Thursday, September 23, 2010

The Alfred Hitchock's Mystery Magazine Stories: Robert Edmond Alter

This is the first in a series of spotlights on the crime digests.

Robert Edmond Alter’s claim to fame may be as the writer of two classic Gold Medal crime novels, Swamp Sister and Carny Kill (both 1966), but he also made a dent in short fiction as well. Over 40 stories for the digests (Mike Shayne, Manhunt, Man From UNCLE, Trapped) and dozens more for slicks such as Argosy and The Saturday Evening Post. Alter’s scenarios and characters were all over the map: intrigue, cuckolded wives and husbands, spies, hillbillies, ghosts, skin divers...the author seems to have tackled each with glee, then moved onto another genre that might interest him at the moment. His Argosy stories, in particular, are big epic adventures packed tight into several thousand words.

The man himself remains an enigma. According to the few bios I’ve been able to find, Alter wrote fourteen children's novels , three crime novels, and a science fiction novel (Path to Savagery [Avon, 1969], which was made into the truly wretched movie The Ravagers in 1979, starring Richard Harris, Ernest Borgnine, and Art Carney). He was born in 1925 and may have died in 1966. As Allen J. Hubin, author of the indispensable Bibliography of Crime Fiction 1749-1975, states in an e-mail to Steve Lewis (editor of the online Mystery File): “there’s a social security death benefit record for a Robert Alter which matches his birth date exactly (December 10, 1925) and matches his state (California), and gives his death as May 1966.” Which is interesting since books and short stories by Alter continued appearing into 1970!

Alter’s first Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine (AHMM) story, “To Catch a Big One,” (August 1958, 5250 words) concerns scuba-divers, territory that Alter had mined the year before in a story published in Argosy, “The Dark Dive” (September 1957). In “Big One,” Bent and Mason are divers that hire their boat out to thrill-seekers Harvey Wolfe and his amorous wife, Lorry. While Mason shows Wolfe the art of avoiding poisonous coral and exploring shipwrecks, Bent stays aboard to show Mrs. Wolfe a few things. In the end, Harvey isn’t as ignorant of the dangers of the water as he might seem.

Rather than a Hitchcockian mystery, “Big One” is a well-written adventure with a few crime story twists thrown in (adulterous wife, the inevitable comeuppance, etc.). Alter, in his opening paragraph, pretty much tells you up front what you’re going to get in the end:

Something waited for Bent on the other side of the horizon: something with a soundless voice called to him. I thought of that every time I saw him alone on the deck of our schooner, as he watched the sea with brooding, unsatisfied eyes, his face a dark pool of intensity, every splinter of thought reflected there like a dart of light. I don’t know where it might have ended, but it doesn’t matter now; Harvey Wolfe saw to that, Harvey and his wife Lorry.

Alter’s next three stories for AHMM were nowhere near as enthralling as his debut. The first two, “An Accident Has Been Arranged” (March 1959, 3000 words) and “The Assassin” (September 1959, 3000 words) are cut from the same cloth: bumbling hitman, in a case of mistaken identity, stalks the wrong guy. In the former, Kenneth Morgan is lucky to land passage on a tanker to Sydney but finds his luck has turned sour when he becomes the target of a political assassin. In the latter, “The Assassin” is hired to bump off an important Englishman, not realizing his intended victim has pulled a no-show.
Neither story shows much enthusiasm. Alter merely relates incidents rather than investing them with any tension or, worse, believability. The obligatory twists at the climax are forced and tired.

“It Couldn’t Possibly Happen” (November 1959, 2250 words) continues the political intrigue introduced in the previous two entries. Mr. Marsh is entrusted with important classified documents by a dying secret agent. When the agent’s killer shows up demanding the papers, Marsh promises the man that if he lets Marsh live, he’ll stall the police long enough for the killer to escape out the balcony. After the agent falls to his death, Marsh remarks that he never promised the guy that he had a balcony. A funny twist saves this short-short from being unremarkable.

“Each Night He Pulled the Trigger” (May 1960, 3250 words) finds Alter once again balancing good writing, characterization (at least as good as you can get in a short story), and riveting suspense. Every night, to the dismay of his friends and fellow soldiers, Captain Ortega cracks his pistol, loads one shell, and plays a deadly game of Russian Roulette. His young bunkmate tries in vain to talk the officer out of putting the gun to his head, but to no avail. When another soldier comes to the camp and accuses Ortega of being a deserter, the Captain elevates the game. I’m surprised this story wasn’t made into an episode of Hitchcock’s TV series since it’s got all the earmarks of a Hitch show.

