The Dilemma of the Dead Lady – Cornell Woolrich (1936)

1.

Babe Sherman, “a good looking devil,” is packing his steamer trunk for a boat ride home from France.  He used his looks to fleece a woman out out her life savings earned at the largest jewelry store on Rue McClanahan de la Paix.  He also managed to pull a switcheroo with a string of pearls at her store, swapping out a $75,000 [1] string with a diamond clasp for a cheapo string.

He is hiding the pearls in a secret compart-ment in his shoe heel when there is a knock at his door.  A woman’s voice says, “Let me in, Bebe, [2] it’s me!”  He opens the door and she wonders why he’s dressed and packing a trunk.  He says he’s just going on a business trip, but she spots his ticket to the US.  The get into a tussle about the money he stole from her — one of them tussles that undoes the tiny screws on a shoe heel — and the pearls spill out.

Knowing he can’t let her leave, “he flung the long loop of pearls over her head from behind like a lasso.”  C’mon, how freakin’ long is this string of pearls?  Is it one o’ them 6 foot strings like flappers wore?  If so, how tall are his heels that he hid them in?  What are they, from the Tom Cruise collection?

So, he strangles her with the string of pearls.  It says they are on “a platinum wire” but that seems a little far-fetched.  Babe laments that she is “Dead.  Strangled by a thing of beauty, a thing meant to give pleasure” just like the woman in Florida who choked to death giving a blow job.  Ironically, a pearl necklace might have saved the Florida woman’s life.  But I digress.

2.

As always seems to happen, the porter knocks on his door while a dead woman is on the floor.  Christ, it’s like they have ESP.  Babe quickly realizes the only way out is to take the corpse with him in the steamer trunk.  He unpacks some of the hotel towels, robes and ashtrays, then “dragged her over, sat her up in the middle of it, folded her legs up against her out of the way, and pushed the two upright halves closed over her.”  He slaps a label on the trunk indicating it is to be delivered to his cabin, not put in the hold, and opens the door.

Babe and the porter take the trunk downstairs in an old cage elevator.  There seems to be a concern whether the elevator will take the weight.  So no one has ever ridden down from the 3rd floor with their luggage [3] before?

The elevator lands safely, and the porter takes the trunk to a taxi.  Babe wants the trunk stowed inside, but the driver wants it “tied on in back, on the top, or even at the side.”  How does that side storage work?  Finally a 2.5 X fare persuades the driver to put the trunk in the back seat.  At the train station, Babe tries to book a private compartment, but is forced to share one with a Yank.

3.

Babe insists the trunk be stowed in the hall outside his cabin, but the conductor says it is against the rules.  Babe flashes a few francs and persuades him.  Finally, after the train is in motion, he swings the trunk into it.  Babe discovers his compartment mate is a cop.

When they arrive at the ship, a familiar scene plays out.  The ship steward says the trunk is too large for a cabin and must be stowed in the hold.  The cop says, “Listen, I’m in there with him . . . put it where the guy wants it to go.”

4.

So the huge trunk goes into the cabin.  Babe figures he is going to have to resolve this situation in 2 days because the Frenchwoman is going to start stinking up the joint like a Frenchman.

His first move is to try to switch cabins.  That seems possible until the steward realizes who he is.  Suddenly nothing is available.  He suspects the cop got to the steward.

The cop ups the game by purposely spilling liquid shoe polish on Babe’s white shirt.  He has no way to retrieve a shirt from the trunk and can’t go to the dining-car dressed like that since he isn’t from Florida.[4]

The rest is very episodic, much like Woolrich’s earlier story in this anthology Two Murders, One Crime.  Fortunately, he is great at this kind of story.  Both stories turn into a rambling comedic pas de deux between a cop an a killer.  Both would have made great episodes of AHP.  Chandler might be the great stylist in this collection, but for pure entertainment, Woolrich is my favorite.

