Last year, Bold Venture Press reissued a pair of obscure, long-forgotten and out-of-print locked room mysteries by Theodore Roscoe, Murder on the Way! (1935) and I'll Grind Their Bones (1936), which were specifically mentioned and praised by Robert Adey in Locked Room Murders (1991) – who lauded the books for their pace, plots and "diabolically clever" impossible crimes. Originally, these locked room novels were published as serials in a now long-defunct pulp magazine, Argosy, who regularly printed short stories, novelettes and serials by Roscoe. Some of those stories and series are now being reprinted by Altus Press in their Argosy Library series.
One of the series Roscoe penned for Argosy was about Four Corners, a small town about a 100 miles from New York, which may have inspired Ellery Queen's Wrightsville (Calamity Town, 1942) and Shinn Corners (The Glass Village, 1954). There's one story in particular that reminded me of The Glass Village, but more on that later.
Altus Press collected the first five novelettes in this series as Four Corners, vol. 1 (2015), originally published between June 5, 1937 and January 8, 1938, including a very alluring story, titled "I Was the Kid With the Drum," which Adey listed in Locked Room Murders and described the story as having two impossibilities – a drum beating on its own accord and a disappearance from a watched house.
Yes, it was this story that lured me to this volume, but all of the stories turned out to be really good. Roscoe was an excellent story-teller and here he spun a couple of fascinating yarns about small-town life in America spliced with crime material.
This makes Four Corners difficult to pigeon-hole, because it has everything, hardboiled gangsters, small-town intrigue and even impossible crimes, which also makes them a little hard to review. Regardless of the genre they belong to, they're fantastic reads and I'll definitely pick up the second volume when it gets published. But let's take a look at these five stories first.
The first story is "He Took Richmond" and the protagonist is a ninety-year-old man, Anecdote Jones, who prattles endlessly about a particular incident during the American Civil War when General Grant had personally commanded to take piney hilltop and "hang onter it like a bulldog to a rott" – boasting how he single handedly held the piney knoll when encircled by a platoon of Johnny Rebs. Whenever he's asked how he was able to hold the piney knoll in the face of overwhelming odds, Old Anecdote can only answer with a puzzled expression on his face as he mutters to himself, "how did I hold the hill?"
A question Old Anecdote is finally able to answer when Joe Gravatti, a notorious and wanted kidnapper, comes to Four Corner when most of the town is in Brockton for the Armistice Day celebration. Gravatti has brought his gang along. They capture Old Anecdote and a garage mechanic, but the old man escapes and reappears as "the ghost of a Civil War veteran in tarnished brass buttons and moth-eaten blue." A portrait of one of the Boys in Blue "painted in moonbeams and cobweb" or "a mirage from the dust blown off a history book." There's definitely a touch of John Dickson Carr in Roscoe's writing.
Anyway, Old Anecdote takes on the gangsters, single handedly, which shows how he could have held the piney knoll and the explanation turned out to have been lovely foreshadowed in the early part of the story – giving this pulp story a fun little historical sub-plot. An excellent, well-written story with a satisfying conclusion.
The second story, "Frivolous Sal," is the story that reminded of The Glass Village and concerns the spotted history of "a woman hermit," Clariselle "Sal" Alders, who had come to age in the Gay Nineties (i.e. 1890s) "when people were humming waltzes, looking at Gibson Girls and whispering of suffragettes." So she become an modern, independent-minded woman, but this came with a price and she was held (morally) responsible for the suicide of her father when she refused to marry. This was followed by a string of scandals and even deaths. One of these deaths was that of her business partner in a Prohibition-era speakeasy. Sal is now an elderly woman who has withdrawn from the world in a shanty, rundown shack in the woods, but certain members of the community are anguish to get hold of her diary and they're prepared to pay good money for it – only to be turned down. However, a little girl dies of scarlet fever and people begin to talk about witchcraft.
So the sheriff has to face down his own neighbors to prevent a lynching in Four Corners, but the whole situation is turned on its head when they break down the door. They find something behind the locked door they did not expect. I genuinely want to know if Dannay and Lee were aware of this story when they wrote The Glass Village.
