Friday, February 26, 2016

"Herbert Felt Completely Safe"

"Unbreakable Alibi."
By Freeman Wills Crofts (1879-1957).
First appearance: EQMM, May 1953.
Reprinted in EQMM (UK), May 1953 and EQMM (Australia), July 1953.
Short short short story (4 pages).
Online at SFFAudio HERE (PDF).
"The trouble with Herbert Rich was that he was too clever."
We won't needlessly repeat Robbie Burns's famous dictum about the best laid plans, but Herbert Rich should have known about it or he wouldn't have contrived a "too clever" plot to do away with Jack Fleet, a wartime pal that Herbert, rightly or wrongly, now regards as a rival for his wife Joan's affections. In this instance, however, unlike so many stories in this mystery subgenre, the killer fails to make allowances, not for the unexpected, but for the perfectly ordinary.
Principal characters:
~ Herbert Rich: A market gardener, "but his real interest lay in photography, at which he was supremely good."
~ Joan Rich: Herbert's young wife and the (probably innocent) second side of a triangle.
~ Jack Fleet: Herbert's "handsome and well-to-do friend" and the hypotenuse in this configuration.
~ Mrs. Tolley: The cook whose predictability will cause a perfectly-knitted murder to unravel.
~ An anonymous police Inspector (who might or might not be named French) who gets the picture.
Comments: One of those "perfect crime" tales that have enjoyed a vogue now and then. Typo: "extingusished(seriously, Fred?).
Resources:
- Patrick at At the Scene of the Crime has a review HERE of a collection of Freeman Wills Crofts's short stories entitled Murderers Make Mistakes, from which he reproduces this appropriate quote from our author:
So many [murderers] devise ingenious schemes to mislead the police and to avert suspicion from themselves: real brainy schemes which ought to succeed. And then they go and spoil them by some tiny oversight which gives the whole thing away, so that their guilt stands out a mile. It’s like a man who fits up an elaborate electrical system in his house: lights, fires, heaters; every conceivable gadget and convenience, and then spoils it all by forgetting to switch on the current.
- Curt Evans has an article about Crofts HERE.
- The normal lineup: Wikipedia HERE, GAD Wiki HERE, FictionMags (about Crofts) HERE and (about Inspector French) HERE, and the ISFDb HERE.

The bottom line: "Seeing a murder on television can help work off one's antagonisms. And if you haven't any antagonisms, the commercials will give you some."
Alfred Hitchcock

"Curse You, Curse You, You've Caught Me!"

"Murder by Proxy."
By M. McDonnell Bodkin (1850-1933).
First appearance: Pearson's Weekly, February 6, 1897.
Novelette (20 pages).
Online at SFFAudio HERE (PDF) and Prof. David Stewart's collection HERE (PDF).
"He fell on the ground in a fit."
If there's more than one way to skin a cat, there's also more than one way to kill a squire. On a sultry day in August young Eric Neville is standing under Squire Neville's window with the estate's gardener when there's a loud BANG; rushing in just moments later they find Eric's older cousin John bending over the body, apparently as amazed as they are. After the shock wears off, the situation becomes all too clear to everyone: Since nobody could have left the study in that short interval without being seen, only one conclusion is possible, and it's bad news for John . . .
"a handsome, old-fashioned muzzle-loader"
Principal characters:
~ Paul Beck: The detective from London, "a stout, thick-set man" who affects an air of good nature, good humour, and placidity but is actually smarter than he lets on.
~ Squire Neville of Berkly Manor: After having a row with his nephew John, he is found shot through the back of the head by "a handsome, old-fashioned muzzle-loader."
~ John Neville: Older cousin of Eric and lineal heir to Squire Neville's estate; engaged to lovely Lucy Peyton, daughter of Colonel Peyton, the squire's nextdoor neighbour: "By slow degrees dark suspicion settled down and closed like a cloud round John Neville."
~ Eric Neville: The "young, handsome, débonnaire" nephew of the squire, second in line to inherit.
~ On the estate: Simpson, the gardener; Lennox, the gamekeeper; Unnamed, the butler.
~ Wardle: The local constable, "a shrewd, silent man" who is "strong and active too, though well over fifty years of age."
~ At the inquest: The Coroner, "a large, red-faced man, with a very affable manner," and Mr. Waggles, preposterous counsel for the defence.

