Reviews by Len Wilburn, Page and Burge

Jerry Page:

magine yourself a criminal genius who has just plotted a crime so clever, so sinister, it will baffle the greatest minds of the greatest police organizations throughout the planet. A scheme so brilliant, with such flamboyant misdirection it can only be unraveled by a brilliant amateur detective. What could be more sinister to you than a Christmas Dinner partaken of by Ellery Queen and his fiancee, Paula Paris?

Of course you are no criminal genius at all but a member of that much more noble fraternity, the pulp reader. A pillar of your community, admired and emulated by people of taste and perception everywhere. Though the joining of that sleuthing genius Ellery Queen and Christmas Dinner might hint at sinister doings to emerge shortly, it hints at nothing aimed at you but entertainment. Therefore --

But wait a minute. Do you hear what I hear? Christmas dinner? Maybe we ought to be listening to Ellery and Paula's conversation; maybe it's a clue. They're talking about next Sunday: New Year's. And the annual Rose Bowl football game.

And we're talking about "The Trojan Horse" by Ellery Queen, in the December, 1939 issue of The Blue Book Magazine.

That's the Southern California Trojans, of course. As circumstances would have it, they're in the Rose Bowl. And guess what? They're playing the Carolina Spartans. What detective could resist when a game like that's afoot?

It seems neither our detective nor his lovely fiancee have actual tickets to the game. But Paula has an idea: Pop Wing. Not an offensive formation, but USC's top alumnae. If anyone has tickets, he does. They love Pop Wing so much at the USC athletic department that they have presented him with the game ball after every Rose Bowl for the last fifteen years. He has a veritable museum of such knickknacks.

He also has a beautiful young daughter, Joan, engaged to Rodney Crockett, the Trojan's star player. The Rose Bowl game on Sunday will be Roddy's last game; and immediately afterwards, he and Joan will be married.

But mystery story readers live not by sports -- or romance -- alone. They must have mystery as well. Pop Wing intends to surprise his daughter with a very expensive sapphire necklace. But it's stolen -- at the game.

This is one of a handful of sports-related detective stories written for Blue Book by Ellery Queen the writer and starring Ellery Queen the detective. You may find them along with several other stories in the collection The New Adventures of Ellery Queen.

Queen (the writer) was the pen-name of cousins, Manfred Lee and Frederick Dannay, who wrote stories about Ellery Queen and other detectives until the death of Lee. (Other writers who ghosted novels and stories by and sometimes about Queen include Edward Hoch, Avram Davidson, Theodore Sturgeon and Jack Vance.)

The cousins created Ellery Queen in the late twenties to win a mystery novel writing contest and the rest is history. At first their detective was a sort of doppelganger of Philo Vance, but as fashions in detective credibility changed, so did Queen. "Trojan Horse" is part of his middle or Hollywood period. After WWII, Ellery moved back to New York where he took on, it seems to me, a somewhat more ordinary and certainly more serious personality and starred in some of the most important mystery novels of the period: The King is Dead, Cat o' Nine Tails and Calamity Town among others.

It was Dannay who guided the fortunes of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine. Queen was generally regarded by contemporary critics as the American mystery writer, and his works certainly possess strong values. He was as steadfast as Agatha Christie or John Dickson Carr in his adherence to standards of fairness to the reader in constructing his mystery stories. His willingness to grow with the times and explore new avenues and themes only added to his integrity.

But I think it's clear at the outset of this new century (these words were written in 2001) that the writing of Ellery Queen must take a back seat to the achievements of Queen the editor, critic, bibliographer and all-around promoter of the detective story. In anthologies and magazine Queen discovered and promoted new writers such as Stanley Ellin and prompted new appreciation for veterans such as Dashiell Hammett. Ellery Queen's efforts, mainly but not exclusively through his magazines, have done as much as those of any person to celebrate and legitimize the detective story.

The stories of Ellery Queen lack the brilliant invention and common-sense narrative drive and structure of Christie or Carr. Which in no wise makes the fellow chopped liver. His prose often holds up better than either of theirs, and Queen's tendency to set his stories in Urban America -- even when it's the Urban America of sixty or seventy years ago -- allows them to seem somewhat more real than Christie's and Carr's preferred English countryside. (Whether that is a plus or minus is possibly a matter of taste, possibly, a matter of insight.) In the early stories -- including those of his "middle period" both Ellery Queen the writer and Ellery Queen the detective could be enjoyably playful.

The manner in which both Ellery's bring the story to its solution should please most readers who enjoy a good detective story. "The Trojan Horse" is a good choice for New Year's reading -- after the football bowl games have been concluded.

