Cornell Woolrich | H.P. Lovecraft | Fredric Brown | Thomas Walsh | Bruno Fischer | Charlotte Armstrong | Day Keene | Helen Nielsen | William O'Farrell | James A. Kirch | Zenith Gray
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After Dinner Story
Somebody on the Phone
Blind Date With Death
The Blue Ribbon
Darkness at Dawn
Dead Man Blues
Six Nights of Mystery
Angels of Darkness
The Ten Faces of Cornell Woolrich
Night and Fear
Deadline at Dawn (1944) (Chapters 1 - 5)
Wake Up to Murder (1952)
From 1934-1946 Woolrich was an immensely prolific pulp writer, turning out scores of pieces, both long and short, for the pulps. Starting in 1940, he also wrote over a dozen suspense novels in the 1940's. Woolrich's work was adapted into numerous motion pictures, the best being Robert Siodmak's Phantom Lady (1944) and Alfred Hitchcock's Rear Window (1954).
Woolrich's fiction is at the center of what has come to be known as the noir style. Noir, pronounced 'nwahr', is the French word for black. In noir works, the protagonist is menaced by sinister, powerful forces from the world around him. He has to struggle to survive in a sinister labyrinth of a universe that he can barely understand or control. Noir was an important style in the 1940's and 1950's, both in prose works such as Woolrich's, and in Hollywood films. The movie version of the style, known as Film Noir, runs through hundreds of film thrillers of the era, including many of the best films directed by Fritz Lang, Billy Wilder, Robert Siodmak, Edgar G. Ulmer, Orson Welles, Joseph H. Lewis, Gerd Oswald, and Robert Aldrich. Noir also influenced comic books, including the science fiction comics scripted by Joe Samachson and the King Faraday stories of Robert Kanigher and Carmine Infantino.
Woolrich had a remarkable prose style. He especially excelled at description. For a good example, see the small story, almost a fragment, known as "Funeral". This is one of Woolrich's best pieces of writing, exemplifying his descriptive gifts. It describes that cliché of gangster movies, the shoot out with police, with unforgettable literary brilliance.
Woolrich's interest in impossible crimes extended throughout his mystery career. His attitude towards them was curious in many ways, however. The "impossible" nature of the crimes is not emphasized. In John Dickson Carr, by contrast, there is always someone to point out that a seeming impossibility has occurred; the detectives ask and brain storm throughout the book, how the "magic trick" was done; people talk about other impossible crimes solved by the great detectives, and so on. Now Carr was always more reflective a writer than many other detective writers, often making explicit references to the fact that his characters were inside a detective puzzle. Still, most writers of impossible crimes have gone the Carrian route, emphasizing their special nature. Not Woolrich, however. One can read any of these stories without being conscious of anything other that it being a puzzling mystery.
One can ascribe several artistic motives to Woolrich for this "concealment of genre", to coin a phrase, but they are all guesswork. One idea is that the impossibility of the crime is designed to heighten the mood of irrationality and terror. The hero is in the grip of some horrible force that he cannot even understand rationally, let alone control. The impossibility is just used to heighten the sense of a general mysteriousness, to make the situation even more puzzling. The last thing an author would need, according to this scenario, is any attempt to lighten this mood, to suggest that the impossibility is just a game designed for the reader's entertainment.
Another possibility is that pulps discouraged story emphasis on the pure puzzle during the development of the tale. Pulp stories tend to be fair play mysteries, with clever, surprising solutions worked out from fairly given clues at the end of the tale. But the early parts of the story do not pause and emphasize the puzzle, the way a detective novel of the period would. Instead the story barrels along on waves of action, so that readers who read only for adventure will be entertained. At the end, those readers who expect a fair play solution will be rewarded, too.
There could be other factors. Woolrich never used series detectives, and most of his flat foots are ordinary policemen of the Depression era. He had no need to build them up as Great Detectives, a la Dr. Fell or The Great Merlini. Instead, he went out of his way to emphasize the ordinary nature of his cops.
"The Street of Jungle Death" (1939) is an impossible disappearance story. As the title suggests, the disappearance is linked to the architectural subject matter that plays such a role in Woolrich's fiction. The explanation also has some relationship to the solution of a non-impossible mystery Woolrich wrote the same year, "You'll Never See Me Again" (1939). Both tales' architectural ideas show some affinity.
"All at Once, No Alice" (1940) is one of Woolrich's tales of a Vanishing Woman. The hero's wife disappears, and every witness denies her existence. It is sometimes classified as an Impossible Crime. However, it does not actually seem to be an Impossible Crime, in my judgement. SPOILERS. The solution is simply that all the witnesses have been bribed to lie. This seems like an obvious possibility, right from the start of the tale. The mystery strongly resembles those tales based on the Paris Exposition, in which a woman disappears in a hotel, and everyone lies about her never having been there. Such tales are eerie. But there is nothing Impossible about them. The possibility that everyone is simply lying, is something readers consider from the start. It makes the events of the tale look possible, not Impossible.