Beckisms:
"No hurry and no fuss. Stir nothing. The things about the corpse have always a story of their own if they are let tell it, and I always like to have the first quiet little chat with them myself."
"Your wire said 'Expense no object.' Well, time is an object, and comfort is an object too, more or less, in all these cases; so I took a special train, and here I am."
"The first thing the British law does by way of discovering the truth is to close the mouth of the only witness that knows it. Well, that's not my way. I like to give an innocent man a chance to tell his own story, and I've no scruple in trapping a guilty man if I can."
"Hearsay evidence is often first-class evidence, though the law doesn't think so."
"I find that I can look closer and think clearer when I'm by myself. I'm not exactly shy you know, but it's a habit I've got."
So who was this Paul Beck?
A "rule of thumb" detective, he was intentionally put forward as a toned down, regular kinda guy sort of detective, a working class dick who favored legwork and common sense. A bit of a plodder, and a little on the plump side, Beck was meant to offer a vivid contrast to the lightning bolt flashes of genius and aristocratic eccentricity of Holmes and the other Great Detectives of the time.
As Leroy Lad [Panek] points out, however, in After Sherlock Holmes (2014), "all of this is amusingly disingenuous" as Beck is actually something of a genius himself, a master of disguise, a crack puzzle-solver, and the possessor of an encyclopediac knowledge of all sorts of arcane minutiae and scientific know-how, even employing x-rays to solve one of his cases. He was also pretty well off, with "comfortable lodgings" in Chester.
Nor was Beck all science and logic—Bodkin often used magic and illusions in his stories—Beck was a master of legerdemain, while many of the stories were presented as pure conundrums deliberately presented as challenges to the reader. There was even a recurring villain in many of the stories: the nefari-ous Monsieur Grabeau, whose skills as a magician were secondary only—of course—to Beck. — Kevin Burton Smith, "Paul Beck & Dora Myrl," The Thrilling Detective
Comments: You should be able to figure out whodunnit early on, but how-they-dunnit is not so easy to determine. Hint: The way the victim is murdered in this story is very similar to how someone is accidentally killed in another story—the title and author of which we're not going to divulge, except that it was published seventeen years later by an American.

Resources:
- Prof. Stewart's cornucopia collection of 398 mystery short stories and 12 essays dating from the 19th- and early 20th-centuries is well worth exploring HERE.
- Articles about Matthias McDonnell Bodkin are HERE, HERE, and HERE, while FictionMags has listings for the author HERE and his creation HERE.
- Two books featuring Paul Beck are online: The Quests of Paul Beck (1908) is HERE, and The Capture of Paul Beck (1909), which introduces brilliant detective and wife-to-be Dora Myrl to Beck, is HERE and HERE.

The bottom line: "It's sometimes better to pretend I don't hear the sound of somebody in the nearby woods with a shotgun."
Dashiell Hammett

Thursday, February 25, 2016

"You Are the Man"

"Robots Can't Lie."
By Robert Leslie Bellem (1902-68).
First appearance: Fantastic Adventures, July 1941.
Reprinted in Science Fiction Adventure Classics, May 1972.
Short short story (9 pages).
Online at SFFAudio HERE (PDF) (includes an entertaining brief author autobiography).
"There was one thing about robot slaves; they couldn't tell a lie—yet this one did, and put Tim Kermit in a murder cell."
The mutilated body of Sylvia Gaynor, wife of Geoffrey Gaynor, president of General Robots, Inc., is found in their home, killed by a radium gun. ("A person hit with a Q-bolt," we're told, "is not very nice to look at since the flesh struck by the bolt is severely disrupted and burned.")

The police are confident they have their murderer: Tim Kermit, "a minor telecast executive" who works for the National network, but Kermit vociferously denies it. Their confidence arises from having an eyewitness to the crime, in this case a servant robot, and as everybody knows, it's incapable of telling a fib:
. . . because of the tamper-proof nature of the [robot's memory] mechanism, it is impossible for the slightest inaccuracy to slip into a [memory] playback. In brief, a robot simply can not lie. It records whatever it "sees" and repeats whatever it records.
There's a dramatic confrontation between the robot and Kermit:
A whirring hum emanated from the automaton's motivity center, indicating that it was in functional condition. Its polished viso lenses surveyed Kermit for a dispassionate instant; then, ominously, it leveled an accusing metal finger at him and said: "You are the man.  . . . You smashed the other robot, then blasted my lady's body with a Q-gun. You are the man."  . . . He saw himself on trial for his life, saw this metallic monster in the witness box, its perjured testimony accepted as truth because it was axiomatic that an automaton could not tell a lie . . . "But this one's lying!" Kermit bellowed . . .
Even Dutton, Kermit's boss, indicates his doubts: "Robots can't lie, Tim!" True enough, Kermit concedes, but they do have one flaw that nobody's thought of: "They can be fooled."
Comments: An amusingly off-kilter little (not fair play) sci-fi mystery stylistically marred by some purple patches, mostly involving the protagonist's girlfriend: "Loreen's hand flew to her mouth." - "I shan't leave you, Tim. Ever." - "Tim! Oh-h-h, Tim, darling!" - and so forth, not to mention someone getting "trickled" into making a move.

