Sunday, December 4, 2016

VINTAGE PAPERBACK OF THE WEEK: Lionel White, THE MERRIWEATHER FILE (1959)

Lionel White is probably best known for his novel Clean Break, which is itself better known as The Killing, the title under which Stanley Kubrick and Jim Thompson filmed their late-noir classic in 1956. A number of White's stories were filmed, including this slight novel, which probably lost little in its conversion into an episode of Thriller, the early Sixties anthology series hosted by Boris Karloff. My edition is from September 1961 so Merriweather may have been reissued to benefit from interest created by the TV show.  At 121 pages it's one of the shortest paperback novels I've read and you can sense that White struggled to get it to novel length. The first-person narration gets repetitive at times as the narrator tends to recap things in a manner that made me wonder whether this had been a serial first -- apparently not, though. White is considered a master of the caper story -- another novel is called The Big Caper -- but Merriweather is more of a whodunit. The narrator, Howard Yates, is a straitlaced lawyer and recent widower who is drawn into a maelstrom engulfing his friends and neighbors, Charles and Ann Merriweather. They seem normal enough apart from having lost their only child in a freak driveway accident, but one day Ann confides to Howard her belief that someone tried to kill her by asphyxiation one night when Charles wasn't home. The Charles is taken in for questioning when a dead body turns up unexpectedly in the trunk of his car. He has an alibi, based on the estimated time of death, but isn't eager to publicize it. As Howard learns, Charles spent the night of the mystery man's death with another woman. Charles claims not to know the dead man, but Howard learns that Charles' mistress knew him. He grows increasingly convinced that Charles is keeping something from him, and as circumstantial evidence makes the case against Charles more solid -- we learn that the dead man was a gambler and bookie and that Charles had made some big withdrawals from his bank account recently -- Howard becomes convinced that the only way to save Charles' life, still presuming him innocent, is to tell a lie in which Charles did kill the man to rescue Ann from his attack. Ann is willing to perjure herself -- she'd explained earlier that she'd taken sleeping pills and was dead to the world on the crucial night -- on the condition, now that she knows of Charles' infidelity, that he agree to a legal separation. In the end, Charles insists on telling his version of the truth, however hopeless it looks....



Most people making their way through Merriweather will find themselves torn between two assumptions. They'll either presume that Ann Merriweather is the killer, having lied about taking the pills, or they'll assume that Howard did it and is playing an unreliable narrator, since he often seems too naive to be true. I won't spoil the story any more than it's been spoiled in the last 57 years, but I will warn you that there is more to Charles Merriweather's story than he lets on to his lawyer. Don't confuse my reluctance to spoil the story with a recommendation. It only means that anticipating the big reveal is really the only thrill this trifle can offer. I may call it a mystery but it hardly qualifies as a detective novel, since Howard Yates is one of the worst detectives you'll ever encounter and it's up to someone else to finally explain to us what actually happened, almost in deus ex machina fashion. It's all been buildup for the sort of twist ending you'd expect at the end of a half-hour radio or TV show. The best I can say for Merriweather is that it's very readable despite the narrator's rather stilted manner, and it's over quick. The best I can say for Lionel White is that I've read Clean Break and that book is a classic -- and I'd still be willing to read more of his work in that line.

THE PULP CALENDAR: December 4


No animals were harmed in the making of this 1926 Western Story cover. This was the period when the Street & Smith weekly boasted of its "Big Clean Stories of Outdoor Life," which means we're not dealing with Spicy Western here. This looks like a typical Twenties issue with two items from Frederick Faust. As Max Brand he wraps the serial The Iron Trail, while as George Owen Baxter he continues The Bells of San Filipo. "Baxter" was one of Faust's longer-lived pseudonyms; he started using it in 1920, by which time he'd already been writing as "Brand" for three years. Other familiar names this time include Frank Richardson Pierce with the lead novelette and Robert Ormond Case with a story about his series character Lonesome McQuirk. Less familiar names are Reginald C. Barker (with the promising contribution "Frozen Beans"), H. H. Matteson (whose "Tum Tum" is presumably more of a northwest story) and Frank Triem, who takes us back to culinary territory with "With a Pinch of Salt." Add the regular columns and non-fiction features and you get 144 pages a week, a pretty good deal at the time.

