"Lie Down, Killer" by Richard S. Prather (Lion Books, 1952)

Richard S. Prather is virtually synonymous with his fictional creation Shell Scott. Of his forty-three novels published, only three did not feature Scott. (According to this interview, Pattern for Murder and Dagger of Flesh were originally written as Shell Scott novels, but publishers insisted that Prather change the lead characters’ names; subsequently, they were reprinted with Shell’s name.) The three non-Shell titles were The Peddler (recently reprinted by Hard Case Crime), Dragnet: Case No. 561 (a novelization of the TV show), and Lie Down, Killer.

Originally published as Lion Books (#85) in 1952, Lie Down, Killer will come as a pleasant surprise to Prather fans: whereas the Shell Scott novels are distinguished by their playful plots and hyperactive humor, Lie Down, Killer shows that Prather isn’t always joking around. A thriller of the “wrong man” variety, the story begins as Steve Bennett, a sporting goods shop owner, walks into a diner for an early morning breakfast—little does he realize it may be his last. Two cops pick him up and accuse him of murdering his business partner, and to makes matters worse, the woman he spent last night with refuses to be his alibi. Locked behind bars and with no one to listen to him, Steve realizes his only choice is to escape and prove himself innocent. So when he sees the chance to break loose, he takes it…

Though it isn’t as instantly recognizable or singular as Prather’s Shell Scott books, Lie Down, Killer is nonetheless a gripping and entertaining read. Not necessarily innovative or groundbreaking in anyway – and certainly predictable (when your childhood sweetheart shows up in a crooked casino and makes all your fantasies come true, expect that she’s going to double-cross you or stab you in the back at some point). And while it may be short on surprises, there’s plenty of Prather’s skilled craftsmanship. The plot moves quickly, the fights are vivid, the “romantic” bits less than subtle, and there are enough clever and eloquent turns of phrases that we remember how capable a writer Prather is. Here are a few of my favorite lines:

“Steve sighed, remembering how quickly Maggie had been transformed from a laughing tomboy into a stranger, to a creature different from him, to a woman who could be loved with all of a gawky kid’s first passion.”

“Even while longing and animal desire grew in him, Steve felt unbidden worry and perplexity darting in his brain. Somewhere, scuttling in the depths of his mind, something dark and ugly was swelling, jabbing at his consciousness.”

“Vague fears, or even solid logic, were poor weapons against the beauty of a desirable woman.”

“From time to time he heard the ugly shriek of sirens, the anguished scream like a kitten in a dog’s mouth.”

Note: I have both the original Lion release, as well as the 1961 reprint by Gold Medal (#s1166). And I’m quite glad to own both copies, as they each feature wonderful cover art. I’m especially fond of the Lion edition because it was actually signed by Prather. The previous owner didn’t care too well for the book – the spine is monstrously slanted, so much that I didn’t dare read the copy. Which is why I purchased the Gold Medal edition, which has a rather unique geometric design. I liked both versions so much that I decided to scan and upload both of them. Enjoy!

Also: Comprehensive bibliographies can be found online at Crime and Mystery Fiction and Thriller Detective.

"13 French Street" by Gil Brewer (Gold Medal, 1951)

I had heard brief mentions of Gil Brewer here and there for quite some time, but it was Bill Pronzini who compelled me to drop my life and track down some of his books.

"You want to know what the life of a working mystery writer is really like? Gil Brewer could tell you. He could tell you about the taste of success and fame that never quite becomes a meal; the shattered dreams and lost hopes, the loneliness, the rejections and failures and empty promises, the lies and deceit, the bitterness, the self-doubts, the dry spells and dried-up markets, the constant and painful grubbing for enough money to make ends meet. He could tell you about all of that, and much more. He would, too, if he were still alive. But he isn’t."

You can read the full essay online over at Mystery*File (it originally appeared in Mystery Scene Magazine, and later in Carroll and Graf’s The Big Book of Noir). It’s a compelling portrait of a writer whose brief rise and heavy fall is a bleak and anguished as any of the characters in his books.

It was with this preconception that I picked up his early success 13 French Street, originally published by Gold Medal in 1951. My edition is the fourth printing from 1954 (Gold Medal #418) with cover art by Dom Lupo. I was immediately struck by the foreboding poetry of Brewer’s language, and the sense of impending regret that lingers anxiously over each of the narrator’s actions. And then, at the bottom of the first page, came this line:

“Yes. Already I sensed the beginnings of panic. The first hint of futility and hopeless outrage.”

The story has hardly started, yet defeat has already set in. We’re not dealing with a noble detective, or even a sleazy philandering P.I. No—Brewer presents us with a regular guy, someone like your or I, whose soul can only stand so much, and whose resistance – even to his own desires – sometimes falters. And other times it just fails.

