Murder on the Way opened a door for me to Theodore Roscoe, a gifted writer who can paint a scene as well as the best of them. I come to these books for the mysteries, but really, there are authors like John Dickson Carr and Roscoe who can turn a story into a canvas, filling in the gaps between what is merely said and done, rendering scenes that your senses experience. Roscoe’s one of those authors that you come away wanting to read more of, not so much because of the clever puzzle and twist, but because of the pure story.
Luckily I already had another of Roscoe’s titles on deck: Four Corners, a collection of short stories published in Argosy magazine during the late 30s and brought back to life by Altus Press. The publisher has released a number of Roscoe’s works over the past few years, although most seem to concern adventures – tales of the foreign legion and far flung lands. A review at Beneath the Stains of Time confirmed that Four Corners belongs to the mystery camp, and so it seemed like a natural candidate for the gift list.
We’re treated to five stories in this collection, each running a tad longer than your typical short. I wouldn’t call these conventional mysteries – there’s no central murder to any of the stories, no sleuth picking apart clues, no denouement – and yet each of these would be that quirky entry you warmly welcome in some anthology; the story that stands out precisely because of the story. That’s on account of Roscoe’s ability to capture a time and place with his lines and the space between those lines.
The stories of Four Corners are set in a small American town near the Canadian border (the back of the book states New York, but a line in one story implies it might be Vermont – regardless we seem to be somewhere between Lake Placid and Burlington). Read a few chapters and you’ll be forgiven if you think you’ve stumbled upon a long lost Ellery Queen story set in Wrightsville – until you consider that these stories were published five years prior to Calamity Town (1942), and the writing is superior. It’s not just in the New England brand Americana that’s similar, it’s the way that the stories are told as much through the town of Four Corners as through the characters that inhabit it. If Queen’s Wrightsville stories click for you, these are going to explode.
Each entry in the Four Corner tales features a twist that you will most likely anticipate. And yet, Roscoe lays a trap for you there, with most stories featuring a secondary twist that you won’t see coming. That inevitability of the first fake is too hard to keep your eyes off of, and expect that you’ll read each story (rightfully) assured that you’ll know how it pans out, but still get the satisfaction of one last jolt.
We start with He Took Richmond, putting forth the question of how an unarmed Union soldier was able to hold a hill against the Confederacy, despite being unarmed. No, this isn’t a historical tale; it unfolds from the memories of an aged veteran, serving as a shocking reminder of just how plausible it was that someone who experienced The Civil War first hand could have actually still been alive when this story was written. It’s not all a ride down memory lane though – the framing of the story is very much of the contemporary gangsters-on-the-run variety, but the answer to the question plays a key role in the resolution. Honestly, I can’t imagine how the solution would have been any sort of a twist when this was written, as it implies that an object that certainly must have been common knowledge at the time wasn’t. Still, this is about the story, not the solution.
Next we’re treated to Frivolous Sal, the title referring to a woman who squandered away her riches during her younger years, now living out her dwindling days in a desolate hermitage. Rumors that Sal’s been writing a memoir stir a panic in the men around town. When a wave of sickness and unfortunate events hit Four Corners, the pitchforks start gathering around Sal’s door.
I don’t know that there’s that much more to say about the plot, because this isn’t a mystery in a traditional sense, and more about how a rumor can jump into a flame. It’s probably the second best story in the collection, and oddly the closest thing to a surprising whodunit.
Barber, Barber, Shave a Pig is a slow burn towards an inevitable conclusion. Two barbers use their knowledge of their craft to track down a killer known only by his beard. I suppose this is the weakest of the collection, but it’s still a page turner.
I Was the Kid With the Drum could be better titled “I Know How This Story’s Going to End”, but then again, you might not. Hands down, this is the highlight of the collection, but not for the reasons that I thought. I came into this one mistakenly thinking it was an impossible crime, and in a sense, there is a bit of that. But, no, anyone could anticipate the solution based on the most minor description of the plot (which I won’t give).
Read this instead to witness an inevitable horror unfold through the eyes of naive youth. Read it for sublime writing, in which background characters mentioned only once are somehow teased into full life by a single sentence. Read it for the morsels of history, such as the gem of a reminder that at one point in the not so incredibly distant past, a saxophone was a completely new invention.
The final tale, Daisies Won’t Tell, is another cracker – the type that would contend for best in most any anthology. Like most of the above stories, Roscoe sets it back a few decades from the time of publishing, providing a contemporary view – amplified by a near-century since then – of what little details might have been facts of life at the turn of the century.
I won’t really explain the plot of this one, because I have to think most any mystery reader will immediately know exactly where the story is going to end up. Still, Roscoe pulls a twist at the end that had me laughing out loud.
Following the stories, we get a seven page interview with Theodore Roscoe from a pulp convention in 1986. It’s rare that we get to see an author of this era reflecting on their career at such a late decade. Forty nine years after the Four Corners stories were published, Roscoe still comes across as sharp and provides a number of interesting anecdotes. A warning though – Roscoe spoils the ending of I Was the Kid With the Drum, so save this chapter until after you’ve read the story.
Will there be a Four Corners Volume 2? The back cover of my Altus edition proclaims “Easily one of Roscoe’s best written series, Volume 1 collects the first half of this lost masterpiece of the pulps.” There’s promise in that, although it’s worth noting that it’s been five years since Volume 1 came out.