much in the Raffles gentleman thief/rogue tradition; you can read a fine summary of this subgenre of detective fiction by Mike Grost HERE:
The Rogue school, such writers as Guy N. Boothby, Max Pemberton, Maurice Leblanc, and E. W. Hornung, wrote tales about clever thieves and swindlers, that were at one time immensely popular with Late Victorian readers. The stories were comic and cheery in tone, and treated the crook protagonist as a hero. This thief only stole from the very rich, and never committed murder, rarely used violence, and never did anything to harm anyone except the very wealthy. He often outwitted policemen who were trying to catch him. Many of their works involve impersonation, one of the key elements of the Rogue writers. The rogue would often impersonate well to do members of the upper classes. Oftentimes the crook is dressed as a very rich man.
Many of these rogue stories are not really mysteries. That is, there are no mysterious events to be solved. Basically, they are adventure stories, often with elements of suspense and comedy. There are often surprise twists in the plots of all these writers, and a great deal of emphasis on the protagonists ingenious-ly outwitting their opponents through clever plot schemes. Although there are often plot surprises, there is not typically much emphasis on puzzle plots in any of these authors.  . . . — "Rogue Fiction," A Guide to Classic Mystery and Detection
. . . which describes this particular story very well.
- According to FictionMags (HERE), Christopher B. Booth produced (if our count is right) no fewer than 63 stories featuring Mr. Clackworthy, with this one being the 25th in the series; a fuller bibliography of Booth's short fiction is HERE.
- Eight more Mr. Clackworthy stories are now available as a Kindle Megapack (see HERE), with an introduction by Mystery*File's very own Steve Lewis.

The bottom line: "Every decent con man knows that the simplest truth is more powerful than even the most elaborate lie."
Ally Carter