Alex Bland – the perfect name for an “everyman” – takes leave of his museum work and girlfriend, Madge, to visit an old army buddy, Verne Lawrence. Only it wasn’t Verne who implored him to make the trip—it was Verne’s wife, Petra. Walking through the doors, he finds a doddering old mother; a best friend on the brink of financial, psychological, and physical collapse; and a designing wife who longs for something –and someone - more. Most horrifying of all, however, is the possibility that Alex himself may have been complicit in the whole affair.

Structurally, the novel is very bare bones – the action is mostly confined to the house, very few “major” incidents, and the drama kept to a realistic minimum, with many of the scenes resembling passive-aggressive domestic gatherings that end with softly-slammed doors and drowned in drink-after-drink. Rather, the novel is fueled by Alex’s own inner struggle – at first to resist Petra’s advances, but then his inability to restrain his own. There’s no doubt that Petra is a corrupting influence, however Brewer doesn’t paint any easily black-and-white picture of Alex. There’s more than enough suggestion that Alex, himself, was already harboring a dark soul, and that it just took the right moment for this part of him to manifest itself. And even at the book’s conclusion, when readers would expect the reign of terror to be over, and for Alex to return to his “regular” life, Brewer refuses to allow for Alex’s soul to be cleansed. He got his hands dirty, and they’re going to stay that way.

And as for Brewer’s prose? It would be an understatement to say that he has a way with words. But it’s absolutely true – I was entranced by the desolation of his phrases, and found myself taking down more “favorite lines” than from any other book in quite some time. Below are but a handful of them.

“So here I was. And already I wanted to run. I wanted to get away. It was all wrong.”

“The hills were savage with color in the failing twilight. Almost as I watched, night began to creep along the sky, tugging a black blanket in its teeth. The wind began to die. It was very still out there, almost as if the evening were holding its breath.”

“I should have struck her and run. Because the fuse was lit now—the long hot fuse that would blow me to hell.”

“I stared down at the rug’s thick nap. It snuggled against the baseboard of all four walls, a heady, unbelievable auburn glinting in errant light like the coat of a freshly slain animal.”

“I was drawn into the room as I was being drawn to Petra. It was like standing in a vacuum that had become feverish, the airless air writhing against itself in a kind of savage, futile bewilderment, like two newly awakened lovers in the dark.”

“She headed for the kitchen. I went into Verne’s study and drank from the whiskey decanter. I choked the stuff down. But it didn’t help. It didn’t stop my heart from whacking in there and it didn’t stop that sense of being stifled, of being wound tighter and tighter and tighter.”

For more info on Gil Brewer, read a reflection by his wife, Verlaine, here. You can also read an excerpt from Brewer’s The Vengeful Virgin over at Hard Case Crime.

Stories for Sunday: Paul D. Brazill, Gary Dobbs, and Keith Rawson

It’s the end of “one of those weeks,” so I decided that this week’s edition of Stories for Sunday needs to be extra strong. A single shot wouldn’t do, nor would a double. So here it is – a triple shot of noir, three glasses of bleak poetry and macabre humor from three stellar writers: Paul D. Brazill, Gary Dobbs, and Keith Rawson. They’ve all been encouraging supporters of Pulp Serenade from the start, and they truly make the blog world seem like a real community. It’s always a pleasure reading their blog updates and their latest stories.

Line up the shots and get ready. Here are the stories.

1) “Loose Ends” by Gary Dobbs (A Twist of Noir #050). Frankie just stepped into the bar to drown his sorrows in a few (or maybe more than a few) drinks. He didn’t plan on witnessing a murder – or on recognizing one of the hitmen. This story represents the quintessential noir universe: merciless, coldly brutal, and not without an ironic sense of humor that always puts you behind the eight-ball. And none of this is lost on our antihero: reflecting on a fellow bar patron, Frankie thinks to himself, “No doubt he has a story just as I have a story but no one gives a fuck.”

2) “Pervert #16” by Keith Rawson (Powder Burn Flash #159). Talk about the world having a cruel sense of humor…the two teens at the center of Rawson’s story take others’ weaknesses and exploit them to their full advantage. They lure in lurking lechers and give them a surprise they’ll never forget. Rawson’s characters are scarily vibrant, their actions uncomfortably realistic – it’s a marvelously well-crafted story, one that is sure to disturb and fascinate at the same time.

3) “Swamplands” by Paul D. Brazill (Flashshots). Brazill’s flashfiction recalls the dark, twisted humor of Fredric Brown. In only 99 words, Brazill’s deft but evocative prose conjures up a noir nightmare in which the character’s past (literally) won’t let go of him. With the first line we are knocked straight into the noir paradigm: “Elvis awoke in a cold, dank sweat, hungover from bourbon and bad dreams.” Of course, in the world of noir, waking-up is no guarantee the nightmare will end. This is something Elvis must learn the hard way.

Be sure to check back with these authors often. I’m looking forward to reading many more of their stories. And in the case of Gary Dobbs, his first novel is set to come out this summer – The Tarnished Star under his penname of Jack Martin. Click here to order the book.

