Monday, June 28, 2021

"Old Fitzhugh's Room Was Locked and Bolted from the Inside"

IN COMMITTING a locked room murder, a killer has a chance to make a clean getaway 
when . . .

"Death Takes a Bath."
By Lampoon—ESS.
First appearance: Campus Humor, Winter 1957.
Short short short story (4 pages).
Online at (HERE).

     "The police say it was accidental death."

Three armchair detectives debate the salient points of an acquaintance's watery demise . . . .

Main characters:
~ Bentley:
  "How in the world do you get three?"
~ Herberts:
~ Genevieve:
  "Yes, like Columbus or Galileo. I made a few discoveries . . ."
~ Fitzhugh:
  ". . . did not step into that tub of his own free will."
~ Charlie:
  ". . . old Fitzhugh treated him badly."

References and resources:
- "He had been reading Finnegan's [sic] Wake": Depending on who you ask, it's either absolutely brilliant, engenders multiple headaches, or induces narcolepsy:
  "Finnegans Wake is a book by Irish writer James Joyce. It has been called a work of fiction which combines a body of fables ... with the work of analysis and deconstruc-tion. It is significant for its experimental style and reputation as one of the most difficult works in the Western canon" (Wikipedia HERE).
  "into a tub with James Joyce": "Joyce's method of stream of consciousness, literary allusions, and free dream associations was pushed to the limit in Finnegans Wake, which abandoned all conventions of plot and character construction, and is written in a peculiar and obscure English, based mainly on complex multilevel puns" (Wikipedia HERE).
- Our author might have been influenced by Dorothy Sayers's first Lord Peter novel, Whose Body? (1923):
  "Thipps, an architect, finds a dead body wearing nothing but a pair of pince-nez in the bath of his London flat" (WARNING! SPOILERS! Wikipedia HERE; text available at Faded Page HERE).

Friday, June 25, 2021

"Titanic War Hovered Darkly in the Background"

"Hotel Cosmos."
By Raymond Z. Gallun (1911-94).
Illustrations by H. Wesso (1894-1948; HERE).
First appearance: Astounding Science-Fiction, July 1938.
Reprints page (HERE).
Short story (11 pages).
Online at The Luminist Archives (HERE; go down to text page 140).
(Note: It will be necessary to download the entire issue, 158 MB as a PDF.)
(Further note: Text very faded but legible.)
     "A screaming fury was in his nerves—something that was like murder madness, urging him to kill and kill and kill!"

It has been said that being easy going instead of overly sensitive can lead to a long life; a security agent is about to find out just how true that is . . . .

Principal characters:
~ Dave Ledrack:
  "Concealed in his right ear was a tiny etherphone receiver, part of the equipment of every member of the Terrestrial Guard Police, to which he belonged as a requirement of his position as Chief of Watch in the greatest other-world hostelry in the Americas."
~ John Holman:
  ". . . was high-strung. Here in the grip of the sinister aura that pervaded this building, he would be a hopeless, homicidal maniac!"
~ 4-2-5:
  ". . . was reputed to be the greatest trouble-maker, and one of the most brilliant scientists, in the galaxy."
~ X-4-3:
  "Someone has tried to destroy me."
~ The proxies:
  ". . . hurtled toward Dave, like wickedly glittering projectiles, their camera eyes agleam, their metal arms extended like spearpoints."