For more about robots, some of which tell the truth, others that tell lies, and a few that commit murder:
~ At the Scene of the Crime HERE.
~ The Rap Sheet HERE.
~ The highly frangible "Laws" of Robotics HERE.
~ Four ONTOS encounters with robocritters HERE, HERE, HERE, and HERE.

Resources:
There's a plenty of information about uberpulpster Robert Leslie Bellem on the World Wide Web:
- Wikipedia HERE - FictionMags HERE - Two exhaustive bibliographies HERE and HERE - The Thrilling Detective HERE - The ISFDb HERE - The IMDb HERE.

The bottom line: "R-4 got stuck on the First Law. 'Can anyone really protect a human being from all harm whatever?' it thought. 'No. It is inevitable that all humans must be injured, contract illnesses and ultimately die. The future can only be averted for humans who are already dead. Ergo . . .' It took a dozen cops to subdue R-4, after his blood orgy in a department store (83 dead, none injured)."
John Sladek

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Before There Was Raffles There Was Simon Carne

"The Duchess of Wiltshire's Diamonds."
Simon Carne #2.
By Guy Boothby (1867-1905).
First appearance: Pearson's Magazine, February 1897.
Filmed in 1971 as part of The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes series (HERE).
Novelette (23 pages).
Online at SFFAudio HERE (PDF) and Project Gutenberg Australia HERE (txt).
"Klimo—the now famous private detective, who has won for himself the right to be considered as great as Lecocq, or even the late lamented Sherlock Holmes"
When Simon Carne disembarks from the Continental express at Victoria Station, he's rather annoyed to learn from a friend that in his absence during the past fortnight the great Klimo, who ostentatiously advertises himself as a private detective, has taken up residence next door. "I trust," says Carne, "he will not prove a nuisance"; indeed, as Carne already knows all too well, Klimo will prove to be anything but nuisance. . . .
Roy Dotrice (born 1923) as Klimo
Principal characters:
~ Simon Carne: A physically deformed individual with a "peculiar beauty" in his face; widely known as an expert on Chinese and Indian art—but, as known to only a few, also an expert in abstracting valuables from the super rich; Carne's criminal credo seems to be encapsulated in the following passage:
To him it was scarcely a robbery he was planning, but an artistic trial of skill, in which he pitted his wits and cunning against the forces of society in general.
~ Klimo: "He is neither more nor less than a remarkably astute private detective"; Klimo's meteoric rise to prominence astonishes the public at large but dismays the aristocrats into whose company he impertinently inserts himself; as events unfold, they will have even more reasons to lament his presence.
~ The Earl of Amberley: Simon Carne's good friend and oblivious conduit to the most aristocratic of aristos; happily married to the Countess of Amberley.
~ Belton: Simon Carne's "grave and respectable" valet.
~ Jowur (or Hiram) Singh, Ram Gafur, and Wajib Baksh: Carne's Indian "domestics."
~ The Duchess of Wiltshire and her husband the Duke: Possessors (temporarily) of a famed diamond necklace worth fifty thousand pounds ("a mere fleabite to the man who had given it to his wife, but a fortune to any humbler person") — ". . . the fire of the stones when the light caught them was sufficient to dazzle the eyes, so fierce was it."
We've already encountered gentleman thief Mr. Amos Clackworthy (HERE), but he was a comparative late comer to the Rogue School (more about the Rogues HERE). In Simon Carne, Guy Boothby had his own swindler even before the most famous gentleman thief of all made his debut:
In A Prince of Swindlers he [Boothby] created the character of Simon Carne, a gentleman thief in the Raffles mould, with an alter ago as the eccentric detective Klimo: Carne first appeared in Pearson's Magazine in 1897, predating Raffles by two years. — "Guy Boothby," Wikipedia
FictionMags lists six Simon Carne stories being published in rapid succession in the January through June issues of Pearson's, all of which were collected into A Prince of Swindlers (a.k.a. The Viceroy's Protégé, 1900); it isn't clear whether there were more:

(1) "A Prince of Swindlers"
(2) "The Duchess of Wiltshire’s Diamonds"
(3) "How Simon Carne Won the Derby"
(4) "A Service to the State"
(5) "The Wedding Guest"
(6) "A Case of Philanthropy"

Resources:
- Wikipedia HERE - Boothby's FictionMags list HERE - The Simon Carne list HERE - ISFDb HERE - SFE HERE.
- ManyBooks has The Viceroy's Protégé HERE.

The bottom line: "No pressure, no diamonds."
Thomas Carlyle

Friday, February 19, 2016

Four Dr. Feather Mysteries

Dr. Feather was a series character creation of Ray Cummings, who is most famous for his science fiction, although he did dabble in pulp crime fiction. It looks as if Cummings produced at least 21 stories featuring Dr. Feather from 1936 to 1945 (see "Resources" below), four of which have been posted at that marvelous web archive PulpGen. If we were to categorize him, Dr. Feather would fit, along with other sleuths like Dr. Thorndyke, Luther Trant, and Craig Kennedy, into the "scientific detective" school, about which Mike Grost has a thorough discussion on his website HERE.

Comments: The usual format in these stories involves first, the crime, then the call for Dr. Feather, who examines the crime scene, turning up at least one crucial clue, the significance of which he coyly doesn't reveal until the end, and then only after he has set a trap and caught the malefactor. Not fair play, by any means.

Principal characters:
~ Dr. Feather: "Just a Ph.D." whose "primary interest is crime detection"; always described as "little" (but agile) with a "shaggy mane of iron-gray hair," given to saying things like "Dear me," "My goodness," and "Good gracious":
To anyone not knowing the famous criminologist intimately, he would have seemed a fussy little man, impractical, genial, anxious to please everyone. But his alert birdlike gaze was missing nothing of the scene around him.
~ Kit: His "small, dark-haired" (sometimes "dark little") feline "young daughter" who moves "like a shadow" and drives her father's big limousine ("which in effect was a traveling laboratory") and, when necessary, acts as his "muscle."

"A Shot in the Dark."
Dr. Feather #3.
By Ray Cummings (1887-1957).
First appearance: Popular Detective, September 1936.
Short short story (7 pages).
Online at PulpGen HERE.
Parental caution: Strong language.
"An Ingenious Detective Finds the Fatal Chord in a Fugue of Death!"
An elderly musician is murdered, the instrument of death is missing, and Sergeant Blaine is all at sea:
. . . In a deep chair, just about in the center of the room and facing the hall door, the body lay sprawled—Antoine Giorni, frail old man with a leonine head of longish, shaggy white hair. The head sagged; the hands dangled over the chair arms. On the ruffled white shirt front, under the long flowing black tie a grue-some crimson stain marked where the bullet had gone.
". . . We got four suspects—two young men an’ two young women [says the detective]. They was paired off when the shot was fired. Damn queer layout, Dr. Feather. Looks to me like one couple is innocent an’ the other is lyin’ its head off. But I’ll be dogged if I can figure out which is which."
Eventually, though, Dr. Feather figures out which is which by making a note-worthy discovery: "Science is a wonderful thing, isn't it?"

"Murder in the Fog."
Dr. Feather #14.
By Ray Cummings (1887-1957).
First appearance: Popular Detective, December 1937.
Short short story (7 pages).
Online at PulpGen HERE.
"Dr. Feather Tries to Prove You Can 'Set a Thief to Catch a Thief'"
In the murky fog clinging to a dead calm lake at night, two boats are making their way to the far shore when:
. . . from out of the fog, silent, invisible death struck suddenly! There was nothing to see; nothing to hear. But abruptly Dr. Hollis Hotchkiss sagged in the bow of the launch. There was just a little thud as his body tumbled forward and hit the cross seat.
He was dead with a bullet in his brain!
Simply because he was the nearest one to Dr. Hotchkiss, suspicion immediately falls on his young nephew, Irving, who desperately insists he didn't see or hear anything. Dr. Feather knows the young man is innocent, but proving it will require applying some high-tech to the case, in this instance a "small but elaborate piece of apparatus" using "a high-powered battery, with transformer, vacuum tubes and a small, hooded fluoroscope mirror with an intricate range-finding mechanism"—just the thing, don't you know, for catching an invisible killer who hides in the dark and the fog . . .