"Murder Plus" by Marc Gerald (Pharos Books, 1992)

A fortuitous find on the sale rack at Argosy here in New York – Marc Gerald’s vintage true crime anthology Murder Plus (Pharos Books, 1992). I had been wondering if any of my favorite crime writers had ever done non-fiction writing (or at least, writing not necessarily categorized as “fiction”), and low-and-behold I stumbled upon this collection. Craig Rice, Harry Whittington, Jim Thompson, Robert Bloch, Day Keene, to name just a few—it seemed too good to be true. Having just finished the book this evening, it certainly is true, and Gerald’s selection certainly doesn’t disappoint. Murderesses of every variety (from paranoid mothers to double-time wives to outright loonies), scheming businessmen, movie directors with shady pasts, and war heroes that don’t live up to their reputation are just a sampling of the captivating criminal element housed within Murder Plus.

In addition to a fine selection of stories from the likes of True Detective, Master Detective, Underworld Detective (there’s a trend developing….), and others, Gerald also provides an insightful introductory essay that outlines the rise and fall of true crime pulp publications. A one-time editor of True Detective, Gerald’s investment in the magazine began in his childhood, when his parents and teachers expressed outward concern for his avid interest to such a lurid publication. He not only has the behind-the-scenes know-how, but also a sincere passion for the genre. And even while he is chronicling their demise as the magazine went further towards the back of the shelf (with the content taking a similar direction), he is able to convey their place in history, and the enthusiasm that readers felt during the heyday of true crime pulp.

“From the get-go, [True Detective] ran stories about real kidnappings, bank scams, forgeries, art thefts, cons, and swindles; but its specialty was always murder, and no matter where you lived, it was always too close to home. You could be one of humanity’s rejects or beneficiaries—a ritzy socialite, a bored housewife, a bell boy, a bartender, a truck driver, a farmer, a gambler, or a bum—and still be a killer and still be killed.”

Here’s a full list of authors included: Robert Bloch, Charles Burgess, D.L. Champion, Harlan Ellison, Robert Faherty, Bruno Fischer, Leslie Ford, Erle Stanley Gardner, Brett Halliday, Dashiell Hammett, Nunnally Johnson, Day Keene, Elizabeth Lipsky, Stuart Palmer, Patrick Quentin, Craig Rice, Jim Thompson, Lawrence Treat, S.S. Van Dine, Lionel White, Harry Whittington.

There’s quite a bit of variety to the stories included. Some are rendered in first-person while others use third-person narrators, and some take the perspective of investigators whereas ssome use obviously invented “characters” (Hammett’s references The Continental Op, and Van Dine’s has Philo Vance tell the story). And even though the bad guy/girl is always caught in the end (apparently an editorial rule), the sympathy is not always on the side of justice. In some of the best stories we are wholly invested into the crime, such as Harry Whittington’s standout “Invaders from the Sky” about an ambitious bank heist involving several stolen airplanes and a hijacked police cruiser.

While I much enjoyed reading some of my old favorites, I also discovered two writers who I had never read before who really piqued my interest: Lionel White (whose novel Clean Slate was filmed by Stanley Kubrick as The Killing) and Bruno Fischer. I will certainly be tracking down some of their books in the near future.

With prose ranging from the coldly realistic to the evocatively poetic to the darkly comical, the stories are all distinct and fun to read. Here are a few of my favorite quotes:

“And yet, he lived. And women died.” –Robert Bloch, “The Shambles of Ed Gein”

“The women came and went like the autumn breezes, an endless stream of easy-virtue gals, marching in and out of Fast-Bucks Lucks’ fabulous George V suite.” – Harlan Ellison, “Mystery Man Lucks and His Missing Bucks”

“Even by the waning light of the March afternoon, she could see deadly, crimson stains that crept from beneath the girl’s dark, disheveled hair. One arm dangled loosely over the side of the bed. The fixed eyes stared in a look of astonishment. Her mouth was half-open as if death had stopped a scream.” –Leslie Ford, “”The Star-Faced Fugitive and the Murdered Maid”

“Judge Stephen—with a certain rather lunatic satisfaction, perhaps?—donned the black cap and pronounced that Florence Maybrick should be hanged by the neck until she was dead. A short time later he was himself pronounced insane.” –Patrick Quentin, “The Last of Mrs. Maybrick”

“The printed transcript of any evidence makes the scene of a crime seem like a rather calm and quiet place.” –Craig Rice, “Murder in Chicago”

“On the twenty-third of July, 1908, her scheming blond head fell under the executioner’s knife. (The executioner it seems was partial to blondes.)” –S.S. Van Dine, “Germany’s Mistress of Crime”

Movies for Monday: "Japanese Girls at the Harbor" (1933)

This week’s selection for Movies for Monday is an exciting new discovery: Hiroshi Shimizu’s Japanese Girls at the Harbor (1933). Never before released in America, it is having its DVD debut tomorrow as part of the Eclipse box-set Travels with Hiroshi Shimizu. Unlike his contemporaries Yasujiro Ozu and Kenji Mizoguchi, Shimizu has had almost no exposure here in America, which makes this DVD release all the more exciting.

