Ghoul’s Paradise – Theodore Roscoe (1938)

One of the highlights of my reading in 2020 was Four Corners Volume One, a collection of short mysteries by Theodore Roscoe.  The stories take place in the small town of Four Corners, located in the mountains of upstate New York.  There’s a definite vibe of Ellery Queen’s Wrightsville novels, although Roscoe’s were published half a decade earlier and are far richer.  The tales of Four Corners are more stories than mysteries, and although my own description there probably wouldn’t excite me to read it, what outstanding stories they are.

I wondered at the time if there would ever be a second collection of the series, and have to admit that I skeptically assumed it would never come to be.  Imagine my shock when I stumbled upon Four Corners Volume Two while trawling for other Roscoe works.  By some coincidence it had been released a week or so earlier, even though I hadn’t heard a peep about it.

I fast tracked it to the front of the line and figured I’d review the collection.  That will have to wait.  The reason being that the first story, Ghoul’s Paradise, is so absolutely excellent that I have to tell the world about it before I read another page.

Say that you took the New England Americana essence and story telling of I Was the Kid with the Drum (the best entry from Four Corners Volume One), and melded it with the utter insanity that unfolds during the latter half of Roscoe’s classic Murder on the Way.  Ladies and gentleman, I give you Ghoul’s Paradise.

Now, not to oversell it – both I Was the Kid with the Drum and Murder on the Way do their respective thing a bit better – but Ghoul’s Paradise is this aberration that only Roscoe could have written; an unnatural marriage of bucolic small town charm, mystery, pulp, horror, and balls to the wall action.  In that order.  Running fifty pages, it packs more story than a typical mystery novel, and easily could have been fleshed out to a full length.

“King” Isaac Easter made his fortune selling patent medicines before a government crackdown put him out of business.  At ninety years old, he lives out his remaining years in a bizarre patchwork of a mansion, surrounded by eight equally bizarre children.  Nobody can stand each other, and the house is segregated into various wings and floors, each individually populated and painted outlandish colors.

King Easter stands fast by his final miracle cure – a potion that can raise the dead.  His will stipulates that he be buried with a vial of the stuff stashed in his coffin, and that he’ll be entombed in a mausoleum with an unusual design: the main entrance can never be opened once locked, and a second door can only be opened from the inside…

Cue King Easter dying, and his family left with a will placing all of the fortune in the hands of a chain of surviving members.  Once you’re done cueing that, cue chaos.  The story turns into an absolute abattoir, with family members being dispatched in all sorts of brutal manners.  It’s King Easter committing the crimes, having escaped from his tomb, and he’s even seen at close quarters by hundreds of witnesses.

Impossibilities abound.  How did King Easter come back to life after a thorough autopsy?  If it’s an imposter, how was the body removed from a thoroughly locked tomb?  How did the pursued specter vanish from a room sealed from the inside and witnesses all of the place?

They’re compelling questions, and they have incredible answers, although I’ll caution you – don’t read Roscoe purely for the impossible crimes.  Yes, there’s a man shot in a locked room in Murder on the Way, but I doubt that’s what any reader remembers about it.  It’s about that surrounding maelstrom, and Ghoul’s Paradise is similar.  It’s a spellbinding read that features impossibilities, but it’s more the pulse pounding sprint to the finish that takes it to the next level.

Ultimately, isn’t that the type of short story that you want to read?  The story that leaves you so satisfied that you set the rest of the collection aside for later, and instead pick up that ultimate gamble from 1920 that’s been rotting on your TBR pile for ages?

It’s a funny thing, the short story collection.  With a mix of authors it’s a fun spread to devour.  When it’s a collection focused on an especially talented author, it’s a wick to be snuffed out all too quick.  I’ll be drawing from the well of Four Corners Volume Two for a few more months I hope.

10 thoughts on “Ghoul’s Paradise – Theodore Roscoe (1938)”

    1. Yes, now that you know about it, you really have no good reason not to drop everything and read it. I don’t believe you’ve done Volume One yet though, have you? There’s actually a minor tie between between the Volume One short story Frivolous Sal and Ghoul’s Paradise, although not consequential to the read. Just one of those points of continuity that you have to admire.

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      1. I intend to get them as paperbacks, and I have a book-buying embargo in place at present. In due course, however, they shall be seized upon and devoured.

        Do you have Z is for Zombie? That is…wild.

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        1. I do have Z is for Zombie, although I just realized that it’s buried in a stack of books where I wouldn’t notice it. I looked for that book for so long, and it used to be so expensive – $80-120 if I recall. When I saw the recent reprint I just about died.

          A book embargo, eh? I went on a bit of a buying bender in November and December, probably my worst ever. I’ve been pretty good recently, although I just picked up eight really nice vintage Agatha Christie Pocket Books for a steal. Surely you can make an exception for Theodore Roscoe though….

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          1. Surely you can make an exception for Theodore Roscoe though….

            I am currently in consultation with Oxford English Dictionaries to have the definition of “slippery slope” changed to “that guy who runs The Invisible Event buying ‘just one book’…”

            Alas, the embargo must stand. All in good time, there shall be Roscoe celebrations.

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  1. Indeed this seems brilliant. I ordered this Roscoe collection today on the strength of your review and look forward to reading Ghoul’s Paradise when it arrives. Thanks for reminding me of the fun of Roscoe.

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  2. I saw they finally released the second volume, but didn’t expect a review, or part of a review, this fast. Good to know Roscoe continued to dabble in impossible crime fiction. It bodes well for this series!

    Do you have any plans to review D.L. Champion’s pulpy mysteries about his unhinged detective, Inspector Allhoff? Some of them have been reprinted by the same publisher as Roscoe and “The Day Nobody Died” is one of the best, pulp-style locked room mysteries.

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    1. Ah, I remember your review of this one: it’s about the cop who has pretty much been blown to bits, although other details are fuzzy. I’ll have to re-read your review. These Argosy Library collections are really well done, and I’m hoping they stay in print long enough for me to buy more of them. There are some other Theodore Roscoe ones that look more like jungle/war adventures, although I’m curious if he worked a sense of mystery into them.

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      1. Yes, the whole premise is that Inspector Allhoff lost both his legs and humanity during a botched arrest of a gangster. So don’t expect a cozy read, but it’s a fascinating premise with “The Day Nobody Died” being the best story in the series so far.

        I believe the other Roscoe collections you refer to can be categorized as exotic adventure stories that were popular during the heydays of pulp magazines. I’m sure they’re a cut above the average adventure pulps of the time, because Roscoe wrote them.

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