"The Dead Man Laughs."
Dr. Feather #15.
By Ray Cummings (1887-1957).
First appearance: Popular Detective, January 1938.
Short short story (6 pages).
Online at PulpGen HERE.
"The Dead Man Laughs—as a Scientific Sleuth Tackles the Riddle of A Mysterious Fire!"
When an apartment house catches fire, Dr. Feather gets involved because one of the tenants has sent the police a warning note saying that if he were to die it would be at the hands of his grandson. Not long afterwards:
The dead man lay in the bed—a wizened old man, with the covers almost com-pletely enveloping him. His glazed eyes stared unseeingly. But on his face was a queer grimace—with his lips parted as though he had died upon the brink of a laugh!
And there was not a mark of violence on the body! No wound. No evidence of poison. The old man, who had locked himself in the bedroom, seemingly had simply died, awake in his bed! And died, about to laugh!
Bizarre, certainly, but not as simple as it seems; after Dr. Feather has a chance to check out the crime scene, he can confidently tell Kit "this is a mighty clever murder":
". . . here was a dead man, without any sign of poisonous gas in him—an autop-sy wouldn’t show a thing. And the murderer tried to burn down this house and all this evidence."
To his dismay, the killer learns a valuable lesson in hygiene: never clean your fingernails too thoroughly.

"Clue in Crimson."
Dr. Feather #17.
By Ray Cummings (1887-1957).
First appearance: Crack Detective, September 1943.
Short short story (7 pages).
Online at PulpGen HERE.
"A tiny spot of blood was the only positive clue to the identity of Clark Douglas' murderer—but Dr. Feather knew how to make that bloodspot talk!"
Willow Grove's "somnolent telephone operator" is "startled by a call for help—a choking cry coming from the home of Clark Douglas here at the edge of town. There was a crash, then silence, and the line remained open." First responder Sergeant Tripp tells Dr. Feather that when he got there:
". . . we found Clark Douglas lyin’ on the floor of his study, where he had fallen with the telephone beside him. Stabbed, and pretty badly slashed. He’s a big powerful man. Looks like the killer left him for dead. But he didn’t die. He recovered enough to get to the telephone an’ call for help. Then he dropped unconscious."
The victim, the policeman explains, has plenty of potential enemies:
"An’, my Gawd, with those editorials Douglas writes, there’s a thousand people in this county would like to kill him."
But as it turns out, only one would-be murderer is responsible for this, and that person, remarks Dr. Feather, happens to have "very unusual blood indeed. Deficient in lime salts and calcium salt. And a deficiency in fibrin-ferment." (Of course, everybody knows what that means.) The old saying is very true in this case: Blood will tell.

Resources:
- Wikipedia has a relatively brief article about Ray Cummings HERE and the SFE a more extensive one HERE; FictionMags has a listing of his total production (that we know about) HERE and one for his Dr. Feather stories HERE (20 titles); and the ISFDb has a bibliography of his non-mystery output HERE.
- The Ray Cummings Megapack: 25 Golden Age Science Fiction and Mystery Tales for Kindle (for sale HERE) collects the stories above plus what he was better known for, his science fiction.

The bottom line: "They hunted till darkness came on, but they found not a button, or feather, or mark."
Lewis Carroll

Monday, February 15, 2016

"The Trunk Had a Nice Corpse in It"

"Four Petrified Men."
By Victor Maxwell (real name: Maxwell Vietor, 1880-1950).
First appearance: Detective Fiction Weekly, February 15, 1936.
Novelette (28 pages).
Online HERE.
"Sergeant Riordan Faces Two Fearful Riddles — Murder by Stuffed Animals and a Diabolic Trick That Changes Corpses into Stones"
Chapter I - "The Corpse of Stone"
Chapter II - "The Room of Madness"
Chapter III - "Gags of Death"
Chapter IV - "Riordan Starts Digging"
Chapter V - "The Secret of the Photo"
Chapter VI - "Riordan Springs a Surprise"
Chapter VII - "Riordan's Trap"

