The Sad Serbian – Frank Gruber (1939)

A racket to mulct the multitudes is plenty reason for murder.

Mulct?  Yep, real word.

Sam Cragg is the kind of guy who will repo a car at a funeral, i.e. efficient.  He busts Anthony Druhar at his grandmother’s funeral.  His entire family can only come up with $32, so Cragg agrees to stop by his house the next day for the balance.

It is a good day for Cragg as he finds Druhar dead, with his head twisted around backwards.  So I guess he gets the $32 and the car.  There is a piece of paper sticking out of Druhar’s pocket.  Cragg reads, “For value received, I promise to pay Tony Druhar five thousand dollars — WC ROBERTS.”  So, a pretty good day for WC Roberts, too.

A moment later, a character futurely known as Prince gets out of a cab.  “He is wearing a black, single-breasted coat which is open showing a fawn colored waist-coat.  Under it is a pair of striped trousers and below that, believe it or not, white spats.  On his head, he’s got a pearl gray Homburg.  He’s carrying a pair of pig-skin yellow gloves and a cane.”  He introduces himself as Prince Peter Strogovich.  He was just about to give Druhar a job.

The cops show up and briefly detain Cragg and the Prince, but neither is a suspect.  On an unrelated case the next day, their paths cross again.  Cragg sees him leaving a candy store that Cragg is heading for.  Inside “sits the biggest woman I’ve ever seen in my life.  She’s six foot two or three inches tall and big all around.  She weighs 290 or 300 and none of it is flabby fat.”  She asks what he is looking for and he says — heehee — “a dick magazine.”

He sees the Prince exit the saloon across the street where he must have only had a shot.  The Prince hires Cragg to locate a man who owes him money — WC Roberts!  He says that his cousin was the King of Serbia, Peter Karageorgovich.

Cragg goes to an address the Prince (because I ain’t gonna keep typing Karageorgovich) gave him.  He asks the super where to find WC Roberts.  The man laughs and pulls out his own $5k note signed by WC.  He says the Irish are buying them for $5, but the Polacks and Serbians are paying up to $20.  He says the Prince is in cahoots with WC and directs Cragg to a big Serbian hootenanny that night.

The Prince is giving a speech about how Edison and Westinghouse and Ford stole ideas from WC Roberts.  The notes are to fund lawsuits against them.  The giant woman is on the stage with them.

Blah, blah, blah.  And I mean that in the nicest possible way.  The story takes enough twists and turns that your time would be better spent reading the story rather than reading this blog.  But really, what wouldn’t be?  It zips right along and is filled with characters like the Prince, the giant woman, Cragg’s boss & secretary.  Cragg sets a trap involving a children’s book and the post office.

It all good fun.  Hopefully Frank Gruber shows up again in the anthology.

Other Stuff:

  • First published in the March 1939 issue of Black Mask.
  • Also that month, Howard Carter suspiciously succumbs to King Tut’s curse a mere 17 years after finding the tomb.  And some Hitler stuff.

Pastorale – James M. Cain (1938)

1.

It looks like Burbie is about to be hung for thinking himself “so damn smart.”  And this was the year before Gone With the Wind, when damn meant something.

When Burbie was 16, he ran away with a travelling show.  Ten years later, he returned with all his fingers so thought he knew it all.

Lida was just like him.  She made her living “selling dry goods to the men” and fortunately was not a prostitute.  She married an older fella about a year before Burbie returned.  He starts meeting her in the cornfield to play hide the cob after her husband goes to bed each night.  Eventually they decide they will have to kill him.

Burbie enlists another ex-con, Hutch, to help him do the deed.  He tells Hutch there is a literal pot of money just awaitin’ to be stolen.  While Lida is at the store, they go to the house and kill the old man.

2.

Hutch gets angry when he discovers the pot of money contains only $23 in pennies, nickels, and dimes, and a couple of those are Canadian.  Burbie claims he thought there was $1,000 in the pot.  He magnanimously volunteers to let Hutch have the whole thing even though neither of them knows that word.  When some visitors drive up, they replace the empty pot and take the old man’s body with them as they sneak out the back way.  They pick up some tools and drive out to the woods.  Finally, one of the stories I post about gets it right:

So Burbie dug the grave.  He dug for two hours, until he got so tired he couldn’t hardly stand.  But he ain’t hardly made no hole at all.

The excuse here is that the ground is frozen.  But for most dudes, that’s probably about right pace at any time of year.  They throw the body into the shallow grave.  When the head is still sticking out, Hutch beats it down with a shovel.  LOL.

On the way back, Burbie admits that he has been plowing Lida’s crop circle, Hutch turns the truck around.  He forces Burbie to cut off the old guy’s head so they can take it to Lida.  He plans to put the head in a box with a ribbon and surprise Lida when she opens it.

3.

Burbie is not thrilled at this idea.  The first chance he gets, he tosses the severed head out of the truck.  The bad luck continues as it lands on the frozen ice of a river.  The crack of the ice — the old guy must have had one of them Ted Kennedy 50-pounders — alerts Hutch.  He tries to kill Burbie, but he literally runs home, and hides beneath the covers of his bed.