References and resources:
- The hotel in our story is not to be confused with the one in Moscow (HERE).
- Twenty years after our story first appeared, "Journey to Babel," a Star Trek episode, developed a similar plot set-up; go to Wikipedia (WARNING! SPOILERS! HERE) and Memory Alpha (WARNING! SPOILERS HERE).
- "specially prepared for the individual for which it was reserved": Accommodating the diverse needs of aliens, these being sick or injured, was the prime focus of James White's "Sector General" series:
  "The series derives its name from the setting of the majority of the books, the Sector 12 General Hospital, a huge hospital space station located in deep space, designed to treat a wide variety of life forms with a wide range of ailments and life-support requirements, and to house an equally diverse staff. The Hospital was founded to promote peace after humanity's first interstellar war, and in the fourth book the authorities conclude that its emergency services are the most effective way to make peaceful contact with new species" (WARNING! SPOILERS! Wikipedia HERE).
- "Planet Five of Antares": It's unclear whether or not Antares has a planetary system, but if it does the inhabitants there are no doubt not enjoying the climate:
  "Classified as spectral type M1.5Iab-Ib, Antares is a red supergiant [roughly 550 light-years from the Sun], a large evolved massive star and one of the largest stars visible to the naked eye. Its exact size remains uncertain, but if placed at the center of the Solar System, it would reach to somewhere between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter. Its mass is calculated to be around 12 times that of the Sun" (Wikipedia HERE and HERE).
- "a porous, silicous composition": Life forms based on silicon, rather than carbon, have been appearing in SFF for quite some time:
  "The silicon atom has been much discussed as the basis for an alternative biochem-ical system, because silicon has many chemical properties similar to those of carbon and is in the same group of the periodic table, the carbon group. Like carbon, silicon can create molecules that are sufficiently large to carry biological information.
  "In cinematic and literary science fiction, at a moment when man-made machines cross from nonliving to living, it is often posited, this new form would be the first example of non-carbon-based life. Since the advent of the micro-processor in the late 1960s, these machines are often classed as computers (or computer-guided robots) and filed under 'silicon-based life,' even though the silicon backing matrix of these processors is not nearly as fundamental to their operation as carbon is for 'wet life'" (Wikipedia HERE) and (Memory Alpha HERE).
- "they looked quite a bit like those abhorrent Earthly marine animals—sting rays": In the late '30s, SFF writers could with some justice assert that Venus was a water world:
  "Some scientists envisioned Venus as Panthalassa ('all ocean'), with perhaps a few islands. Large land masses could not exist, they said, because land would cause vertical atmospheric currents breaking up the planet's solid cloud layer" (Wikipedia HERE). "'Everything points to there being large amounts of water on Venus in the past,' says Colin Wilson, Oxford University, U.K. But that does not necessarily mean there were oceans on the planet’s surface" (Universe Today HERE).
- "a fragment of Old Mars": As with Venus, SFF pulpsters often fancied Mars as a dying desertified planet:
  "Mariner 4 in July 1965  found that Mars—contrary to expectations—is heavily cratered, with a very thin atmosphere. No canals were found; while scientists did not believe that Mars was a moist planet, the lack of surface water surprised them. Science fiction had so influenced real explorations of the planet, however—Carl Sagan was among the many fans who became scientists—that after Mariner 9 in 1971–1972, craters were named after Wells, Burroughs, and other authors. The Mariner and Viking space probes confirmed that the Martian environment is extremely hostile to life. By the 1970s, the ideas of canals and ancient civilizations had to be abandoned.
  "Authors soon began writing stories based on the new Mars (frequently treating it as a desert planet). Most of these works feature humans struggling to tame the planet, and some of them refer to terraforming (using technology to transform a planet's environment to be Earthlike)" (Wikipedia HERE).
- Raymond Zinke Gallun (pronounced "galloon") had a very creditable SFFnal career: Wikipedia (HERE), the SFE (HERE), Fancyclopedia (HERE), the ISFDb (HERE), and the IMDb (HERE; 3 credits).
- It has been almost five years since we made first contact with Raymond Gallun when we highlighted his story, "Saturn's Ringmaster" (HERE).
Artwork by Gary Larson.

Monday, June 21, 2021

"Your Yes-man Is Dead"

THE THEATRICAL WORLD has always been a serviceable background for detective stories, with Golden Age authors like G. K. Chesterton, Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh, and Ellery Queen exploiting it for all it's worth. In today's story, it will take two murders to get to the implications of a . . .

"Bottom Deal."
By Hugh Pentecost (Judson Philips, 1903-89).
Illustrations by Charles Chickering (1891-1970; HERE).
First appearance: Blue Book, May 1941.
Novella (28 pages; 9 illos).
Online at (HERE).
     "I'm on the job about four hours, and a murder is committed right under my nose."

When a bodyguard utterly fails to guard his own body, another bodyguard reluctantly sets out to solve his death—but not, unfortunately, before another murder. The solution, when it comes, is embedded in a card gambit: "The pattern of this crime is like the pattern of the trick I just showed you." . . . .

