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.
"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."
   — Shakespeare

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

Thursday, January 28, 2016

"I Knew Them — They're Snug at Home in Hell"

"The Triple Murder in Mulberry Bend."
By Christopher Hawthorne (1871?-1936).
First appearance: The Black Mask, August 1920.
Short story (10 pages).
Online at Comic Book Plus HERE (set page selector to 73).
Police Lieutenant "Silent" Cass and his brutal subordinate Sergeant Gatty, tasked with investigating crime in New York's lower East Side, have seen plenty of killings in their time, but nothing like this—three dead men, all of them known criminals, sitting at a table playing cards:
. . . One thing was evident from the beginning. The triple murder, if such it was, did not have its origin in a vendetta. All the fantastic earmarks usual to a Southern European feud were absent. There was no hideous marring of the bodies; indeed, no mark of any kind was found upon them. Nor did the coroner find a trace of poison after the autopsies. A chemical analysis of the organs revealed nothing. The men, apparently, had died of natural causes and simultaneously.
Not only that, but the person who killed these crooks (and, yes, despite appearances, it is murder) had taken their fingerprints post mortem and sent them in a note to the police: "You will find three dead men in Molspini's cellar in Mulberry Bend.Clearly, as Cass and Gatty must acknowledge, "It was not the work of a bunglesome amateur."

He doesn't know it at the time, but this case with have far-reaching implications for "Silent" Cass's career, ultimately presenting him with a moral dilemma he could never have forseen.

Comment: A good story, very readable, but with one major flaw: the murder weapon.

- FictionMags has a list of Christopher Hawthorne's small pulp output HERE.
- This story was actually adapted to film last year as a low-budget indie production; see HERE for the trailer (43 seconds), HERE for background (1 minute 24 seconds), and HERE for the video (9 minutes 6 seconds). The setting has been changed from New York's lower East Side to what we think is central England, to judge from the actors' U.K. Midlands dialects. We advise that you read the story first.

The bottom line: "I think everyone enjoys a nice murder, provided you're not the victim."
Alfred Hitchcock

"The Element of Superstition Is One of the Most Fundamental Features of Modern Civilization"

"Mysteria, The Mind Reader."
By E(dward) Albert Apple (1891-1963).
First appearance: The Popular Magazine, April 20, 1918.
Short short story (6 pages).
Online at Comic Books Plus HERE (set page selector to 214).
"From the first, Mysteria was a knock-out and 'hung 'em on the chandeliers,' as the enthusiastic managers said of her drawing capacity—but she proved too impartial in her second sight."
One of the most successful showmen (or conmen, there being little difference in this case) of recent times, silver-tongued Marmaduke Slocum, expresses to the house manager his desire to . . .
". . . get back in some legitimate graft—managin' a mind reader, say. I know all the best codes an' have some new bunk of my own up my sleeve. The mob always fall for second-sight stuff. But I can't find the right woman.  . . .  I want some one that'll pass as an Egyptian princess or a Hindu priestess or a seventh daughter of a seventh daughter. There's a lot in the looks. She's got to know her grammar an' walk like a head waiter."  . . .
"I know the very person you want," says the house manager:
". . . She's stage-struck. Been hanging around my office for a month. I tried her out one morning; she can't act, she can't sing, she'd look like bad news in a sketch. But she's got a voice that makes you think of black cats and talking with the dead, with green eyes as big as overcoat buttons and wild blond hair that shoots out albino in every direction like a bonfire."  . . .
Marmaduke approves: "We'll bill her as Mysteria, the Mind Reader. The name's been on my mind for weeks."

And things are going along smoothly, with Marmaduke and his "mind reader" bamboozling the suckers at every performance, until one day "Marmaduke Slocum—gazing at the conquered worlds that lay about him like fallen pears—grew ambitious," in anticipation of an even Bigger Score—but the Human Element, the thing it's really impossible to allow for, intervenes . . .

Comment: If you've ever wondered how those bogus "mind reading" acts are pulled off, this little story should satisfy your curiosity.

- Curtis Evans has an article HERE about E. Albert Apple cruising under his more common pen name of "A. E. Apple" and his numerous stories about Mr. Chang, a Fu Manchu clone, and Rafferty, a Raffles counterfeit (for which a FictionMags listing is HERE, while there's a shorter list for his other nom de plume HERE).
- The Battered Silicon Dispatch Box has more about Apple's other series characters HERE and HERE.