Japanese Girls at the Harbor tells the story of Sunako, a high school girl whose boyfriend, Henry, has taken up with another woman. In a moment of uncontrollable jealousy, Sunako shoots the other woman and flees to another town where she becomes a prostitute. But life goes on: Sunako lives with an unemployed painter, and Henry is involved with an old friend of Sunako’s. Though separated, neither has forgotten the other – but how will they feel if they were ever to meet, and how would it affect their lives?

The influence of American gangster films (particularly Josef von Sternberg’s silent classic The Docks of New York) is evident in the iconic use of dark shadows, and filming through bars and lattices to evoke the feeling of being trapped. Yet the film hardly feels like a facsimile of the noir style: the lyrical beauty of the exterior scenes shot on-location bear no resemblance to the studio-set films from Hollywood. And for all the melodramatic potential in the plot, the movie is more poetic than action-packed, with Shimizu paying more attention to daily minutiae and environment.

Eclipse’s restored DVD is stunning and really captures the beauty of Shimizu’s compositions. Here are a few of my favorite scenes.

For more info:

Eclipse’s page on the Travels with Hiroshi Shimizu box-set

Strictly Film School’s review of Japanese Girls at the Harbor

Chris Fujiwara’s essay on Shimizu (FIPRESCI)

"Hiroshi Shimizu - Silent Master of the Japanese Ethos" by William M. Drew (Midnight Eye)

“Hiroshi Shimizu: A Hero of His Time” by Alexander Jacoby (Senses of Cinema)

Stories for Sunday: "The Man Who Wasn't There" by D.L. Champion (G-Men Detective, Winter 1950)

Today's selection for Stories for Sunday is by an author who is still quite new to me: D.L. Champion. I first read about him in Marc Gerald's true crime anthology Murder Plus and was intrigued by Gerald's description of him:

"D.L. Champion contributed some of the most offbeat private-eye stories ever published in Black Mask and Dime Detective. His characters included a midget investigator; a hard-nosed, legless ex-cop; a gaudily dressed Mexican PI; and 'the unchallenged world's champion penny pincher.'"

Who could resist such temptation? Certainly not me. So, in my pursuit to learn more about Champion, I discovered he also published under the name Jack D'Arcy, and was one many writers who penned The Phantom Detective under the house-name Robert Wallace. The FictionMags Index has a comprehensive bibliography of Champion and D'Arcy.

While I have come across any of the bizarre characters that Gerald referred to, I did stumble upon this clever short story by Champion called "The Man Who Wasn't There," originally published in G-Men Detective (Winter 1950). It is about a man with considerable gambling debts who decides he can't wait for a wealthy relative to die of natural causes.

"Maxon thought of murder. Naturally, he had thought of it before. He had no qualms about snuffing out the old man's life, no moral scruples at all. But he had a great many scruples about getting caught."

I am going to keep looking out for more of Champion's work. If anyone else knows anything about him, or has read any of his stories, please let me know in the comments section!

Click here to read D.L. Champion's "The Man Who Wasn't There" courtesy of PulpGen.

Support Independent Bookstores, Win Free Books!

As David Thompson of Busted Flush Press reports on his blog, March is the month to show support for your local independent bookstore - and if you do, be sure to save your receipt. Author Joe Hill wants you to send a copy of your receipt to him, and at the end of the month he is going to draw a name and send that person a free copy of his book Gunpowder.

Good deal, right?

Learn more about the contest by clicking HERE.

"The Red Right Hand" by Joel Townsley Rogers (Simon and Schuster, 1945)

A hallucinatory account of one devilish night on the back roads of New England with a murderous maniac on the loose, Joel Townsley Rogers’ The Red Right Hand (Simon and Schuster, 1945) is the rare psychological thriller that actually disturbs the reader’s equilibrium. All sense of balance and logic is sent on a tailspin that moves further and further off course, never righting itself. Even in its wonderfully and preposterously slapstick finale, The Red Right Hand abides by no rules and leaves you flabbergasted as to how such a fiendish novel could ever be assembled by a sane mind.

Like a perpetual downward spiral, the narrator of The Red Right Hand – one Dr. Henry N. Riddle, Jr. – repeatedly goes over the same gruesome events, as though in search of not only an answer, but proof of his own sanity. Here is how the story begins:

"There is one thing that is most important, in all the dark mystery of tonight, and that is how that ugly little auburn-haired red-eyed man, with his torn ear and his sharp dog-pointed teeth, with his twisted corkscrew legs and his truncated height, and all the other extraordinary details about him, could have got away and vanished so completely from the face of the countryside after killing Inis St. Erme."

If the facts are to be believed, the killer was a hitchhiker picked up by St. Erme and his fiancĂ©, Elinor Darrie. When the hitchhiker attacked the two lovers, St. Erme fought back – and lost. Meanwhile, Ms. Darrie escaped. The hitchhiker stole the car and kidnapped St. Erme. The car was later found along with St. Erme’s corpse…which was missing its right hand. Several other bodies lay dead in the car’s path. But one thing has Dr. Henry N. Riddle, Jr. puzzled – why didn’t he see the car that night? He was on the same road all night, yet he neither saw nor heard any sign of the maniac.

