Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Random Reads: The Mystery Digests

By Peter Enfantino

There's something about a digest. Conservatively, I've got about 5,000 digests in my collection (it was easily double that until I sold off several lots a couple years ago). Several genres: horror (The Magazine of Horror), science fiction (Fantastic Universe), western (Double Action Western), crime (Mike Shayne), and even mainstream (Short Stories). I wish I had time in the day to read them all but I know, realistically, I'll never be able to read my full runs of Hitchcock and Ellery Queen. But that doesn't stop me from pulling the random issue off the shelf now and then.

I’m not much of a P.I. fan, which is odd, I guess, considering I’m a crime digest collector and good chunks of crime digests are composed of P.I. tales. The allure of the P.I. has always escaped me. I’m bored by what I’ve come to call “The Shell Shayne Formula.” You know what I’m talking about. Shell comes to work at his unkempt office. His beautiful, but maybe a bit frigid, secretary tells Shayne there’s “someone to see him in his private office.” Shell opens the door to find a beautiful, but somehow icy, blonde sitting on his desk, skirt hiked up a sleek, hosed leg. The babe is in trouble, her boyfriend/husband stole some money from the mob and he’s disappeared. She’ll do anything to find him. “Won’t Shell take her case?” Of course he will. Hundred a day plus expenses (and, of course, her company in bed). After several severe blows to the head, trips to the local precinct (where he’s grilled by his buddy, the detective), and possibly a betrayal by the beautiful blonde, Shayne tracks the guy down or finds him dead. Yawn.

This formula doesn’t just permeate the P.I. fiction of the 1940s and 50s, but finds its way into today’s crime novels. All the top guys do it. When was the last time you read a Private Investigator story that didn’t involve sex with the client? A blow to the noggin? A misunderstanding with the cops?

The reason I bring all this up is that I was corresponding with a fellow writer who was kind enough to give me some feedback a past column and, in the course of our back-and-forth, I unveiled that, for me, reading and enjoying P.I. fiction is tantamount to mastering Geometry. Ain’t gonna happen. “But what about Hammett, Chandler, Queen, or even Spillane?” he types. “Zzzzzzzzz” is my reply.

“Well, then you better let your readers know what they’re dealing with right from the start. This is like the music critic who hates Dylan and the Beatles, the comic historian who disses Kirby and Ditko, the movie lover who ignores Scorsese and Hitchcock.” Point taken, I guess, but there’s so much more to these little zines than P.I.s., thank goodness. There’s the guy who murders his wife for the “other woman.” The con man who’s going to retire after that one last “big job.” The beautiful dame who hides an icy heart. Well, you see my point, right? An endless succession of street life and dark alley dealings.

Which leads me, roundabout, to Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, second longest-running mystery digest of all time (the first being Ellery Queen). Since December 1956, AHMM has offered up a dozen or so crime stories every month, favoring domestic crimes over the espionage and detective fiction offered up monthly in EQMM. In any given issue, you could find Donald Westlake, Henry Slesar, Evan Hunter, and William Link and Richard Levinson (who would later go on to create Columbo). You could also read great work from writers who might not have been household names but still contributed fine prose: Donald Honig, C. B. Gilford, Robert Edmond Alter, Jack Ritchie, Bryce Walton, Talmage Powell, and Stephen Wasylyk (who became to AHMM what Ed Hoch was to EQMM, placing more stories than any other author in the history of the zine). You can also read several of the stories filmed for Alfred Htchcock Presents, since many of the teleplays were based on stories first published in the digest.

AHMM has had lots of ups and downs as far as quality goes, but the issues published in its first twenty or so years are both affordable and enjoyable. Like Manhunt, AHMM dipped its toes into the”bedsheet” waters for a short time (May 1957-January 1958), and these are the only issues that will cost you more than a couple bucks (in fact, these bedsheets are scarcer than those Manhunts). It’s no surprise that I prefer the 1960s and 1970s AHMM to the EQMM published at the same time since EQMM, for the most part, ran the kind of stories I bemoan in the first few paragraphs of this column.
Since the 1980s, however, my zine of choice has shifted over to EQMM when AHMM became the place to read the latest exploits of “Mrs. Mable’s Crime-Sniffing Cat” or the “Two Clue-Solving Tea-Drinking Old Ladies in the Garden.” The 1980s have no place in this column though, so I’ll reach up to the 1960s AHMM shelf and bring down the September 1966 issue.