The bottom line: "For months I could not rid myself of the phantasm of the cat . . ."
Edgar Allan Poe

Sunday, January 24, 2016

"That Must Be the Best of Writing a Detective Story, That You Can Always Make the Lucky Shots Come Off"

"The Watson Touch."
By A. A. Milne (1882-1956).
First appearance: The Sphere, date unknown.
Reprinted in, e.g., The Register of Adelaide, S.A., 13 December 1919 (HERE).
Collected in If I May (1920).
Short short short essay (~3 pages).
Online HERE, HERE, and below.
"It's just as I thought, Piglet, Heffalumps did make off with the Countess's diamonds."
The thing that made A. A. Milne's fame and fortune was, of course, his children's stories, so that very few readers associate the author of Winnie-the-Pooh with detective fiction. A Wikipedia article tells us of Milne's oscillating relationship with the genres:
. . . Looking back on this period (in 1926), Milne observed that when he told his agent that he was going to write a detective story, he was told that what the country wanted from a "Punch humorist" was a humorous story; when two years later he said he was writing nursery rhymes, his agent and publisher were convinced he should write another detective story; and after another two years, he was being told that writing a detective story would be in the worst of taste given the demand for children's books. He concluded that "the only excuse which I have yet discovered for writing anything is that I want to write it; and I should be as proud to be delivered of a Telephone Directory con amore as I should be ashamed to create a Blank Verse Tragedy at the bidding of others."
No educated (or, for that matter, uneducated) person in the early 20th century could have failed to know about Sherlock Holmes and his amanuensis Dr. Watson. Of course the educated ones often took the opportunity to nitpick Conan Doyle's stories, which is what Milne does in "The Watson Touch"; but his tone is light and only mildly censorious, and he even takes a self-effacing swipe at himself:

~ ~ ~


There used to be a song which affirmed (how truly, I do not know) that every nice girl loved a sailor. I am prepared to state, though I do not propose to make a song about it, that every nice man loves a detective story. This week I have been reading the last adventures of Sherlock Holmes—I mean really the last adventures, ending with his triumph over the German spy in 1914. Having saved the Empire, Holmes returned to his farm on the Sussex downs, and there, for all I mind, he may stay. I have no great affection for the twentieth-century Holmes. But I will give the warmest welcome to as many adventures of the Baker Street Holmes as Watson likes to reconstruct for us. There is no reason why the supply of these should ever give out. “It was, I remember, at the close of a winter’s day in 1894”—when Watson begins like this, then I am prepared to listen. Fortunately, all the stories in this last book, with the exception of the very indifferent spy story, are of the Baker Street days, the days when Watson said, “Holmes, this is marvellous!” Reading them now—with, I suppose, a more critical mind than I exhibited twenty years ago—I see that Holmes was not only a great detective, but a very lucky one. There is an occasion when he suddenly asks the doctor why he had a Turkish bath. Utterly unnerved, Watson asks how he knew, to which the great detective says that it is as obvious as is the fact that the doctor had shared a hansom with a friend that morning. But when Holmes explains further, we see how lucky he is. Watson, he says, has some mud on his left trouser; therefore he sat on the left side of a hansom; therefore he shared it with a friend, for otherwise he would have sat in the middle. Watson’s boots, he continues, had obviously been tied by a stranger; therefore he has had them off in a Turkish bath or a boot shop, and since the newness of the boots makes it unlikely that he has been buying another pair, therefore he must have been to a Turkish bath. “Holmes,” says Watson, “this is marvellous!”

Marvellously lucky, anyway. For, however new his boots, poor old Watson might have been buying a pair of pumps, or bedroom slippers, or tennis shoes that morning, or even, if the practice allowed such extravagance, a second pair of boots. And there was, of course, no reason whatever why he should not have sat at the side of his hansom, even if alone. It is much more comfortable, and is, in fact, what one always did in the hansom days, and still does in a taxi. So if Holmes was right on this occasion, he was right by luck and not by deduction.

But that must be the best of writing a detective story, that you can always make the lucky shots come off. In no other form of fiction, I imagine, does the author feel so certainly that he is the captain of the ship. If he wants it so, he has it so. Is the solution going to be too easy? Then he puts in an unexpected footprint in the geranium bed, or a strange face at the window, and makes it more difficult. Is the reader being kept too much in the dark? Then a conversation overheard in the library will make it easier for him. The author’s only trouble is that he can never be certain whether his plot is too obscure or too obvious. He knows himself that the governess is guilty, and, in consequence, she can hardly raise her eyebrows without seeming to him to give the whole thing away.

There was a time when I began to write a detective story for myself. My murder, I thought, was rather cleverly carried out. The villain sent a letter to his victim, enclosing a stamped addressed envelope for an answer. The gum of the envelope was poisoned. I did not know, nor did I bother to find out, whether it was possible, but this, as I said just now, is the beauty of writing a detective story. If there is no such quick-working poison, then you invent one. If up to the moment when the doubt occurs to you, your villain had been living in Brixton, you immediately send him to Central Africa, where he extracts a poison from a “deadly root” according to the prescription of the chief medicine-man. (“It is the poison into which the Swabiji dip their arrows,” you tell the reader casually, as if he really ought to have known it for himself.) Well, then, I invented my poison, and my villain put it on the gum of a self-addressed envelope, and enclosed it with a letter asking for his victim’s autograph. He then posted the letter, whereupon a very tragic thing happened.

What happened was that, having left the letter in the post for some years while I formed fours and saluted, I picked up a magazine in the Mess one day and began to read a detective story. It was a very baffling one, and I really didn’t see how the murderer could possibly have committed his foul deed. But the detective was on to it at once. He searched the wastepaper basket, and, picking an envelope therefrom, said “Ha!” It was just about then that I said “Ha!” too, and also other things, for my half-finished story was now useless. Somebody else had thought of the same idea. But though I was very sorry for this, I could not help feeling proud that my idea made such a good story. Indeed, since then I have fancied myself rather as a detective-story-writer, and if only I could think of something which nobody else would think of while I was thinking of it, I would try again.