Other Stuff:

  • [1] $1.3 million in today’s dollars.
  • [2] His name is Babe, but the woman calls him Bebe.  OK, that’s French for baby, but it’s a strange choice by the author since it just looks like a typo.
  • [3] I never really looked at that word before.  You lug it around; it is literally your luggage.  I wonder which word came first.
  • [4] I am stilled scarred by a 50 year old guy I saw at lunch today wearing a wife-beater.  It wasn’t a 4-star restaurant, but have a little class, dude.
  • First published in the July 1936 issue of Detective Fiction Weekly.
  • Also that month: It got up to 114 degrees in Wisconsin.  Bloody global warming!

The Cat-Woman – Erle Stanley Gardner (1927)

Big Bill Ryan knows Ed Jenkins is flat broke. Ed is a crook.  Once his bankers found out, they quietly stole his money assuming he wouldn’t call the cops.  If it’s any consolation to him, they will be jumping out of windows in a couple of years.  I guess Ed wasn’t much of a crook; I don’t remember Don Corleone getting rolled like that.  Bill has a job for Ed and hands him a note.

Two hours after you get this message, meet me at apartment 624, Reedar Arms Apartments.  The door will be open — HMH.

Ed shows up at the address and finds a woman in a negligee despite the fact she knew a man would be there in 2 hours.  Oh, right — I get it.  The woman pulls out a $500 bill and hands it to the guy which is not the transaction I’m used to.  She follows it with 19 others as payment for the guy to do a simple job.  She wants him to steal a necklace, and to kidnap her niece.  She says, “Mr. Jenkins, once you have my niece, you can do anything with her that you want.  You must keep her for 2 days.  After that, you may let her go or keep her.”

He declines.  She counters that the necklace he would be stealing actually belongs to her.  Also, she is the legal guardian of the niece and gives him permission to kidnap her.  Not only that, she will let him meet the niece and she will agree to be kidnapped.  It is just a ruse to get the insurance money for the necklace.  I don’t get the role of the niece . . . although I could be talked into just about anything for $10,000 and a young woman to be named later.[1]  Somehow, Ed has the supernatural reputation of being able to get away with crimes even when caught, so the police aren’t an issue.  Ed agrees to take the gig.

She arose, slipped out of the negligee, and approached the suitcase.  From the suitcase, she took a tailored suit and slipped into it.

That’s it?  These stories might have a better pedigree than the ones in the Spicy Adventure Megapack, but they are a lot less fun.  This is especially maddening from Erle Stanley Gardner.  His books often had really c*ckteasing titles and covers, but the insides never delivered.

The woman drives them to a large house where she introduces Ed to her niece Ellery Queen Jean Ellery.  Jean has inherited the family subtlety and asks, “I understand you are going to kidnap me.  Are you a caveman or do you kidnap ’em gently?”  She says, “Life here is the bunk.”  She is happy to be kidnapped.

The woman explains this is the house of Arthur Holton and she is his personal secretary.  Tomorrow night, he is going to announce their engagement and give her the necklace.  At 9:30, she will pocket the original, let her niece test-drive a fake, and an assistant will grab Jean, tie her up and stow her in the trunk of a car that will be left for Ed.  To convince the insurance company this was a legit robbery, she suggests Ed arrive at the party, announce he was shafted by Holton in a business deal, and wave his gun around at the guests.  He will then escape to a seaside house the woman has rented for him where he and Jean will pose as a married couple.  And, oh yeah, he must not open the trunk until he reaches the cottage.  What the hell is this mysterious Clintonesque Get Out of Jail Free Card he possesses?

He worries about her double-crossing him and calling the cops although showing his face at the party, waiving a gun around, and kidnapping Jean might be enough to get their interest . . . you know, if not for the GOOJFC.  She agrees to write an affidavit explaining everything, have it notarized, and filed with a trust company.  We finally get her name — Hattie M. Hare.[2]  At the lawyer’s office, he catches the lawyer pocketing the signed confessions and handing the trust company an envelope of blank paper.  And here we go.

Of course, “the niece” was not the niece.  The real Jean never trusted her aunt and turns out to be cute, resourceful, and a graduate of stunt driving school.  Hattie grabs Jean and Ed goes Brian Mills on her.  He thinks back to “years I had been a lone wolf, had earned the name The Phantom Crook, one who could slip through the fingers of the police.  There had been a welcome vacation while I enjoyed immunity in California, but now all that had passed.”