So, the spiral continues, with Riddle returning to the central events over and over again, but always from a slightly different perspective. But the closer to the truth Riddle comes, the farther away he seems. Impossibility is the only possibility, surreality the only reality - unless Riddle himself is the answer to this illogical equation. Could he be the killer?

Joel Townsley Roger’s lucid prose captures Riddle’s own compulsive, psychological instability. Some passages read like Henry Miller-style stream of consciousness, with paragraphs consisting of solely one sentence that go on for more than a page. Other passages consist of short, terse sentences. These fluctuations in style prevent the reader from ever pinning down Riddle – we are never sure whether we are reading the ramblings of a madman or the objective observations of a purely rational mind.

Structurally, The Red Right Hand defies every accepted convention. The narrative is not an “arc” but, instead, a conical wrap-around, like a carousel of horror that switches horses trying to find the perfect viewpoint, but never finding it. The few flashbacks are brief and serve only to contextualize the central murder. Much like Riddle, the author refuses to allow the reader’s mind to wander from this surreal, fiendish plot for even a second.

Often if can be difficult to find information about the personal lives of pulp writers. Thankfully, Rogers’ son, Tom, has compiled an extensive biography and bibliography and published it online. Detailing his background at Harvard, experience during World War I, and his entry into the pulps as an editor, this biography is a blessing to readers and fans of The Red Right Hand. As if that weren’t enough, Ramble House Books has made available many of Rogers’ rarest novels! Thank you, Fender Tucker, for keeping Rogers’ work in readers' hands.

Lovers of language can do no better than to read The Red Right Hand. Rogers’ playful and virtuoso prose is delectably intoxicating.

“One only thinks of something as inhuman which should be human. And perhaps is, in part.”

“It is the thing which I must do now, to the exclusion of all else. There is a killer loose. There is a malignancy to be located and excided. It is a problem in diagnosis, nothing more.”

“Through the open window at my right hand the mingled odor of yellow roses and damp night grass and rich black garden earth comes in. Moths are fluttering against the copper window screen, with soft repeated bumping of their white dusty bodies, their crimson eyes reflecting in the light.”

“Unistaire lay ten feet from me, already partly buried, with his feet upward on the sliding slope, his head down. With a great red gash across where his throat had been, as wide as the mouth of a tiger laughing.”

“The figure of something – animal or human – swung into my headlights on the driveway in front of the porch steps, crouching on all fours among the debris. It wore a leopard skin and a pale purple gown, and had a feather duster fastened to its stern like a rooster’s tail. It leaped up with a rabbit scream and away from in front of my lights as I came around at it, and went rushing up the steps like something in a surrealist’s dream…”

“What you need is to believe with all your soul in phantasms which cannot possibly exist.”

Movies for Monday: Jonathan Latimer's Bill Crane in "The Westland Case" (1937), "The Lady in the Morgue" (1938), and "The Last Warning" (1939)

Between 1937 and 1939, Universal released 11 films as part of their “Crime Club Mysteries” series. Among them were three adaptations of Jonathan Latimer’s Bill Crane novels – The Westland Case (1937) from the novel Headed for a Hearse, The Lady in the Morgue (1938), and The Last Warning (1939) from the novel The Dead Don’t Care. All starred Preston Foster as Bill Crane and Frank Jenks as his partner-in-crime (detection, that is) Doc Williams. Made in the wake of the Production Code which temporarily “sanitized” movie screens across the country, the alcoholic haze and stark amorality of Latimer’s world is drastically reduced in these adaptations. Nevertheless, Foster and Jenks are marvelous as the private eyes that would rather investigate dames than crimes, and who prefer to “chase” their drinks rather than criminals.

The three films vary in quality, with The Lady in the Morgue being the best. Below are selected stills from the films, along with a short summary and review. If anyone else has seen these films, please chime in with your opinions in the comments section!

The Westland Case (1937)
Directed by Christy Cabanne, Screenplay adapted by Robertson White, and Produced by Irving Starr.

A woman is found murdered in her apartment with all the doors locked from the inside, and only two people had a key: one of them is dead, and the other is her husband. Sitting on death row, he takes a hint from a fellow inmate to hire Crane and Williams to prove his innocence.

The weakest of the three films, it condenses Latimer’s movie to a brief 62 minutes by cutting out nearly everything but the plot, which flies by so fast that is difficult to follow coherently. This is problematic, as in Latimer’s novel plot is only of secondary importance – it is Bill Crane and his comic hardboiled personality that is the focus. Foster and Jenks still feel awkward in the roles, as though they’re still getting the feel for Latimer’s characters. Cabanne’s direction is economical without being evocative – in general, the whole film feels noticeably “abridged.”

