Thursday, April 23, 2020

Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, March 1969

Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine (March 1969) - The Alfred ...Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine. Volume 14, number 3. HSD Publications, Inc. March 1969.

AHMM, March 1969 at Goodreads
AHMM, March 1969 at The Alfred Hitchcock wiki

Overall Rating:     6/10

Overall, a very middle ground issue with no exceptional stories, though nothing truly atrocious either. Three stories featuring some kind of kidnapping, two others with hostages, and two stories featuring gambling. Then we have one bank robbery, one serial killer and a snake. Not to mention some surprisingly strong violence. My favourite story is Michael Zuroy's "The Experts," followed by the Robert Colby novelette, "Dead Stop on the Road South," and Malcolm Thompson's "One for the Money," along with perhaps the opening tale, Max Van Derveer's "The Gambler." A couple of forgettable tales which, at the risk of bringing undeserved attention to them, I will not mention up here.

An ugly orange cover which features an interesting detail. Hitch's left shoulder is coloured in a little. Initially, I thought my copy had been felted by a previous owner, but noting the same detail on cover images available online, this effect was the original intention. Or an error in the original print.

My favourite section is this friendly notice to help support local magazine sellers.

Three of the stories in this issue were reprinted in AHP anthologies. The Robert Colby novelette "Dead Stop on the Road South" was included in both the standalone Alfred Hitchcok's Rolling Gravestones (1971), and a decade later in Tales to Make Your Teeth Chatter (1980), which is probably where I first read it as a kid, though I had no recollection of the story. Michael Brett's "Images" was included, also in 1971, in I Am Curious (Bloody), while Frank Sisk's "The Return of Crazy Bill" found its way into Alfred Hitchcock's Grave Suspicions (1984).

And onto the stories...

The Gambler by Max Van Derveer (pp. 2-20)     6/10
To clear a large gambling debt, talent agent Mina Tilton is forced to allow her hottest young star, Academy Award nominated Sydney South, to be kidnapped for ransom. A fairly tense and fast-paced story, and though we know Tilton will get her deserved dues, there is a nice surprise waiting at the finish line.

The story presents us with an interesting moral conundrum. Protagonist Tilton is presented as selfish and compulsive, both as a gambler and once wife throwing herself at other men. Yet she is a victim here, and the real criminals do not get their own dues. Granted since the story is focused on Tilton, and the emphasis is on her own a-moral behaviour, this falls nicely within the story's scope. It's when we think beyond scope that we realize no real justice is done. Even the intelligent detective is duped.

A note on the interior illustration. This drawing captures a moment in the opening scene quite nicely. Only Chip, the man behind the caper, is dressed in a dark suit with a burgundy tie. The illustrator, normally accurate with story details, decided instead to go for a comfier look.

One for the Money by Malcolm Thompson (pp. 21-29)     6/10
Another story about gambling, and in one we actually witness some bona fide gambling. Former boxer and convicted conman "Pug" works at a casino, cleaning toilets and ashtrays. Wanting to escape his dead-end life, he forcefully borrows two thousand dollars from a small-time money lender, leaving him tied to his chair with a promise of repayment, and hits the craps tables.

A good story, and though the ending might be predictable, it does not diminish the tragedy. A short piece, everything is intended for effect, and Thompson does well in providing exactly what is needed for a story.

Snake in the Tower by George C. Chesbro (pp. 30-38)     6/10
Elevator worker Burt Abele is unhappy with the up-and-down monotony of his life. Furthermore, as we he wallows in self-pity at a local diner, he is keenly aware of the unhappiness of everyone around him. As a challenge to the static nature of modern existence, there enters a man with a basket containing a deathly poisonous king cobra. Of course the reptile is freed, and eyes potential victims.

What works in this story is not the minimal plot, but the narrator's outlook on the world around him. People cannot change, he thinks, and later becomes aware of how different people are in the face of death.

Author Chesbro is, of course, the author of the Mongo the Magnificent series. The first novel, Shadow of a Broken Man, was published in 1977. This novel originated from the novella "Strange Prey," first published in the August 1970 issue of AHMM.

One Way by John Lutz (pp. 39-43)     6/10
A police officer patrols a low income area, in search of one Tony Randello. Well written and interesting until it becomes obvious. That last section with an expository explanation is a little lazy, but decent enough.

The Nose Blows by Rose Million Healey (pp. 44-57)     5/10
Miss Ade of the Ade Agency, along with partner Ted Tierney, investigate the disappearance of a missing, well-to-do girl shortly before her wedding. Her parents are certain she was kidnapped, but appearances suggest she has run off on her own.

Amusing enough, with tidbits of wittiness scattered throughout, the humour both self-deprecating and aged. I was interested to a point along the search, but the denouement was less uninteresting than the investigation. The story proves itself to be more of a comedy than a mystery, and since the humour is slight, as a story it falls flat.