Screen-Test. "Screen-Test" (1934) is too violent. But it does have a decent impossible crime plot.
"Screen-Test" contains the "back and forth" structure found in Woolrich. People keep going into and out of the sound stage that is the main locale. And the film footage at the end is repeatedly scrolled backwards and forwards.
SPOILERS. The descriptions of light show Woolrich's skill with this subject.
SPOILERS. Woolrich's tale frequently show what an individual character is seeing. "Screen-Test" offers a creative variant: what a roll of movie film is showing.
Woolrich liked many traditional elements of detective fiction: "The Book That Squealed" (1939) contains much detection involving a cryptogram, for instance, and the amateur detective heroes of this story and "Rear Window" are as nosy about their neighbors as any of Anna Katherine Green's spinsters. There is in fact something 19th Centuryish about Woolrich. His combination of mystery plots and thrills recalls the Sensation Novelists, as do his elaborately descriptive prose, and emphasis on storytelling. So does the perennial Woolrich theme of being buried alive, which turns up in LeFanu and Poe.
Subway. Woolrich's "Subway" (1936) is a little thriller that contains virtually every staple of all the subway and train suspense movies made since. There are problems getting off and on cars from the platform, there are suspenseful watches on the platforms, there are chases from car to car, there are shoot outs in crowds, there are trains hurtling out of control down tracks, you name it. I don't think this story has ever been officially filmed, but it was widely reprinted at one time, and perhaps is the ultimate source of all these movies. Reading it today it has a deja vu feel - most people have seen all of this, and in Technicolor. Also, there is no mystery plot. Between its now familiar material, and its lack of a mystery plot, "Subway" dates a little; I think that Woolrich's elevated train successor tale, "Death in the Air" (1936), now seems like a better story.
Still, "Subway" has merits, including some of Woolrich's vivid descriptive writing dealing with effects of light in the subway tunnels. This becomes especially good at the finale.
The hero repeatedly goes up and down the route in the subway. This anticipates the hero of "The Dog with the Wooden Leg" repeatedly going to and from his home to the park.
Communication infrastructure of modern society is stressed:
An earlier tale looking at New York City's infrastructure is "The Night of a Thousand Thieves" (1913) by Frederick Irving Anderson.
The early newspaper accounts of the villain as the subject of a manhunt in a huge deserted office building, recalls an episode in the film M (Fritz Lang, 1931). By contrast, the finale of "Subway" anticipates another Lang film While the City Sleeps (1956).
The Series. Both "Subway" and "Death in the Air" are part of a series of stories Woolrich wrote in which a crime is choreographed around some architectural construction. These include the story known as "Red Liberty" or "The Corpse in the Statue of Liberty" (1935), which is the best of Woolrich's very early, pre 1936 tales; and "Double Feature" / "The Most Exciting Show in Town" (1936), which is a thriller set in a movie theater. When Ellery Queen reprinted "The Body in Grant's Tomb" (1943) in the December 1948 EQMM, he reported that these tales had been conceived by Woolrich consciously as a series, and that Woolrich hoped to publish them as a collection in 1949. Unfortunately, no such story collection ever appeared.
Woolrich used this framework over and over during these years, with a repetitiveness that bordered on the obsessive. Admittedly, it is a good working framework for a detective story, but it can be hard to take in quantity. It works best in the earliest of the tales, the remarkable long novella "You'll Never See Me Again" (1939), where it is fresh and original, and in the last tale in the series, "If the Shoe Fits" (1943). By contrast, "C-Jag" (1940) is mediocre, and "I Won't Take a Minute" (1940) rather labored. The relationship of the cop and the hero shows great variety. In "If the Shoe Fits", the cop saves the protagonist. It is ultimately joyous and upbeat, two qualities we do not always associate with Woolrich. On the other extreme, in "Nightmare" (1941), the relationship has degenerated to a masochistic fantasy, in which the cop torments the hero, and nearly destroys him.
"Nightmare" is a story about which I have mixed feelings. On the one hand, it contains one of Woolrich's most creative impossible crime plots. The plot perhaps owes a good deal to F. Britten Austin's "Diamond Cut Diamond" (1925), which was widely circulated in one of Dorothy L. Sayers' omnibuses. And behind both tales stands Wilkie Collins' The Moonstone (1868). "Nightmare" was filmed officially twice, and many more times on TV without attribution to Woolrich. It is one of his most plagiarized plots: uncredited versions of the story are still being made on TV cop shows. On the other hand, the anguished tone, and horrible relationship between the two men, is repellent.