The Lady in the Morgue (1938)
Directed by Otis Garrett, Screenplay adapted by Eric Taylor and Robertson White, Produced by Irving Starr, and Photographed by Stanley Cortez.

“Maybe swell for you fellows, but what about me! I’m in this thing up to my neck. If I stand still for five minutes Spitzy and Collins start shooting at me. Frankie French is going to kill me on sight. Layman and Storm are on my heels like a couple of bloodhounds, and the District Attorney says I’m practically in the death house right now! Listen brother, client or no client, we dig at nightfall.” –Bill Crane

And just what is Bill Crane digging for this time? The Lady in the Morgue, who was stolen right out from under their noses. One minute she was lying on a slab, and the next minute the coroner was in her place…and just as dead. To add to the mayhem everyone – cops, gangsters, aristocrats and all – think that Crane stole the body.

Foster and Jenks are in full swing in their second outing as the detective duo. Even with the alcohol at a minimum, they fully embody the half-interest-in-detection and full-interest-in-pleasure that characterized Latimer’s novel. And Stanley Cortez’s photography is stunning – he later went on to do The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) for Orson Welles and The Night of the Hunter (1955) for Charles Laughton, and his haunting use of light and shadow is on full display even at this early point of his career.

The Last Warning (1939)
Directed by Albert S. Rogell, Screenplay adapted by Edmund L. Hartmann, and Produced by Irving Starr.

“Look, brother, I’m only a detective. I’m not supposed to know anything.” – Doc Williams

“Ah, but this is the life, though. Butlers, bathing beauties, air conditioned rooms, one continual round of pleasure and social shenanigans.” – Doc Williams

In these two lines, Doc Williams has summed up the Latimer ethos. And in this, their final outing together, Foster and Jenks have epitomized the daze of drink and dames of Latimer’s original novel. In this movie, they’re hired to get to the bottom of a mind-boggling case of blackmail. Notes demanding payment turn up in the screwiest of places – not only in locked rooms next to people’s pillows, but also in their pockets and the palms of their hands! But with all the bathing beauties around, Crane and Williams are too distracted, and before they know it, their employer’s father has been attacked, his sister kidnapped, and the ransom money stolen from plain sight. A comic-mystery delight from start to finish.

"The Rag Tag Girl" by Norbert Davis (The Phantom Detective, May 1936)

Daylight Savings has thrown my schedule off a bit, so I'm off to a late start today. No worries - there's always time for some fast-paced, hardboiled action, and this week's selection for Stories for Sunday delivers just that. It's "The Rag Tag Girl" by Norbert Davis, originally published in The Phantom Detective (May 1936). As the story begins, an ex-Private Eye is paying a visit to his former partner...in jail.

Lunsford glowered at him. "So now you're in jail again!"

"Yes, Karl," Saunders said meekly.

"And for murder! Why do you always have to pick out the worst thing possible? Why couldn't you make it manslaughter or mayhem or something?"

Reluctantly taking the case, Lunsford's investigation leads him from a crooked gambler found dead in a ditch to a missing whippet -- and what story would be complete without a couple of gat wielding hoodlums?

Make up for that lost hour with a quick dose of the hardboiled! Read "The Rag Tag Girl" by Norbert Davis online here (courtesy of PulpGen).

Radio Adaptation of Fredric Brown's "Knock"

Last Sunday I posted a link to a short story by Fredric Brown called "Knock" that was originally published in Thrilling Wonder Stories (December 1948). Since then, I have come across a radio adaptation of the piece for the classic show X Minus One. According to Jerry Haendiges' Vintage Radio Logs, it was the fifth episode for the series and premiered on May 22, 1955. Alexander Scourby plays "the last man on earth," Laurie March plays the last female, and Luis Van Rooten plays the alien race who have conquered earth. According to the site, it seems that Brown himself scripted the adaptation!

Lisen to "Knock" in mp3 format here.


Listen to "Knock" in Real Player format here. (Courtesy of Old Time Radio Network - www.otr.net)

By browsing both sites you will find links to many other episodes of X Minus One (and old time radio shows). If anyone uncovers any gems - or already has some to recommend - please leave a comment! I'm new to vintage radio and very much looking forward to learning more about it.

"The Scarf" by Robert Bloch (Avon, 1947)

Most famous for writing the original novel of Psycho, which Alfred Hitchcock based his movie on, Robert Bloch had a writing career that spanned not only nearly his whole life, but also the 20th century. Born in 1917 in Chicago, IL, Bloch sold his first short story to Weird Tales in 1934 - when he was just seventeen years old! Before his death in 1994, Bloch published twenty-five novels and hundreds of short stories that ranged from horror to mystery to science-fiction, as well many other works for television, radio, movies.

His first novel, The Scarf (Avon #494) was published in 1947. It tells the story of a writer, Daniel Morley, who uses real women as models for his characters. But as soon as he is done writing the story, he is compelled to murder them, and always the same way: with the maroon scarf he has had since childhood. We start in Minneapolis and follow him and his trail of dead bodies to Chicago, New York, and finally Hollywood, where his hit novel is going to be turned into a movie, and where his self-control may have reached its limit.

