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,
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.
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.