A precursor to these tales in Woolrich's writing is "Shooting Going On" (1937). In this story, set in Hollywood, the hero is helped out, not by a policeman, but by a movie director. The director is a powerful authority figure, just like the later cops, and comes to the hero's aid with real selflessness. This tale, like Woolrich's "Screen-Test" (1934), has a Hollywood sound stage setting, and perhaps influenced Karl W. Detzer's "Murder in the Movies" (1937).
"If the Shoe Fits" can be read as a gay love story, with the cop and the hero. Another tale of gay love in Woolrich is "The Blue Ribbon" (1949). "The Blue Ribbon" is a sports story, not a mystery, and it shows a boxer's manager as feeling deep affection for him.
"All at Once, No Alice" (1940) is linked to the above tales. It has an innocent hero who no one believes, except for one tough cop who might possibly help him. However, unlike the above series, people do not think the hero is guilty of a crime; they think he is crazy and imagining things.
"Blind Date With Death" (1937) is one of Woolrich's best little suspense tales, and is unusual that it has a male instead of a female protagonist, which was more typical when Woolrich wrote this sort of combination detective story-suspense tale. "The Dog with the Wooden Leg" (1939) is another male hero Woolrich story which mixes a little mystery, some plot ingenuity, and suspense.
Among Woolrich's 1940's story collections, The Dancing Detective is unusual in that it contains a large number of pure detective stories. These tend to take place against hard-boiled environments, the title story in a taxi dance hall, "Leg Man" in cheap bars getting mob supplied whiskey. None of these tales is at the first rank of Woolrich's achievement, but they add to the list of pleasant stories written by the author.
The degree to which Woolrich's stories can be described as "hard-boiled" varies. These stories for Black Mask are the most hard-boiled Woolrich ever wrote. This is not surprising; Black Mask was the center of the hard-boiled style, and Woolrich clearly was making a conscious effort to follow in Black Mask tradition here.
"Death at the Burlesque" (1941) also flirts with the inverted tale in its second half, offering some unusual insights into the theory and practice of getting enough evidence to convict someone, and offering a case where that might be a theoretical impossibility. Its solution is completely preposterous, but the first half is one of Woolrich's most surreal murder stories.
"Death Between Dances" (1947) is also an unusual combination of the puzzle plot mystery and inverted tale. Written with Woolrich's gift for atmosphere and emotion, the scene in which the hero tries to cover up the crime to shield his girlfriend reminds one of the techniques used by protagonists of inverteds to conceal their own murders.
The first half of the late story, "Money Talks" (1961) is an impossible crime tale; here it is not a person who disappears, but some money. The second half is like an inverted story, in which a scheme is used to make the criminal look innocent. As in "Death at the Burlesque", science plays a role here. This story is much more light hearted and comic than most of Woolrich's work. Also, although it was written in the affluent 1960's, the mood and setting and financial details recall the Depression. Both Woolrich's earlier impossible crimes tale "Murder at the Automat" (1938) and "Money Talks" take place at establishments that sell fast food, and in both cases the technological details of these play a role in the plot.
Woolrich wrote a number of pure, traditional inverted tales, as well; the best is the late story, "One Drop of Blood" (1962). Woolrich's earlier pure inverted tales, "Orphan Ice" (1942), and "Fur Jacket" (1943), suffer from depictions of police brutality.
Some of Woolrich's stories focus on police schemes to prove the protagonist guilty. These often include psychological warfare against the protagonist. Woolrich is part of an American tradition here, one that includes the police extravaganzas of Frederick Irving Anderson, the short police stories by William MacHarg collected in 1940 as The Affairs of O'Malley, and the inverted stories of David X Manners. Anderson and MacHarg appeared in the slick magazines, while Woolrich and Manners in the pulps, but all of their short stories seem to have elements in common.
Several of Woolrich's suspense tales involve the supernatural. The Night Has A Thousand Eyes (1945) is a particularly depressing novel, Woolrich at his gloomiest and least enjoyable.
Woolrich's style had ancestors in the pulps: the thrillers of MacKinlay Kantor, and the pulp style known as Weird Menace, that mixed impossible crimes with apparently supernatural events. Woolrich's fiction is basically suspense oriented in tone, and it seems much closer in approach to the Weird Menace writers in the pulps than to the hard-boiled school of Black Mask. One suspects that Woolrich was directly influenced by both Kantor and weird menace writer G.T. Fleming-Roberts. The articles cited explain in detail similarities between Woolrich and these writers' work.