Main characters in order of appearance:
~ Richard Gaunt:
  ". . . felt beads of sweat break out on his forehead."
~ Robert Royden:
  "There's no one like him."
~ Marcia Royden:
  "I think he's dead!"
~ Gary Lloyd:
  ". . . stood back of Marcia's chair, his jaw belligerent."
~ Danny Cayle:
  ". . . was known as the Lloyds of New York."
~ Donovan (a.k.a. Harvard):
  "I think that without doubt this is the damnedest proposition that's ever been brought in here."
~ Joe Strega:
  "He's a bodyguard. Royden insults people, and Strega does the punching."
~ Harold Caldredge:
  "It was a nice play until you cut all the other parts out of it but your own."
~ Carla Warlen:
  "Playing detective, Mr. Donovan?"
~ Ted Havilock:
  ". . . a pathetic, broken-down actor."
~ Lilli Paville:
  ". . . an actress, first and last."
~ John Taylor:
  "I was in this room every second, Inspector, until—well, until just before it happened."
~ Inspector Moran:
  "You did say you'd been reading detective stories. Playing a hunch? They always play hunches in books."

"The moment" when it all becomes clear:
  "Donovan sat bolt upright in bed. His throat was suddenly dry. He felt beads of sweat standing on his forehead."

Comment: The story has faint echoes of a Nero Wolfe-Archie Goodwin type of character dynamic, with this "Wolfe," a big-time gambler, more ruthless than the Montenegrin.