CONTENTS: A Money Season - James McKimmey; Cool O’Toole - Donald E. Westlake; Sycophant - Clark Howard; That’s How the Caper Crumbles - Lawrence Wasser; The Red Ferrari - Robert G. Anderson; The Volcano Effect - Elijah Ellis; Ambition - Michael Brett; The Tin Ear - Ron Goulart; Grand Prix in Diamonds - Glynn Croudace; Roundabout - Jaime Sandaval; Dead Oak in a Dark Woods - Hal Ellson; The Trouble with Blackmail - Carroll Mayers; The Conjuration - W. Sherwood Hartman; Payment Received - Robert L. McGrath; The Late Unlamented - Jonathon Craig.

First thing, off the bat, I have to say that I never cared for the covers of AHMM, which highlighted Hitch (photo or sketch) in a different ridiculous pose: Hitch in a baseball cap, graduating from college, with a Yale pennant, in diapers, etc. By the 1970s, obviously, the art director had exhausted dopey poses and discarded the props, leaving only Hitch as, well, Hitch. Months upon months of similar sketches of the director. This continued until the 1980s when the art was replaced by action-themed photos of suave cat burglars and babes with guns. Suddenly, I developed a nostalgic fondness for Hitch in a bathrobe with a dagger behind his back.
So, by the September 1966 issue, the editors had perfected a formula each issue that would keep AHMM selling reasonably well month in and out (1) . Inside its 160 pages, readers would find 13 to 15 short stories (averaging anywhere from 2000 to 6000 words) and one “novelette” (about 10,000 words), populated by the usual suspects: cat burglars, scheming bank tellers, heist crews, cuckolded wives, etc. Editor G. F. Foster would seek out stories that ended on an O. Henry note (just like the Hitch TV show) and readers would gasp in surprise at the fact that it wasn’t the butler that did it.

The September 1966 issue has its share of solid writers (Westlake, of course, being the prime example), but for the most part it’s not a very good package. What we get is a variety of five good stories and a lot of drek. Rather than rehash each story, I’ll point out the few highlights and spotlight the novelette.

Donald Westlake’s title character, “Cool O’Toole,” is a hip deejay who comes home to find he’s in the process of being burglarized by a trio of decidedly uncool teenagers. O’Toole tries to jive talk his way out of the situation, but the kids are having none of it, and Westlake gives us one of his patented “they’re my characters and I’ll put them through hell if I want to” finishes. In Elijah Ellis’ “The Volcano Effect,” a couple come to Sheriff Ed Carson, seeking protection for a cuckolded (and swindled) ex-boyfriend, but the sheriff’s not biting. The race car driver turned cat burglar of “Grand Prix in Diamonds” is a shade too reminiscent of The Pink Panther, but writer Glynn Croudace spins a fun yarn and it’s hard not to be drawn in.

Ironically, the best story in the issue, “The Conjuration,” finds Dan Martin, Confidential Investigator, helping a client who’s been bilked out of $25,000 by a con man and his beautiful assistant. The con goes: The babe picks up a rich, married man in a bar, takes him back to her place “for a drink,” only to have her “husband” come home early. She and her “spouse” argue, she stabs him (with a trick retractable knife), and begs the terrified dope for dough so she can head out of town. When Dan Martin gets himself invited over to the girl’s pad, he switches the knife before her violent act and leads the girl to believe the weapon was real and her partner is really dead. Only a last paragraph ruins the shock the reader feels that Martin could support cold-blooded murder when we learn that the P.I. replaced the trick knife with...another trick knife. If this had been Manhunt, I’m sure author W. Sherwood Hartman would have deleted that final expository.

The novelette of the issue, Jonathon Craig’s “The Late Unlamented” is an episode of Craig’s ongoing series starring police detectives Pete Selby and Stan Rayder. Selby was the poor man’s Steve Carella but was popular enough to headline short stories and novels for over a decade. Craig’s downfall on his Selby exploits was the staccato Dragnet-style dialogue and uninteresting supporting characters. This rang true for Craig’s other series, “The Police Files” which ran in Manhunt in the 1950s. Selby and Rayder were interchangeable with “Police Files” detectives Steve Manning and Walt Logan. Unlike Ed McBain’s Carella and the entire 87th Precinct characters, we knew nothing about Craig’s cops. We didn’t hit the bars with them, nor did we shop at the local grocer, nor take out the gun and badge and dump them on the nightstand before bedtime. Seemingly, the detectives simply appeared at each crime scene, did their work, caught the bad guys, filled out their paperwork back at the Precinct (in this case, the 18th), and showed up at the next murder. To be fair to Craig, I haven’t read the novels and no less an expert than Bill Crider (who knows more about crime novels than anyone in the world, I’m sure) writes that “Craig’s work has now faded into undeserved obscurity (2)” and that “Craig has a good narrative sense (2),” but his series short stories don’t display that gift for “narrative style” that Crider points to nor do they have the grime and darkness that jump from the pages of such Craig classics as “Services Rendered” and “The Quiet Room” (both from Manhunt).