::Jerry Page

Jerry Burge:

I don't know how you celebrate Walpurgisnacht in your neck of the woods, but around here it seems to be largely neglected. Possibly my invitations to recent celebrations have gone missing in the mail or something, but I don't remember hearing any distant howling and screaming on the night of April 30. At least no more than usual. Anyway, if your nominal holiday is Christmas, Walpurgisnacht is about as off the trail as you can get, at least in this country. Now, in Sweden, Walpurgisnacht is widely celebrated with bonfires and rockets and such activities designed to frighten away witches.

In the town of Harrisonville, New Jersey, where Jules de Grandin and his good friend Dr. Trowbridge, dwelled during the second quarter of the recent century, Walpurgisnacht was evidently celebrated with great gusto, though not quite so openly as in Sweden. "The Hand of Glory," by Seabury Quinn -- Weird Tales, July 1933 -- reaches its grim yet upbeat climax on Walpurgisnacht.

The story begins with a terrified young girl fleeing in her nightclothes down a Harrisonville street after midnight. Fortunately for her, she runs into Drs. de Grandin and Trowbridge. Investigating, de Grandin learns that the girl's father is an occult researcher, Joseph Wickwire, who has discovered an artifact that, if his researches are correct, will impart almost infinite power to one who knows how to use it. De Grandin also learns that Wickwire is willing to sacrifice his own daughter to gain that power.

However, other practitioners of magic learned about his possession of the artifact and using a flaming dead man's hand -- the "hand of glory" -- to gain entrance to the house, stole the object. De Grandin suspects that Wickwire's rivals know that his daughter had been prepared for the sacrifice, so he and Trowbridge take her under their protective custody while de Grandin continues his investigations.

On May Eve, de Grandin instructs Trowbridge to watch the girl and to follow if she leaves the house. Sure enough, that night the girl leads Trowbridge through the streets to one of the least savory parts of Harrisonville and into an abandoned wreck of a church.

Here Trowbridge helplessly witnesses a macabre rite of sacrifice to Hecate, with the young Miss Wickwire as the victim. The outcome would have been tragic but for the sudden appearance on the scene of Jules de Grandin and a priest attached to the French mission (the French are of course more open-minded about these things), who see to it that the conclusion of the ceremony is not the one intended by the celebrants.

As usual, Dr. Trowbridge's faith in science is not shaken by the strange events he has witnessed. He remains certain that all of it has a scientific explanation -- even the monstrous shape he saw forming in the air above the girl just before de Grandin and the priest burst in.

This barebones description hardly does justice to Seabury Quinn's story. There is a lot more to it. Quinn writes so smoothly and clearly, that it's very easy to forget that you're reading fantasy. And he is one of the few writers -- one might mention Robert Bloch and Clark Ashton Smith -- who can successfully combine horror and humor. Most writers who attempt it tend to vitiate the horror element.

"Hand of Glory" was reprinted in the 1976 Popular Library paperback "The Hellfire Files of Jules de Grandin."

May you have a happy May Eve -- but keep your eyes and ears open.

::Jerry Burge

Jerry Page:

There is no holiday more American than the fourth of July. The rocket's red glare, community picnics, good old Uncle Sam, and a love for a pretty good country. The blue of the July sky and the warmth of the summer sun seem to hold the same promise as the Declaration of Independence. A holiday like that is worth two stories, isn't it?

If Independence Day is the most American of Holidays, what sort of story could be more American than a western? We find our first story in a western magazine -- sort of. A western love magazine. The First August, 1952 issue of Ranch Romances.

Ranch Romances was begun by Clayton in 1924. It was the first of the western love pulps. Warner took it over in 1933, and the Thrilling Group acquired it in 1950. Ranch Romances did not print the most issues of any pulp, even in the western field. (It produced a measly 860 compared to Western Story's 1285.) But Western Story only lasted thirty years, while Ranch Romances ran from 1924 until 1971 -- 46 years and still in pulp format.

Ranch Romances in the fifties was not only a leading western magazine, it was one of the finest ever. It published the stories of writers as good as Elmer Kelton, Talmadge Powell, Wayne Overholser, Giles Lutz, Giff Cheshire, Walker Tompkins, Philip Ketchum, S. Omar Barker, L.P. Holmes and other giants. Artists doing interior illustrations for the magazine included Everett Raymond Kinsler, who went on to become one of the most important portrait artists of the last half of the Twentieth Century.