References and resources:
- "Bottom Deal": Not recommended if you're playing for money, unless you're very good at it—or well-armed:
  "Bottom dealing or base dealing is a sleight of hand technique in which the bottom card from a deck of playing cards is dealt instead of the top card. It is used by magicians as a type of card illusion, and by card sharps and mechanics, and as a method of cheating in poker or other card games" (Wikipedia HERE).
- "Joe Louis": For several decades his name was a synonym for "boxing champ":
  "Joseph Louis Barrow (1914–1981) was an American professional boxer who competed from 1934 to 1951. Nicknamed the Brown Bomber, Louis is widely regarded as one of the greatest and most influential boxers of all time. He reigned as the world heavyweight champion from 1937 until his temporary retirement in 1949. He was victorious in 25 consecutive title defenses, a record for all weight classes. Louis had the longest single reign as champion of any boxer in history" (Wikipedia HERE).
- "baby was in need of a new pair of shoes": Beginning in 1914, an idiomatic expression that has enjoyed a long lifetime:
  "A phrase said aloud when one is hoping for good luck in a game of chance, especially before a dice roll" (The Free Dictionary HERE).
- "Fade me again?": If you're not doing well rolling the bones, it sure can help:
  "When you're playing in a open game of craps (not in a casino), you need someone to put up money against what you're betting. The person putting up that money is 'fading' you" (Urban Dictionary HERE). "Shoot craps, Mr. Donovan?" (Wikipedia HERE). "Honest dice" (Wikipedia HERE).
- "prussic acid": Less commonly called hydrogen cyanide:
  "Hydrogen cyanide, sometimes called prussic acid, is a chemical compound with the chemical formula HCN. It is a colorless, extremely poisonous, and flammable liquid that boils slightly above room temperature, at 25.6 °C (78.1 °F).
  . . . "Cyanide poisoning is poisoning that results from exposure to any of a number of forms of cyanide. Early symptoms include headache, dizziness, fast heart rate, shortness of breath, and vomiting. This phase may then be followed by seizures, slow heart rate, low blood pressure, loss of consciousness, and cardiac arrest. Onset of symptoms usually occurs within a few minutes. Some survivors have long-term neurological problems" (Wikipedia HERE and HERE).
- "Napoleon brandy": In our story it becomes a weapon:
  "Brandy thought to be of great age or merit" ( HERE). "Courvoisier’s reputation as a Cognac for the elite dates back to their beginnings when a small wine and spirits shop owned by Emmanuel Courvoisier and Louis Gallois was visited by Napoleon Bonaparte himself. They soon became a supplier of Cognac for the Emperor, followed by royal families across Europe" (Cognac Expert HERE).
- "Phi Beta Kappa key": They say—and Carla seems to believe—that if you have one you probably possess a lot of smarts:
  "The Phi Beta Kappa Society (ΦΒΚ) is the oldest academic honor society in the United States, and is often described as its most prestigious one, due to its long history and academic selectivity. Phi Beta Kappa aims to promote and advocate excellence in the liberal arts and sciences, and to induct the most outstanding students of arts and sciences at American colleges and universities. It was founded at the College of William and Mary on December 5, 1776 as the first collegiate Greek-letter fraternity and was among the earliest collegiate fraternal societies.
  "Phi Beta Kappa (ΦΒΚ) stands for Φιλοσοφία Βίου Κυβερνήτης (Philosophia Biou Kybernētēs), which means 'Love of learning [lit. wisdom] is the guide [lit. helmsman] of life'" (Wikipedia HERE).
- "the inferiority complex": From all appearances Royden has one:
  "In psychology, an inferiority complex is an intense personal feeling of inadequacy, often resulting in the belief that one is in some way deficient, or inferior, to others.
  ". . . An inferiority complex may cause an individual to overcompensate in a number of ways. For example, a person who feels inferior because they are shorter than average (also known as a Napoleon complex) may become overly concerned with how they appear to others. They may wear special shoes to make themself [sic] appear taller or surround himself with individuals who are even shorter than they are. If this is taken to the extreme, it becomes a neurosis.
  "It may also cause an individual to be prone to flashy outward displays, with behaviors ranging from attention-seeking to excessive competitiveness and aggression, in an attempt to compensate for their either real or imagined deficiencies" (Wikipedia HERE).
- "went down in the crash": The stock market crash of 1929:
  "The Wall Street Crash of 1929, also known as the Great Crash, was a major American stock market crash that occurred in the autumn of 1929. It started in September and ended late in October, when share prices on the New York Stock Exchange collapsed. It was the most devastating stock market crash in the history of the United States, when taking into consideration the full extent and duration of its aftereffects" (Wikipedia HERE).
- "the odor of cordite": Fell out of favor after World War Two:
  "Cordite is a family of smokeless propellants developed and produced in the United Kingdom since 1889 to replace gunpowder as a military propellant. Like gunpowder, cordite is classified as a low explosive because of its slow burning rates and consequently low brisance. These produce a subsonic deflagration wave rather than the supersonic detonation wave produced by brisants, or high explosives. The hot gases produced by burning gunpowder or cordite generate sufficient pressure to propel a bullet or shell to its target, but not so quickly as to routinely destroy the barrel of the gun" (Wikipedia HERE).
- "making sure you weren't heeled": You've got to wonder how this idiom evolved:
  "Slang. armed, especially with a gun" ( HERE).
- "a single bright light burning in the middle of the stage": The scene of many triumphs and tragedies:
  "There are several types of stages that vary as to the usage and the relation of the audience to them. The most common form found in the West is the proscenium stage" (Wikipedia HERE). "just got into the wings": "Areas that are part of a stage deck but offstage (out of sight of the audience). The wings are typically masked with legs. The wing space is used for performers preparing to enter, storage of sets for scenery changes and as a stagehand work area. Wings also contain technical equipment, such as the fly system" (Wikipedia HERE).
- "impersonate The Shadow": At the time a very popular radio program:
  "The radio version of The Shadow is less ruthless than his pulp counterpart, preferring to capture his foes more often than gun them down. He sometimes openly shows compassion for his enemies, even at times criticizing society for creating circumstances that lead to certain crimes and cause some people to lose hope and support" (Wikipedia HERE).
- "a white scarf knotted Ascot fashion": Not as common as in days of yore:
   "An ascot tie, ascot or hanker-tie is a neckband with wide pointed wings, traditionally made of pale grey patterned silk. This wide tie is usually patterned, folded over, and fastened with a tie pin or tie clip. It is usually reserved for formal wear with morning dress for daytime weddings and worn with a cutaway morning coat and striped grey formal trousers" (Wikipedia HERE). "The ascot is a type of neckwear that looks like a cross between silken scarf and necktie" ( HERE).
- Our latest meeting with Hugh Pentecost was several years ago with his Collier's story "The Case of the Killer Dogs" (HERE).
- Murder mysteries presented as plays—unlike today's story, in which the murders are associated with a play—have a long history. Nearly a century ago George Jean Nathan, a perceptive drama critic, had his own ideas of what theatrical mysteries should be like; go (HERE) for those.
  Alexander Woollcott, another critic, had some ideas to offer as well; see his "Murder at 8:30 Sharp" highlighted (HERE).
  Augustus Thomas's melodrama "Nemesis" dealt with fingerprint evidence; see more (HERE).