Bloch uses a first-person narration that puts us not only in the mind of Daniel, but also in his hands as he crafts his stories and wraps the scarf around the necks of his victims. In many ways, it reminded me of Jim Thompson’s psychological noir thrillers such as The Killer Inside Me or Pop. 1280. A key difference is that Bloch is interested in finding the root of the character’s psychology, whereas Thompson doesn’t rationalize psychosis but instead confronts the reader face-to-face with it. Both writers each have their distinct approach, and each of them is disturbing in their own ways. Neither novelist will leave you feeling comfortable and secure – but instead touches something deep and dark within you, that little piece of security that makes you believe that the world will be all right tomorrow. In Bloch and Thompson’s world – nothing is all right tomorrow, and it never will be.

Bloch also seems to have channeled his own frustrations as a writer into The Scarf. Daniel Morley continually doubts his own creative talents, and is particularly pessimistic about the financial and commercial possibilities as a writer. Here is just one such passage, brimming with a young author’s anxieties:

“Did you ever stop to think about this angle? Thousands of guys are beating their brains out every year writing books. Every broken-down hack that ever had a job on a newspaper or in advertising sooner or later gets the idea that he’s going to write The Great American Novel. And hundreds of the damn fools actually do write their books and get them published, every year. How many of those hundreds of novels have you read this year? How many do you think anybody has read? […] You can starve to death in that racket, son. And here’s another encouraging thought: you’ve written one book, but how do you know you can write another? The woods are full of one-book authors…”

Below are a few more of my favorite quotes from the novel:

“Did you ever try to punch a raw oyster? That’s the way it was, fighting with Hazel Hurley.”

“As I turned and ran down the steps, I thought I could hear her scream. But it was only the grinding halt of the train.”

“Her voice gurgled like water in a faucet. I turned it off.”

“I open the notebook and take up the pen, and here I am, playing with words again. Even in crisis and despair, I play with words. Crisis…despair – they’re words, too.”

If you’d like to read more Robert Bloch, head over to Hard Case Crime and sample chapters from Shooting Star and Spiderweb – two other excellent novels worth picking up, and published together in a cool, vintage “back to back” format!

You can also find several interviews with Bloch online, essays about him, and links to his stories, at The Unofficial Robert Bloch Homepage. Petri Liukkonen and Ari Pesonen have also written an informative essay and bibliography.

Six Sentences: "Sisyphus Revisited"

Inspired by the fabulous short stories of Paul D. Brazill, Patti Abbott, David Cranmer, Keith Rawson, and many others, I have finally decided to try to write some of my own. It's been a continual joy to read their fiction which is always fresh and inventive, and since it's been far too long since I've written any of my own, it seemed about the right time to sit down at the keyboard and get back to work.

I am very excited to have my first piece of flash fiction, "Sisyphus Revisited," accepted by Six Sentences. I had a lot of fun writing this one and am hoping to sit down and work on some new stories real soon.

Thanks for reading!

"Craig Rice" (Time Magazine, January 28, 1946)

The first mystery writer to grace the cover of Time Magazine wasn’t Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Agatha Christie, James Cain, or any of the “big” names one typically associates with the genre. The honor goes to Craig Rice, the androgynous pseudonym for a woman of (literally) many names who throughout the 1940s and 1950s entertained readers with her zazy murder mysteries. The article claims that her full name is “Craig Georgiana Anne Randolph Walker Craig,” but William Ruehlmann maintains that it is “Georgiana Ann Randolph Walker Craig Lipton DeMott Bishop,” however Thrilling Detective suggests that it is merely “Georgiana Ann Randolph Craig.” Regardless of what her legal name may have been, Craig Rice was one of the great mystery novelists, and it’s a shame that she is less well known today. Of her 26 novels (and several collections of short stories, on top of that), only one of her novels is currently in print: Home Sweet Homicide, courtesy of The Rue Morgue Press.

Her style is most often described as a blending of “hardboiled” and “screwball,” in the vein of Hammett’s The Thin Man – but that hardly does her unique sensibility justice. She is most famous for her series about the drunken, curmudgeonly lawyer John J. Malone and his equally soused sidekicks Jake Justus and Helene Brand. Together, their adventures are for more surreal than anything Nick and Nora Charles engaged in. Rice’s trio is also arguably far more cynical – they gladly mix with criminals (though in their world, who isn’t a criminal anymore) and, in general, the world seems to be just two steps shy of the apocalypse. And with little hope for recovery, the three tip back their drinks and ask the bartender to fill them up and keep it coming.

This Time article gives us not only biographical information about Rice, but it also gives a priceless contemporaneous context to her work. It goes into the economics of the early days of paperback publishing (albeit briefly), and compares Rice’s sales to other writers of the time. Most interesting, however, is the genealogy of American crime fiction that the article describes (including the importance of alcohol), and it credits Rice as a pivotal figure in its development. “She invests unholy living and heinous dying… In blending the horrible and the ludicrous, alcohol becomes the catalyst. Drink encourages characters endowed with normal human cowardice to plunge gaily into the ugliest and most dangerous situations and carry them off with unexpected turns of drunken ingenuity.”