Hattie gets away, but Ed saves Jean just as the police show up.  They are ready to haul him in, but everything is explained, showing him to be innocent.  Jean’s rich father vows to see Ed’s “name is cleared of every charge against you in every state, that you are a free man, that you are restored to citizenship.”  Well, it’s all well and good that her fat-cat father will bribe the judiciary in several states, but what had been keeping Ed out of jail all this time?

A pretty good one.

Other Stuff:

  • [1] The niece is 20, so that’s not as creepy as it seems.
  • [2] So much attention is devoted to cats — the title, Hattie’s cat-like eyes and movement, a leopard skin Davenport, a tiger rug, a painting of a cat — and Gardner names her after a rabbit?
  • First published in the February 1927 issue of Black Mask.
  • Also that month:  Buster Keaton’s The General is released.
  • The Kindle version repeatedly misspells Erle as Erie.

Two Murders, One Crime – Cornell Woolrich (1942)

Gary Severn goes out at 11:45 pm, as he does every night, to pick up the midnight edition. OK. Were there midnight editions of newspapers back then?  Newsstand operators manned their post in the wee hours of the morning?  There were people waiting on this delivery?  Severn actually has to “worm his way through a cluster of customers” and ends up grabbing the same paper as another man.  He begins reading as he walks home, hearing “numbers of other footsteps” behind him, which eventually dwindle to one; well, one pair.

As he arrives at his home, a hand comes down on his shoulder.  It is the man he played newspaper tug of war with.  The good news is, he’s a police officer.  The bad news is Severn is arrested for the murder of another officer.

At the police station, the guys are monkeying around with the eye chart and they are a pretty average bunch.  They bring in Mrs. Novak for a test as she was a witness to the murder.  Unfortunately for Severn, she can read the chart down to “Printed in Taiwan“. She busts Severn as “the man I saw running away right after the shots.”  A CPA backs up her story.

In no time, Severn is walking to the electric chair with another man accused of the crime.  The other man decides to come clean before he is executed.  He finally admits to the priest that he killed the cop, but that Severn wasn’t involved; his accomplice was a guy named Donny Blake.

The cops bring in Blake.  Mrs. Novak and the CPA decide, no that’s the guy.  Whoopsie, Severn has already been executed.  Kudos on this being quite a shock; you know, if some jerk didn’t spoil it for you.  The author took the time to establish a bit about his life, and it was clear he was to be the protagonist of the story.  Then bang, or rather buzzz, he’s dead.  They get word from the District Attorney’s office to let Blake go free because it is more important to let a murderer go free than to have the state admit a mistake.

Detective Rogers is the only one unwilling to go along with the ruse.  When Blake laughs at them, Rogers resigns from the force and promises to dog Blake’s every move; which I believe was the 2nd Act of Dirty Harry.

At first Blake is aggravated by Rogers tailing him.  Then he gets paranoid.  Eventually it seems to become a road picture; everywhere Blake goes, Rogers is sure to show up.  Blake eventually learns to accept it.  They don’t exactly become friends, but there is a familiarity.  Finally, after 3 years and 7 months, Rogers is able to manipulate Blake into a position where he will pay for his crime.

This was a very good entry in the collection.  It surprised me, had some humor, and justice was served.

Other Stuff:

  • First published in the July 1942 issue of Black Mask.  Also that month:  Harrison Ford born.

Mini-Mini-Review of Baby Driver:

It is so great to see a movie from a director who is in control.  The opening scene is almost too precious, but quickly reeled me into this stylized world through the combination of writing, direction and music.  If I had to come up with any criticisms, they would be pretty miniscule:

  1. Parts of the soundtrack are god-awful.  But then, I’m not 14.
  2. Jon Hamm is a great actor, but they put him in a leather biker jacket.  I’ve said it before, if you aren’t Vic Mackey or The Fonz, just don’t do it.  You will look foolish.

Chicago Confetti – William Rollins, Jr. (1932)

Coleman Fuller shows up in the office of detective Percy Warren.  His rich uncle Henry Fuller was bumped off and he doesn’t trust the police to get the killer.  He admits he found Warren by going to the Yellow Pages and backing up through the private dicks. Not only does he not seem to appreciate the insult to Warren, but that was also a shot out of nowhere against Nero Wolfe and V.I. Warshawski.  On the other hand, given that this was 1932, I guess we should just be thankful he didn’t find Charlie Chan in the Yellow Pages.

