"Maybe the truth is that Bill was a man who believed that fairy tales came true, and that we can live happily ever after – but his fairy tales were more like fractured ones from the old Rocky and Bullwinkle Show than anything that might have been written by brothers named Grimm. These stories are fairy tales in their way, and at the same time homage to the genre he spent his life immersed in."- Jane Haddam
Yes, another review of a book that has William DeAndrea's name plastered across the front cover, but this one is special – a posthumous compendium that's an exhibit in miniature scale of his considerable talents as a storyteller and plotter. The first fistful of stories feature Matt Cobb, a specialized trouble shooter for a television network, handling everything that's too ticklish for security and too nasty for public relations, who's job often drags him into high-profile and baffling murder cases connected to the world behind the small screen. The book also includes two Holmesian pastiches, one of them narrated with the voice of the hardboiled detective, and the remaining tales are standalones – one of them the standout story of this collection. Lamentably, he never wrote any short stories that chronicled one of the many cases that were handled by Niccolo Benedetti and Ronald Gentry, and which were alluded to in The Werewolf Murders (1992).
Murder – All Kinds (2003) opens with a short introduction from his wife, Jane Haddam, who's an accomplished mystery author herself, telling briefly of one of those domestic tragedies that most of us, unfortunately, are all too familiar with from personal experience. But optimistically noted that he produced a lot of work in the final year of his life, and that "it's impossible to tell which were written when he was sick and which when he was well." I found myself agreeing with her, more and more, with each passing story!
Matt Cobb, Special Projects:
In this opening story, Matt Cobb is escorted to an airport by two federal government agents to identify a notorious terrorist – who procured a spot on the most wanted list by taking the anchorman of the Evening News hostage and murdering several security guards. The consequences of this on-air killing spree made the fame-seeking terrorist a bit camera shy and upon his escape abroad, he drastically altered his appearance. Cobb identifies him by pointing out the one thing even the best plastic surgeons in the world couldn't alter. This is a fun, but slight, story that reminded me of some of the tales from Detective Conan, in which a single suspect has to be deduced from a suspicious lot of characters.
Killed Top to Bottom
With the sole exception of a sobbing clown, everyone started hugging the concrete floor when an unobserved assailant took aim at the host of a local cable show – a noted professor of linguistics. The smoking gun proves to be as elusive as the shooter and the solution as to how it was obscured is exemplar of DeAndrea's creativity. There's also a hilarious scene, in which Matt Cobb wrestles the half hysterical clown to the ground and is stunned by a security guard, who was under the impression that he had stopped an attempted rape, and this skirmish turns out to contain an important clue!
Killed in Midstream
Justice Quest is a true-crime show that asks its viewers to help them shed some light on unsolved mysteries, but the ratings have been lagging behind that of its competitors and it's given one more shot at reeling in viewers with a high-profile, mind blowing case – and dispatches Matt Cobb and one of the shows executives to the island of an ex-diamond merchant. The merchant and his cat were the only ones who survived a massacre at his store, in which the lives of twenty-seven people were extinguished to safely obtain a pile of precious stones, and whomever was responsible got away with it. But when Matt Cobb and his TV station starts probing the case again, it becomes evident that the police were looking for the mass murderer too far away from home. And the method for hiding diamonds is one of the cleverest I have ever come across in a detective story!
Killed in Good Company
Matt Cobb receives an invitation to partake in a round-table discussion with other famous investigators for a documentary, but the discussions are interrupted by the noisy rattling emanating from the cupboards of skeletons demanding to be let out – with deadly results. Cobb nearly lost his life when he attempted to save a retired private eye from the poisonous fumes that filled his room and the method employed here is both brilliant and original. The story also very much reminded me of Rex Stout's novella "Too Many Detective" (collected in Three for the Chair, 1957) and the gathering of detectives in volume 30 of Detective Conan/Case Closed.
A short-short Cold War spy story, in which a Soviet agent returns home and there's an expected twist ending. Not a very interesting story, I'm afraid.
This is the standout story I referred to earlier, and I can't tell too much about it without divulging any of its surprises. But it's a story that keeps you guessing until the end which direction the plot is going to take and involves a dedicated psychiatrist, questing for the reason behind the suicide of one of his patients, a promising teenage genius, and its connection with a radical figurehead of the pro-environmental movement – and ties it neatly together with one of the most dreadful tragedies of the modern era. Why can't more modern crime stories be like this?
Friend of Mine
Even in the broadest interpretation used these days, it's impossible to pigeonhole this story as one of crime or detection, however, there is a sense of genuine mystery – but one that's more at home between the crumbling pages of classic tales of horror and adventure. In this modern fable, a soldier, stationed in the artic region, has a brush with Victor Frankenstein's monstrous creation – who has been elevated to Godhood by the locals. It's completely out-of-place in this collection, but nonetheless a very engaging read and a first-rate pastiche of Mary Shelley's immortal horror yarn.
The Adventure of the Cripple Parade (ascribed to Mickey Spillane)
Depending on where you stand, this is either one of the most successful or one of the most disastrous attempts at bonding the European and the American detective story. Here we have the personification of the conventional detective story, who's voice suddenly vibrates with the violent poetry of Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett and Mickey Spillane – and vows revenge to whoever beat Watson to a bloody pulp. I guess this is a nod to The Maltese Falcon (1930). Although Sam Spade's motive for finding his partner's assailant wasn't driven by the kind of friendship that Holmes feels for Watson. Anyway, it's a surprisingly amusing story, but not that everyone is going to like.
The Adventure of the Christmas Tree
This is a bona fide attempt at recreating Conan Doyle's magic, in which the forester of a Scottish lord brings Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson a most singular problem: the Christmas tree he hand picked and marked for his master was spirited away from his private woods, but nevertheless turned up in the ancestral home of his employer! Coincidently, the Lord is entertaining an important German diplomat, while they negotiate the terms of important business deals between their nations, and the tree has an important bearing on these talks. In the end, Holmes and Watson foil a devious conspiracy that might have kicked started WWI prematurely. However, it's not one of the most ingenious Sherlock Holmes stories I have ever read, original or replica, but it's amusing enough and would've made a fun episode with Jeremy Brett.
A cutesy retelling of the titular fairly tale trope in a contemporary setting with a kidnapping plot woven into the story telling. The story actually managed to utterly fool me, because I was convinced that Prince Charming staged the kidnapping of a young heiress in order to cast himself in the role of her savior and get his hands on all of her fathers money by marrying her – completely forgetting that in fairly tales lovers are supposed to live happily ever after. Oh well...
Murder at the End of the World
This previously unpublished story, set in the 1970s, is basically Orson Welles The War of the Worlds Hoax as perceived by a scribbler of detective stories, in which the military accidentally sends out an erroneous emergency notification to all radio and television stations – entailing that a nuclear strike against the country is imminent. This causes a panic at a small student radio station that leads to a vicious assault on one of them, but what possible motive still stands in the face of a nuclear fall-out? The solution, unfortunately, is uninspired, but that's more than made up by the premise of the story and the surprise of the hidden and understated identity of the detective!
Altogether, this is a solid collection, comprising of all the short stories William DeAndrea produced during his life time, which is certainly worth acquiring if you're already a fan of his work – or just enjoy kicking back with a bunch of well written stories.