Wednesday, August 24, 2016

1954 STORIES: Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, Nov. 1954

In my mad obsession with the year 1954 for Past Offenses blog's monthly Crime of the Century meme I've completely immersed myself in writings from that year. This issue of EQMM was brought to my attention when I read that it included a story by L. Frank Baum reprinted for the first time since its original publication in an obscure magazine at the turn of the 20th century. TomCat, our resident locked room/impossible crime enthusiast, mentioned Baum's "The Suicide of Kiaros" as one of the stories he came across in a different locked room mystery anthology. Of course I had to track down a copy of the magazine. Luckily , I found a copy on eBay (why don't I have this kind of luck in casinos?!) and managed to make an offer for a price I thought more suitable for a 50 year old magazine. And when I pored over the table of contents what did I find but a more fascinating serendipitous discovery. The very first story by William Link and Richard Levinson, creators of Columbo and many other TV crime dramas and movies, when they were only 20 years old and still students at the University of Pennsylvania.

As readers of EQMM might know each first time writer's story is accompanied by a brief intro by the editors giving some biographical info on the writer and how the story came about. In the case of Levinson and Link the bio is longer than usual and filled with tidbits that you most likely will not find anywhere else on the web whether it be their separate IMDB.com pages or the Columbo tribute website. I learned that they knew each other since junior high in Philadelphia and became a writing team as early as their teen years. While still in high school they wrote and produced a musical comedy "that was so great a success that both were inspired to pursue a writing career." Having their first taste of "show business" the two college boys went on to write radio scripts in college and humor pieces for the UPenn humor magazine as well as detective short stories. They probably never imagined that their writing hobby would eventually lead to a career as the leading mystery writing duo of TV just under twenty years later.

"Whistle While You Work" is a neat little tale of a henpecked mailman who everyday looks forward to leaving his claustrophobic household dominated by his shrewish wife. Over a period of days a series of weirdly addressed letters in blue envelopes with black borders turn up in his mailbag all addressed to women. Later each woman who received such a letter is found brutally murdered. It's kind of a James Thurber meets James M. Cain story displaying a mature voice, an ironic sense of humor, and some keen insight for a couple of 20 year old college boys. If I were to give you the story to read and you knew nothing about the writers you'd imagine each might be a cynical old 50-something who had his fill of harpy of a wife.

The L. Frank Baum story is also a crime story rather than a detective story. It presents the life of a brazen bank teller with a gambling addiction and a taste for embezzlement who seeks out the help of a money lender to help him pay his debts and cover his "loans" from the cashier's till. He seizes an opportunity to make off with a sizable amount of the moneylender's cash only after resorting to murder. He then cleverly seals up the room and makes the crime look like suicide. Does he get away with it? The unusual ending -- especially for a story written in 1897 -- probably made jaws drop. I'm sure the story was shocking and considered tasteless and immoral by Baum's contemporaries.

Included also in the issue are a familiar Hercule Poirot story about poisoning and an unusual murder method ("How Does Your Garden Grow?"); a Lester Leith story ("The Candy Kid", first published in 1931 in Detective Fiction Weekly) featuring Erle Stanley Gardner's version of the urbane, wealthy playboy sleuth popular in the pulp magazines long before he created Perry Mason; and stories by John D MacDonald, Charles B Child and Peter Godfrey. I particularly liked an odd puzzle story by Laurence Blochman ("The Man with the Blue Ears") in which the reader is asked to find 18 intentional mistakes within the story. Some of them were easy to spot like knowing that lapis lazuli is a blue gemstone not a red one or that Washington and Lincoln appear on the $1 and $5 bills not Jackson and Hamilton. But lots of the errors like the mention of Pisco punch being made with Brazilian brandy (it's made with Peruvian brandy) or "a .32 police positive" (it should be a .38) went right over my head. Van Deen test for bloodstains? If you work in a forensic lab maybe. A regular Joe Reader knowing this? Probably not. Apparently Blochman, whose adventure thrillers and detective novels set in India I know very well and recommend highly, wrote a series of these type of "Spot the Mistake" stories for EQMM during the 1950s. This is also one of EQMM's more literary issues with reprints of two crime stories by Jack London and Roald Dahl ("Only a Chinago" and "Taste",  respectively).

7 comments:

  1. As my interest in GA detective fiction takes me down more and more obscure alleys -- obviously nowhere near your level of expertise, John, not yet! -- I find myself increasingly wanting to go back and check out the past issues of EQMM and the like...but, as you imply, it can be a costly business and there's just no sensible way or place to start.

    And, of course, there's the frogs:princes ratio of just how worthwhile an undertaking it will be, as I'm not naive enough to assume that everything in there is going to be awesome. Oh, well, one for retirement, I suppose...

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    1. Every now and than I like to pore over the 1950s and 1960s issues, JJ. I was a subscriber when I was a teen so I know most of the 1970s issues. After that EQMM doesn't interest me. Too many of the earliest issues in the 1940s are 50% reprints or made up of stories more easily found in anthologies. You can find EQMM issues at book sales and thrift shops for a buck a piece in my neck of the woods. Online used book dealers tend to price them a little absurdly, IMO.

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  2. This sounds like a particularly good issue. As "Invisible" says, not every issue would have been this good.

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    1. Sheer luck that this one turned out to have a mix of the familiar and the unusual. Bought it for Baum and found the Levinson & Link story which I think definitely makes it worth keeping.

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  3. Did someone say locked room? I heard someone saying locked room and came as fast as I could!

    So you liked the Baum story? As you said, the story is an unusual one and even today impresses as an anomaly in the genre: an inverted locked room with a murderer as the anti-hero, which seems indecent for the time, but I think you would be surprise how many people at time would be on the side of the murderer. At the time, moneylenders were about as popular as financiers after the Stock Market Crash of 1929.

    Link and Levinson story sounds interesting!

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    1. You can't fool me. It was the two links I included that got you over here. ;^) I only read the stories that were written and published in the 1950s and skipped over all the reprints. I was hoping the Peter Godfrey story "Hail and Farewell" was one of his Rolf Le Roux tales, but it's not. It's an experiment in POV story beginning with the viewpoint of a woman who commits a crime hoping that a stranger she chats up in a bar will provide her with an alibi. As we learn in the second half of the story told from the stranger's viewpoint he has other ideas.

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  4. I have boxes of these very old magazines that my mother-in-law gave me. Her friends and sisters traded every week. lots of different authors, titles, years, and conditions.

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