I've recently read Isabel Ostrander's The Clue in the Air (1917), a mystery novel published when Woolrich was a teenager, and am struck by the numerous similarities in architectural imagery to Woolrich's work:
Another writer of the teens whose work recalls Woolrich is Jack Boyle. Boyle created the thief Boston Blackie; Chapter 4 of the 1919 story collection Boston Blackie seems distinctly Woolrichian. In it a young woman whose thief boyfriend is soon to be executed for a crime he didn't commit comes to Blackie for help. This countdown to an execution is a familiar Woolrich theme; so is a female lover or relative trying desperately to help. Even Boyle's phrasing anticipates Woolrich: she hopes Blackie can "wrest her lover from the hands of the law". The chapter is full of intense passages describing the agony of a death house countdown. The heroine also utters a heart felt prayer, anticipating the many prayer scenes in Woolrich, such as in Deadline At Dawn (1944). Also very Woolrichian is the way the heroine has been financially supporting her boyfriend's legal appeals: she has been working as a dance hall girl. The descriptions of dancing work remind one of Woolrich's "The Dancing Detective".
A large amount of material on Woolrich, much of it by Nevins, is at Mystery*File.
Lovecraft's influence also crosses genre boundaries in the rise of "noir" writing. This style of suspenseful, paranoia filled storytelling found its greatest prose exemplars in Lovecraft, a science fiction writer, and Cornell Woolrich, a mystery writer. Lovecraft and Woolrich are parallel writers in many ways. Both were night oriented recluses who worked for the pulp magazines. Both had architectural imaginations, where their literary creativity was turned on by descriptions of elaborate, unusual buildings, cities, train tracks, and other architectural constructions. Both were creative prose stylists. Both became immensely influential writers.
Both writers were probably also gay, a fact that is directly related to the tone of noir fiction. The sense of a universe that is persecuting one, where a hideous fate is lurking around every dark corner, is a direct translation into fiction of the daily fate of gays of their era. Later, noir would be taken up as a style of Hollywood filmmaking, one especially practiced by such refugee Jewish directors as Fritz Lang and Billy Wilder. The origins of noir from the creative talents of Jews and gays, two groups persecuted by the society around them, is significant. Noir is not related to the confident, anything goes style of WASP writers of its era. Nor is noir just a piece of abstract stylization of literature. Rather it comes out of a realistic conviction of minority artists of its era that the universe is a hostile place, waiting to destroy them.
Neither Lovecraft nor Woolrich wrote much about gay relationships; Woolrich probably came closest in his story "If The Shoe Fits" (1943), which can be read as a gay love story. Some of Lovecraft's best stories can be read as gay allegories, especially "The Loved Dead" and "The Shadow over Innsmouth".
Another good story heavily influenced by architecture is "The Doom That Came To Sarnath" (1919).
In 1931 he wrote two long stories about entire cities, At The Mountains of Madness, which deals with a futuristic, science fictional city discovered in Antarctica, and his best story, "The Shadow over Innsmouth", which looks at a fictional, eerie, but fairly realistic, New England city, one inspired by the Massachusetts town of Marblehead. Both of these works were written shortly after he completed his guidebook to the historic city of Québec, and presumably his imagination was full of thinking about cities.
Lovecraft did not always give alien presences animal-like bodies; his tale of cosmic otherness coming to Earth, "The Color Out of Space" (1928), is one of his best sustained pieces of storytelling. It has the artistic unity and storytelling logic of his early short tales, but is longer and more elaborate.
Commentary on Fredric Brown:
A tale like "The Case of the Dancing Sandwiches" (1950) is straight out of Woolrich's tradition of detective fiction, as opposed to suspense. Brown's novella resembles such Woolrich stories as "You'll Never See Me Again", "C-Jag", "Nightmare", and Phantom Lady. Like Woolrich, his protagonist is inveigled into a frame up while drunk. His fiancee then tries to track down the real killer, after the framed man is tried and sent to prison. A sympathetic, tough and realistic policeman is drawn into the case and helps out. They get involved in some genuine and well done detective work, tracking down the real killers. All of this is pleasantly reminiscent of Woolrich. Even the actual detection in the story reminds one of Woolrich's style.
"A Cat Walks" (1942) is a suspense tale a la Woolrich. As in Woolrich, we have "ordinary" people, who gradually get caught up in a dangerous situation, after stumbling onto a crime scheme. They serve as amateur detectives.
"Fugitive Imposter" (1941) also has an "ordinary" protagonist thrust into a suspense situation - here in danger from gangsters, a Woolrich standard. The story builds up to a twist ending, which recalls inverted stories in which a crook's "perfect" crime is inadvertantly tripped up by a mistake. Here, however, it is the "ordinary" hero who cleverly creates the "mistake".
A non-Smith impossible crime story that is also charming and light hearted is "The Djinn Murder" (1943), my other favorite so far among Brown's work.
Among Brown's lesser impossible crime tales, "The Spherical Ghoul" (1943) has too much horror in its plot, but it does show some originality in its way out impossible crime ideas. This story is much closer to the Weird Menace tradition of the pulps than are the Mr. Smith stories. "The Laughing Butcher" (1948) has a clever impossible crime scheme, but isn't much as a work of fiction. Apart from his impossible crime ideas, most of Brown's detective fiction seems pretty labored and uninspired.