They meet up again at the office of Fuller’s lawyer Bond, Harley Bond.  Bond says if he had known Fuller was in need of some private dicking, he would have recommended a bigger agency.  Although, it sounds like Warren is getting dicked around pretty good as it is.

Bond says the fee for finding the killer has been set at $10,000 [1] by Carl Fuller, Coleman’s uncle.  Henry Fuller croaked and left $20M to his siblings, but excluded his bother John, and John’s son Coleman.  That’s a pretty good motive right there.[2]

To begin his investigation, Warren goes to see the Fuller’s valet Jobson.  After a pleasant chat, the valet hurries out to an appointment which the author seems to imply means he’s going to a prostitute.  Left alone, Warren asks the switchboard boy if he’d like to make a quick 10 bucks.

“I guess a 10 spot wouldn’t look bad to you, hah?”

He eyed me funny.  “Well . . .”

“Don’t worry.  Nothing like that, buddy.”

So what did the switchboard boy think Warren had in mind for $165 in 2017 dollars? This author has a one-track mind.  The dough was to allow Warren to take over the switchboard.  He takes a call from Jobson asking for Miss Kelly.  Jobson tells her to have an unnamed man meet him in room 311.  Warren traces the call to the Stopover Inn, hangout of the Lewis Gang.

Warren checks in to the Stopover and gets room 317.  He tiptoes down the hall to listen at the door of 311.  He hears two men talking briefly before the cops show up — well, one cop and the lawyer Bond.  A passing truck prevents him from hearing much.  The the cop, Bond and Jobson leave the hotel.  Warren sneaks on the ledge over to 311 to find the other man, but Miss Kelly catches him.  She spotted the other man and his description sounds like Spike Lewis of the Lewis Gang.

Warren goes back to Jobson’s building.  He calls up to warn Jobson about the Lewis Gang, but the call is cut short by a gunshot.  Warren goes upstairs and finds Jobson dead, but someone placed the phone back on the hook.  Warren looks around the valet’s home.  The first three rooms are bedrooms, then he goes to the bathroom, dining room and kitchen. Note to self:  Look into lucrative field of valeting.

Blah blah, for reasons I’m not even sure of, the rest of the story bored me to death.  At the end, after the lawyer Bond is naturally revealed as vile, opportunistic, immoral, but also a murderer, Warren and Coleman come together.

“And I suppose you know what a low-life like me wants to do when he’s come into a juicy bit of money.”

“Exactly,” he murmured.  He reached in his pocket and pulled out a full pint flask, and after I took a good pull at it, he finished it off himself.  “That,” he said, “is just about enough to last us until we reach the nearest speak.”

I looked him over again; and I liked his looks.

“Exactly,” I said.

I hope he kept the key to room 317; sounds like he’s going to need it.

Post-Post:

  • [1] Holy crap — that’s $165,000 in 2017 dollars!
  • [2] Actually, it’s a terrible motive.  Why kill the guy if there is a chance you might end up back in the will someday?  Maybe he’ll need a kidney.
  • First published in the March 1932 issue of Black Mask.  Also that month: fore-seeing digital cameras will destroy his company in 75 years, Kodak founder George Eastman preemptively kills himself.
  • Title Analysis:  So bullets are confetti?  Kind of dopey.

The Price of a Dime – Norbert Davis (1934)

On a personal note, I originally bought the dead-tree edition from Amazon.  This 2.8 pound doorstop proved nearly impossible to read, so I had to buy it again for the Kindle just to get through it.  For this amount of money, I might as well have gone to a bookstore. [0]  Learn from my mistake — do not buy the paperback.

Private detective Shaley is idling idly at his desk when he hears screaming from the lobby.  His secretary Sadie is trying to push a “fattish” [1] woman out the door because Shaley said he didn’t want to see anyone this morning.

