"You are right. I am not a detective, but a thief. And stealing is what thieves do best, even if it's a persons heart."- Kaito KID (Gosho Aoyama's Detective Conan a.k.a. Case Closed)
Last week, I posted a review of The Iron Angel and Other Tales of the Gypsy Sleuth (2003) by Edward D. Hoch, a giant of the short story form, but sadly, this particular collection of detective stories proved to be underwhelming as a whole and completely under-performed compared to the author's other, more well-known, detective-series – like the ones featuring Simon Ark or Dr. Sam Hawthorne. A sentiment that was shared in the comment-section.
There were, however, two nuggets of gold in the collection reflecting Hoch's monumental reputation as a craftsman of short tales of mystery and detection. Stories that showcased his expertise in twisting together clever, well-clued puzzle plots and simply wanted to read more of them.
So I decided to return early to Hoch's massive contribution to the pantheon of detective-fiction, close to a thousand short stories, which brought me to a volume about his most popular creation, Nick Velvet, who's a thief-for-hire specialized in pilfering unusual or even bizarre things – often without any apparent monetary value.
Nick Velvet was born in the once Italian dominated neighborhood of Greenwich Village, New York, as Nicholas Velvetta, but shortened it on account of his name sounding like a cheese. He lives together with his long-time girlfriend, Gloria Merchant, who has "only a vague notion of his profession" and believes he's an industrial consultant, which meant regularly trips abroad. During those days away from home, Velvet carries out some of the most singular thefts and burglaries the police forces of the world must have on record.
Velvet charges a flat fee of $20,000 for his odd thefts with "an extra $10,000 for especially hazardous tasks" (e.g. stealing a ferocious tiger from a city zoo in broad daylight). As a result, the stories tend to be multifaceted as one part of the plot deals with how Velvet is going to complete his task, while the other part concerns itself with the question why anyone would plunk down twenty grand, or more, in cash to get their hands on a toy mouse or an old circus poster. Something that provides these rogue stories with an interesting detective-angle.
The professional thief debuted on the pages of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine in 1966 and would go on to appear in 85 additional short stories, a crime-spree lasting over forty years, with the last one being published in 2007 – a year before Hoch passed away. Velvet was not only one of Hoch's most popular series-characters, but also proved to be the "most financially successful" one and probably the reason why some of his exploits were collected as early as the 1970s.
One of these collections is The Thefts of Nick Velvet (1978) and is a selection of stories from the first ten years of the series. Mostly, they're excellent and entertaining crime stories demonstrating why, not only, Nick Velvet is Hoch's most popular series-character, but also showing his creation was a worthy addition to the Rogue's Gallery of gentleman thieves – which includes Arsène Lupin and A.J. Raffles. So let's take a closer look at the thirteen short stories that make up The Thefts of Nick Velvet.
The opening story, "The Theft of the Clouded Tiger," also kicked off this long-running series and was originally printed in the September 1966 issue of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine (hereafter, EQMM), which has a plot that's still rough around the edges and can even be considered hardboiled. Velvet is hired by the representative of "a Middle Eastern prince with a private zoo" to steal a clouded tiger, a very rare specimen, that had been captured near the Sino-Indian border and donated to the Glen Park Zoo.
Velvet's plan to take the tiger from his cage is pretty much a crude smash-and-grab job, but the crux of the plot turns out to be a double-cross forcing the thief to bloody his hands in order to even the score. It is, however, noted in the introduction that, after this first story, he "rarely killed anyone."
"The Theft from the Onyx Pool" appeared in the June 1967 issue of EQMM and is easily my favorite entry in this collection. Velvet is hired by a young girl, Asher Dumont, who wants to pay him the twenty grand to steal the water from a swimming pool belonging to a writer and producer of mystery plays, Samuel Fitzpatrick. A task requiring theatrics and some grease money, but the best aspect of the plot is the reason why the pool had to be drained and Hoch does not underestimate the intelligence of his readers, because two of the three likely explanations were quickly disposed of – which leaves the reader with a possibility that doesn't really answer why the water had to be stolen. But that is explained through a marvelous bluff by the client. As Velvet said, "I'd hate to be your enemy."
Note for the curious: Velvet is introduced to Fitzpatrick under the guise of having an idea for a stage-play, which happened to be "a locked room sort of thing" and gives a brief rundown how the trick works. A gimmick used elsewhere, in a much later work, to ignite a deadly fire inside a locked apartment.