Friday, June 18, 2021

"It Was Just a Plain, Ordinary, Everyday Electric Push-button"

"The Doorbell."
By David H. Keller (1880-1966).
Original illustration by Lumen Winter (1908-82; HERE).
First appearance: Wonder Stories, June 1934.
Reprints page (HERE).
Short story (10 pages as a PDF).
Online at Faded Page (HERE).
     "Brother was dead and Mother was almost dead, but she managed to gasp out what had happened."

Even the most harmless technology can turn lethal when it becomes a means to exact revenge . . . .

Principal characters:
~ Jacob Hubler:
  "Why didn't you use the gun?"
~ Henry Cecil:
  "There would have been no originality in it."
~ Doctor Murdock:
  "He's a good physician and I have the greatest confidence in him. There's no occasion for him to worry."

References and resources:
- "a Rolls-Royce": For decades the world has regarded a Rolls as the very emblem of wealth:
  "Rolls-Royce was a British luxury car and later an aero-engine manufacturing business established in 1904 in Manchester, United Kingdom by the partnership of Charles Rolls and Henry Royce. Building on Royce's reputation established with his cranes they quickly developed a reputation for superior engineering by manu-facturing the 'best car in the world.' The First World War brought them into manufacturing aero-engines. Joint development of jet engines began in 1940 and they entered production. Rolls-Royce has built an enduring reputation for development and manufacture of engines for defence and civil aircraft" (Wikipedia HERE).
- "auditory hallucinosis": Often called "hearing voices":
  "An auditory hallucination, or paracusia, is a form of hallucination that involves perceiving sounds without auditory stimulus. A common form of auditory halluci-nation involves hearing one or more talking voices, and this is known as an auditory verbal hallucination. This may be associated with psychotic disorders, most notably schizophrenia, and holds special significance in diagnosing these conditions. How-ever, individuals without any psychiatric disease whatsoever may hear voices, including (but not limited to) those under the influence of mind-altering substances" (Wikipedia HERE).
- "should be good for cholera": Depending on where the patient lives, it could be fatal:
  "Cholera is an infection of the small intestine by some strains of the bacterium Vibrio cholerae. Symptoms may range from none, to mild, to severe. Cholera affects an estimated 3–5 million people worldwide and causes 28,800–130,000 deaths a year. Although it is classified as a pandemic as of 2010, it is rare in high income countries" (Wikipedia HERE).
- "an electromagnet": You probably haven't realized it, but there are many electromagnets influencing your life at this very moment:
  "An electromagnet is a type of magnet in which the magnetic field is produced by an electric current. Electromagnets usually consist of wire wound into a coil. A current through the wire creates a magnetic field which is concentrated in the hole, denoting the center of the coil. The magnetic field disappears when the current is turned off. The wire turns are often wound around a magnetic core made from a ferromagnetic or ferrimagnetic material such as iron; the magnetic core concentrates the magnetic flux and makes a more powerful magnet. The main advantage of an electromagnet over a permanent magnet is that the magnetic field can be quickly changed by controlling the amount of electric current in the winding. However, unlike a permanent magnet that needs no power, an electromagnet requires a continuous supply of current to maintain the magnetic field" (Wikipedia HERE).
- Writing in much the same vein as Poe but without his literary skills, David H. Keller had his fantasies often take a gruesome turn; see Wikipedia (HERE), the SFE (HERE), The Encyclo-pedia of Fantasy (HERE), and the ISFDb (HERE).

Tuesday, June 15, 2021

"One Clutching Hand Seized the Revolver, the Other, with Clenched Fist, Pounded at His Face"

"Bank Night."
By Robert R. Mill (1895-1942).
Illustrations by Charles Chickering (1891-1970; HERE).
First appearance: Blue Book, February 1940.
Short story (11 pages; 6 illos).
Online at (HERE).
     ". . . and they locked in a death struggle."

For a state trooper smitten with a speeder it's practically love at first sight, but for the object of his devotion it's something else entirely . . . .

