The Short and Shorter Of It–Part 1

I was never a lover of short stories. Until I finally read some. Now I find them appealing due to an ever decreasing attention span. I have read a variety of pieces, mostly crime fiction, and a couple of Carson McCullers, Wilkie Collins, and various themes and authors. Long ago I was in love with Dorothy Parker. I need to revisit her. I found myself returning to one thick volume, 100 Malicious Little Mysteries edited by the late Isaac Asimov, Martin H. Greenberg and Joseph G. Olander. Published in 1981, I have a hardcopy in its 15th printing. Which says a lot about everyone’s attention spans. The stories are written by many different people, most of whom I wasn’t aware of. I’m not a subscriber to Ellery Queen Magazine, or other short story publications. I suppose if I had been, I would be familiar with most of the authors. Naturally, Asimov, Bill Pronzini, and the godfather of crime short stories, Edward D. Hoch are well known. But such names as Henry Slesar, Elsin Ann Graffan, Judith Garner, were strangers to me, and I would guess, they haven’t published full length novels. I should google to research them, but I’d rather move on and relish in the retelling of some of the most malicious tales.

I’m not worrying about spoilers here. If you want to read all 100 mysteries like I did, and the few I single out, without spoilers, stop reading now! But if your’e curious about the themes and how it’s possible to jam into what amounts to 3 pages of story, in some cases more, in many, less, then read on.

The first story that slapped me in the face, as it were, with a big HUH? when I finished, is Six Words  by Lew Gillis. Little more than 2 pages, it took me a bunch of seconds to understand the ending. Self published authors should take some notes here, maybe you can land a real publisher with this writer’s technique. Funnily enough, the writer in the story is named Lew Gillis. Lew enters an editor’s office and demands, “Publish this!”  The editor, used to a stream of would be authors, gives him the typical rote response. “There are, of course, many ways, to get a story published. ”

Gillis replies, “I am aware of the many ways to get a story published, During the last several years I have had occasion to try them all.” He adds–“Without success,”

He continues on to explain after many attempts to see editors etc., he’s finally hit upon a scheme. He eludes the editor’s secretary, holds out his manuscript and utters six words. He explains that the words are ‘potent’ and that with them he’s managed to persuade most to do as he asks. Those few that didn’t, he explains, the editor would know by name at once.  The editor makes clear to Gillis that there is no way, no how, no circumstance where he would publish something he didn’t chose himself.

Gillis thrusts his manuscript titled ‘Three Words’ in the editor’s face and states, “Publish this.” with a decided air of conclusion.”Or—?” the editor inquired.   Gillis grinned savagely, “That,”  he said, “is the third word.”

My eye immediately spotted a story Trick or Treat,  by Judith Garner and I began it, only to realize it took place in England, where kids don’t go door to door for candy, as we do in the US, so I was almost ready to ditch it, when reading further, an American little girl adorned in witch costume with a dilapidated pre-war doll in a push chair, comes to a door demanding, “Trick or Treat!”  The English woman who responded, unfamiliar with the custom answers, ‘Treat”, thinking the girl was giving her one. When she realized that wasn’t the case, and the little girl with a nasty statement claims she would play a trick, if not given candy, the woman chastises the child claiming ‘extortion’ and all Americans are ‘gangsters at heart’. Her American friend was visiting and explained the custom. Unconvinced that it’s a reasonable activity, the owner pointed out the date was only Oct. 30. The next morning, she found an ugly doll’s arm nailed to her front door. Apparently many of the residents had various pieces of doll nailed to their doors as well. One neighbor was lucky to find the decapitated head, and remarked on how lifelike it was, compared to the plastic dolls of today. Another angry woman, commented how she thinks the family has problems and there shouldn’t be so much sibling rivalry within a household and she was going to write to Times protesting the “importing of foreign customs.”

Later, during dinner, the doorbell rang, and the little girl dressed as a pirate this time stood there and once again stated, “Trick or treat.”  The story ends on this ominous note, “This time she had her baby brother in the push chair.”

The third story I’d like to relate in this post, is called Twice Around the Block by Lawrence Treat, who was a veteran mystery novelist back in the 40s and 50s that I’ve previously read.

Harry had a well thought out, well rehearsed, well timed plan to kill his wife, establishing a perfect alibi and keeping him from any suspicion. It hung on a local industrial guard on his commuting route being absent for a certain period of time. His lover lived but a row house away, and they would spend their hours dreaming of when he’d be free. Timed to the second, he followed his plans, each step recounted in his head. When it came time to enter his home and kill his wife, he pulled out his knife and reflected how he wasn’t a cruel man, and didn’t want to see her face, he would strike and it would be over fast. His key slid easily in the door, the familiar hall welcomed him, and he did the deed. Back to the subway, around the block and home again, establishing his alibi, he tried to turn the key in his door’s lock, and it wouldn’t go.  Just then, the door in front of him,  identical to his lover’s, swung open, and his wife in housecoat proclaimed how glad she was he was back. She’d heard glass breaking next door and was sure something happened to their neighbor, stating, “Just think, it could have been me.”

There are several more fantastic stories to relate, so I’ll break this up into 2 or more installments. The stories are certainly malicious–but also great fun.