It's a case that seems better suited to "Bones" Brennan and her high-tech forensics crew than a mid-'30s headquarters cop, but Detective Sergeant Riordan is stuck with it when he gets a call from the house dick at the Belmont-Grand Hotel:
. . . Riordan glanced at the exterior of the trunk, noting it appeared dusty, and then lifted the lid. He jerked back quickly, then peered in the boxlike receptacle. Lying on its back, with legs drawn up, knees bent, was the fully-dressed form of a man—paunchy, with gray hair, staring eyes and a curious waxy complexion. The sergeant slowly scanned the figure, bent over and touched one of the arms. It was hard, rigid. He drew his fingers over one of the waxy cheeks, and received the impression that he had caressed a marble statue.
The whole figure was so hard, so unyielding, so utterly inhuman, that he was puzzled. The eyelashes were as stiff as bristles; and the gray hair on the figure's head was as hard and immovable as if it had been carved with a fine tool.
"Well, what is it—part of a county fair feature?" Riordan asked.  . . .
Not hardly, according to the hotel detective:
". . . I had the house doctor down here, and he says that thing in the trunk is human. Clever job of embalming—all same as the Russians did with Lenin. Some silica preparation in the embalming fluid turns the corpse to a kind of glass—like a petrified tree. That's what the doc says."
But as weird as that is, it's nothing compared to what they find in a storage warehouse:
THE coroner peered over his shoulder. Directly in the glare from the flash-light was a lion, with flashing eyes and wide-spread jaws, while lying at its forepaws was the body of a man, back on the floor, and seemingly staring up, paralyzed with fear. Dr. Wilson drew in his breath sharply; the superintendent gave a scream and ran back down the hall. 
. . . The huge big room was a chamber of horrors. Not only did the lion and the tiger appear to have found human victims, but lying across the savage, open, jaws of a huge crocodile was another still form. And to add to the terror of the scene was what appeared to be the body of some smaller animal, ripped open, and gaping horribly, as if it had been torn apart by one of the larger beasts in some fit of rage.
The coroner took out a cigar and lighted it with shaking fingers. "Sarge, if I hadn't seen this, I wouldn't believe it," he said. "Somebody must have been crazy."
Four petrified dead men that can't be identified ("Not a mark on their clothes, not a scrap of paper in their pockets. No laundry numbers on their linen; they had new shirts and underwear of brands that are sold everywhere")—and that's just the beginning of a case that includes more deaths, a promiscuous "mortgage agent," a duplicitous lawyer, a dissembling widow, and—oh, yes, the little matter of an estate worth three million smackers:
". . . this is no nut job—somebody very wise and very powerful is busy on it."
Comments: Doc Wilson, the coroner, takes a very active role in the investigation in this one. As for '30s terminology, you already know what happens when a "frail" decides to "belch," don't you? And here's a vivid paragraph describing something that you might have seen in a movie or on TV:
. . . The scuffling of feet swept backward in the darkness. There were grunts, the sound of hearty blows being hammered against soft flesh; the ripping sound of splitting and tearing cloth; the sharp crashes of overturned chairs. Brisk inter-jections of pain and rage burst out, punctuated by the slap of fisticuffs and vivid streaks of profanity uttered by labored breaths.
Resources:
- If we've counted correctly, Victor Maxwell's series character Sergeant Riordan appeared in 82 stories between 1925 and 1939 (FictionMags list HERE); Maxwell's lengthy bibliography is HERE; and Terry Sanford has written a duplex background article about this author on Mystery*File HERE (Part 1) and HERE (Part 2).
- Did you notice the story's publication date? Pure coincidence.

The bottom line: "I have one last request. Don't use embalming fluid on me; I want to be stuffed with crab meat."
Woody Allen

Sunday, February 14, 2016

"Ashes to Ashes"

