Showing posts with label Classic. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Classic. Show all posts

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Keep Walking, by Geoffrey Household

"Keep Walking," by Geoffrey Household, in The Days of Your Fathers, 1987.  (Originally published 1968)

Sorry this is late; I have been on vacation.  That might also explain why I did not read any new stories this week I liked enough to review.  As I have done before when this happened I am going to review a classic story, one of my favorites.

I first read this story in the 1970s, published in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, with a stupid title I won't repeat here.  (Editor Frederic Dannay was famous for deciding he knew more about titles than the authors of the stories he published.)

This is a spy story and a great suspense tale.  The nameless protagonist is a spy in a hostile country, also unnamed.  It is implied that she is working for a Western democracy.  And she is in big trouble.

She has just posted an incriminating report when she realizes the police are watching her.  At any moment they will scoop her up. torture her, interrogate her, and kill her.

But there is one fragile reed she can cling to.  If the bad guys don't think she has seen them, they will keep following her, hoping she will lead to useful information.

If she runs, they'll grab her.  If she tries to get on a bus, they will collect her.  All she can do is keep walking, and hope desperately to find a way out...

Sunday, April 6, 2014

It's So Peaceful In The Country, by WIlliam Brandon

"It's So Peaceful In The Country," by William Brandon, in Black Mask Magazine, 1943, reprinted in The Hard-boiled Detective, edited by Herbert Ruhm, Vintage Books, 1977.

I have been reading a lot of old hard-boiled stories lately, mostly from the Black Mask school.  A lot of them read like photocopies of Dashiell Hammett's Continental Op stories, some blurrier than others.  It made this story stand out by contrast.

Brandon's hero is Horse Luvnik, just out of jail on burglary charges and feeling unhappy because his beloved wife has decided she doesn't want him back until he goes straight.  And she has decided that going straight means buying a cigar store.  How he is supposed to gather enough coin to do that is his problem.  (I guess he can go straight after that.)

Things look bad but then Horse gets an invitation to Vermont.  A gentleman scholar there named Dingle is working on what he hopes will be the definitive book on Edgar Allan Poe's first editions.  The problem is that some of the information  he needs is in the home of his hated rival, a woman who lives a few miles away.  And since she refuses to share Dingle hires Horse to steal her notes every night -- and then smuggle them back into her house every morning.

As you can imagine, things quickly get silly.  It is as if Damon Runyan and P.G.Wodehouse collaborated on a hard-boiled tale.  The Continental Op might spin in his grave, but I enjoyed it.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

The Lord of Central Park, by Avram Davidson

"The Lord of Central Park," by Avram Davidson, in The Investigations of Avram Davidson, St. Martin's Press, 1999.

Well, it has happened again as it occasionally does.  I did not read any stories this week I liked enough to report on so instead I am bringing up one from my top fifty.  I remember reading this novella when it originally appeared in the October 1970 issue of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, under the dreadful name of "Manhattan Night's Entertainment."  Frederic Dannay was a great editor but a horrific tinkerer with titles.

Avram Davidson had one of those staggering imaginations, like John Collier, James Powell, or Terry Pratchett.  You just never knew what would pour out of his typewriter.  In this case it the simple story of a young lady from New Jersey and her encounters with a pickpocket, the Mafia, the Nafia, an Albanian Trotskyite who wants to blow up the Brooklyn Navy Yard, Hudson River pirates, and, of course, the Lord High Keeper of the Queen's Bears, who lives in a cave in Central Park.

Okay, maybe I lied about it being a simple story.

The main character is really the titular Lord, alias Arthur Marmaduke Roderick Lodowicke William Rufus de Powisse-Plunkert, 11th Marques of Grue and Groole in the peerage of England, 22nd Baron Bogle in the Peerage of Scotland, 6th Earl of Ballypatcooge in the Peerage of Ireland, Viscount Penhokey in the Peerage of the United Kingdom, Laird of Muckle Greet, Master of Snee, and Hereditary Lord High Keeper of the Queen's Bears.

By now you have probably figured out that Davidson loves words, for their own sake.  He also uses them to tell a wonderful story. 

The Marquess is broke and dishonest, which explains why he lives in a cave, cadging most of his meals from meat his trained falcon steals off grills on the surrounding balconies.  He is a sharp fellow and when he spots rope in a store window that could only have been swiped from the British Navy he finds himself confronting the aforementioned river pirates who vehemently deny that they are pirates.  You see, Peter Stuyvesant gave the family the right to collect taxes in 1662, just before the Dutch surrendered to the British.

For a moment no word broke the reverent silence.  Then, slowly, Lord Grue and Groole removed his cap.  "And naturally," he said, "your family has never recognized that surrender.  Madam, as an unreconstructed Jacobite, I honor them for it, in your person."  He gravely bowed.

I won't attempt to explain how everyone else fits into this mad mosiac.  Just get your hands on the story and read it.  Why it hasn't been made into a movie is one of those inexplicable mysteries.  It's practically a film right on the page.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

The Fruit At The Bottom Of The Bowl, by Ray Bradbury

"The Fruit At The Bottom Of The Bowl" by Ray Bradbury, in The Golden Apples of the Sun.  (1948)

This is the first time  in a year and a half this review has been late.  Stuff happens, but it didn't help that nothing I read this week rang my chimes, so for the third time in a year and a half I have had to resort to my list of fifty favorite stories.  It seemed appropriate to honor the late, great Ray Bradbury.