For those that haven’t read Craig Rice before, you can still find used copies of her novels at reasonable prices. I recommend starting with the first book in the series, 8 Faces at 3 (which centers around a bizarre death in which all the clocks in the house stopped precisely at 3:00AM). From there, the series only gets better with The Corpse Steps Out, The Wrong Murder, The Right Murder, Trial by Fury (which I reviewed here), and many others. Those looking to learn more about Rice should read Jeffrey Marks' biography Who Was That Lady? Craig Rice: The Queen of Mystery Screwball (Delphi Books).

And what a cool cover of the magazine! I have my copy framed and hanging on my wall.

Wild West Monday

The day's not over, so there's still time for you to participate in Wild West Monday. As organized by Gary Dobbs of The Tainted Archive, the initiative is to go to your local bookstore/library and inquire about Western literature. The intent is to show support for the genre, and let the bookstores know that there is still an audience for them. For more info, please visit The Tainted Archive.

I went to two bookstores today: the famous Strand Bookstore in Manhattan, and Spoonbill and Sugartown in Brooklyn. Sadly, neither store had a Western section, though I was able to pick up a new copy of Jack Schaefer's Shane for $3.50 and a vintage hardcover of Zane Grey's The Drift Fence for $6.00. I'll be sure to post a review of both books as soon as I read them.

Again, many thanks to Gary to organizing Wild West Monday. Long live the Western!

Movies for Monday: "The Leopard Man" (1943)

Darkness has never been darker than through the eyes of Jacques Tourneur. It is more than just an absence of light: it is an all-consuming abyss. A vacuum of blackness. Often only a single ray of light will penetrate the shots, but instead of providing an escape it only emphasizes the totality of darkness. There is no escape, only nothingness.

The third and final collaboration between the shadow-puppeteer Tourneur and producer Val Lewton, The Leopard Man (1943) is an adaptation of Cornell Woolrich’s The Black Alibi. Much like Tourneur and Lewton’s earlier films Cat People (1942) and I Walked With a Zombie (1943), mystery and horror fuse together in an unholy noir nightmare. In this film, Dennis O’Keefe plays a talent manager who cooks up a publicity stunt for client Jean Brooks involving a leopard. But after the stunt goes foul and the leopard escapes, mangled bodies start turning up in alleyways, all bearing the same claw marks. Guilt-stricken over the terror he has unleashed, O’Keefe is determined to track down the killer – and uncover whether it really is a leopard or a man responsible for the deaths.

Sixty-six years later, The Leopard Man is still a highly effective thriller. Tourneur and Lewton’s iconic minimalist approach to suspense is not only infallible, but also undeniably creepy. When a character steps out into the street at night, the absolute lack of light and near-silent soundtrack combine to create an atmosphere of chilling unknowingness. While many have copied this approach over the decades, no one has done it more effectively than these two innovators. Their scenes are so stark that the slightest sound, or faintest light, scars the senses. Consumed by silence and shadow, we are left with only our imaginations to create the horrors of the night, thus forcing us to create our own worst nightmares.

Below are a few shots that are characteristic of Tourneur and Lewton’s iconic style, as well as the film’s original theatrical trailer.

Stories for Sunday: "Knock" by Fredric Brown and "The Unreal Jesse James" by Chap O'Keefe

This week’s edition of Stories For Sunday is a double dose of sci-fi. First up is Fredric Brown’s “Knock,” originally published in Thrilling Wonder Stories (December 1948). When not penning surreal, nightmarish crime fiction masterpieces such as Here Comes a Candle, Brown was churning out science fiction novels and stories such as this one. (Nor is he the only pulp writer who was proficient in multiple genres - Harry Whittington, for instance, wrote both mystery and western fiction). "Knock" begins with the memorable line, “The last man on Earth sat alone in a room. There was a knock on the door…” Brown then cleverly backs up and analyses the two sentences for the reader: “The horror, of course, isn’t in the two sentences at all; it’s in the ellipsis…” From there, Brown continues the story by answering the question as to what is knocking on the door.

What a better way to start off Sunday than by laughing about the ending of the world? Read Fredric Brown’s “Knock” by clicking here.

Still not enough sci-fi? Didn’t think so. In that case, head over to Beat To a Pulp and read Chap O’Keefe’s “The Unreal Jesse James,” a clever genre-bender that re-imagines the legendary outlaw as being the human form of an alien from the future. And while you’re enjoying the story, get ready for Wild West Monday! Support Western literature by visiting your local independent bookstore and showing your love for the genre.

"Test Tube Baby" by Sam Fuller (1936)

Test Tube Baby is the second novel from Samuel Fuller (here credited as “Sam Fuller”). Published in 1936 by Godwin, Publishers, it is among...