NOTE: Milne's reference to "the last adventures of Sherlock Holmes—I mean really the last adventures" would seem to be His Last Bow (1917).

- For detective fiction fans A. A. Milne's magnum opus wouldn't be Winnie-the-Pooh but The Red House Mystery (1922), an object of perpetual scorn to Raymond Chandler; go HERE for background about it and HERE for the full text:
. . . In his introduction to the 1926 UK edition [of The Red House Mystery], A. A. Milne said he had "a passion" for detective stories, having "all sorts of curious preferences" about them: though in real life the best detectives and criminals are professionals, Milne demanded that the detective be an unscientific amateur, accompanied by a likeable Watson, rubbing shoulders with an amateur villain against whom dossiers and fingerprints are of no avail. — "The Red House Mystery," Wikipedia
- The Wikipedia article about Milne is HERE, the GAD Wiki has an understandably short entry HERE, and in the FictionMags listing HERE you'll notice that a few of Milne's short mysteries saw reprintings in AHMM and EQMM.

The bottom line: "You know those problems in Algebra where you say, 'Let x be the answer,' and then you work it out and find what x is. Well, that's one way; and another way, which they never give you any marks for at school, is to guess the answer. Pretend the answer is 4—well, will that satisfy the conditions of the problem? No. Then try 6; and if 6 doesn't either, then what about 5?—and so on. Well, the Inspector and the Coroner and all that lot had guessed their answer, and it seemed to fit, but you and I knew it didn't really fit; there were several conditions in the problem which it didn't fit at all. So we knew that their answer was wrong, and we had to think of another—an answer which explained all the things which were puzzling us. Well, I happened to guess the right one. Got a match?"
Antony Gillingham

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Four-Color Sherlock

Sherlock Holmes has never been out of style, with the Sage of Baker Street and his "Boswell" making a comeback every decade or so. In the early 1950s a TV series featuring the wonderful Ronald Howard as Holmes and ably supported by Howard Marion Crawford as Watson (but severely hampered by Archie Duncan's over-the-top Lestrade) only briefly caught the public's attention; viewers would have to wait another thirty years for Jeremy Brett to bring the character back to life.
We can't be certain, but it seems as if the Charlton Comics adaptations were either tie-ins to the Howard TV series or an independent attempt to cash in on the franchise. In either case, the series only ran to two issues, perhaps understandably because in these stories Holmes roams 1950s America solo without Watson, using a variety of other minor characters as clueless surrogates for the Good Doctor.

Issue #1.
Charlton Comics, October 1955.
36 pages.
Online at Comic Book Plus HERE.

(1) "The Final Curtain" (6 pages):
"A violinist himself, Sherlock Holmes looked forward to hearing the Great Carini in his last performance . . . but the Maestro's very genius proved to be the weapon that rang down the curtain even before the renowned musician took the stage . . ."
It looks like a suicide in a locked room, but visiting detective Sherlock Holmes has other ideas. Holmesism: "I play the violin as a hobby, so to speak . . ."

(2) "Love Thy Neighbor" (6 pages):
"When Sir Reginald Marston disappeared everyone was certain he had been killed by his neighbor! But there was no evidence . . . not even a body . . . to prove it — until Sherlock Holmes, the famous detective, took over the case."
The fact that Sir Reginald purchased a package of petunia seeds will prove all important. Holmesism"Patience and sufficient time are always necessary to trap a killer!"

(3) "Tough Guy" (text only: 2 pages):
". . . he almost saved the state the price of electrocuting him."
(4) "Sherlock Holmes and the Star of the East" (6 pages):
"When the distinguished criminologist was invited to appear at an American university as a guest lecturer, he never dreamed that his famous powers of deduction would be needed to solve a crime that threatened to change the fate of an entire nation . . ."
A ruby is stolen; for Holmes the clue clincher involves how a turban is tied. Holmesism: ". . . the factor all of us must look for . . . that which is obviously true in a crime often is not!"

(5) "Smashing the Spook Racket" (7 pages):
"For years, Doctor Neff has traveled from coast to coast, thrilling and chilling the American public with his combination mystery and ghost show . . . Now meet this actual personage of the stage in a fast fiction adventure . . ."
Doctor Neff was a real-life magician; for more go HERE.

* * *
Issue #2.
Charlton Comics, March 1956.
36 pages.
Online at Comic Book Plus HERE.

(1) "The Mystery of the Doomed Daredevil" (7 pages):
"Five hundred feet above the ground, a steel nerved aerial artist risked his life to perform! But his narrow tight rope wire was safer than the fate planned for him below when Sherlock Holmes raced to unravel . . . The Mystery of the Doomed Daredevil."
A newsreel cameraman's luck at being in just the right place to film disasters doesn't impress Holmes. Holmesism: ". . . perhaps when one deals with front page catastrophes for a livelihood, accidents cease to shock them."