Brown's story "Madman's Holiday" (1943) was filmed as The Crack-Up (1946). This movie is one of Hollywood's few excursions into the world of impossible crime. Art expert Pat O'Brien stumbles into a museum with a wild and on the face of it, improbable story; eventually he finds out how it all actually happened. The story is more "borderline impossible" than a classical impossible tale; it involves more unraveling the surreal and bizarre than a John Dickson Carr type impossibility. There is terrific cinematography by Robert De Grasse.
"Madman's Holiday" is one of several borderline impossible crime tales Brown wrote about strange "hallucinations". In these tales, characters see and/or hear things that are impossible, apparently supernatural, or absurd. Eventually, Brown provides a full rational explanation. These stories include the first Mr. Smith tale, "The Incredible Bomber" (1942), and "A Date to Die" (1942).
The inventive "A Date to Die" also has another impossible crime subplot, involving one of Brown's ingenious alibi ideas. Similar alibi concepts would later be used in the crime film 711 Ocean Drive (Joseph M. Newman, 1950).
A later whodunit "Witness in the Dark" (1953) is more successful in its mystery plotting. It takes place, not among intellectuals, but among a group of middle class auditors, accountants and bookkeepers. The story has some nice Scientific Detection elements, more in the crime itself, than in techniques used to solve the case.
"Before She Kills" (1961) is one of two short stories Brown wrote about his series private eyes, Ed and Am Hunter, who mainly appeared in novels. The other short, "The Missing Actor" (1963), completely lacks any sparkle. It moves towards a surprise solution, that had already appeared in G. K. Chesterton's "The Worst Crime in the World", where it wasn't all that brilliant, either! "The Missing Actor" is of mild sociological interest, showing Brown dealing with the Beat scene of the era, including some interracial romance.
The first half is an account of the mugging-murder of Ed Hunter's father. The account is certainly "realistic", as numerous critics have pointed out. But there is nothing revelatory or informative about it. If you asked your unimaginative cousin Joe to write a novel about what a routine mugging might be like, he'd produce something like The Fabulous Clipjoint. I don't see why this is interesting, or why we should admire it, just because it is "realistic".
The Fabulous Clipjoint goes on to be despairing about the possibilities of life. It produces a negative account of the careers, emotions, behavior and ultimate fate of its characters. This makes for extremely depressing reading. Brown would later write a novella, "Murder Set to Music" (1957), which would offer a similar negative depiction of the limitations of working class life, and people's worthless, nasty and sometimes downright vicious negative response to its problems.
Even in 1947, working class Americans had more options than what seem to be available to the characters in The Fabulous Clipjoint. Their problems are made much worse by their alcoholism: something which drains their financial resources, and limits their chances to cope. Brown is frank and clear about how negative their drinking is. But The Fabulous Clipjoint also confuses the limited options open to drinkers, with an account of the alleged limitations of life itself.
The Fabulous Clipjoint is at its best in an episode, in which Ed and Am go after a crooked barkeeper (Chapters 6-7). This is probably based on a similar incident in Woolrich's Phantom Lady (1942), in which the heroine stalks a witness. The episode adds a little hard-boiled fun, to what is otherwise an exceptionally dreary novel.
For the historical record, while channel surfing I also stumbled across the finale of an hour long TV adaptation of Knock Three-One-Two (1959), done on the TV drama anthology Thriller in 1960. About all I can remember is that the psycho killer was a handsome young man in a black leather jacket. The filmmakers seem to have glamorized him as much as possible.
Walsh's career began in pulp magazines, such as Black Mask, in the early 1930's, and progressed to the slicks, in the later 1930's. He also worked as a newspaper reporter. He turned to novels in 1949, and also published late short stories in EQMM. Much of Walsh's short story material is hard to find today.
Bibliography on Thomas Walsh:
"Best Man" (1934) has been much reprinted in anthologies, likely because it has that tough Black Mask atmosphere. It also has some decent descriptions of settings. Unfortunately, "Best Man" suffers from stereotyped depictions of minorities, including a disabled villain and a Swedish boatman. Not recommended.
"The Night Calhoun Was Off Duty" (1938) takes the opposite approach to "Best Man". It includes a young intern who is clearly a member of the USA's upper class elite (he even has blond hair), and shows his prejudice against both the lower classes and ethnic Irish and Italians. Then it proceeds to show the very dark side of his attitudes, excoriating the character and his beliefs. It is a disturbing tale, and upsetting to read. But it does make its point.
"The Night Calhoun Was Off Duty" has suspense, police and crime elements, but no mystery.
"Danger in the Shadows" (1941) is sensitive and emotionally involving. Walsh's use of the male in jeopardy and the female who tracks him down here is unusual, although it has analogues in the Woolrich series of female protagonist stories that began with "Face Work" (1937). Woolrich's women are usually trying to free an unjustly convicted relative, however, whereas here the husband is in actual physical danger.
