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.