Bon Voyage by Jaime Sandaval (pp. 58-63)     5/10
Lane Johnson meets a beautiful Linda Wilson at the San Francisco airport, and with half an hour to kill before their flight, they sit in the bar for a drink. There, however, they are accosted by a drunken man they have difficulty getting rid of, and agree to play a small wager in order that he leave.

It is difficult to get more average than this. Not a bad story by any means, but predictable from the get-go, so the reading slogs along until we reach an obvious finish, which is unfortunately over-explained.

The Typewriter Shop by Earle Lord (pp. 64-77)     5/10
In search of a specif, older model typewriter, Rudolph Valentino Cirino visits the Typewriter Shop, oddly situated between a meat-packing plant and a record-pressing warehouse outside Los Angeles. He receives some rough treatment from three large thug employees, and is soon embroiled in some illegal goings-on. He and a beautiful passerby are immediately arrested, and some generic plotting ensues.

Another very average story, I had difficulties with this one. First of all, why would a successful crime syndicate send thugs to attack a potential customer in what is clearly a front. Just send someone to help keep up the facade. Is making such idiotic decisions what makes a person a crime lord, only to get taken down by a physical education instructor?

The Strangler by James E. Thomas (pp. 78-85)     6/10
Over the past three months, a serial killer known as "The Strangler" has been claiming two victims a month, one during each of the first week of the month, and another during the last. It's 1:30 in the morning, the last night of the month, and so far no victim has yet been claimed. In a bar near the train station, on a rainy night, a small group of people gather: the bartender, a regular female customer, a stranger waiting for his train to depart, and the police investigating the case of the strangler.

While the premise and the set up are quite good, the identity of the strangler is evident early on. Despite the obvious manipulations contrived by the author, the reader`s assumption will not be diverted. Too bad, since it could have been a better story.

The Experts by Michael Zuroy (pp. 86-95)     7/10
New York City bus driver Radford Mulligan is content and overly protective of his suburban home, resentful of anything, or anyone, that disturbs his quiet existence. A serial thief known as "The Creeper" has been silently robbing homes in the neighbourhood, and yet the thief does not worry Mulligan, though he scares his devoted wife Libby. Instead of worrying about this successful thief, Mulligan develops an unusual obsession: to kill the neighbourhood plumber. R. Kropowicz, the only available plumber this side of Queen's, is reputed for his shoddy and overpriced work, and as a result brings chaos to Mulligan's otherwise quiet and comfortable existence. Wife Libby, however, able to read his mind, advertises his intentions to the neighbourhood police, who warn him to leave such things to the experts.

A surprisingly enjoyable story with a nifty ending. The tone is light but not comical, and Mulligan's musings of how he would murder the plumber is entertaining. This story works on pretty much all required levels.

A Gun for a Kingdom by Anthony Marsh (pp.  96-108)     4/10
On the run from the local sheriff, a small-time crook holds up a cabbie and his niece at their cabin. As they wait for the law to show up, he confides to the cabbie the events that led him to his current situation. Small crime to religion and quickly over to desperate, violent crime.

Not a very good story. Surprisingly violent and with a point that is more than a little fuzzy. The criminal, regardless of his experience and victimization by society and the local church, does not carry much sympathy, and the cabbie, less a character than a device, is just as bland. Even that little crying niece does not serve her purpose. I didn't care how the hostage situation would end, only that it would end quickly.

Images by Michael Brett (pp. 109-115)     6/10
Two weeks after the disappearance of Oscar Middleton, a man in serious debt to a group of loan sharks, Mr. Orange receives a visit from a pair of police detectives. He was the last person who appears to have seen Middleton, having dined with him at a restaurant the night he seems to have disappeared. Furthermore, the police bring up additional cold cases where Mr. Orange happened to be the last person to have been seen the disappeared party. Cool and co-operative, Mr. Orange claims he is no murderer, and the police, despite the logic of their investigation, have no proof.

A passable story, and like many in this issue of AHMM, fairly predictable. I do like the name Mr. Orange.

A Hearing Aid for Carmody by Stephen Wasylyk (pp. 116-128)     6/10
As part of their standard M.O., a pair of serial bank robbers take a civilian hostage from the bank to ensure a safe getaway. Shortly after having driven off, however, they notice there is no pursuing police, and in addition, that their hostage has a bit of a deathwish. A decent story despite the weaker, sentimental wrap-up. The crooks are a little inconsistent: early on portrayed as strictly professional bank robbers, then transforming into potential cold-blooded murderers.

Wasylyk (1922-1996) is among the most consistent contributors to AHMM, publishing several stories over a span of thirty years (1969-1998). He has also published frequently in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine. His name is among the most familiar from the AHMM issues I used to devour as a kid, but his stories were never among my favourite.