"Sentence of Death" (1948) has both a mystery plot, and plenty of suspense and drama. It is one of Walsh's best-constructed stories.
Such genuine detective stories by Walsh as "Sentence of Death" and "The Stillness at 3:25" make it look as if one person is guilty, with strong evidence pointing to their culpability. Then the ending reveals the truth to be very different. The stories underscore the difference between apparent truth and reality - a lesson applicable to wide range of real life situations. They urge us to investigate further, and not settle for "obvious" but wrong ideas.
The least interesting part of "Sentence of Death" is the discussion of what other writers call "providence". The characters debate if there is some force in the universe looking out for and protecting the innocent. Walsh's ideas seem superficial and sentimental.
"Lady Cop" (1959) shows a policewoman. But it is not quite what one might expect. Today we would likely see one of the policewoman's investigations. "Lady Cop" instead features the personal life of the heroine. Another aspect that takes adjustment: the sexual repression shown by young adults. This is believable for 1959 - but today it seems almost science fictional.
"Lady Cop" does have a well-constructed mystery plot. SPOILER: Walsh's theme of framing innocent suspects plays a role in the mystery puzzle. There are two separate frame-ups in "Lady Cop", both of the same person, that interact with each other.
"Dangerous Bluff" (1960) has characters which fall into Walsh's familiar categories of tough male cop and gutsy woman civilian. Both are typically Everyman-like, ordinary people. However, it shows his lighter side, in a tale with as much romance and even comedy as crime. Like "Lady Cop", "Dangerous Bluff" is set among Irish-Americans in Manhattan, working class, respectable, in their 20's, and just starting out on modest careers. These young people are adult and mature in the way they handle their jobs, but are finding it difficult to get started at getting engaged or married. Like the couple in "Lady Cop", the hero of "Dangerous Bluff" causes trouble by not being good at romance in a way that impresses women.
"Dangerous Bluff" lacks a mystery or puzzle plot. Its initial crime premise is mainly an excuse to get its male cop and heroine together. This crime premise is actually an old one: it had been used as a mystery puzzle plot in Frederick Nebel's "Ghost of a Chance" (1935), for example. "Dangerous Bluff" was reprinted in Brett Halliday's anthology Best Detective Stories Of The Year 16th Annual Collection (1961).
"The Stillness at 3:25" (1979) is a genuine detective story, complete with a puzzle plot. Like many of Walsh's laterworks, it centers on police heroes, here, a retired cop. EQMM liked to publish tales about older people who battle crooks, and Walsh's story is one of the more plausible such works in the magazine.
"A Hell of a Cop" (1979) is a detective story - its police detective hero works to solve a mysterious murder - but it is hardly a fair play, puzzle plot mystery story.
Nightmare in Manhattan is set in a fictionalized version of Grand Central Station. There are hints that the office building in "Best Man" is over or near the Station.
"The Stillness at 3:25" takes place in a resort area in upstate New York, a type of locale Walsh sometimes employed. "Best Man" takes place in a deserted resort island in the winter in Long Island Sound. This "Gibson Island" setting of "Best Man" seems to be fictitious.
"The Night Calhoun Was Off Duty" has a somewhat similar structure as "Best Man":
I didn't like Union Station, the film version of Nightmare in Manhattan.
Steve Lewis reviewed several Bruno Fischer books at Mystery*File:
"I'll Slay You in My Dreams" also offers a variation on private eye novels like Raymond Chandler's Farewell, My Lovely (1940), in which the private eye is lured into a routine seeming case, that turns out to be full of hidden pitfalls and surprises. In "I'll Slay You in My Dreams", the hero is an ordinary guy, not a private eye, but the effect is otherwise the same.
Fischer unravels the mystifying situation in layers. Several of the layers of revelation seem to make the situation even more baffling. This is the kind of mystery, in which the hero, and the reader, are presented with a situation that just does not seem to make sense. The puzzle is first, to come up with some back-story that will make the events a rational narrative. Second, it is to find out who is behind these events.
"I'll Slay You in My Dreams" has a fair play solution to the problem of whodunit, with two clues pointing to the guilty party. One clue involves the "flow of information": a type of clue that will return in The Angels Fell.
Bewildering, hard-to-explain-logically events sometimes show up in Ellery Queen tales, such as "The Seven Black Cats" (1934). Queen often mixes in surrealistic imagery, although Fischer's work uses this less. Fischer does compare the events to a dream.
"I'll Slay You in My Dreams" shares a kind of mini-mystery with such pulp short stories as T. T. Flynn's "The Letters and the Law" (1936) and Roland Phillips "Death Lies Waiting". In all of these, the hero finds himself in a mysterious new locale, after awakening after losing consciousness.
