Two Bottles of Relish

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I’ve long been a fan of Lord Dunsany’s beautiful prose, and I can’t get as much of it as I would like. Much of his early work, now in the public domain, is high fantasy, which is a genre I’m not fond of. His later (non-public domain) work isn’t much published anymore. So I was overjoyed to discover that Harper Collins has reprinted Dunsany’s only volume of crime stories, Two Bottles of Relish: The Little Tales of Smethers and Other Stories — and at a very reasonable price. An early Christmas gift to me! Continue reading

Not Holmes: American Detective Stories from a Century Ago

American Rivals of Sherlock Holmes

Several years ago, at a wonderful, now gone bookstore called Outerlands, I found a collection called The American Rivals of Sherlock Holmes, edited by Hugh Greene (one-time Director-General of the BBC, journalist, and Graham Greene’s brother). The book is one of a series of “Rivals of Sherlock Holmes” anthologies Greene edited in the 1970s. Most of the stories, as you would expect, are of the whodunit or puzzle variety.

What’s especially interesting is the difference in subject matter between typical stories in the Holmesian style and these contemporaneous American offerings. British mystery stories from this period tend to be about interpersonal crime: crimes of passion, crimes over money or jewels, or jealousy. There is the occasional case of international espionage, but the criminals are almost always individual actors. Many of the stories in this collection are American transpositions of these classic themes, but others go beyond the personal to corporate or political crime.

Here’s Greene:

Sometimes one realizes with a sense of shock how modern these differences make them appear. We find a brutal and corrupt police force, corrupt politicians, bugging, big and wealthy corporations using their power to cheat the Federal Government or to put small competitors out of business, methods used by political parties in elections which are extraordinarily reminiscent of Nixon’s CREEP.

Rereading these stories this past month, I found a particularly interesting theme running through several of these now century-old stories.

  1. Big business routinely engage in corrupt practices for the sake of the bottom line.
  2. When caught, only the little guys (those who implemented the crimes) get punished. The corporate officers, who instigated, or at least encouraged the crimes, get off lightly, or perhaps even completely.
  3. That the big guys get off is wrong. But there are members of the Government — Senators, Federal Agents, and others — who are intent on making the big guys pay.

The first two points still sound awfully familiar, and far too topical, a century later. The last point, I fear, we no longer believe. Do these stories mean that we once trusted more in the State to protect the public’s interest against big business? Or does it mean the opposite: were these stories escapist fantasy about the world we wished that we lived in?

It is the strong hope of the country that there is justice and fairness and sane commonsense at the American bottom of us, if you can only get at it.

— Francis Lynde, “The Cloud-Bursters” Continue reading

The Half-Haunted

Christmas is past, the days are getting longer again, but winter is still here! Today, a winter tale set on New Year’s Eve: “The Half-Haunted” by Manly Wade Wellman (1903-1986), writing as Gans T. Field. And some literary gossip, too.

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Manly Wade Wellman wrote science-fiction, fantasy, mystery, young adult adventure stories, and history, mostly of the South and the Civil War. He was fond of the occult detective genre, and is perhaps best known for his three occult detectives: Silver John (or John the Balladeer), Judge Pursuivant, and John Thunstone. Silver John is my favorite of the three.

Wellman is also notorious for having beat out William Faulkner for the first Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine award in 1946, with a tale featuring one of the earliest fictional Native American detectives, David Return. The story was called “Star for a Warrior.” Faulkner, already a highly-regarded literary author (He won the Nobel Prize for Literature just three years later, in 1949) was not too pleased at taking second place in a “manufactured mystery story contest” behind a mere pulp writer. However Faulkner’s story, “An Error in Chemistry,” had been turned down nine times before he submitted it to Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, and EQMM would only take it after Faulkner cleared up a plot point. So perhaps it wasn’t his best work. I’ve read it, it’s quite good, though the ending feels a trifle contrived — but then again, so does the ending of “Star for a Warrior.”

Anyway, back to our winter tale. “The Half-Haunted” was originally published in the September 1941 issue of Weird Tales. It is the last of the Judge Pursuivant stories.

For six months Judge Pursuivant had intended to visit that old dwelling with the strange history but Judge Pursuivant often has trouble finding time to do what he most wants. The fall passed, the winter came. He spent Christmas, not very joyfully, helping the widow of a friend repossess some property at Salem. New Year’s Eve found him at Harrisonville, where de Graudin and Towbridge wanted his word on translating certain old Dutch documents better left untranslated. Heading west and south toward his home, he passed Scott’s Meadows. And, though it was nearly dark and snowy, he could not resist the opportunity to visit Criley’s Mill then and there.

The site of a Revolutionary War era murder still holds its memories — and more.

This story is more action-packed than spooky; the tagline in Weird Tales was “Judge Pursuivant Routs a Murderous, Hunchbacked Hulk of a Phantom!” Yes, with exclamation point. But it’s fun.

And did you notice? The pair “de Graudin and Towbridge” sound awfully like Jules de Grandin and Dr. Trowbridge, the Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson of occult detectives, created by Seabury Quinn. An almost cross-over! I wonder if Quinn ever reciprocated.

You can read The Half-Haunted at Wikisource, here.

Enjoy, and Happy New Year.


A list (with links) of the winter tales I’ve shared in previous years is on my Winter Tales page.

You can read some of my previous posts about Wellman’s Silver John stories here and here.

The illustration is by Hannes Bok (Wayne Francis Woodard), from the original Weird Tales publication. Image sourced from Wikisource.

You can read Wellman’s “Star for a Warrior” here. The only link I could find for Faulkner’s “An Error in Chemistry” looked a bit sketchy, but the story was reprinted in both The Oxford Book of American Detective Stories and The Best American Mystery Stories of the Century. Tony Hillerman edited both of those collections, and neither one contains “Star for a Warrior,” so obviously Mr. Hillerman did not agree with the judges of that first Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine award.

You can read an account of the great Wellman versus Faulkner showdown at The Passing Tramp blog here and with further details here. The second link is the only version I can find online to the Oregon Literary Review article that The Passing Tramp references.

The third finalist for the EQMM prize that year was T.S. Stribling, who wrote mystery and adventure for the pulp magazines, and serious novels about the American South. He won the Pulitzer Prize in 1933 for his novel The Store. His story was called “Count Jalacki goes Fishing,” from the September 1946 issue of EQMM.