"Fingerprints of Fear."
By Richard Casey (house pseudonym, possibly Leroy Yerxa, 1915-46).
First appearance: Fantastic Adventures, October 1945.
Short short story (7 pages).
Online HERE.
Parental caution: Graphic violence and strong language.
"It seemed a good way to collect insurance. Death by fire was a horrible death, to be sure, but it was hard to prove such a death was murder."
When you're dead, you're dead, right? Warren Serge and Peter Larrs believe that, so murdering their partner for the love of money holds no terrors for them—but their 
victim has other ideas:
. . . He felt sick. Sick all the way through. He looked back at the faint light on the street he had left. An unreasonable horror crept over him. He could smell gasoline. The odor stung his nostrils. He imagined he could smell the odor of burning flesh.
It wasn't cold, but he drew up his coat collar and walked faster. The horror followed him. Death smells like that, he thought, and stopped short by the gate that opened on the alley. His hand was on the gate when two steel hands closed about his throat. His mouth opened and he tried to shout. Smoke, choking black smoke shot into his mouth and seared his throat. He struggled, and was lifted from the ground, those hands holding firmly, refusing to give an inch under his clawing, desperate fingers.  . . .
Comments: A short, violent, and unpleasant little story of betrayal and retribution that, 
like so many fantasy horror tales, manufactures its own theology for the sake of narrative effect.

Resources:
- If this "Richard Casey" really was Leroy Yerxa, then what's at the ISFDb HERE and the SFE HERE will have some relevance.

The bottom line: "It was a pleasure to burn."
Ray Bradbury

January's Top 5


In case you missed any of them, here are last month's most popular posts and those from the previous two years as well:


January 2016
(1) "This Case Had More Holes in It Than a Swiss Cheese and More Loose Ends Than a Torn String Vest"HERE
(2) France's Answer to Moriarty - HERE
(3) Dr. Dannart Will See You Now (or, A Forgotten Detective Who Probably Deserved It) - HERE
(4) "'Your Name?' Said the Police Car in a Metallic Whisper" - HERE
(5) Four-Color Sherlock - HERE

January 2014
(1) THE HOUND Again - HERE
(2) Hoch's Locked Room Winner - HERE
(3) "A Deliciously Complex Mystery" - HERE
(4) Van Dine's Detective Novel Lecture - HERE
(5) Sherlock's First Theatrical Outing - HERE

January 2015
(1) Often by and Sometimes about Vincent Starrett - HERE
(2) Murder on the Final Frontier - HERE
(3) OLD-TIME DETECTION, Autumn 2014 - HERE
(4) Sherlockian Miscellania - HERE
(5) Serial Murders - HERE

Friday, February 12, 2016

"All Life Depends on Carefully Balanced Murders"

"Watchbird."
By Robert Sheckley (1928-2005).
First appearance: Galaxy Science Fiction, February 1953.
First anthologized in Shadow of Tomorrow (1953).
First collected in Untouched by Human Hands (1955).
Reprinted in The Robert Sheckley Kindle Megapack (for sale HERE).
Filmed for Canadian TV in 2007 (HERE).
Novelette (~25 pages).
Online HERE and HERE (PDF).
"Strange how often the Millennium has been at hand. The idea is peace on Earth, see, and the way to do it is by figuring out angles."
There's an old saying about the cure being worse than the disease; despite the assurances of his head engineer "Mac" Macintyre, manufacturer Charlie Gelsen, even though he's working under government contract on the watchbird program, has his doubts:
A simple, reliable answer to one of mankind's greatest problems [mused Gelsen], all wrapped and packaged in a pound of incorruptible metal, crystal and plastics.
Perhaps that was the very reason he was doubting it now. Gelsen suspected that you don't solve human problems so easily. There had to be a catch somewhere.
After all, murder was an old problem, and watchbird too new a solution.  . . .
While everybody else involved with the project can see only the upside, Gelsen has reservations:
"First, let me say that I am one hundred per cent in favor of a machine to stop murder. It's been needed for a long time. I object only to the watchbird's learning circuits. They serve, in effect, to animate the machine and give it a pseudo-consciousness. I can't approve of that."
A police captain explains the watchbird system to his men; after all, the watchbirds will greatly impact their jobs:
"Well," the captain said, trying to remember what he had read in the Sunday supplements, "these scientists were working on criminology. They were studying murderers, to find out what made them tick. So they found that murderers throw out a different sort of brain wave from ordinary people. And their glands act funny, too. All this happens when they're about to commit a murder. So these scientists worked out a special machine to flash red or something when these brain waves turned on."
Despite the complexity of such a system, says the head engineer trying to reassure his boss, they're still only machines:
Then Macintyre grinned again. "I know. You're like a lot of people, Chief—afraid your machines are going to wake up and say, 'What are we doing here? Let's go out and rule the world.' Is that it?"
"Maybe something like that," Gelsen admitted.
"The watchbirds are no more dangerous than an automobile, an IBM calculator or a thermometer. They have no more consciousness or volition than those things. The watchbirds are built to respond to certain stimuli, and to carry out certain operations when they receive that stimuli."
"And the learning circuits?"
"You have to have those," Macintyre said patiently, as though explaining the whole thing to a ten-year-old. "The purpose of the watchbird is to frustrate all murder-attempts, right? Well, only certain murderers give out these stimuli. In order to stop all of them, the watchbird has to search out new definitions of murder and correlate them with what it already knows."
"I think it's inhuman," Gelsen said.
"That's the best thing about it. The watchbirds are unemotional. Their reasoning is non-anthropomorphic. You can't bribe them or drug them. You shouldn't fear them, either."
. . . but as subsequent events will prove, however, there are very good reasons to be afraid, very afraid . . .
Comments: The FAA estimates that by 2020 there should be about 30,000 drones buzzing through America's skies, prompting us to wonder just how many of them, if any, will be watchbirds; for more go to Wikipedia HERE and HERE.
Resources:
- The Internet has loads of information about Robert Sheckley HERE (Wikipedia), HERE (FictionMags), HERE (the ISFDb), and HERE (the IMDb); Project Gutenberg has more Sheckley short fiction HERE; and "Watchbird" itself has a sizable ISFDb listing HERE.
- We previously touched on homicidal machines HERE.