The next day, a gruesome sight is found at the river.  There is still a human head sitting out on the ice, Hutch’s horse [1] is”damn near froze to death” and Hutch himself is at the bottom of the river “stiff as a board.”  I guess he had the $23 of change in his pockets.  The head ties Hutch to the murder, but Burbie gets away with it.

Some time later, however, he feels compelled to tell his life story to a group of people, including the constable.  He was so proud of all the women, all the liquor, Lida, and Hitch alone being nailed for the murder that he just couldn’t hold it in.

A short, fun romp.

Other Stuff:

  • [1] OK, they were in a horse-drawn carriage.  But truck was so much easier to type.
  • First published in the March 1938 issue of The American Mercury.

Faith – Dashiell Hammett (Unpublished)

Fifty men are sitting in the barracks of the canning factory listening to Morphy rail about the factory, the boss, the equipment, the pay.  They are described as “migratory workmen”, which means they were Americans who traveled the USA doing those jobs that Americans won’t do.

Feach laughs, which is considered a huge faux pas.  Morphy asks what is so funny.  He says, “I’ve saw worse, and I expect to see worse” ironically not referring to his grammar.

The next night Morphy proclaims there is no God.  Feach clearly believes otherwise. Morphy demands proof of God’s existence.  Several nights later, Feach wags his finger at Morphy and screeches, “Of course there’s a God!  There’s got to be!”  It took him a week to come with that?  Pascal put more thought into it.  He also cites “the moon and the sun and the stars and flowers and rain.”  Morphy is unimpressed and says “Edison could have made them for all you know.”  Yeah, except he wouldn’t have let God get the credit.

Feach’s most convincing argument is that he knows there is a God because God cursed him.  He had a wife and kid in Ohio — lightning burned down his house with them in it.  He started work in a coal mine and 3 days later a cave-in killed 14 men.  He worked in a box factory that burned down within a week.  He was sleeping in a house in Galveston that was destroyed by a hurricane.  He shipped out of Charleston and all hands except him drowned.  Tough break about the wife and kid, but I’m not seeing the curse.  Feach thinks God is trying to kill him — what a glass-half-empty kind of guy.

Feach says it is happening “because I done a thing” but doesn’t elaborate.  Morphy says “A hell of a Jonah you are!”  Feach warns them that something bad is coming, and not just that last episode of Ray Bradbury Theater in 5 days.

That night, Feach pours gasoline around the 2 barracks and burns them to the ground.  His excuse to Morphy is “Maybe I done it.  And maybe Something used me to do it.  Anyways, if it hadn’t been that, it’d maybe been something worse.”

I’m not sure where Hammett was going with this one.  Are Feach’s tragedies self-inflicted?  Maybe he set the fire that killed his wife and kid, but he didn’t cause a hurricane.

Or was killing his family the thing he done and God really was trying to kill him with the other calamities?  If so, then Hammett muddled the narrative by having the box factory burn down — that could have been by Feach’s human hand.

Was the box factory the same situation as the barracks — him causing a disaster to prevent a larger disaster?  We know he is a fire-bug.  Or was God indeed working through him?

I liked the story and the style.  Of course, it was unpublished, therefore maybe not finished.  If you take it as a fragment, it’s pretty good.

Other Stuff:

You’ll Always Remember Me – Steve Fisher (1938)

Our star wakes up to Pushton blowing the beagle bugle.  He goes down the row of beds, tearing the covers from everyone.  He yells, “Get up!  Get up!  Don’t you hear Pushton blowing his lungs out?”  Who is this grizzled leader?  Sgt. Hartman?  Sgt. Foley?  Sgt. Carter?  [1] No, it is 14 year old Martin Thorpe at the Clark Military Academy.

He is unhappy with the school despite the double tuition his father has to pay to keep them from expelling him.  He thinks, “I swear there isn’t a 14 year old in it that I could talk to without wanting to push in his face.”  He feels this way because he thinks he is smarter than everyone else, so I’m sure guys from 15 to 50 (and above, but alliteration, ya know) find his mug imminently punchable also.

He is trying to get the latest on his pal Tommy Smith.  A senior tells him the governor didn’t come through, so he will be hung on Friday.  Martin didn’t think they had the evidence to convict Tommy of “putting a knife in his old man’s back.”  He has the hots for Tommy’s 15 year old sister Marie, but fears her brother’s execution might be a downer for their relationship.

Martin had been at the Smith house the night of the murder.  Tommy wanted to marry a girl his father did not approve of.  Martin says, “Tommy was a nice enough sort.  He played football at the university, was a big guy with blond hair and a ruddy face, and blue eyes.  He had a nice smile, white and clean.”  So I kinda want to punch him.

Detective Duff Ryan thinks Martin might be more involved than he admits.  He confronts Martin about the time the class mascot goat broke its legs in a stunt . . .  what a scamp.  Then there was the time he pushed a kid into an oil hole and wouldn’t let him out . . . just some horseplay.  Remember when he roped that calf, stabbed it, and watched it bleed to death . . . er, OK.  And he got sent away for observation when he poisoned a neighbor’s two Great Danes . . . alright, there might be a problem.