This particular episode of the Selby/Rayder saga finds the detectives investigating a man who has suffered an embarrassing “death by bowling ball.” Luckily enough, the ace cops are able to crack the case when they discover a police report on a stolen bowling ball in the same neighborhood. When pressed, the owner of the stolen sphere admits that, yes, he is the murderer and in a sleep-inducing expository (“Here’s why I killed Cody Marden with my AMF Three-Dot”) he reveals that he killed the man for his cache of rare ambergis (a substance, derived from whales, used in perfume). Are you still with me?

Justice (May 1955-January 1956) was one of those short-lived digests that just seemed to fall through the cracks. Published by Non-Pareil Publishing (owned by Martin Goodman, who had made a fortune in the pulps and comics), Justice certainly bore the look of a high-class production. 160 pages of gritty crime drama behind covers tough and sexy enough to be mistaken for Manhunt (every cover painting featured the three Gs: Gals, Guys, and Guns). Each issue featured a reprinting of a recent Lion Books novel (Lion was also owned by Martin Goodman) and a handful of short stories and novellas. Despite roping in a good number of the best crime writers of the day, Justice couldn’t rise above its competitors in terms of sales and vanished from the stands after only four issues.

An argument could be made that the digest also failed to rise to its competitors’ output in terms of quality as well. Editor Harry Widmer certainly knew who wrote great crime fiction. He just didn’t get the best those writers had to offer. Because of the calibre of its writers (and despite the poor quality of most of its content) Justice is highly sought after by noir and crime collectors, fetching anywhere from $20-30 an issue, depending on condition, when you can find them. The October 1955 Justice is the issue you’ll fork over the most amount of dough for (if you can find it, that is), thanks to the inclusion of a condensed version of Richard Matheson’s Someone is Bleeding retitled “The Frigid Flame.” I love Matheson’s work, but this one’s clearly one of his lesser novels (it’s also his first published novel, so some slack shall be cut here).

If you’re looking for the best issue in terms of quality, that’d be the final issue (Vol. 2 No. 1, January 1956).

CONTENTS: The Black Bargain - Cornell Woolrich; Don’t Go Away Mad - Robert Turner; Hot Snow - Vin Packer; Scented Clues - Richard Deming; Die, Darling, Die -Gil Brewer; Pepper in His Tracks - Shep Shepherd; Backbite - Frederick Lorenz; The Sinkhole - James P. Webb; The Cocktail Jungle - Bruce Elliott.

Skip the dogs by Cornell Woolrich and Vin Packer. Woolrich’s “The Black Bargain” is a nearly unreadable, confusing mess, while Packer’s “Hot Snow” is not indicative of her work in the 1950s. Robert Turner, who could usually be counted on for solid contributions, hits the bullseye with “Don’t Go Away Mad.” During their getaway from a payroll heist, Briggs and Connaught are attacked by a ferocious dog. Later, when police broadcast a warning that the dog was rabid, Briggs, who was bitten, begins to exhibit some of the symptoms of rabies and his partner begins to exhibit the symptoms of Partnerus Greedus. Turner’s climax is outlandish but amusing all the same.

Richard Deming’s “Scented Clues” is a wild whodunit that keeps you guessing right until its climax. Detectives London and Sully investigate the brutal homicide of London’s adulterous wife, Marge, who didn’t cotton to the lonely life of a policewoman’s wife and sought comfort in the arms of another man (actually, several other men) before being murdered in a cheap hotel room. It’s up to the two detectives to sort through the dead woman’s love letters for clues to the identity of her killer. Big question becomes: could it be Detective Sully, who always had an eye for the beautiful Marge, or Detective London, who knew full well what his wife was up to (or down to). We all know that there's no way London could get assigned to this case but, hey, it's the 1950s, alright? Anything could and did happen.

In “Die, Darling, Die,” Gil Brewer shows why he’s one of the most respected (and collected) of the Gold Medal writers. The set-up? Please pay attention. Joe Morley’s in love with Miriam the registered nurse. Actually, Joe is what would be classified today as a stalker. He’s been following, cornering, and manhandling Miriam any chance he can get. Miriam’s starting to like it. But wait, it gets better. Joe’s the hero of this sordid melodrama! Miriam the nurse is actually Miriam the gunmoll, waiting for her murderous husband to arrive with the loot from his latest bank robbery. She’s set her hubby up to be sniped so she can deposit the loot in her private bank account. The cops know this and they’ve been staking out her pad. They want to use Morley to get inside and find out what’s what. That’s how Joe the creepy stalker becomes Joe the hero. Six years after Gil Brewer’s death, Bill Pronzini wrote (in Mystery Scene #21, May 1989) of the writer’s dark, decaying final years filled with drink and not much else. It’s a nasty, sad story, topping most any noir I’ve ever read.