Alice Axtell, whoever she might be is not, on the evidence of "The Independence of Sarah Ann," one of those giants who contributed to the magazine. Still, for all its slightness, the story is well done and certainly readable. Sarah Ann is the daughter of the hot-tempered cook at the McCann ranch. Her father's temper has fired up a dangerous feud with a young wrangler who has proposed to Sarah Ann. She's on the verge of accepting his proposal. The cowboy plans on starting his own ranch but has made it plain that Pop will not be welcome there. Add to the mix that Sarah Ann clearly finds McCann, the rancher, attractive and you can figure out the plot. It has little to do with independence, to be honest.

It all happens, however, during the preparations and celebration of a Forth of July Barbecue. Still, the story could use a few more fireworks.

More to most Pulp Spirit reader's taste, I suppose, is "Founding Fathers," in the July 1956 issue of Fantastic Universe. The story was written by Robert Bloch and is included in Volume 1 of The Selected Stories of Robert Bloch: Final Reckonings (1987).

Gangsters on the lam from the cops luck into a time machine. They choose to go back to July 4, 1776, where they intend to impersonate several of the Founding Fathers including Ben Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, John Hancock and Charles Thompson, and re-write the Bill of Rights in their favor. Now there's an idea.

Fantastic Universe began in 1953, co-founded by Leo Margulies, who had recently quit as editorial director of the Thrilling Group. Margulies served as the editorial director of Fantastic Universe until leaving the company with the August 1956 issue. FU, which started as a digest, assumed pulp size in Sept. 1959 for its last seven issues. There have been rumors that in the mid-1950s it was consistently the best-selling science fiction magazine in the country.

Robert Bloch began his career in Weird Tales in the 1930s as a protege of H.P. Lovecraft. He developed a style of his own, providing short stories and novelettes emphasizing suspense, humor and clever, often surprising plot twists. He was producing in the fantasy and mystery fields, the sort of story for which film and TV director Alfred Hitchcock would become famous a decade later. Looking back at the 50s, it strikes me that Bloch (along with Fredric Brown) may have been as influential a short story writer as Ray Bradbury. If there had been no Robert Bloch, writers such as Charles Beaumont, Harlan Ellison and Henry Slesar would have written very differently.

"Founding Fathers" is not prime Robert Bloch but it entertains and is certainly worth reading. Very few, if any, of Bloch's stories fail to reward the reader in some way.

A word or two should be addressed to Bloch's writing style. No other writer of pulp fantasy, not even Theodore Sturgeon or (again) Fred Brown, made better or more clever use of words and language than did Bloch. His readers principally noticed his puns and humorous wordplay. But his style went further than that. The sort of cleverness that rings with such hollowness in the works of most other writers finds true substance in Bloch's always thoughtful stories. His use of prose rhythms is worthy of a monograph and I hope it's written soon.


Len Wilburn:

There aren't really a lot of stories about Labor Day in the pulps. Oh, yeah, sure, some in Railroad Stories, maybe a stray one or two in something like Blue Book. But those would be stories about working men, working. Or attending union gatherings. But really, how does one celebrate Labor Day? Well, if one is a science fiction fan, one goes to the annual World Science Fiction Convention, or used to.

Back in 1949, the Seventh World SF Con was held in Cincinnati, under the chairmanship of early SF writer Charles Tanner ("Tumithak of the Corridors," Amazing Stories, January, 1932 -- one of Isaac Asimov's favorite stories.) At the convention, Ray Palmer, just departed as editor of Amazing Stories, spoke to the fans about his new magazine Other Worlds Science Stories, specifically mentioning the third issue, March, 1950, as the one he would like them to look on as an example of the direction he intended to take the magazine. That particular issue featured stories by Ray Bradbury, Alma Hill, Henry Hasse, Richard Shaver (under his own name as well as the bylines Peter Dexter and Edwin Benson, the latter the name of an actual person used here by mistake) and Ray Palmer himself. It was Palmer's belief that these stories covered a very wide range of SF, with a broad appeal to readers. One of those stories was "Mahaffey's Mystery," by Frank Patton (really Ray Palmer). It actually takes place at the 1949 World SF Convention in Cincinnati.

The narrator of the story is Charles Tanner himself. Tanner plans to stage a fake murder as a publicity stunt, with himself as a victim. A man named Joe offers to take care of the entire matter. He also claims to be a Martian. The story makes use of several actual people from the SF field as characters, among them Rog Phillips, Ted Carnell, Forrest J Ackerman, Jack Williamson, Lloyd Arthur Eshbach and Wilson Tucker (though he's offstage). The most important character from real life (if you ignore Tanner) is Bea Mahaffey, who Joe selects as his victim. At one point, when Rog Phillips breaks into her hotel room a pool of blood is found -- but no Bea Mahaffey,

Of course this story doesn't really depend on an idea or plot. It's just Palmer having fun and, incidentally, displaying some of the mystical thinking that would dominate his publishing later.