Saturday, December 3, 2016

THE PULP CALENDAR: December 3

Argosy took credit for introducing C. S. Forester's Horatio Hornblower to the American reading public, and they probably deserve some share of the credit. Hornblower first saw print in this country in book form when Beat to Quarters (known in Great Britain as The Happy Return) appeared in April 1937. Argosy stepped in in February 1938 when it serialized the second novel, A Ship of the Line, one month prior to its American publication and two months prior to its UK appearance. While waiting for Forester's next, Argosy reprinted Beat to Quarters as a serial in September. The third novel, Flying Colours, was published in Britain in November 1938. Little more than a month later Argosy began its serialization. The complete novel appeared in January 1939. You could tell Hornblower had caught on because he next appeared in a slick magazine, Collier's, in 1940. In 1941 Forester gave Argosy a deleted chapter from Ship of the Line that was published as the short story, "The Bad Samaritan." After that Argosy was out of the running for Hornblower stories, Forester's favored port being the Saturday Evening Post.  Elsewhere this issue, firefighter specialist Karl Detzer continues his series of novelettes about rookie fireman Michael Costello and Judson Philips continues his annual football serial, while Holmes Alexander, Edgar Franklin, George Michener and Garnet Radcliffe contribute short stories and the magazine finishes its reprint of A. Merritt's The Ship of Ishtar. Argosy had shrunk from 144 to 128 pages earlier in the year, and now it was relying on reprints in an alarming way, though to be fair, they advertised their reprints on the cover as "by popular demand" special attractions. The next issue started John Buchan's 39 Steps, which I presume was tied into an American release of Alfred Hitchcock's film version of the story. But however they spun it, reprints were not a good sign for Argosy.

Friday, December 2, 2016

THE PULP CALENDAR: December 2

The man on the cover is definitely a bad guy, yet I suspect that, all else being the same, someone would object to putting him on a cover today because it would somehow glorify the organization he may be presumed to represent. He is not a Klansman, however, but a member of a cult investigated by T. T. Flynn's Mike and Trixie in a story that was reprinted in the mighty Big Book of Pulp Stories a few years ago. This issue also features a Daffy Dill by Richard Sale and the second Rex Sackler story by D. L. Champion, who would take the character to Black Mask for a decade-long run starting in 1940. Dale Clark continues the serial Cop's Crusade and Bert Collier contributes a short story to round out this issue's fiction content. The lead story may not be what the cover seems to promise, but if the cover got your attention it's still doing its job.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

THE PULP CALENDAR: December 1 -- featuring BELLOW BILL WILLIAMS in "THE RATS OF MAHIA"

Here's a remarkable 1934 Argosy in a less than remarkable copy from my own collection. This issue was a must-have for me because it has two of my favorite things in a pulp magazine: a Bellow Bill Williams story by Ralph R. Perry and a Tizzo the Firebrand tale by George (Frederick Faust) Challis. This is, in fact, the conclusion of Tizzo's two-part debut, The Firebrand, but that event is understandably overshadowed by the cover feature, the opening installment of Theodore Roscoe's seminal voodoo serial A Grave Must Be Deep! Roscoe, of course, is writing about Haitian zombies, not the kind that eat brains. He was no doubt inspired by recent voodoo movies, including Bela Lugosi's White Zombie and the Fay Wray vehicle Black Moon, but Grave shapes up on first impression as yet another "old dark house" story in an exotic setting. A starving artist's girlfriend and patron is an heir to a relative who died and left a fortune in Haiti. Accompanied by a well-spoken native lawyer, the couple travel to the "magic isle" and encounter a variety of grotesques -- and that's just in the old man's household. He's left a will putting the girl far back in the order of succession to his fortune, with a stipulation applying to all heirs requiring them to stay at his estate for a certain amount of time. Need I add that the girl moves a couple of steps closer to the big payday in this installment alone? Perhaps I should add that the old man also stipulated that he be buried Haitian style with all the safeguards against being turned into a zombie, while the lawyer blusters that he doesn't believe in such stuff. For some people Roscoe's writing will be irredeemably racist, but this is a story in which everyone but our hero and heroine is a grotesque caricature, be they black or white -- that extends to a German hanger-on whom everyone calls "the Nazi." It promises to be all quite deranged, and I look forward to catching up with the rest of it someday.



Meanwhile, Bellow Bill looks to be in a bad spot. He joins the chase after a high-class island dinner party is interrupted by a half-naked Melanesian crashing the party, cleaving the skull of a society matron and stealing her sapphire necklace. Diving after the savage, he sees the culprit getting into a boat and assumes, since the sea is still stormy after a hurricane, that the gang must be heading for a nearby island known by Bill as the haunt of Knife-Hand Foster, a notorious "blackbirder" named after the retractable bayonet he wears over a mutilated hand. He finds Foster in his own boat, having killed the Melanesians in "self-defense" but claiming that he saw the sapphire necklace go over the side during the melee. Bill doesn't believe it but has no real clue where the thing might be, and no idea of how to get at it except to go to the rat-infested isle of Mahia, where more human rats await him. Bill and his creator are in good form here as Perry emphasizes that our hero has rushed overconfidently into a situation where he may be out of his depth, pitted against not one but two blackbirders -- slave raiders to you -- who seem to be working together but may also have separate agendas that make them hard to predict. As usual, Perry excels at throwing obstacles in Bellow Bill's path, including the vicious, hungry little title creatures. Few pulp writers do action thrillers as well as Perry, and anyone who's become a Bellow Bill fan this year should enjoy this one.



