Continuing my exploration of this thick volume full of lovely murders, Bill Pronzini, a superb writer, with a book on my Best 100 Mysteries list, wrote a lyrical love note to the railroad. Pronzini has edited short stories himself, and is the author of the two wonderful Gun In Cheek books about the worst in crime fiction–or best, depending on how you define it. He and his wife, Marcia Muller, are responsible for a huge catalog of quality work. So I wasn’t surprised to find him within the pages, not once, but several times, alone, or with a writing partner. Sweet Fever is narrated by an old man who describes he and his grandson’s love of watching the train come through the tunnel at Chigger Mountain.
“The moon was so bright you could see the melons lying in Feride Johnson’s patch over on the left, and the rail tracks had a sleek oiled look coming out of the tunnel mouth and leading off towards the Sabreville yards a mile up the line. On the far side of the tracks, the woods and the run-down shacks that used to be a hobo jungle before the country sheriff closed it off thirty years back had them a silvery cast, like they was all coated in winter frost.”
With this kind of prose, one is lulled into a dreamy remembrance of what used to be, railroads as gods, their passing by, an event. The old man speaks of his grandson, Billy Bob with pride, he’s a good boy, he feels he raised him right after the death of Billy Bob’s parents all those years ago. Grandpa muses,
“That sad lonesome hungry ache started up in me again, what my daddy used to call the sweet fever. He was a railroad man, and I grew up around trains and spent a goodly part of my early years at the roundhouse in the throttle of the big 2-8-0 Mogul steam locomotive on his highballing run to Eulalia, and I can’t recollect no more finer experience in my whole life.”
I suppose I’m partial to this particular story because grandpa’s sentiments are so close to my father’s whose own father was a fireman and engineer on the Pennsylvania railroad. My father as a kid, would bring lunch to a spot where the train stopped for water, or some such thing, and his dad would grab his food as the train continued on its journey. My father never tired of riding trains. His hobby was HO layouts. The soft cadences of grandpa, and their anticipation of the train blowing through the tunnel infects the reader and we are caught up in the moment. So it comes as a tremendous shock when a floater (one who loves riding trains and/or is a hobo) jumps off at the exact spot grandfather and grandson are keeping vigil, and the two of them mercilessly shoot the man down.
“I thought again, as I had so many times, that it was the way my boy Rufus and Billy Bob’s ma must have sounded that night in 1967 when the two floaters from the hobo jungle broke into their home and raped her and shot Rufus to death. She lived just long enough to tell us about the floaters, but they was never caught. So it was up to me, and then up to me and Billy Bob when he came of age.”
As a nice change of pace, Pure Rotten, by mystery novelist John Lutz, tells a story via ransom notes from the kidnappers and Pure Rotten’s (the 10 year old female kidnap victim) father, Clark Forthcue. The kidnappers begin demanding one million bucks for the return of the “spoiled rotten” girl. Forthcue addresses his response to Snatcher’s Inc. asking they do not harm Pure Rotten, but that they have grossly overestimated his financial solvency. The notes go back and forth, each time the snatchers lower their asking price, in the hopes of riding themselves of Pure Rotten, even as they threaten to end her life.
“Dear Mr. Snatcher: Free after many years of the agonizing pain of my ulcer, I can think quite objectively on this matter. Though my wife demands that I pay some ransom, ….. I suggest you dispose of the commodity under discussion as you earlier intimidated you might. After proof of this action, twenty thousand dollars will accompany my next letter.”
The snatchers are appalled at the suggestion they kill his daughter–they ask for 5 thousand to return Pure Rotten for ‘their trouble’ plus his silence. Forthcue reiterates his request that they do away with Pure Rotten. The final note starts with “there has been a take over of the board of Snatcher, Inc and my too vise presidents who haven’t got a choice agree with me the new president. I have all the letters to you and all your letters back to us. The law is very seveer with kidnappers and even more seveer with people who want to kill kids.” The victim goes on to demand money from her father, and ends with, “Sincerly, Pure Rotten.”
An incredibly creepy story is spoken from the point of view of a young boy. He is dissatisfied with his mother’s new husband. Everything had been going along fine with just him and her, after his father died. He doesn’t remember his father, he was three when his father went away. All the information comes from his mother–about how much his father loved him, etc. His father’s photo is on the mantel and he relates to it as if he were there. He can’t understand how his mother could bring another man into the household. Upset with the boy’s disapproval, his mother and stepfather take his father’s picture off the mantle. That makes the boy feel like he’s in a big black hole, deeper and deeper he goes, until after finding his father’s picture in a drawer, he knows exactly what he needs to do. Now he’s out of the hole, and it’s just him and his mother again. The policeman reassured his mother, when he stopped by, that the law couldn’t touch such a kid his age, and not to worry. His mother cries “But that’s what you told me 6 and a half years ago!” Titled The Way It’s Supposed To Be, by Elsiun Ann Graffam. makes an simple Oedipus complex look tame.
Another tale told completely though correspondence, this time between a jailed prisoner who unwittingly took part in a bank robbery with the money never recovered, and his wife regarding their farm. The Good Lord Will Provide, by Lawrence Tread and Charles M. Plotz has a nice unexpected clever ending. After long discussion about how hard it is to work the farm with him away, and how will she ever be able to put the crop in, he feeds her things to tell certain townspeople, such as an bank official. One such piece of conversation involved his saying he only had a year to go, and “then I’m going to dig up the south field and everything will be alright. His wife writes him how the police and his men were had dug up the south field, inch by inch, until every piece of soil was uprooted and churned about. They left plenty mad.The prisoner writes to his wife, “Dear Judy, Now plant,”
There are many more juicy little malicious tales, so until the next installment, try coming up with one of your own!