(2) "Sherlock Holmes's Greatest Challenge" (6 pages):
"One man — sought by the Canadian Mounties knew no fear . . . for his was a crime so brazenly bold, so exceedingly clever that he dared stand his ground . . . but when the ace sleuth of the world sniffed at his heels, the criminal fought back in desperation."
Holmes homes in on a killer who makes too many elementary mistakes. Holmesism: "Sometimes it seems crime follows criminal investigators into the deepest cave and calls him by name . . ."

(3) "Double Dice" (text only: 2 pages):
"The machine was stopped and the film run back until that one scene alone appeared on the screen as a still."
(4) "The Overseas Smuggling Racket" (6 pages):
"A fortune in diamonds was being smuggled into our country with each arrival of a great ocean liner! The question of how this was being accomplished baffled our great customs officers! Thus, did our government call upon the services of master detective Sherlock Holmes to solve this most amazing case which is referred to as . . . The Overseas Smuggling Racket."
For the customs officials, it's insoluble; for Sherlock, it's anchors awry. Holmesism: "In my profession one must start from the beginning and work forward!"

(5) "The Danger Run" (6 pages):
"The midnight run out of the Mogul Truck Terminal was no picnic . . . but when Dip Murphy started making his deals . . . every run was a race with death! Al Craddock, veteran driver, got himself into the mess to help his friend . . . but in the end, he faced a prison term and a ruined life!"
No Holmes in this one.

Comment: Because the suspect pool is so shallow, in these little tales whodunit is never in doubt; all of the stories devolve to Holmes singling out the decisive incriminating clue.

It's unfortunate that overall this short-lived comics series did very little to enhance one's appreciation of the Holmes character—and the so-so artwork and avoidable typos didn't help, either.

- Various other comics adaptations of Holmes are discussed HERE and illustrated HERE and HERE.
- Of course, you could content yourself with the original, untampered-with stories HERE (PDF).

The bottom line: "Blame it on the illustrator—he is out of control."
   — Dr. Watson

Friday, January 22, 2016

December's Top 5

Here are our most-read December postings from a month ago, a year ago, and two years ago:

December 2015
(1) OLD-TIME DETECTION, Autumn 2015 - HERE
(2) "This Was a Curious Thing — The Whole Crux to the Mystery Lay in It" - HERE
(3) "I Like My Detective Stories Pretty Plain—A Mystery, Its Solution, and Its Development": Reviews from THE BOOKMAN III - HERE
(4) "Detective Stories, Bah!" - HERE
(5) "He Was Used, by This Time, to the Idea of Doing Murder" - HERE

December 2014
(1) "A Brilliant Bit of Investigation and Deduction" - HERE
(2) John and Mary and Sherlock and Nick - HERE
(3) Defending the Detective Story - HERE
(4) Poe on the Couch - HERE
(5) "Writing Mystery Stories Is An Exact Science" - HERE

December 2013
(1) The Dilettante Sleuth Par Excellence - HERE
(2) Anthony Wynne — "One of the Lesser Golden Age Writers" - HERE
(3) Mark Twain's Anti-detective Fiction - HERE
(4) "A Strange Medley of Stage Realism, Fantasy, Farce, and Tragedy" - HERE
(5) "The American Equivalent of the English Drawing Room Murder Mystery" - HERE

- Our last "Top 5" is HERE.

Monday, January 18, 2016

France's Answer to Moriarty

RAOUL FLACK was an evil genius, an arch-criminal in the Moriarty mold, who appeared in a half dozen stories in The Popular Magazine just prior to America's entry into the First World War:

   (1) "Stalemate," November 7, 1916 [below]
   (2) "His Master’s Voice," November 20, 1916
   (3) "The Vanishing Ambassador," December 7, 1916
   (4) "Virus X," December 20, 1916 [below]
   (5) "The Black Angora Rabbit," January 7, 1917
   (6) "A Trade in Treason," January 20, 1917

Two of those tales are available for your perusal at the Comic Book Plus site. If you envision Mission: Impossible with the team working for nefarious ends you'll have a good idea of what we're dealing with here.