"The Theft of the Toy Mouse" was first published in the June 1968 publication of EQMM and his latest assignment brings him to a sound stage in Paris, France, where an American motion picture is being shot. Velvet is paid his flat fee to steal "a little wind-up metal mouse," with a retail value of 98 cents, from the prop department. There's an amusing, well-written scene in which Velvet burglarizes the prop room from atop the roof's skylight, but the reason why his client wanted the mechanical mouse stolen was a little obvious. Still, the story was a good and fun read.
"The Theft of the Meager Beaver" originally appeared in December 1969 in EQMM and is the first of three stories from this collection that involves a fictitious country.
Asignar is the Minister of Information for the island Republic of Jabali, "not far beyond Cuba," where the reigning president, General Tras, is an enormous baseball fan who has personally trained a national team – except that they have nobody to play against. Velvet is hired by the Jabali government to steal a major league baseball team from America and bring them to the tiny island nation. So this is really more kidnap story, and a crude one at that, than a proper theft, but a secret (political) plot is tied to the arrival of the American baseball team. Velvet has to turn against his clients in order to prevent a political assassination cleverly disguised as a legal execution. Somewhat of an unusual entry, but not a bad one and reminded me of an updated version of Arsène Lupin.
The next story, "The Theft of the Silver Lake Serpent," was published in the January 1970 publication of Argosy and is the most outlandish of all the stories gathered in this collection! Velvet is asked by the desperate owner of a lake resort, Earl Crowder, to steal "a sea serpent" from the lake of a neighboring competitor, which has been draining his place of all its guests – because people are flocking next door in hopes of seeing a real-life Loch Ness Monster. What's fascinating is that the eyewitnesses appear to have really seen a legendary sea serpent with a small head on "a fairly long neck" with "two coils or spines or lumps" breaking the water behind the head.
It's not the easiest of jobs, considering people have been hunting lake monsters for ages without any success, but Velvet persevered where others have failed and solved an unaccountable death along the way. However, the explanation for the true nature of the serpent makes you want to hug and strangle Hoch at the same time. One of those solutions that's as original as it's almost unacceptable. And, no, it's not a mini-submarine disguised as a lake monster.
"The Theft of the Seven Ravens" was published in the January 1972 issue of EQMM and is the second story about a fictitious country, which is represented here by "the newly independent nation of Gola" where the image of a raven is an important symbol. So during the first official state visit, the President of Gola is going to represent the Queen of England with seven Golaen ravens and Velvet is hired by the British government to prevent the animals from being stolen. Around the same time, Velvet is asked by an Irish nationalist to steal the ravens before they can be presented to the Queen. A situation that quickly turns into a quagmire.
There's an excellent set-piece when a room is filled with black birds, but otherwise, the (core) plot came across as somewhat repetitive read so shortly after "The Theft of the Meager Beaver." But not a bad read by itself.
"The Theft of the Mafia Cat" is lifted from the pages of the May 1971 edition of EQMM and is easily the most amusing yarn contained in this volume of stories.
Velvet is engaged by a childhood friend, named Paul Matalena, with whom he grew up in the Italian section of Greenwich Village and is reputedly "a big man in Mafia these days." Matalena wants Velvet to steal a cat, which seems an easy enough job, but the snag is that the animal is owned by "a big man in the Syndicate," Mike Pirrone, who absolutely adores the one-of-a-kind cat – which could turn this job in a suicide mission when gets caught. Or at least gets taught a lesson by Pirrone's personal security. The way in which Velvet manages to snatch the cat from under the nose of the gangster is fun enough, but the cherry on top is the very clever and original reason why Matalena needed to "borrow" the animal for a short while. Loved it!
"The Theft from the Empty Room" was originally published in the 1972 issue of EQMM and has been tagged everywhere as a locked room, or impossible crime, story, which is technically correct, but an outside-of-the-box kind of mystery would be more accurate.
Roger Surman is hospitalized with a serious liver problem and hires Velvet from his hospital bed, which he solemnly promises to be "one of the most unusual jobs" he has ever worked on. A statement that proved to be somewhat prophetic. Surman wants Velvet to burglarize the storeroom of his brother's summerhouse, currently closed down for the winter, but when he gains entrance to the place he finds a bare, empty storeroom – a layer of dust covering the floor from wall to wall. So what could have been in the room and how could it have been removed from the room without disturbing the film of dust on the floor? Velvet actually has to do some proper detective work in order to solve the mystery and complete his task. A good, pleasant and clever detective/rogue story with an original problem.
