Thursday, 2 January 2014

Two short stories about corpses

I open the score in the new year with forgotten books at Todd Mason’s blog Sweet Freedom, this Friday, with two fairly readable short stories revolving around dead bodies.

Smothered in Corpses by Ernest Bramah, 1912

“But as I glanced back at the corner of the disreputable street, I saw a face charged with diabolical hatred watching me from the grimy window of the room I had just quitted. It was the visage of the aged Chinaman…”

‘The End of the Beginning’ is the first of three short stories in Smothered in Corpses by English author Ernest Bramah (E.B. Smith). It is a murder mystery where the murder remains a mystery.

One morning John Beveledge Humdrum, a physician from Kensington, London, prepares for a breakfast of bacon and eggs and instead is served up with a doubled-up corpse of a well-dressed young man inside his bookcase. The doctor recalls the events of the previous evening when a heavily-veiled woman in a luxury car had taken him to a poor tenement to treat a young boy who had swallowed a bone button. There Humdrum met a villainous-looking Chinaman with a pigtail. As the physician left the slum, a loud explosion destroyed the house and a singed pigtail fell at his feet.

Is there a connection between the corpse inside his bookcase and the Chinaman and the explosion?

Before Humdrum can gather his thoughts, he is brought into the present with the sudden appearance of Erratica, a beautiful young girl who appeals to the doctor to save her from her enemies. She opens the door of the bookcase, flings the corpse on the dissecting table, takes its place, and closes the door after her.

The “enemies” on her tail is, in fact, Inspector Badger of the Detective Service, an old acquaintance of Humdrum, come to inform him of the murder of the prima donna he’d met the previous evening—Senora Rosamunda de Barcelona, a famous Spanish singer—who was found dead with eleven stab wounds, a bone button wrapped in the doctor’s prescription, and a yard of pigtail tied round her neck.

After the inspector leaves, he opens the bookcase only to find it empty and on his dissecting table the corpse of an elderly Italian anarchist he’d met a month ago, instead of the body of the young man.

‘The End of the Beginning’ is an absurd story but a well-written one. As I said, it is one of three stories—the other two being ‘In the Thick of it’ and ‘The Beginning of the End’ also concerning John Humdrum—that Ernest Bramah carved out of a 120,000-word manuscript so as to participate in a short story competition of not more than 4,000 words each. This explains the absurdity of the tale. The three stories are part of The Specimen Case, a collection of many stories.

I thought the experiment was as ingenious as the story. This was the second story I read where a murder mystery revolved around a bookcase. On December 13, 2013, I reviewed The Book Case, a riveting tale by Nelson DeMille.


Nice Corpses Like Flowers by Dorothy Les Tina, 1943

The head and shoulders were part way under the work table, and the thin little coroner was complaining bitterly as he crawled out, stood up and brushed off his knees.

“Why,” he asked no one, “do corpses always get themselves in such awkward positions?”

The coroner’s wry comment doesn't help Detective Clint Fleming in his investigation of the murder of Fred Jensen, a young man, who is found with a florist's knife in his chest and the gilt letter ‘U’ clutched between his fingers.

Fleming is a sharp, cynical, no-nonsense cop who relies more on his gut feelings than on his powers of deduction to solve murder cases. It’s his instincts that enable him to find out who killed Jensen and why.

He questions three suspects, all of them employed in the floral shop—Pat Murray, a pretty young girl, Jack Unger, a young man possessive of the girl, and Herb Martin, a short and stocky man with a temper—as well as its owner Thomas Davies.

What does the ‘U’ stand for? Fleming wonders. Does it stand for the second letter of Pat's last name, the first letter of Jack’s last name, or the ‘u’ in murder?

Fleming, who is romantically inclined towards Pat, finds the truth hidden in the dead man’s secret formula for preserving fresh flowers and smuggling of drugs in out-of-season flowers.

I enjoyed this short story and particularly the character of Clint Fleming who resembles, in speech, attire, and conduct, the many police and private detectives of mid-20th century crime fiction. This story appeared in Crack Detective Magazine, March 1943.

The Chicago-born Dorothy Les Tina is (was?) a teacher and a writer, and served in World War II, in the Women’s Army Corps as a public relations officer in several posts, including Fort Rucker, Alabama. I haven't been able to find out much about Les Tina or her other works.

25 comments:

  1. I am unfamiliar with either of these. Sound mostly like mystery tales, I guess.

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    1. Charles, I was unfamiliar with Dorothy Les Tina until I found this story online. I'm familiar with Ernest Bramah's Max Carrados series though I haven't got round to reading it yet. These are mild mystery tales.

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  2. Smothered in Corpses is a great title!

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    1. Kelly, it certainly is. Ernest Bramah has written some unusual fiction. A readable author.

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  3. Nice start to the year, but they don't draw me in, unlike the recent Jerome Bixby - The Draw - post - the story which I still I haven't yet read.

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    1. Col, thank you. These are low-grade mysteries written in a style reminiscent of that period though Dorothy Les Tina's style and characters are more contemporary. I have a couple of other stories by Jerome Bixby who was my discovery of 2013.

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  4. This is my first time i visit here. I found so much entertaining stuff in your blog, especially its discussion, I guess I am not the only one having all the enjoyment here! Keep up the good work.