By Robert Welles Ritchie (1879-1942).
First appearance: The Popular Magazine, November 7, 1916.
Short story (20 pages).
Online at Comic Book Plus HERE (set page selector to 116).
"The first in the best series of detective stories we have had in POPULAR in years. The plot centers around Raoul Flack, a French criminal who escapes from the lime pits of a tropical hell, flies to America and gathers about him a band of expert lawbreakers to make war on society."
Missing rocks bring these diverse personalities together:
~ Edgerton Miles, Wall Street plunger and peccant husband
~ Mrs. Juliana Cope Miles, the imperturbable object of both Edgerton's love and his unfaithfulness
~ Miss Dandelion, the volatile object of both Edgerton's unfaithfulness and his love
~ Henri, the too-well-placed jeweller
~ Gaspard Detournelles, Viscount Allaire, a man about town with acquisitive fingers
~ Raoul Flack, once known to the Paris Sûreté as "The Phantom," paradoxically crowned with the "great white head of an ascetic, an anchorite"
~ and Roger Boylan of Boylan's Confidential Agency, looking for all the world like "the owner of a hardware store in a town of ten thousand."
Edgerton Miles has lots of money, but not enough self-control to stay out of a serious bind; when Mrs. Edgerton's valuable necklace is stolen he calls in Roger Boylan:
. . . "Last night my wife was robbed of a sapphire dewdab worth fifty thousand dollars, between the first act and final curtain, at the Metropolitan. Can you get it back for me?"
"I never make promises," the detective answered, the wrinkles of a smile clustering about the corners of his blue eyes.  . . .
What neither one of them knows at the time is that Miles has been victimized by a thievery ring run by none other than that mysterious master criminal Raoul Flack, "whose body has been well-nigh broken by society, but whose intellect, sharpened by suffering almost to the absolute of mathematical logic, is dedicated to a single object—the compassing of revenge upon society for five years of torture." Such a person, of course, should be avoided at all times—unless, that is, you're a determined detective not afraid of gunplay:
. . . Bang! A bullet threw lint from the carpet into Boylan's eyes. Swift patter of feet followed.  . . .
Even with death a real possibility, the proximate cause of all this violence still displays its fatal allure:
. . . With a crisp rustle and click of gold filaments, a glittering heap of yellow and royal blue color spilled under the light and lay sprawling there—an evil toy to incite covetousness, to inspire murder, even.  . . .
Comment: This first story in the series clearly aims to set up the adversarial relationship between the two major characters, Raoul Flack and Roger Boylan, much like Holmes vs. Moriarty, Nayland Smith vs. Fu Manchu, and Bond vs. Blofeld. The writing is engaging and witty at times and, when he wants to, the author can invoke vivid atmospherics.

* * *
"Virus X."
By Robert Welles Ritchie (1879-1942).
First appearance: The Popular Magazine, December 20, 1916.
Short story (13 pages).
Online at Comic Book Plus HERE (set page selector to 162).
"The most valued member of Raoul Flack's interesting company of international crooks finds a rich field for his endeavors in the person of a millionaire whose life was one long battle with germs."
An imperious but weak-minded One Percenter runs afoul of people with no regard whatsoever for anyone else. In this diabolical scenario we have:
~ T. Stacey Crump, a mysophobic precursor of Howard Hughes and "one of the biggest fish in all the Wall Street pool"
~ Mrs. Crump, T. Stacey's long-suffering wife
~ Gaspard Detournelles, Viscount Allaire, a suave predator in a dinner jacket who, even from long range, knows a sucker when he sees one
~ Nan Madden, a talented actress with a treacherous beauty
~ "Dr. Flack," bad news in any language
~ Henri, the devious diamond setter
~ and Roger Boylan, "the detective without frills," whose deceptive appearance suggests "anything but the confidential solver of society's delicate problems" that he is.
Once again the unprincipled Raoul Flack steals a march on detective Boylan with an elaborate scheme to defraud a wealthy Wall Streeter by preying on his greatest weakness—and if he should go insane or die in the process, what of it?

As in the previous tale our detective is too late to prevent a crime, being able only to keep it from coming to full fruition. Because, therefore, he is far more reactive than proactive, Roger Boylan can't assume the mantle of a Great Detective.

Comment: Overall both stories are entertaining enough to hold one's interest, with the author's ornate style suggestive of the early Ellery Queen. The folks at Amazon might want to track down the other four stories and compile them in one of their megapacks.

- Not to be confused with the rapper or The West Wing character, Robert Welles Ritchie, highly prolific in several pulp genres (and not being one to spurn the inverted sentence was he), has a FictionMags listing HERE; nearly five dozen of his stories were adapted to film in the '10s and '20s, according to the IMDb HERE; and a few of his longer works are online HERE.
This is not our author.

The bottom line: "He sits motionless, like a spider in the centre of its web, but that web has a thousand radiations, and he knows well every quiver of each of them. He does little himself. He only plans. But his agents are numerous and splendidly organised."
Sherlock Holmes

Friday, January 15, 2016

Dr. Dannart Will See You Now (or, A Forgotten Detective Who Probably Deserved It)

WHO, YOU'RE ASKING YOURSELF, is "Dr. Dannart" (first name: Richard)? As far as we know (and "we" is comprised entirely of those amazing people at FictionMags with yours truly tagging along behind), this character—a Dr. Bell-style medic who narrated his own adventures, thus combining both Holmes and Watson in himself—appeared in only four stories published in The Popular Magazine in 1915-16:

   (1) "The Hidden Clew," February 23, 1915 (below)
   (2) "The Girl from Nowhere," July 23, 1915
   (3) "The Ordeal," September 7, 1915
   (4) "The Mystery of the Wheel Chair," January 7, 1916 (below).