"The Theft of the Crystal Crown" was published in the January 1973 issue of Mike Shayne Mystery Magazine and is the third, and last, story in this collection about fictitious country. The Kingdom of New Ionia is "a very old and very small island in the Mediterranean," situated between the southern tips of Italy and Greece, where the national symbol is a glass crown. A relic shown only once a year during a masked ball at the palace and Velvet was paid to snatch it during this yearly ball, but the smash-and-grab job is the only good set-piece in this story. Otherwise, I really didn't care about this story.
|"The Theft of the Clouded Tiger," EQMM, 1966|
"The Theft of the Circus Poster" originally appeared in the May 1973 issue of EQMM and a man, dressed as a clown, commissions Velvet to a steal a 1916 circus poster from the private collection of retired clown, Herbie Benson. However, the protective granddaughter of the old man, Judy, proves to be great foil to the professional house-burglar. She's a professional snake-charmer and every night she lets loose "a sackful of rattlesnakes" in house, as a precaution against burglars, but Velvet now also wants to know why his client wants to steal a poster from such a kind, old man. A good, solid and fun story unless you really hate clown and/or snakes.
"The Theft of Nick Velvet" was published in the February 1974 issue of EQMM and has a potentially interesting premise: Velvet is kidnapped in order to prevent him from being hired to do a job, but manages to convince his captors to allow him to the job for them (i.e. stealing a ship's manifest). Unfortunately, I found this story to be completely underwhelming and simply did not care about it. So moving on.
“The Theft of the General's Trash” appeared in the May 1974 issue of EQMM and Velvet takes his long-time girlfriend, Gloria, to Washington to see the cherry blossoms, but shortly after they arrived in the political nerve-center of the United States the telephone in their hotel-room rings – with an offer for a high-paying job. Sam Simon is a columnist and investigative journalist who wants Velvet to steal "a bag of garbage" belonging to the President's adviser on foreign affairs, General Norman Spengler. Simon swears the garbage bags contains nothing but refuge and their content is only of interest to him, as a reporter, which turns the illustrious thief into a glorified garbage collector. However, he receives his normal fee several times over, because he has to net more than one bag for his client. Of course, the much desired item in one of those bags is directly related to the political swamps of Washington, but the best part of this story is Velvet trying to get his hands on these bags.
On a side note, this is the story that convinced Gloria that Velvet is not an industrial consultant, but a agent, or spy, working for the United States government. Something he allowed her to believe, because it "helped cover his awkward absences." Who knew Edogawa Conan took relationship advice from Nick Velvet?
Finally, we have the last story from this collection, "The Theft of the Bermuda Penny," originally published in the June 1975 edition of EQMM and is a full-blown impossible crime story!
Velvet is hired by Jeanne Kraft to steal the titular penny from an inveterate gambler, Alfred Cazar, who is approached by Velvet in the guise of a magazine writer doing an article on the Saratoga racing season. So he accompanies the Cazar on a car-ride to the race tracks and the gambler cleans out the pockets of the thief during several impromptu bets, but during the ride Cazar miraculously vanished from the back seat of a closed car going nearly 70 miles an hour – leaving his seat-belts still fastened!
This is one of those rich, multi-layered stories Hoch was more than capable of putting together. First of all, there's the secret attached to a modern-day penny without any apparent value. The small-time cons Cazar played on Velvet during their joined car-ride and his impossible disappearance from a moving car. Lastly, there's a, sort of, whodunit-angle, which are nicely twisted together with some clues and foreshadowing thrown into the mix. Not one of his absolute masterpieces, but it's a perfect example of why Hoch will remain a staple of mystery anthologies for many, many decades to come.
So, all in all, The Thefts of Nick Velvet is an excellent collection of short stories. There were only two stories that failed to grasp my interest, but the remainder of the stories were pretty consistent in quality with some truly excellent specimens. Some even managed to surprise (one with the sea serpent!). I can perfectly understand why Nick Velvet emerged as a fan favorite and will probably return to his exploits before too long, because there's another volume of Nick Velvet stories on my pile with some potentially interesting (locked room) stories.
However, the next review is going to be of a once rare impossible crime novel with an excellent reputation and a fascinating backdrop. So keep your eyes out for that one.