Well, once you hear about Martin’s shenanigans and hijinks, ya kinda know where this is going.  Of course, he killed the old man and set Tommy up for it.  He does have at least one more evil deed left for the story.  Suffice it to say, the name PUSHton was probably not chosen at random.  In fact, the name is spelled Push-ton in the first paragraph of the story.  I was ready to both praise the fore-shadowing and criticize the ham-handedness.  Nah, I was just going to mock it.  The paperback version also spells it Push-ton, but Push- is at the end of a line, so I guess the middle of the line Push-ton on the Kindle is just an editing error.  Quite a racket they have:

  1. Sell a 2.8 pound paperback book that is physically impossible to read.
  2. Force purchaser to then get the Kindle version.
  3. Maximize profit by doing no editing on the e-version.

Well-played, Amazon.  Well-played.

That goofiness aside, it is a fun, short read.

Other Stuff:

  • [1] Kudos to Gunnery Sgt. Vince Carter for being the only one not to use the steers & queers gag.
  • First published in the March 1938 issue of Black Mask.

The House of Kaa – Richard Sale (1934)

Jack Kirk is walking down the street and kind of has the willies.  He slips into a place even more willie-inducing, Gorgan & Wilkins Reptile Importers.  He finds the eponymously-named Gorgan and the eponymously-named Wilkins and the just-plain-weirdly-named-for-a-dude-from-India, Wentworth Lane.

Lane feels he is drawing suspicion because he only exports Regal Pythons.  He is ready to quit because he has heard The Cobra is in town.  Just to make things confusing, The Cobra is a self-appointed superhero who kills bad guys with darts containing cobra venom. Gorgan shoots Lane for his disloyalty.

Kirk is ordered to dispose of the body, so drives it out to Yorkshire.  He is followed by a black sedan driven by Deen Bradley of the Bombay Department of Justice.  These are the worst-named Indian characters in literary history.  He handled the car with dexterity, never shifting his cobra eyes (!) from the red tail light of the cadaver car before him.

The American suddenly saw the brake-light of the other machine flare into being.  Kirk slowed momentarily and as he did so, a limp bundle tumbled lifelessly from the car.

Wait, what?  Isn’t the American Kirk, who is in front of the Indian?  How did he see the tail-light of the car behind him?  Why would the 2nd car even apply the brakes?  Anyway, Bradley picks up Lane’s only-mostly-dead body and takes him to the hospital.

Lane is near death with 3 slugs in him.  The doctors inject him with Adrenalin.  He recognizes Bradley as The Cobra.  He only manages to say, “Code word Pythons . . . House of Kaa” before croaking.  That night the police find the cadaver of Jack Kirk. Protruding from his neck is a small dart.

At Scotland Yard, Inspector Ryder suggests to Commissioner Marshall that they not look too hard for The Cobra.  Kirk was a known thug.  The Cobra had cleaned up the streets in a way the police couldn’t.  Marshall admonishes him that they are a nation of laws, that vigilantism often gets the wrong people killed, that The Cobra must receive a fair trial before a jury of his peers.  No, wait — he says to drop the investigation.

Marshall and Ryder are visited by Bradley.  The author refers to Bradley as an American, so I guess the excerpted passage above makes sense after all.  Although, I have to wonder why an American is working for the Bombay Police Department if this is not a sitcom.  A colonial Brit, I might buy.  In fact, I guess Lane is not an Indian either, but just a Brit posted in India.  Are there actually any Indians in India?  I keep hearing big talk about a billion people, but they all seem to be Anglos.

Bradley says there have been a series of jewel thefts in Bombay.  Most notorious is the Kubij Opal belonging to Rajah Sarankh.  Bradley is investigating how these jewels are getting into London past the watchful scrutiny of your Revenue Officers.  I like how the real crime is that the government might not be getting their cut.

The officers deduce that Gorgan & Wilkins Reptile Importers are the center of the smuggling operation.  They hide jewels in food and feed them to the snakes.  By the time the snakes poop them out, they have arrived in England.

Bradley next visits Gorgan & Wilkins Reptile Importers.  He tells them he followed Lane’s work in Bombay and wants to be part of the organization.  When challenged, he even gives the password, Home of Kaa.  Actually, Lane said House of Kaa.  This story is 80 freakin’ years old — no one ever thought to correct that?

They figure out that Bradley is the “Yank dick” — hehe, yank dick — that Lane had warned them was hanging around the office in Bombay.  They decide to send him downstairs to be fed to the 30 foot python.  There is a pretty nifty fight in the snake pit and justice prevails . . . unless you are a 30 foot python just doing what comes naturally — then you get a bullet in the noggin.

It is a pretty slight story, but well-told.  The fight in the snake room is really the only reason for the story, but that’s enough.

Other Stuff:

  • First published in the February 1934 issue of Ten Detective Aces.  Also that month: Tina Louise is born; her first words were bitching about Gilligan’s Island.
  • Kindle gets the title wrong as House of Raa.
  • Kaa means “possession” in Hindi, but c’mon, this had to be a Jungle Book homage.