The bottom line: "I ought to be thy Adam; but I am rather the fallen angel."
The creature

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

"I'd Hardly Have Taken Her for the Type to Get Murdered on Other People's Terraces"

"The Triangular Blade."
By Carter Sprague (real name: Sam Merwin, Jr., 1910-96).
First appearance: Thrilling Detective, October 1946.
Short story (18 pages).
Online at Pulpgen HERE.
"Major Jimmy Grey, just out of the army, is confronted with a puzzling mystery that defies solution when a lovely lady meets death in the luxurious home of an industrial tycoon!"
Recently returned from the war, Jimmy Grey wants nothing more than to settle back into comfortable civilian life, and that includes renewing his interrupted relationship with comely Dawn Barton, the niece of Olin Wade, the richest man in Laketown and husband of Marian, a handsome Englishwoman and retired actress; but when, at a party being held at the Wade mansion, Jimmy discovers the lifeless body of Anne Lewis, a "charming, redheaded ingénue," he'll be forced to have dealings with violent death just a little while longer.

Anne was affianced to Rick Carden, "tall, spare, darkly handsome right bower [right-hand man] at the Wade factory," who throughout the war years had proved himself indispensable to Laketown's most important industrialist. As for the murder weapon, it's not the usual thing: "She was stabbed with a pie knife. According to Stone, the butler, it came from the sideboard in the dining room here."
The murder weapon
Chief Potter is called in and, aware of Jimmy's military experience, enlists his help in the investigation—which, as it turns out, proves to be unexpectedly hazardous when Jimmy and Dawn are checking out a lead:
He laughed and opened the door, turned back to blow a kiss at her as he stepped to the driveway. So while he had been subconsciously aware that another car had turned at the far end of the lane between the cabins and was coming back toward them, he missed its approach on the other side of the driveway.
The lights snapped on as he turned to walk around the front of the convertible, caught him full face. There was the sudden roar of a powerful motor racing, then the other car was swerving directly toward him. It was less than thirty feet away and picking up speed.  . . .
And there are other hazards, as well:
She was lovely, standing there in the green and silver evening dress, with a sable cloak tossed carelessly across her shoulders—lovely and utterly, dangerously mad.  . . .
The solution of just who shoved a pie knife into a beautiful young woman's back will depend on which side of the street you normally park your car.

Comments: ~ All of the story's action occurs in roughly half a day. ~ Jimmy and Dawn, although not yet married, remind one of those husband and wife sleuthing duos that were enjoying a vogue in the movies at the time. ~ There are brief indications of how World War Two (1939-45) impacted civilian life on the American homefront.

Resources:
- FictionMags has a list HERE of Sam Merwin's stories written as by "Carter Sprague"; previous ONTOS encounters with Merwin are HERE and HERE.

The bottom line: "For love is as strong as death, jealousy as cruel as the grave . . ."
The Bible

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.

Resources:
- 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?

Resources:
- 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.

Resources:
- 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!"
Shakespeare

Thursday, February 4, 2016

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

"Arbiter."
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.

Resources:
- 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.

Spadeisms:
~ "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)

Resources:
- 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