For the moment, thanks to those other amazing people at Comic Book Plus, we can access the first and last stories in the short-lived series:

"The Hidden Clew."
By George Woodruff Johnston (?-?).
First appearance: The Popular Magazine, February 23, 1915.
Short story (11 pages).
Online at Comic Book Plus HERE (set the page selector to 209).
"The strange case of an unhappy girl killed without intent, by a person she had never seen, and for something she had never done. A brief account of a mystery that was cleared up so far as a few people were concerned, but the real facts of the case have never been made public till now."
Jessie Dudlow, a stenographer at Bessington's, was young, "superbly beautiful," and engaged to be married—only now she's a corpse with her head crushed in by a heavy candlestick and no readily apparent clews to indicate why.

Dr. Dannart is summoned to the crime scene by his rich friend Bessington, where he can't help but observe the young lady's elegant slippers and that wad of five thousand dollars in cash (unlikely items for an average working girl to possess) among the things scattered around the room. Belatedly Dannart discovers that there may have been a witness to the murder who, he determines, is absolutely incapable of speaking and writing.

Not long afterward Spangler, one of Jessie's co-workers and her troublesome fiance, shows up and promptly gets himself arrested by acting very suspiciously. The janitor deepens police doubts when he says he last saw Spangler engaged in a heated argument with the young lady, a quarrel that may have been provoked by jealousy—Spangler's jealousy of Bessington, their employer.

But Spangler isn't alone in being jealous; two other people shared his feelings and had the motive, the means, and the opportunity to kill Jessie Dudlow, and one of them did.

Comment: Dr. Dannart isn't much of a sleuth in this one, making no meaningful deductions and finding the killer purely by chance.

* * *

"The Mystery of the Wheel Chair."
By George Woodruff Johnston (?-?).
First appearance: The Popular Magazine, January 7, 1916.
Short story (12 pages).
Online at Comic Book Plus HERE (set the page selector to 164).
"The strange circumstances surrounding the death of a political boss at a seaside town whose bathing beach is the finest and whose municipal government is unquestionably the rottenest of any place on the coast."
Some very unsavory characters are mighty anxious to make murder look like a suicide, including offering a bribe, but Dr. Dannart isn't buying it:
". . . There are no powder marks on his body, and, while we do have soundless guns nowadays, there's no such thing as a vanishing bullet—yet. If the man killed himself in the chair, where's the ball that did it? It isn't in his body, for it made a wound of exit. It isn't in the chair, and that it didn't go through the chair you can see for yourself. Your theory is an interesting one but it presupposes that the boss shot himself to death elsewhere, and then strolled along the board walk, climbed into the chair, and calmly sat down by you while you slept. You can scarcely expect us to credit that, can you?"
In contrast with the previous story, Dannart gets a little more proactive:
. . . by the time the rising sun showed well above the horizon I had reconstructed the crime, and, to all intents and purposes, had solved the mystery surrounding it.
. . . but with a notable exception:
. . . True, I was still hazy as to the motive which had prompted the murder, and was wholly ignorant of the identity of the murderer. But these questions, which by most would be regarded as of the highest importance, I knew from experi-ence to be mere matters of detail that could be cleared up without difficulty when the proper time arrived.
When the proper time does arrive, though, clearing up those little details will nearly cost Dannart his life.

Comment: At least by this last story Dr. Dannart's sleuthing skills have improved, but not nearly enough to promote him to first class detective; in other words, Dr. Thorndyke he ain't.

The NIH's National Library of Medicine did a study entitled "Physicians as detectives in detective fiction of the 20th century," the abstract of which reads:

Surprisingly few detectives are physicians in 20th-century detective fiction.

Potential books with physician-detective characters were located by pursuing all mentions of characters referred to as "Doctor" in any of several reference materials pertaining to mystery and detective fiction.

As a result of the search, 53 authors whose detective characters are physicians were found. Examination of novels by these authors revealed that early in the 20th century, physicians applied their own specialized scientific knowledge to detection. Mid-century physicians worked by intuition. In the 1990s, science returned to detective fiction in the form of standard forensic procedure, and the level of violence dramatically increased.

The relation between science and violence at the end of the 20th century may not be accidental.

- The FictionMags listing for our author is HERE; the only George Woodruff Johnston that we can find was apparently a gynecologist born in 1858 and deceased we know not when.
- Recently we highlighted another sleuth with a short career HERE.

Category: Sleuths you never heard of and with good reason

Monday, January 11, 2016

"This Case Had More Holes in It Than a Swiss Cheese and More Loose Ends Than a Torn String Vest"

"The Case of the Four and Twenty Blackbirds."
By Neil Gaiman (born 1960).
First appearance in Knave (U.K.), 1984.
Collected in Angels and Visitations - A Miscellany (1993) and The Mammoth Book of Comic Fantasy II (1999), among others.
Short story (~16 pages).
Online HERE.
"Then she gave me a lopsided smile that would have made Albert Einstein drop a decimal point."
For some PIs, cases just seem to throw themselves at you:
I sat in my office, nursing a glass of hooch and idly cleaning my automatic. Outside the rain fell steadily, like it seems to do most of the time in our fair city, whatever the tourist board says. Hell, I didn't care. I'm not on the tourist board. I'm a private dick, and one of the best, although you wouldn't have known it; the office was crumbling, the rent was unpaid and the hooch was my last.
Things are tough all over.
To cap it all the only client I'd had all week never showed up on the street corner where I'd waited for him. He said it was going to be a big job, but now I'd never know: he kept a prior appointment in the morgue.
So when the dame walked into my office I was sure my luck had changed for the better.
"What are you selling, lady?"
She gave me a look that would have induced heavy breathing in a pumpkin, and which shot my heartbeat up to three figures. She had long blonde hair and a figure that would have made Thomas Aquinas forget his vows. I forgot all mine about never taking cases from dames.  . . .
Another author has explored the same literary terrain at greater length (see HERE), but Gaiman was there first.
- Wikipedia HERE, FictionMags HERE, and the ISFDb HERE.