Main characters:
The troopers:
~ Lt. Edward "Tiny" David:
  "Isn't it lucky, sir, that we came out the front way?"
~ Lt. James Crosby:
  ". . . taken completely by surprise, acted automatically."
~ Lt. Charles McMann:
  ". . . did not look forward to this with relish."
~ Captain Charles Field:
  "There's one thing in your favor: when you make a fool of yourself, you go whole hog."
~ Sgt. Max Payton:
  ". . . if the message is love and kisses, will the lieutenant care to have me deliver them to him?"
The civilians:
~ Vera Hamtrow:
  ". . . was smiling as she sat waiting for them. Her clothes and her make-up were vivid."
~ Mrs. Hamtrow:
  ". . . was carrying a large suitcase."
~ Pop:
  "Several nights here lately seems like I've been hearing funny noises down in the basement, but when I get there, there ain't nothin'."

References and resources:
- "Bank Night": It had relatively little to do directly with banks per se:
  "Bank Night was a lottery game franchise in the United States during the Great Depression. It was invented and marketed by Charles U. Yaeger, a former booking agent for 20th Century Fox. In 1936, Bank Night was played at 5,000 of America's 15,000 active theaters, and copies of it were played at countless more. The popularity of Bank Night and similar schemes contributed to the resiliency of the film industry during the Great Depression more than any other single business tactic" (Wikipedia HERE).
- "we haven't a jitterbug on the block": Not an insect but a style of dance:
  "White dancers picked up the energetic jitterbug from dancers at black venues. Venues in the Hill District of Pittsburgh were popular places for whites to learn the jitterbug. The Savoy Ballroom, a dance hall in Harlem, was a famous cross-cultural venue, frequented by both black locals and white tourists" (Wikipedia HERE).
- "the European dictators": They were very much in the news at the time:
  "Mussolini and Hitler used similar, modest titles referring to them as 'the Leader.' Mussolini used 'Il Duce' and Hitler was generally referred to as 'der Führer.' Franco used a similar title 'El Caudillo' ('the Head') and for Stalin his adopted name ['man of steel'] became synonyms with his role as the absolute leader. For Mussolini, Hitler, and Franco, the use of modest, non-traditional titles displayed their absolute power even stronger as they did not need any, not even a historic legitimacy either. Over time, dictators have been known to use tactics that violate human rights. For example, under the Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin, government policy was enforced by secret police and the Gulag system of prison labour camps. Most Gulag inmates were not political prisoners, although significant numbers of political prisoners could be found in the camps at any one time. Data collected from Soviet archives gives the death toll from Gulags at 1,053,829. Other human rights abuses by the Soviet state included human experimentation, the use of psychiatry as a political weapon and the denial of freedom of religion, assembly, speech and association" (Wikipedia HERE).
- "the P.W.A.": With FDR's New Deal is full effect, every reader would know what it was right away:
  "Public Works Administration (PWA), part of the New Deal of 1933, was a large-scale public works construction agency in the United States headed by Secretary of the Interior Harold L. Ickes. It was created by the National Industrial Recovery Act in June 1933 in response to the Great Depression. It built large-scale public works such as dams, bridges, hospitals, and schools. Its goals were to spend $3.3 billion in the first year, and $6 billion in all, to provide employment, stabilize purchasing power, and help revive the economy. Most of the spending came in two waves in 1933–35, and again in 1938. Originally called the Federal Emergency Administration of Public Works, it was renamed the Public Works Administration in 1935 and shut down in 1944" (Wikipedia HERE).
- "the gay nineties vintage": Seen through the haze of nostalgia almost any historical period would seem to be better than the present:
  "The Gay Nineties is an American nostalgic term and a periodization of the history of the United States referring to the decade of the 1890s. It is known in the United Kingdom as the Naughty Nineties, and refers there to the decade of supposedly decadent art of Aubrey Beardsley, the witty plays and trial of Oscar Wilde, society scandals and the beginning of the suffragette movement. Despite the term, the decade was marked by an economic crisis, which greatly worsened when the Panic of 1893 set off a widespread economic depression in the United States that lasted until 1896" (Wikipedia HERE).
- We had a recent encounter with Robert R. Mill's atypical tale, "Mrs. Murder" (HERE).