"I'll Slay You in My Dreams" is reprinted in Robert E. Weinberg, Stefan Dziemianowicz and Martin H. Greenberg's anthology Hard-Boiled Detectives (1992).
"My Aunt Celia" (1946) shows some nice plotting and light hearted characterizations.
The way the wife in Quoth the Raven has Big Secrets, and lies about them to everybody, including her husband, recalls a bit Mary Roberts Rinehart and her Had I But Known followers. The wife is a two-bit spouse of a Queens, NY grocer, not a society woman like Rinehart's characters. But she has something of their arrogance and sense of entitlement, that it is perfectly OK for a woman to lie if her personal life can be benefitted. These women feel they are a law to themselves, and have no civic duty to speak up during a crime investigation. To be fair, there is also a sense that women are powerless in society, and that such lying and concealment of truth is one of their few weapons.
Quoth the Raven has a left-wing sensibility. There is much about how rotten the rich are, and how badly they treat working people (Chapters 1, 5, 8). The hero explicitly declares himself an anarchist, rather than a socialist (Chapter 8), something fairly unusual in detective fiction. He expresses his hatred of "bosses", whether the rich, or "the state". The hero runs and owns a small business (a grocery store), so he can avoid being bossed by others.
The Angels Fell is no masterpiece. One would give it a "B" as a grade. But it does have some surprising virtues. For one thing, embedded in all this tough melodrama is a genuine detective story. When the killer is revealed towards the end of the story, there are no less than four genuine clues to the killer's identity. All of which I missed when reading the story - fairly fooled by the author. Not only is the case solidly clued, but the choice of killer and the clues to the killer's involvement all complete the story, making the plot of the book make more sense. So this is a logically constructed detective novel. Although embedded in a tough melodrama about civic corruption, not a Golden Age style murder at a country house. Some of the clues involve the flow of knowledge, a type of plot one associates with Ellery Queen.
The subplot about the briefcase also leads to a fair play finale. It is part of a long detective tradition about searches for objects, a kind of story which is more often written by Golden Age style detective writers like Ellery Queen and Stuart Palmer.
Much of the novel takes place at the hero's apartment. This building shows the Golden Age interest in architecture - also a bit atypical of this sort of tough private eye tale. The connection in a basement coal cellar recalls Chapter 6 of Cornell Woolrich's The Black Curtain (1941). The body-in-a-basement-apartment recalls The Frightened Stiff (1942) by Kelly Roos.
In the second half, Fischer's series detective private eye Ben Helm shows up. He is hardly the protagonist of the novel, weaving in and out of the tale.
A later Armstrong story with a teenager as detective is "The Cool Ones" (1967). This story, like the earlier "The Ring in the Fish", centers on codes and ciphers.
"The Enemy" (1951) reminds me a little bit of Ellery Queen's "The Gettysburg Bugle" (1951). Both have a tragic tone, a public setting involving many townspeople, deal with poisoning, and have somewhat similar characters in the two daughters of the respective tales.
Earlier than most of these McCarthyism stories are such works about lynching as Cornell Woolrich's "I'll Take You Home Kathleen" (1940) and "One Night in Barcelona" (1947), MacKinlay Kantor's "That Greek Dog" (1941), William Faulkner's Intruder in the Dust (1948), and movies including Fritz Lang's Fury (1936), William Wellman's The Ox-Bow Incident (1943), Clarence Brown's film version of Intruder in the Dust (1949), and Joseph Losey's The Lawless (1950). These works have much in common with the later McCarthyism stories, in their depiction of mob violence and the collapse of reason in searching for the real killer once the mob has settled on its victim. But they are not political allegories, in which the plot is a veiled portrait of some other topic. Instead, they are about their surface subject: lynching. The pre -1945 tales have white men as their victims, but after this date, their creators gather up their courage and show racial minorities as the victims, as was common in real life. These works seem to have an ancestral relationship to the 1950's McCarthy political tales. Armstrong's "The Enemy" can also be seen as being in this tradition; indeed, when EQ published it he added an afterword suggesting the story was about racial and religious tolerance. A mainstream tale, Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery" (1948), is also relevant here; its meanings are obscure and much debated, but it is clearly related to both the lynching stories and the McCarthy tales of mob rule. Allan Dwan's The Woman They Almost Lynched (1953) is a film that is less political than many of the above works; it probably served as a model for Nicholas Ray's Johnny Guitar (1954), which was made by the same studio one year later. One might also examine the remarkable film, The Phenix City Story (Phil Karlson, 1955), which does not fit easily into any of the categories we have been discussing.