The bottom line: 
  'And how exactly like an egg he is!' she said aloud, standing with her hands ready to catch him, for she was every moment expecting him to fall.
   — Through the Looking-Glass (And What Alice Found There)

Saturday, January 9, 2016

"Them Finger Prints Never Lied Yet, and We Don't Believe They're Goin' to Begin for a Cheap Amateur Crook Like You"

"Finger Prints."
By Charles R. Barnes (?-?).
First appearance: The Popular Magazine, July 1, 1913.
Short short story (6 pages).
Online at Comic Book Plus HERE (set the page selector to 225).
"Everybody knows that finger prints don't lie; but it looked as if they did when the police tried to fasten an automobile robbery on an ingenious crook whose finger prints were on record at Headquarters"
Pete Riley thinks he's got it all figured out: steal a car, leave his finger prints all over the crime scene, and still beat the rap:
. . . "I don't know anything about it," Riley insisted. "You tell me that some finger prints were found that are the same as mine. I can't help that. I was up in Harlem, playing pool, when you claim the machine was stolen, and I can prove it. That's all I got to say." He relapsed into silence, his face bearing an injured expression.  . . .
. . . but Pete doesn't allow for fallible human nature to louse up a plan that could have worked if his weak-willed partner in crime didn't have a frailty for frails.

- We couldn't find much info on Charles R. Barnes, the most being HERE.
- Not long ago we met another overconfident car thief HERE.

The bottom line: "You stole a car that wasn't on the list. Why don't you just go to the police station in a red clown suit and let everybody know what we're doing here?"
Memphis Raines


"In Short: Mysteries."
Scribner's, November 1938.
Online HERE.

It's 1938 and Mabel Seeley makes her first big splash in the world of detective fiction:

~ The Fashion in Shrouds by Margery Allingham (1904-66):
The debonair characters in The Fashion in Shrouds meet up in a swank dress shop. From there they go to places less fashionable, and some meet sticky ends. The puzzle is a deep one, and the writing is miles higher than average detective-story quality.
The Kirkus review:
Top ranking whodunit in Dorothy Sayers tradition. Mr. Campion rides a merry-go-round while trying to figure out how a lovely actress manages to have opportune deaths remove the wrong men from her life. Campion's sister is implicated in the current husband's death. Ultimately, Campion catches his criminal in the act — and almost loses his own life. Plus sale for non-mysteryites as first rate novel of fashionable London. Suspense — humor — well planned, well written.
Goodreads reviews (73) HERE - The Telegraph article HERE - Wikipedia HERE - GAD Wiki HERE - FictionMags HERE - A tribute site HERE

~ A Blunt Instrument by Georgette Heyer (1902-74):
In [A] Blunt Instrument Inspector Hannasyde endures a lot of alibis that don't gee, time schedules that don't fit, and people who are eternally in the way. In spite of all this, the Inspector comes through with an amazing solution.
The Kirkus review:
Among the silly but engaging toffs and those of lowlier station (including a policeman who bleakly quotes Scripture) it's not too difficult to put the finger on the wielder of the blunt instrument—who did in womanizer Ernest Fletcher and finished off his blackmailer. For fanciers of willowy young men and lady novelists who wear monocles.
MBTB Blog HERE - Mystery*File HERE - Wikipedia HERE - GAD Wiki HERE - FictionMags HERE - A tribute site HERE

~ Terror by Night by Lee Crosby (1905-67):
Much of Terror by Night has an H. G. Wellsian-Conan Doyleish atmosphere, what with its prehistoric monsters on the loose and all. But there's a modern and logical explanation of all these strange goings-on that makes this one of the shiveriest horror-mystery yarns of the year.
The Kirkus review:
A Philadelphia suburb is terrorized by the beast that walks by night. Then there is a murder, and an amateur criminologist is called in. Further murders — further night terrors — and eventual capture of both the "terror" and the killer, and the proof that was lacking comes out in the confession (which isn't fair to the reader).
FictionMags HERE

~ The Listening House by Mabel Seeley (1903-91):
In The Listening House Mabel Seeley describes the murderous events which transpire in a sinister boardinghouse. Guaranteed to keep readers' hair-on-end and feet-on-toes.
The Kirkus review:
First rate whodunit, with enough of romance to give it a Mary Roberts Rinehart appeal. The death of a stranger, followed by the murder of a lodging house keeper of unsavory reputation brings each member of the house under suspicion. Young woman Dacre with a nose for news suffers successive attacks. Plenty of red herrings. A bit of unfairness in conclusion, but that is forgiven for the well-sustained suspense of the telling. This is a newcomer in the field — a good 'un.
The Passing Tramp HERE - Mystery*File HERE - Wikipedia HERE - GAD Wiki HERE - FictionMags HERE