After killing a politician, two assassins drive a hillside road mapping out their escape route. One of the killers opts to foot it, fearing that he’ll be caught by the police if he stays with his partner in the car. They plan to meet up at the yacht that’s been sent to retrieve them. Their separate treks don’t come easily. That’s the gist of “Schedule for an Assassination,” (August 1960, 3000 words) a hodgepodge of humor and dead-serious intrigue that works for all the same reasons that made “Each Night He Pulled the Trigger” such a good read. The only drawback with “Schedule” is its length--this feels like a small piece of a bigger story. The assassination itself, explained away in bits, would have added even more suspense to the mix.

The contrast in tone, between the humorous passages (the assassin driving, Vologin, is constantly screaming out his window at slow-moving drivers) and the events that remind us that this is supposed to be a crime story, is startling, such as in the following, wherein Volgin and his partner, Katov, discuss a pregnant woman who may have been a witness to their killing:

When they’d piled into the waiting car, Vologin had said, “We should have shot her, too. She’ll give them our description.”

But Katov had said nothing. He’d thought how odd it was that he’d just killed a man, and then immediately had bumped into a woman who was bringing a new life into the world. I suppose that’s what makes the balance, he’d thought. But Vologin had been right. They should have killed her.

“Double Trouble” (April 1962, 3500 words) is about as close to fluff as Alter ever wrote for AHMM. By fluff, I mean an “easygoing mystery,” something one could read over tea before a fire, rather than the intense, politically-motivated plots that Alter had become known for. Mr. Darby is tired of his rich, overweight wife after two years of servitude. He believes he’s owed a lot more than just a roof over his head. He wants that sack of dough his wife has hidden away. Darby knows where the sack is located and makes a quick dispatch of his wife with pillow and .22. What he doesn’t bargain for is a nosey neighbor who literally “sets her watch by the man’s comings and goings.” Those readers finding themselves drifting towards “cosies” would probably find a lot to like in “Double Trouble,” but I like ‘em quite a bit darker.

As if on cue, Alter’s next tale, “Killer in the Dark” (August 1963, 5500 words), takes place in, well, the dark. Peter Douglas stars as a harried father trying to rescue his little girl, trapped in a dark basement and cornered by a deadly rattlesnake. Hazard piles upon hazard (the basement is dark because Peter forgot to change the light bulb; the basement floor is covered with the detritus the Douglas family has accumulated; the daughter thinks daddy is playing a game with her) before the day is saved and the family can return to domestic bliss, albeit with a few hard-taught lessons learned in household maintenance. My initial nail-biting, unfortunately, turned to belly-laughs by the time I had finished the action-filled climax (think Jason and his Argonauts fighting the Hydra). A shame, since Alter seduces us with a plot device that would send shivers down the spine of any parent:

“It’s all right, hon. Jimmy thinks he saw a snake” (and even before he finished he saw the apprehension come into her eyes and he knew his intuition had been right all along--that it was going to be bad; because fear, he supposed, was atavistic in all women. All the way back to the dim females of the caves it had been kids and accidents, kids and sickness, or husbands and wars, husbands and heart attacks) “go down in our basement.”

There was a pause as she stared at his eyes, as she took in breath to say it with a rush. And in that brief moment they were the only two people there - man and wife, parents.

“Peggy’s down there.”
Alter returns to the theme of the assassin in “A Habit for the Voyage” (February 1964, 5250 words), a well he may have dipped into a few times too many. Killer-for-hire Krueger is on board a Brazilian steamer, his mission to eliminate a fellow passenger. When near-accidents befall Krueger, he realizes who the true target may be. The old “hunter is actually the hunted” tale is taken out and dusted off again, but Alter overlooks quite a few cobwebs. “Habit” is not just cliche but, worse, boring.

The author must have sensed that he needed a change of pace and “Echo of a Savage” (June 1964, 5000 words) is very definitely a change of pace. Eschewing his usual backgrounds of steamer ships and exotic lands, “Savage” takes place deep in the heart of the Okefenokee Swamp. Three violent goons have held up a bank and headed into the swamp, where they run across the shanty of Jube, an old man content to live among the copperheads and gators. The robbers hold Jube hostage and take over his boat, but the swamp man has other ideas.