Parallel to the McCarthy works is a film Western tradition, which includes Fred Zinneman's High Noon (1952), Alan Dwan's Silver Lode (1954), Joseph H. Lewis' A Lawless Street (1955), and Howard Hawks' Rio Bravo (1959). Like the McCarthy tales, these works were political allegories. But they were not specifically about McCarthyism; instead, they were constructed more as general purpose civics lessons. They tended to focus on the rights and responsibilities of individuals to the community. We know from interviews with Hawks that Rio Bravo was explicitly constructed as a response and reply to High Noon, and the Dwan and Lewis films also seem like films that build on that earlier, much discussed work.
Political allegory was by no means confined to America - France had Camus' The Plague (1947), Anouilh's "Antigone" (1944), and Ionesco's "Rhinoceros" (1959), but most of these works do not involve mob rule in the American style.
Mystery*File has articles on Day Keene, and a bibliography by Steve Lewis.
"Remember the Night" (1949) is a borderline impossible crime tale - not in the sense a locked room or other physical but seemingly impossible crime takes place in it, but in that its protagonist is a carnival mind reader with apparent psychic powers. Off trail impossible crime tales were regularly written by both Cornell Woolrich and Fredric Brown. Its title was used for a 1940 film written by Preston Sturges, but it was probably freshly dreamed up again by Keene. "Night" has a great deal of sociological detail about the 1940's. It also has vivid characters and an emotionally involving plot. Keene's work has the concern for public corruption found in hard-boiled fiction of the era, but fortunately is lacking in the swaggering machismo and cynical alienation that often afflicts the protagonists of that genre.
Keene's "The Bloody Tide" (1950) is a very late Dime Detective story, that continues the hard-boiled tradition. The story is rich in Florida atmosphere, somewhat reminiscent of Lester Dent's Oscar Sail stories (1936). Its plot has a fair number of unexpected events along the way. This is a Keene tradition: the use of several superimposed mystery plots in one tale. There is a crime in the past, a crime in the present, an on-going illegal activity, and more crimes discovered by the hero at the end of the tale. No one could say that Keene short-changed his readers, when it came to sheer volume of plotting. Unfortunately, the solution to the mystery seems obvious.
The hero is married, and there is a post war emphasis on marriage and settling down with a family in the suburbs that seems extremely 1950ish. Like the also married hero of "Remember the Night" (1948), the protagonist here is a returning veteran. The hero is also pitted against the police in this tale, who are considerably more honest than those in "Remember the Night". Both stories teach the hero numerous moral lessons along the way, and look at a basically decent man who has stumbled into a life a crime, and who is trying to reform.
Wake Up to Murder features a traditional, pleasant mystery story construction, in which we keep learning more and more about a mysterious situation as the story progresses. Keene keeps coming up with unexpected relationships between his characters. These and the many unexpected story twists show ingenuity.
Gold Coast Nocturne was published in paperback as Dead on the Level, probably to make clear that it is a murder mystery. I could not see any signs in the paperback edition of it of Nielsen's series sleuth, lawyer Simon Drake, despite what some reference books say.
Gold Coast Nocturne has far fewer suspense passages than a typical Woolrich story, and is much less noir in feel. Instead, it emphasizes Nielsen's flood of brightly colored storytelling. She is always unrolling either the plot, or detective work, and this is all to the good. The opening (Chapters 1-5) is especially rich in invention. Nielsen also includes some good detective work and plotting in the middle of the story, especially in the Carter Groot subplot. Unfortunately, the last third of the tale (Chapters 15-20) is the weakest part of the novel. Nielsen includes one too many twists here, and risks the consistent portrayal of her characters. The solution also lacks puzzle plot brilliance, although it is solid and competent.
Commentary on William O'Farrell:
It is compactly written and full of plot. While there is mystery and danger, many of the events are fairly light-hearted and escapist.
The protagonist is a likable high school senior. His depiction follows a long tradition in popular culture, of "Teenage males who are awkward but sympathetic getting involved in comic misadventures". See such characters as Andy Hardy, Henry Aldrich, and the comic book tales of Superman's pal Jimmy Olsen.
The tale shows the interest in landscape and architecture, often found in traditional mystery fiction.
Kirch's plotting style here does not include mysteries or puzzle plots, but the story is unusually plot oriented for a suspense tale, and it has the feel more of a mystery tale than of a suspense work. Kirch is always posing the question: how are his characters going to cope with or evade the mob? The answers to this question give the feeling of a riddle or a puzzle being answered.
Comic books published thousands of text pieces over the decades, usually as fillers. Some were non-fiction, others like this one, were miniature little stories. They mainly appeared because US Post office regulations required text for a periodical to be regarded as a "magazine", and hence eligible for special mailing privileges. The most famous writer today of comic book text stories is Mickey Spillane, some of whose pieces were collected as Primal Spillane (2003).
I have been unable to find any other pieces by Zenith Gray, either in comic books or pulp magazines. Comic books frequently published stories under house pseudonyms, so this tale might be the work of a better known writer.