~ The Case of the Cheating Bride by Milton Propper (1906-62):
A Philadelphia heiress drops dead from cyanide as she disembarks from her honeymoon cruise and provides an unusually involved plot for Detective Tommy Rankin in The Case of the Cheating Bride.
The Kirkus review:
Average fair. New York and Philadelphia police join forces to solving the murder of a bride returning from her Bermuda honeymoon. Tommy Rankin from Philadelphia delves into the past — the importance of a will — and with detailed running down of leads, manages to see justice done.
"The Criminal Record" in The Saturday Review (October 22, 1938):
Poison slays Phila. heiress at end of honeymoon voyage. Sleuth Rankin unveils family skeletons and outwits too-clever criminal. - Value of yarn lies in shrewd plotting rather than slightly wooden characters and perfunctorily described events. - Verdict: Passable.
The Passing Tramp HERE - GAD Wiki HERE

~ The Platinum Cat by Miles Burton (1884-1964):
In The Platinum Cat Amateur Detective Arthur Merrion hops from clue to clue and lands in the middle of an international plot that threatens England's safety. Well worked out in sober British style.
The Kirkus review:
Scotland Yard's meticulous Arnold and the amateur criminologist Merrion work together in helping the Ministry of Defence find out whether the secret plan for England's defence against air raids has been sold to a foreign power. They find a dead body in a burned house to be that of one of the Ministry's employees. Merrion leaps and Arnold dogs to an unsatisfactory conclusion. Open and above board with the reader.
"The Criminal Record" in The Saturday Review (September 24, 1938):
Calcined corpse in English cottage identified as possessor of valuable War secrets. Miles Burton and War office independently seek killer. - Interesting spectacle of several clever investigators reaching same conclusions by different methods, plus better than average international spy yarn. - Verdict: Able.
Wikipedia HERE - GAD Wiki HERE

Category: Detective fiction criticism

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

"A Big Black One, Right into the Brain"

"Death in the Air."
By Cornell Woolrich (1903-68).
First appearance: Detective Fiction Weekly, October 10, 1936.
Short story (15 pages).
Online HERE.
"Inspector Lively Walked Slowly and Talked Slowly—but He Thought Fast, and That's What Pays Dividends on a Fiend's Murder-Trail!"
Inspector Stephen Lively (nicknamed "Step") is making his long, weary way home on the Ninth Avenue "El" after a hard day at the office when, like Mrs. McGillicuddy in a different story, he witnesses a murder—actually two of them—not consciously realizing at the time what he has seen. It's only when the train has stopped that Step discovers he's been riding with a dead man.

Lively, slow but determined, at great personal risk manages to gain access to another crime scene directly related to the first one on the train but blocks away, finding a second victim, this one a woman:
. . . Step didn't bother playing detective, snooping around, even examining the remaining rooms of the tawdry little flat. His technique would have astounded a layman, horrified a rookie, probably only have made his superior sigh resigned-ly and shrug. "Well, that's Step for you." What he did about getting after the culprit, in a murder that had been committed so recently it was still smoking, was to pull over a warped rocking-chair, sit down, and begin rolling a cigarette. His attitude implied that it had tired him plenty to walk the tracks all the way back-here, and everything could wait until he'd rested up a little. An occasional flickering of the eyelids, however, betokened that all was not as quiet on the inside of his head as on the outside.
What he does with the meager evidence that he discovers and the rapid deductions he makes from it would make Sherlock proud: the victim's well-polished fingernails, implying she didn't live in this run-down place, and a cigarette butt without any lipstick, implying it belonged not to her but to the killer.

Several times in the story Lively's natural inertia nearly gets him killed, but it's made worse when he whiffs a drugged cigarette while he's trapped in a burning building:
. . . Hundreds of men in hundreds of fires have hung back to drag somebody living out with them. But very few have lingered to haul out somebody already dead. That, however, was precisely what Step had gone back for. The lady was his corpus delicti and he wasn't leaving her there to be cremated.
Step Lively is in the phlegmatic but nonetheless effective detective tradition of, for examples, Cohen's Jim Hanvey, Doyle's Mycroft Holmes, and Fforde's Thursday Next; it's doubtful, however, that Woolrich ever considered making him a continuing character.

- Wikipedia HERE, the GAD Wiki HERE, FictionMags HERE, and, yes, the ISFDb HERE.
- Mike Grost examines Cornell Woolrich's fiction (including this story) HERE, while just about everything you'll ever need to know about Woolrich can be found HERE, HERE, HERE, and HERE.
- One Woolrich story ("It Had to Be Murder," 1942) served as the basis for Hitchcock's Rear Window (1954, PDF script HERE) and is located HERE (PDF).
- We last touched base with this personally troubled author HERE.

The bottom line: "They stumble that run fast."
  — Shakespeare