She was sent here by her brother Bennie Peterson, a bellman [2] at the Grover Hotel.  She says, “He just lost a dime, Mr. Shaley.  And now Mr. Van Bilbo is going to have him arrested.” Seems Bennie had delivered a drink to a room and got a shiny new dime [3] as a tip.  As he was flipping it in the air like George Raft [4], he dropped it in front of a door.  Van Bilbo caught him and accused him of looking through the key hole [5].  Bennie instructed Sadie to have Shaley tell Van Bilbo there was no funny business.  She tells him where Bennie is hiding out under the cryptic Ben Kenobiesque alias of Bennie Smith.

After she leaves, he tells Sadie he is going to get Bennie for involving him in a blackmail caper.  About a week ago, a woman was killed at the Grover.  Sadie says the woman’s name was “Big Cee” just like my ex-girlfriend.  She had been mixed up with some gangsters.  She had come out here to hide, but it didn’t work.  The newspaper [6] said Van Bilbo, a movie director, had heard the story and paid for her funeral.

Shaley drives his “battered Chrysler [7] roadster” to the studio to see Van Bilbo.  “There was a group of Indians [8] standing in a silent motionless circle in front of the big iron gate.”  Through the gate, he sees his friend Mandy working and says “I need you today, oh Mandy.” [9]  He let’s Shaley in and after the chauffeur with the “swarthily dark face” [11] beats it, they are alone.

Shaley asks, “Why all the war-whoops [8] outside?”  Mandy explains they are extras.  He tried to tell them there was no work today and to go to Wigwam Depot, “but they just grunt at you.”  He then suddenly asks Mandy who “Big Cee” was.  Mandy says, “Her name was Rosa Lee once.  She worked with the old man on some serials back in ’09 or TO”. [12]  That seems to satisfy Shaley who turns to leave.  Mandy is less satisfied and tells him not to target Van Bilbo or “I’ll kill you deader than hell!”

Shaley finds a phone-booth [13] and checks in with Sadie.  She says the noneck no-name woman from that morning called to thank Shaley for getting Bennie that job in Phoenix. She told a caller where he could find Bennie for the interview as bellhops are so uniquely skilled that they sometimes must be recruited out of state.

Shaley high-tails it to Bennie’s hide-out.  A “fat [1] man in a pink shirt” tells him which room.  He uses a skeleton key [14] to quietly enter his room.  Seeing Bennie has been stabbed several times, he backs out and heads over to see the nowaist no-name woman at her job at Zeke’s Tamales.

He sneaks in the back door.  The Chef, “a short, fat [1] man with a round face” knows him.  Laughably, Shaley says no-ankles no-name’s “brother has been murdered . . . and you’ll have to tell her.”  Shaley heads back to the studio to see Van Bilbo.

He confronts Van Bilbo with a story that he admittedly half makes up on the fly.  Big Cee ran a joint (i.e. brothel) in Cleveland.  Some local “politicos” closed her down because f*ing the citizens is their job.  She came to California with “some affidavits” and planned to shake them down.  “But they didn’t want to play that way.  They sent a guy after her, and he biffed her.”  And afterward, I guess, he killed her.  Big Cee had given the affidavits to Van Bilbo, and Bennie knew it.  There is some Hollywood gun play.  Yada, yada . . . the swarthy guy did it.

After the last story, this one was short, breezy fun.

Post-Post:

  • [0] Old brick buildings where they used to sell books and over-priced coffee.
  • [1] Gravitationally-challenged.
  • [2] Luggage-management person.
  • [3] Still only $1.83 in 2017, cheapskate!
  • [4] Gangster archetype from 1930s movies.
  • [5] Old-fashioned security device used to secure a door before hackers could open every door in the hotel at once.
  • [6] Archaic delivery system for 24-hour old news.
  • [7] I flagged this, but imagine my surprise to learn that they are still in business.
  • [8] Native Americans
  • [9] 1970’s song by Barry Manilow [10]
  • [10] 1970’s singer
  • [11] A person of indeterminate color, although I think we can rule one out.
  • [12] I don’t know what TO means and can’t even guess at a reasonable typo.
  • [13]  Literally a booth with a phone inside.  Crazy, man.
  • [14]  A key capable of opening many locks.
  • First published in the April 1934 edition of Black Mask.
  • Also that month:  Jane Goodall born.