Monday, 8 February 2010

Ellery Queen's Crookbook (1974)

Twenty-five ingenious and often twist-in-the-tail stories reprinted from Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine 1971-2. This caught my eye in a charity shop (£3) because the gold cover wrap, and the name of Asimov, made me think it was an old Gollancz yellowjacket; but, though I immediately realised my mistake I bought it anyway. I've kept it in the loo since (if you must know). At an average of 10 pages each the stories fill a short loo-ish interlude quite nicely.

I've a softspot for this sort of tale, which must have something to do with the fact that I so greatly enjoyed Roald Dahl's short fiction when I was a nipper ... specifically: when I graduated from Dahl's children's writing, the reading of which was mandated for all British children in the 1970s by government edict, to his 'adult' shorts. I put adult in inverted commas there because, precious though those stories were, and even are, to me, I have to concede there's something puerile about them; even (or do I mean: especially) his Uncle Oswald sex stories. There's one exception to that, as far as I'm concerned, but it's not exactly relevant here.**

So, I find myself pondering the appeal of this sort of thing. Here's one example, from this volume, by way of illustration: Harold R Daniels's 'Three Ways To Rob A Bank'.

Miss Martin, assistant editor at Tales of Crime and Detection, receives an unsolicited story submission from an unknown writer, Nathan Waite, entitled 'Three Ways To Rob A Bank: Method 1'. The story is awful, although the central idea is an ingenious, and seemingly legal, method for snaffling bank funds by exploiting a weakness in their checking account credit systems. Over lunch, she shows it to the magazine's banker, who is horrified: if this were made public, American banks would lose millions. 'And he says he's got another one. His Method 2. If it's anything like this it could ruin the entire banking business.' He begs her to buy the story, hand over copyright to the bank, and not to publish it; she is not happy, but agrees. Nathan Waite is paid a puny $500.
The letter explained that at this time no publication date could be scheduled, but that the editor was very anxious to see the second and third ways to rob a bank. She signed the letter with distaste.
'Three Ways To Rob A Bank. Method 2' duly arrives in the post: 'The story was a disaster but again the method sounded convincing. This time it involved magnetic ink and data processing.' Miss Martin again shows the bankers (a cabal of senior banking figures has been assembled) who are horrified. They persuade her to invite Waite himself along to a meeting where the lawyers can 'put the fear of God into him'; pay him another $500 and 'shut him up.' Waite turns up in the magazine's offices, explains how he was unjustly sacked from his position in a provincial bank, and reveals that he knew all along his stories were rubbish. He only submitted them to pique the banks' interest. At the subsquent show-down meeting he gives voice to a peroration ('There's someting special about a small bank in a small town. You know everyone's problems, money and otherwise ... the banker, in his way, is as important as the town doctor. It's not like that anymore. It's all regimented and compterised and dehumanized'), dismisses the bankers' risible offer and tells them that they must hire him as 'consultant' for a guaranteed $25,000 a year for the rest of his life, or he'll publish his stories. They bluster, but agree, and the story ends:
Gray Suit was on his feet again. "Wait a minute," he shouted. "He still hasn't told us about Method 3."

Nate reached for the contract. "Oh yes," he murmured, after he had signed it. "Three Ways to Rob a Bank. Method 3. Well, it really is quite simple. This is Method 3.
Now it seems to me that this sort of story delivers a very specific sort of pleasure. It is the pleasure of limited surprise, an 'aha!' pleasure ... limited both in intensity and in duration (it doesn't take long for the shine to come off this twist, for instance; to find yourself thinking 'so the third way is basically blackmail, is that it?' There's nothing original or ingenious about blackmailing a bank. Also, why didn't Nate approach the bank directly? What has the mystery mag to do with his scheme, save to stroke the egos of Ellery Queen's subscribers?). Nor is it a pleasure that's especially repeatable. In this respect it has something in common with the punchline of a joke. Yet I don't think describing it as a punchline quite gets it right, either. In a joke the body of the gag exists only to set-up the punchline; where I suppose in a twist-in-the-tale story the reverse is true: the punchline exists rather to cast the world of the story, or the world at large, in a new light. But it's a one-dimensional trick, for all that, and puerile at least in the sense that life is very rarely eucatastrophic, and only slightly less rarely dyscatastrophic. Mostly life runs in predictable grooves, and the things we learn as we go along reinforce, rather than overturn, what we have learned thus far. But here's the thing, and I suppose the appeal of these sorts of stories resides in this: on those occasions when we do experience some sort of perceptual or conceptual about-turn, the experience is weirdly exhilarating. I'm not sure I see why this should be, but I suppose the desire to reproduce that exhilaration, in contained and diluted form, explains the perennial popularity of this sort of story.
**The Dahl story (for adults) that had the greatest impact upon me, and that more than any other written text made me want to be a writer, is not one of his twist ending ones. It is his faintly surreal autobiographical account of flying in wartime, "A Piece of Cake". Something about that story, and more to the point something about the form of that story (not its content, particularly: which is to say, it wasn't that I had a particular interest in WW2 or planes or anything like that) ... something about the way it was written, and structured, or the way it arranged its scenes and images, and the emotional affect it generated, rushed my 13-year-old conscious mind like a sudden tidal bore, and made me want to write things myself. It was, more or less, as simple as that. I didn't want to be a writer before I read that story; I wanted to make animated cartoons. After I read that story, I wanted to be a writer. That I have never written anything like Roald Dahl, and have no desire so to do, flows naturally from this impetus, I think. The force of it upon my mind did not impel a desire to imitate, you see.


週休 said...


Adam Roberts said...

You know, what 週休? I've said that myself, many times.