I think most people tend to remember Bradbury for his inspiring go-to-space stories, and forget that he learned his chops on horror.  There is psychological horror in this little masterpiece, but it is first and foremost a crime story.  In fact, it appeared first in Detective Book Magazine and was reprinted five years later in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine (under the cutesy title "Touch and Go."  Shame on you, Frederick Dannay.).

The protagonist has just gone to another man's home where they had an argument about a woman, and the home owner gets killed.  The protagonist can get away with murder - if he is sure that he doesn't leave any fingerprints behind.  And soon we are in territory that would be quite familiar to Edgar Allan Poe.

The last paragraph is worth the price of the book.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Come Back, Come Back, by Donald E. Westlake

"Come Back, Come Back," by Donald E. Westlake, in Levine, 1984.

Well, it has happened again.  For the second time in fifteen months I haven't read any new stories I liked enough to write about here, so I am going to review one of my all-time favorite stories.

I actually read this one as a teenager in one of those Alfred Hitchcock paperback story collections.  It was my first introduction to Donald E. Westlake, and while I always remembered the story, it was many years before I connected this tale with the author of so many comic crime classics.

In the early sixties Westlake wrote a series of stories about Abe Levine, a New York City cop with one distinguishing feature: he has a heart condition which he quite reasonably fears will kill him.  So each of his cases is colored by this, you might say, existential lens.

Take this story.  Levine and his partner are rushed to a skyscraper where a businessman is threatening to jump off a high ledge.  See the ironic contrast: a young, healthy, successful man who apparently wants to die and Levine, a middle-aged, broke, cop with a heart condition who desperately wants to live.  Can these two guys teach each other anything?

A stunning piece of work and a demonstration of the unusual things that can be done in the name of crime fiction.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Rolling Rivera, by Steven Torres

"Rolling Rivera," by Steven Torres, in The Precinct Puerto Rico Files.  2012.

I am not the first to notice that detective fiction tends to flourish only in democracies.  In fact, I think you could make a case that the popularity of different genres of crime stories gives you a sort of national temperature.  When World War I and Prohibition made us cynical about the powers that be, we stopped reading classical mysteries (in which the bad guy was brought to governmental justice) and turned to hard-boiled (in which the law is corrupt and the good guy is on his own).  Nowadays we seem to have thrillers (confirmation for the paranoids among us) and noir (nourishment for nihilists).

I was pondering this as I read The Precinct Puerto Rico Files, an e-book that Steven Torres was kind enough to send me.  His hero usually solves the crime, but he can't solve the underlying economic social problems that caused the mess, and will cause more.  So justice becomes a little, shall we say, ad lib.

I should explain that the hero, Luis Gonzalo, is the sheriff of Angustias (the anguishes) a small mountain town in Puerto Rico.  The time is the 1970s.

A good example of my thesis is "Rolling Rivera."  Abraham Rivera, an abusive husband and father, lives in a wheelchair because of an earlier drunken folly.  He is found dead, run over on a road.  The legal question is: was it another booze-soaked accident, or did someone set him up to be killed?  And the bigger question is: if the latter, should we prosecute or celebrate?

Another very good story in this book is "The Driver," in which a small mistake builds up, with the inevitability of Greek tragedy, into a pointless disaster.  One more thing I really liked about the book was the brief note Torres placed after each story explaining where he got the idea.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Carrot For A Chestnut, by Dick Francis

"Carrot For A Chestnut," by Dick Francis, in Field of Thirteen, Putnam 1998.

(minor spoiler alert)

Well, it finally happened.  I read a lot of stories this week but didn't come across any I liked enough to write about here, so I went to my list of fifty favorite crime short stories and picked one.

Here is something that bugs me: people who hit a grand slam their first time at bat.   Just doesn't seem fair somehow.  Supposedly Sheebeg Sheemore was the first tune O'Carolan ever wrote.  And then there are the first novels that turned out to be the best things the authors ever did.  (That can be thought of as a curse, can't it?)

I hadn't realized until I prepared to write this piece that "Carrot For A Chestnut" was Dick Francis' short story.  Sure, he had been writing for novels for years, but he hadn't tried the short form until 1970 when Sports Illustrated invited him to try his hand - "length and subject matter to be my own choice."

Francis, rather famously, tended to follow a formula in his novels: they were all written in first person, the hero was often a jockey, and was brave, resourceful, and chockful of integrity.  Perhaps it was no surprise that, when considering a short story, he decided to go in a different direction.

Yes, Chick is a jockey.  But his story is told in third person and he is a "thin, disgruntled nineteen-year-old who always felt the world owed him more than he got."   Now Chick has a chance to get a little more, by giving a carrot to a horse in the stable where he worked.  The carrot is dosed with some chemical that will undoubtedly damage the horse's chance at winning a race.  Is Chick willing to betray the people he works with, the people he feels don't treat him well enough?

This is a tale of suspense with a slamming climax.  But the reason the story makes my top fifty is the twist ending that makes everything worse...