It's not Robert Carse but Richard Wormser who writes this issue's Foreign Legion novelette. While Carse contributes a sea story about an officer who takes big risks in search of fame, even when situations don't necessarily require his intervention, Wormser writes something more like a detective story in a Foreign Legion setting. This makes a difference. The protagonist of "To Hell For the Devil" is a detective who hopes to make a name for himself by capturing one of the gang who kidnapped, tortured and mortally injured the heir to a prominent fortune. A combination of ambition and indignation over the fate of the victim drives the detective to pursue his man across the Atlantic and into Africa, where he finds that his quarry has enlisted in the Legion. This is a problem, since the Legion doesn't cooperate with American law enforcement. It depends too much on fugitives from justice for its manpower, and turning over a wanted criminal, no matter how heinous his crime, would discourage enlistments. Our detective sees no alternative to enlisting in the Legion himself in the hope of coming across the fugitive, even though the Legion is fully aware of his identity and purpose and is determined to keep him as far away from his man as possible. For a while it becomes a standard Legion story as the chubby middle-aged detective is whipped (not quite literally) into shape and almost loses track of his mission. But a big battle brings together many units and gives him the break he's looking for. Had this been a typical Legion story, the sort Carse, Georges Surdez or J. D. Newsom wrote, you might expect hunter and quarry to bond in battle, forcing a dilemma on the detective in the end. But Wormser is writing a detective story, and once the big battle is out of the way the detective grabs the fugitive and bolts for the border, knowing full well that he'll be shot for desertion if the Legion catches up with him. Wormser's unorthodox approach freshens up some of the familiar Legion tropes, and even if his story does end somewhat anticlimactically it's a good read.

Rounding out the issue are Hapsburg Liebe's short story "Kid Sheriff" and an installment of Ralph Milne Farley's sci-fi/horror serial The Immortals.  This is such a good issue overall that instead of scanning the Bellow Bill story alone, I've scanned and uploaded the whole thing. It's a hefty .cbz file that you can convert to a .zip and then adapt to suit your viewing or reading needs, but it ought to be a treat for any pulp fan. You can get it by clicking on the link below:


And before I forget, this issue was sponsored by:


Wednesday, November 30, 2016

THE PULP CALENDAR: November 30


Richard H. Rodger's nice balloon cover gives this 1924 Adventure a sort of cover banner that contrasts nicely with the sky below. Inside, this issue features two of Adventure's longest-lived characters. W. C. Tuttle's Hashknife Hartley started in Adventure back in 1920 and mostly stayed there for 15 years. He continued in other pulps, especially Short Stories, until 1951. F. R. Buckley's Luigi Caradosso actually makes his debut this issue in "Cartel to Wm. Shakespeare," and would stay loyal to Adventure to the bitter end of the pulp era. The Renaissance adventurer would take his last bow in March 1953, just before Adventure changed into a larger-format men's-adventure magazine. Talbot Mundy wraps a serial and Hugh Pendexter starts one this issue, while mainstays Charles Victor Fisher, Charles Tenney Jackson, William Byron Mowery and F. St.Mars, among others, contribute short pieces. This isn't my ideal issue of Adventure -- that would have some combination of Harold Lamb, Georges Surdez, Leonard H. Nason, J. D. Newsom, etc. -- but it's probably pretty good in its own right.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

THE PULP CALENDAR: November 29


Paul Stahr's cover painting for this 1930 Argosy looks to me more like something you'd see on the cover of a slick than on a pulp magazine, but it's a nice piece of work heralding the latest Gillian Hazeltine serial by George F. Worts. This issue virtually belongs to Worts, who also wraps up a Peter the Brazen two-parter under his Loring Brent alias. Posterity values more highly A. Merritt's continuing serial The Snake Mother, while it hardly remembers the names of the other authors appearing this week. They are Oscar J. Friend, who continues a western serial, Harold Montanye (any relation to C.S.?) with a novelette, and short story writers Elliot Balestier, Howard Ellis Davis and Jack Falcon. Balestier is an old-timer who first published in Argosy back in 1905, while this issue is Falcon's first and only appearance in the venerable weekly, at least under that name.