The Return of Crazy Bill by Frank Sisk (pp. 129-137)     6/10
Reading through the paper one morning, our narrator recalls childhood days and the likes of the neighbourhood oddball known as Crazy Bill. The story follows the innocent summer game of a group of boys convincing each other that the grizzled man lives in a cave and abducts children. A good little story with a quick and neat little finish, which brings clarity to the story's title.

Like Wasylyk, Frank Sisk (1915-1985) was also a frequent contributor to AHMM. He too contributed regularly to EQMM, along with Mike Shayne's Mystery Magazine and The American Mercury. His short story "The Flat Male" (which appeared in two AHP anthologies: Down by the Old Bloodstream (1971) and A Hearse of a Different Color (1972)), was adapted for a 1972 episode of Night Gallery. Its reprint in the second anthology one year later is likely to have been inspired by the adaptation.

Dead Stop on the Road South by Robert Colby (pp. 138-162)     6/10
Successful real estate investor Stanley Sherwood and his wife, Barbara, are driving from New York to Florida. They are pulled over one evening for speeding, by a small county police deputy and escorted to the sheriff. At the station they are promptly arrested for driving a stolen car and placed in a jail cell. A scam, certainly, and as Stan sits alone in his cell, other victims are being brought in.

A pretty good story, this one. The victims are not very sympathetic characters, and it is a good touch that there is no clear heroic figure, nothing like the forced hero in "The Typewriter Store." We do sympathize with them, however. They are somewhat-but-not-quite-average people, yet the bad guys are pretty despicable, so we cannot root for them. Might have been interesting to read a version with less vile crooks.

The deep purple detail here is good, down to the burn on Sherwood's cheek, and placing the doors and shotgun where they ought to be.

Friday, April 3, 2020

Peter Straub, Ghost Story (1979)

Straub, Peter. Ghost Story. NY: Coward, McCann & Geoghegan, 1979.

Ghost Story at Goodreads

Rating:     8/10

Ghost Story by Peter Straub.jpg

There is a pattern to a Peter Straub novel. Consequentially, there is a pattern by which I read Peter Straub.

The first three quarters is taut prose, excellent character-building alongside a suspenseful plot: a mystery with some element of the supernatural. The next portion elevates the supernatural, as our characters choose to battle against evil forces. The final portion is exaggerated, a great climactic explosion while, for the most part, the characters have stopped evolving and, as they go all out against evil forces, threaten to become sentimental.

My reading pattern sees me glued to that first portion, interested still during the second, and unfortunately (but not always), disappointed by the finale. This was the case with Floating Dragon, which was proving to be my favourite Straub until that finish, and Shadowland which I read too long ago to truly reflect on. An exception is Mr. X, which despite some exaggerated fantastical elements, held me throughout, particularly as a result of its complexity.

While Ghost Story does follow this pattern, neither the fantasy nor the end are too outlandish, and the novel holds up well from start to finish.

Though a celebrated genre writer, Straub is foremost a stylist. His writing is patient and conscious of language. Atop this, his delineation of character is excellent, and makes the horror elements of his work truly threatening, in that we are interested in the people caught up in the tensions of his universe. Had the townsfolk of Milburn been generic slasher victims, we just wouldn't care much about them, and rather than sympathize with their situation, we may even root for evil. In addition to strong characters, and unifying those characters, is the character of the fictional town of Milburn, New York. The geography is among the best captured in a novel, elevating the basic function of setting.

Five elderly men of Milburn make up the Chowder Society, gathering regularly to share ghost stories. A year ago one of the men died, and now a second has also fallen victim to unusual circumstances. These men are strongly linked to one another, to their town, past, and through the malevolence of the woman hunting them down. Linked also to the folk tales that come full circle with their storytelling, and the title is only a representation of something greater, so that an arguably more appropriate title would be Creepy Folk Tales. The idea is that the evils our minds have conjured up in our folk years, in the form of ghosts and werewolves and vampires and changelings and the rest, are the result of a single malevolence that appears sporadically through time to wreak havoc in any given part of the world. In this novel that malevolence is seeking vengeance.

A truly fascinating concept. Interestingly, my attention was absorbed by the character relationships and the town, more even than by the evil spirit. It is as though the novel is primarily centred on these relationships, and the malevolence is introduced as an obstacle to test the relationships, like a death or a divorce or a car accident. Will these good folks pull through and overcome this situation? In all honesty, I would be intrigued by a Straub novel focusing on relationships with no element whatsoever of the supernatural. But he appears to have retired from writing.

On a side note, my copy contains one unusual printing error. Several pages repeat themselves: when you come across page 314, you can turn to page 283, and make your way back up the repeated thirty pages. I have the first edition but not sure which printing, and I wonder how much those thirty pages multiplied by the number of copies printed, cost the publisher (or printer). (Or forest.)

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