The next story, "Barber, Barber, Shave a Pig," takes place in the barbershop of a Dutch immigrant, Anton Grunner, which he had took over from a failing and ever-frightened local, Willie Updyke, but kept him around as a barber. A day before the story opened, Updyke witnessed the murder of a personal friend, Henry Applegate, at the hands of a bank robber, but lacked the courage to intervene and the murderer got away – much to the disapproval of the community. They even refuse his services as a barber. So the story really is about Updyke rehabilitating himself by ousting the (obvious) murderer and this results in a bloodbath in the barbershop.
This was not a bad story at all, but was slightly annoyed by Grunner's thick, German accent. Why can't Americans differentiate between Dutch and German? We were there when the United States was being settled and your first American-born president, Martin van Buren, was a Dutchman whose first language was Dutch! The difference should have been obvious by 1937. I did smile, though, when Grunner purred "like a tomcat."
The penultimate novelette, "I Was the Kid With the Drum," is the gem of this collection and the story is narrated by the twelve-year-old son of the sheriff, Bud Whittier, which is why I tagged this blog-post with the "juvenile mysteries" label.
The house of Joe Sleeper is a dark, rambling place with weed-grown side yards where a spiritualist circle held seances in the parlor and listened to the voices of the departed, which is irresistible to a boy, but Sheriff Whittier had received complaints from Mrs. Sleeper about certain boys climbing on the woodshed at the back of the house to get a better look at what's happening inside – instructing his son to stop it. An order that was destined to be ignored.
One dark, clammy evening in August, Bud climbs the woodshed to peer into a window of an upstairs bedroom and sees Joe Sleeper's bass drum standing in the corner. The drum, unattended, was booming in its corner and there was no sign in the room of Joe or his "masterful drumstick." The bass drum was beating by itself! On the following morning, Mrs. Sleeper disappears from the house. Not once. But twice. The second time a ghostly face is seen behind one of the windows of the somber mansion, but when people go inside to investigate nobody is found.
Back in May, I reviewed a multi-part episode from the Detective Conan animated series, entitled The Case of the Seance's Double Locked Room, which has a beautiful synergy between the two impossibilities of the plot and you can say the same, although to a lesser extent, of "I Was the Kid With the Drum." The ghostly drummer and the disappearance of Mrs. Sleeper are tightly intertwined. You can't have one without the other, but also appreciated how the actions of the culprit are dictated by circumstances. Or how Bud essentially acts as the unknown quantity in the plans of this person.
The result is a beautiful, logical and coherent plot that combines elements of the inverted detective story, juvenile fiction and the locked room mystery. And it worked! I think this story should be included in one of the future impossible crime anthologies.
On a semi-related side note, another detective story with great synergy between two impossible situations is Agatha Christie's 1937 short story "The Dream" (collected in The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding, 1960).
Finally, we arrive at the fifth and final story of this collection, "Daisies Won't Tell," which is a hoist-on-their-own petard yarn and it brings a wolf to Four Corners in black sheep's clothing. The story largely takes place in the past, 1903, which makes this somewhat of a historical mystery and concerns a black sheep of the community, Andy Curlew, who was disowned by his grandfather after robbing the village tavern and fled to Australia, but his grandmother grew lonely after her husband passed away and notices began to appear in newspapers asking him to return to Four Corners – only someone else turned up. The result is thievery, murder and a thirty year stretch in prison. However, the murderer gets a nasty surprise when he returns to Four Corners with the intention to retrieve his long-buried nest egg. A very proper punishment for this individual and perfect closer to great collection of stories.
So, on a whole, Four Corners is as close as you can possibly get to a perfectly balanced selection of short stories and I'm very tempted to say that there isn't a dud among them, but that's a personal value judgment that may vary from reader to reader. I only picked this volume on the strength of one specific story and did not really know what to expect from the rest of the collection, but this made it a pleasant and welcome surprise to discover that they all had something to offer. And I have always loved these slices of small-town Americana. Highly recommended!
There seems to be something of a Theodore Roscoe revival. Vintage Pop Fictions just did a review of Roscoe's set of stories Blood Ritual (which I just bought on his recommendation).ReplyDelete
"There seems to be something of a Theodore Roscoe revival."Delete
There's definitely been a Roscoe revival lately. Only a few years ago, Roscoe's work had been (mostly) out-of-print for decades and now a good chunk of it has been reprinted. Especially his crime fiction. A well deserved comeback and hope Altus won't let us wait too long for that second volume of Four Corner stories.