    Mixtapes

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  5. Dorothy Les Tina is perhaps best known in some circles as the second wife of writer/editor/agent/critic/mover and shaker Frederik Pohl, the (alas) recently late. The story was first published in CRACK DETECTIVE, edited by Robert A. W. Lowndes, who was an old friend and fellow member of the Futurians, a group of aspiring sf/fantasy/what-have-you writers, artists and editors based in New York City in the 1930s, which included some of the most important writers and editors in the fantastic fiction, and several other, fields...eventually. They were doing some sharp work in the '30s, too, some of them.

    from the FictionMags Index:
    http://www.philsp.com/homeville/fmi/s2414.htm#A74319
    LES TINA, DOROTHY (1917- ) (chron.)
    * Fear, (ss) Redbook Feb 1950
    * A Machine Named Mildred, (ss) The American Magazine May 1954
    * Nice Corpses Like Flowers, (ss) Crack Detective Mar 1943
    Private Detective (Canada) Mar 1944
    * That Absent Look, (ss) The American Magazine Apr 1948

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  6. Don't know if you can see this Google Books squib from Eric Davin's PARTNERS IN WONDER: WOMEN AND THE BIRTH OF SCIENCE FICTION, about Les Tina:
    http://books.google.com/books?id=ZoNDebTvUnsC&lpg=PA390&dq=dorothy%20lestina%20pohl&pg=PA390#v=onepage&q=dorothy%20lestina%20pohl&f=false

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    1. Todd, thank you for the fascinating inputs about Dorothy Les Tina. I read this story in CRACK DETECTIVE MAGAZINE, March 1943, which I mentioned in the text. I was also able to open the above link in Google Books and read a substantial bit about her life.

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  7. So...how about your links to the stories' texts?

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  8. Indeed, Prashant--you don't give links to either story above at all, that I can see. And much happiness to you and yours in this new year (by the common era calendar over here, which our ancestors were good about spreading around...)

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    1. Todd, I'll get on it right away. I think I read the stories at Archive.org.

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  9. One of Les Tina's 1960s children's books:
    https://archive.org/details/alaskabooktobegi00lest

    And a brief rundown of some of her other short fiction and illustration work:
    http://www.isfdb.org/cgi-bin/ea.cgi?92525

    nterior Art
    Highway (1942) [only as by Lestina ]
    The Leapers (1942)
    Claggett's Folly (1942)
    Come to Mars (1943) [only as by Les Tina ]
    Station X (Future Fantasy and Science Fiction, February 1943) (1943) [only as by Les Tina ]
    . . . Does Not Imply . . . (1943)
    The Spirit of Science-Fiction (1953) with Frank R. Paul [only as by Frank R. Paul and Tina ]
    Science-Fiction Views the Cosmos (1953) with Frank R. Paul [only as by Frank R. Paul and Tina ]
    "Time is the Fourth Dimension"-Albert Einstein (1953) with Frank R. Paul [only as by Tina and Frank R. Paul ]
    Science-Fiction Explores the Future (1953) with Frank R. Paul [only as by Frank R. Paul and Tina ]

    Shortfiction
    When You Think That . . . Smile! (1943)
    The Other (1944) with Wilson Tucker [only as by Sanford Vaid ]

    Shall have to seek out her novel, OCCUPATION: HOUSEWIFE...her lack of desire for such a role made her uncomfortable in her marriage with Pohl...

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    1. Brilliant, Todd! I didn't know Les Tina had written so much, in particular sf and fantasy. I liked her writing style in "Nice Corpses Like Flowers" which has got me interested in her other work. I'll be seeking out her novel as well. I'm hoping to read more sf and fantasy this year.

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  10. I've been a fan of Ernest Bramah's work, but this a new story for me. Thanks for bringing it to our attention!

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    1. George, you're most welcome. I culled this out from a short story collection within which this was one of a lot of three stories.

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  11. What a wonderfully bizarre story is Smothered. Like a wild, demented dream that is also a spoof of the genre. And can we believe it was edited down from a 120K-word MS? "Flowers" seems also a bit tongue-in-cheek.

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    1. Ron, "bizarre" is the word for the Bramah story. About the original length, Bramah says, "The author of the following story deems it permissible to himself to explain that the work was projected, and, indeed, almost completed, as a 120,000 word serial of feuilleton scope, when a much-advertised competition for stories of not more than 4000 words in length came under his notice."

      I'd to look up the meaning of the word "feuilleton" on the internet. Apart from its French origins, in English newspapers, the term came to refer to an installment of a serial story printed in one part of a newspaper (Wikipedia).

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  12. Both new to me and especially interested in Les Tina's story - thanks Prashant.

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    1. Sergio, you're welcome. The stories were new to me also as was Dorothy Les Tina. Todd has the lowdown on probably everything that Les Tina published. He has been a big help.

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  13. Here you go, then: the CRACK DETECTIVE issue:
    https://archive.org/details/crack_detective_v04_n02_1943-03-columbia

    The Bramah story at Gutenberg Austalia:
    http://gutenberg.net.au/ebooks07/0700291h.html

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    1. Todd, thanks for the links. I have highlighted them in the post. I was looking for the links when something else came up and I'd to abandon the search. These were exactly the sites and locations where I read the two stories.

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  14. I had heard of Ernest Bramah but haven't read anything by him. Very interesting. I am not much for short stories.

    I like your new photo at the top of the blog.

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    1. Tracy, thank you. The picture of Buster Keaton is bigger than I thought it'd be. I'm looking for a slightly smaller one. Meanwhile, I hope visitors to this blog have large computer and laptop screens. E.B. Smith is a wonderful writer and his stories hold up well. I plan to read lots of short stories across genres this year.

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