In “The Sinkhole” by James P. Webb, Eli Cole has two problems: One, a giant sinkhole is eating away his farm and he needs to fill it with something large. His other problem, his neighbor who’s been spending way too much time with Eli’s wife, may just solve Eli’s first problem. Eli decides to kill two birds with one stone, or one big bird with lots of little stones. Humorous twists add up to a pleasurable read. I can find only four other crime short stories by James W. Webb: “Death Drives a Bus”, “Footprints of Death”, “Death at the Wheel”, and “Detour to Death.” I’ll get back to you when I find the elusive “Atlas of Death,” which completes the famous “Transportation to Death” quintet.

This issue’s Lion novel reprinting turns out to be the masterpiece in the Justice run. A retitling of One is a Lonely Number (1952), “The Cocktail Jungle” is one gritty, violent gem, a book you’ve probably never heard of by an author mostly forgotten today. Larry Camonille is among the ten cons who stage a jailbreak. On the lam, Camonille washes ashore in the Justice version of Peyton Place, a small town in Ohio. Every peace-loving citizen seems to have the proverbial skeleton in the closet and the need for someone who can kill. Enter the stranger Camonille, who relishes the idea of absorbing bucks while playing each side against the other. Unfortunately for Larry, this town isn’t comprised of dupes and each side plays against the middle.

Author Bruce Elliott also wrote You'll Die Laughing (Five Star, 1945), the soft-core A Woman (Midwood, 1961), Asylum Earth (Belmont, 1968) as well as several short stories for such pulps as Triple Detective, The Shadow (“The Case of the Melting Artichokes” and “Death Paces the Widow’s Walk”), Doc Savage, and Thrilling Detective. If you’re looking for one of those “unsung heroes” of 1950s crime fiction, you could do worse than Bruce Elliott.

FOOTNOTES

(1) Postal records require that, once a year, publishers must reveal their circulation numbers. For digestaholics like myself, these records are always fascinating. In 1966, AHMM was selling an average of just above 105,000 copies a month (second in sales only to EQMM’s 166,714 copies a month), a fraction of the numbers it would reach at its peak in 1992 (259,000), but 1966 was years before subscription companies would make it so easy to get zines at a cut-rate price. In fact, that 1992 figure included a whopping 245,000 paid subscribers.

(2) Both quotes are from 1001 MIDNIGHTS. Edited by Bill Pronzini and Marcia Muller (Arbor House, 1986).

5 comments:

Walker Martin said...

Another very interesting post about the digest magazines. I could happily read about these magazines all day long!

But at the risk of being banned from the Bare*Bones e-zine, I have to register my alarm at your general statement about all Private Eye fiction. I absolutely agree with you about the over done cliches, many of which you mention, but there is still some quality PI fiction out there.

For instance Raymond Chandler is really a great writer not because of the cliches, many of which he invented, and not because of the plots, for which he has been criticized. His work has survived and is worth reading because of the excellent characterization and quality of the writing. Because of these factors I can put up with Marlowe being conked on the head or kissing some dame. Same with some of the other great PI writers like Hammett and Ross Macdonald.

Now that I've probably ticked you off, I'll admit to looking forward to your future comments on the mystery digests, most of which I agree with. These digest articles must be published in a book with the suitable cover artwork. And please do not close your mind to the quality PI fiction!

Bill Crider said...

Expert? Me? Not hardly, but I do like Craig's work. And I reviewed THE HARDBOILED LINEUP, a collection of stories from JUSTICE on my blog last week.

Peter Enfantino said...

Walker-
I'll try to keep the mind open. I've already got the next "Random Read" slated and some of the authors may present a problem. Wish me luck. And, as usual, thanks for the kind comments.

Peter Enfantino said...

Bill-
Don't be modest. You ARE an expert.

Todd Mason said...

Y'know, most of the detective fiction I read doesn't follow that pattern...Marcia Muller, Bill Pronzini, Sara Paretsky, dipping back to the Hammetts I haven't read or the Ross Macdonalds I've missed so far. But most of the Guy Noir sketches on A PRAIRIE HOME COMPANION do run along those lines, with a weekly reminder of day of the week underwear.

Bill's review of the JUSTICE anthology was a part of the Friday Forgotten Books roundelay.