Bea Mahaffey, by the way, was hired by Palmer as OW's managing editor, which should tell you that she survived the Martian's efforts to turn her into a murder victim.

It's been sixty years, but to old-time science fiction fans, the association of Labor Day and the World Science Fiction Convention is still strong. How do you spend your Labor Day?

::Len Wilburn


One thing I'm thankful for is Railroad Stories. Started by Frank Munsey in 1906 as The Railroad Man's Magazine, it combined with Argosy in 1919 and reemerged in 1929. It became Railroad Stories in 1932. I guess a magazine you're thankful for is a fine place to look for a Thanksgiving story.

If it moves fast and you can ride in it, it seems as if folks will make a hobby of it, not to mention a business. Not just one hobby, either, but as many as they can. Think of all those air-war pulps that took up valuable story space with articles on plane spotting and model building. Railroad Stories was mainly about the business of railroading, with lots of articles, departments and features, both illustrated (often with photographs). Fiction usually took up about a third of an issue and there were seldom more that 4 or 5 stories. But considerable space was also devoted to railroad related hobbies such as model building, railroad-centered postage stamp collecting, trips and photography. One of the magazine's regular departments was "The International Engine Picture Club," which allowed railroad photograph collectors and photographers to swap and sell engine pictures.

And one of the magazine's top short story writers -- not to mention characters -- was "The Engine Picture Kid."

His stories told about his adventures taking pictures of trains . . . sort of. They were mainly about his adventures with his girlfriend Goldenrod and her daddy Hardshell Higgins. Hardshell owns and runs a three and a half-mile long line, the Happy Valley in Saskatchewan. Goldenrod, despite being a girl, is a hogger -- that is, she drives trains. Recently the Kid has been, in spite of Hardshell's attitude toward him, working as a fireman on the Happy Valley line. In late 1935 they decided to travel around a bit and see other rail lines, asking readers of Railroad Stories to suggest places they should visit.

In "The Soapstone Limited," the Kid gets a letter from a reader named Bob Briggs. Briggs mainly collects railroad cachets -- first day postal cancellations -- but he says he can get the Kid and Goldenrod jobs on the Rabbit Branch of the Boston and Albany railroad near Athol, Mass.

The Rabbit Branch is so-called because of the popularity of the rabbit hunting in the valley it passes through. The line is scheduled to close. The valley will be flooded to provide Boston with a new reservoir. But until then, there will be a few more runs and there's work available.

Besides, "I haven't had Thanksgiving dinner with Granny Higgins since I was knee high to a trailer truck and Dad was engine driving on the B & M," says Goldenrod. Granny lives in Keene, New Hampshire, only about 40 miles from Athol.

So the Kid gets a job firing for Matt Theyer, the engineer on the Rabbit Branch and Goldenrod becomes a station agent. Because of their jobs, they don't see much of each other except when the train passes through the station where Goldenrod is the agent. The train seldom stops at the station because this time of the year, most of the passengers are rabbit hunters. Matt knows all the best places for rabbit in the valley and lets the passengers on and off at those spots. As Goldenrod says, "That's what I call service."

But the Kid has plans for Thanksgiving dinner and even talks the railroad into holding a raffle for a Thanksgiving turkey. The Kid will take a photo of everyone who buys a ticket that day on the Rabbit Branch, and a drawing will determine who wins the turkey. But the kid gets a photo he doesn't expect to get.

The author of the Engine Picture Kid stories was John A. Thompson who lived in Gilsun, N.H. Like a lot of Railroad Stories contributors, he worked on railroads himself. On page 136 he has a letter praising E.S. Dellinger's novelette "Hog Law" in the September issue. Dellinger's story deals with the battle between the early unions and the railroads and is thus a Labor Day story.

The Engine Picture Kid stories are lightweight entertainment, sure, but they are also (as much in Railroad Stories is) superb examples of Americana. Thompson's humor is easy-going and good natured; the first person narrative natural and convincing. The stories are about ordinary people doing ordinary things and Thompson never fails to give the impression he knows what he's talking about.

Give the Engine Picture Kid stories a try. Then you'll know what I mean when I say I'm really thankful for them.

:: Page