“Echo of a Savage” is the extreme opposite of “A Habit for the Voyage”: a breezy, entertaining read with more than a dollop of darkness thrown in. The story has a lot in common with Alter’s Swamp Sister, the Gold Medal novel written a couple years later.

After a lay-off of nearly two years, Robert Edmond Alter returned to the pages of AHMM with three appearances in 1966: “Haunted Hill” (April, 4500 words), “The Shunned House” (May, 5000 words), and his final AHMM story, “No Place Like Home” (December, 3000 words). The first two stories are a continuation of Alter’s locale switch from exotic to “backwoods.” Both fall into the “faux haunted house” mystery sub-genre. In “Haunted Hill,” Flem Trubb owes everyone in town, but comes into a little cash after he sells his land to a lumber mill. Several of Flem’s neighbors remark that he shouldn’t be carrying around so much cash, but Flem laughs at danger. Sure enough, the hillbilly disappears, returning as a ghost to haunt his hilltop home. Not much surprise in its reveal, but the story is enjoyable and has a nasty kick in its rear.

“The Shunned House” almost comes off like one of the Alfred Hitchcock and the Three Investigators series of books created by Robert Arthur in the early 60s (with such great titles as The Mystery of the... Silver Spider, Whispering Mummy, Stuttering Parrot, Coughing Dragon, etc.) but, like “Haunted Hill” (which also sounds like a Robert Arthur story, come to think of it), has too dark an edge to be a kiddie story. “The Shunned House” in question is the old Yost House, home, so the legends say, to a priceless cache of gold. Three boys, Joe, Phil and Harold, are determined to find the treasure, but when Harold disappears in the house’s basement, the fun turns to fear. Two things separate this story from the Three Investigators series (and most “boy’s life” stories, for that matter): the boy who disappears turns up dead and, in a plot twist that fascinated me, the story picks up years after the murder and the two remaining boys are now adults. Phil is now working in the county D.A.’s office, investigating the brutal murder of Joe, his body found in the same area as Harold’s years ago.
“The Shunned House” is a riveting suspenser, Alter’s best for AHMM.

It’s a shame that “The Shunned House” wasn’t Alter’s swan-song for AHMM. It would have allowed him to go out on a high note. That can’t be said for “No Place Like Home.” Couch potato Jeffrey lives with and off of his grandmother, who disdains everything he does. The feelings are mutual, and Jeffrey lives for the day when grandma tsks her last tsk and leaves him the house, her money, but most importantly, her sofa and TV set. Jeffrey’s golden opportunity arrives when he reads about an elderly woman who burns to death after falling asleep while smoking. This is one of those “Ha-Ha, we gotcha with the last paragraph” stories that filled the pages of AHMM from the 1950s through the 1970s. A lot of those stories had ironic, funny gotchas. This one doesn’t (the police know that Jeffrey faked Grandma’s nicotine addiction because the old lady actually died of a heart attack before the staging). Though it’s an awful story, one thing can be said: it’s another indicator of just how varied Alter’s writing was. The reader would be hard pressed to guess that the author of “The Shunned House” also wrote “No Place Like Home” (or “Echo of a Savage” or “Schedule for an Assassination” either, for that matter).

(Cover reproductions come from the Galactic Central website, an eye-popping collection of information assembled by Phil Stephensen-Payne: )


Walker Martin said...

Peter, you shouldn't have posted a comment on Steve Lewis' Mystery File blog because now I've tracked you down on the bare bones e-zine.

I still have an early run of AHMM and enjoyed your comments on Robert Alter. I hope you decide to discuss more mystery digests. I give this posting 4 Hitchcocks out of 4.

John Scoleri said...

Hi Walker-

And here I thought our sidebar link over at A Thriller A Day was working! That's okay, we'll take readers any way we can get them.

You'll be pleased to know that Peter probably has more to say about mystery digests than the average fan is prepared to hear!

Don't hesitate to steer him towards any particular areas of interest you have, and welcome aboard!

Peter Enfantino said...

I definitely have plans for more digest coverage: Shayne, Queen, Hitch, and Manhunt. Stay tuned and send me your requests.