Friday, August 24, 2018

Talmage Powell: King of the Shorts?

During his life, Talmage Powell (1920 - 2000) wrote over 500 short stories published in the pulps and the digests. He also wrote a handful of highly-regarded crime novels, but mostly he is remembered for his short fiction. I sampled a handful of Powell stories from various anthologies to assess the quality of his work.

The Alfred Hitchcock brand of short fiction has been an enduring legacy since the 1956 launch of Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine (AHMM) followed by countless paperback short story anthologies published by Dell with cheeky titles and attractive cover art. Over the years, I’ve found these anthologies a great way to sample authors before investing time and treasure into their novels. Powell’s stories were a regular fixture of both AHMM and the related paperback compilations.

Another great way to collect a ton of Powell short stories on-the-cheap is to check out the Kindle editions of the “Talmage Powell Crime Megapacks” from Wildside Press. There are two of them, each containing 20 short stories from Powell’s vast body of work in the genre. Best of all, they are only a buck each on Kindle.

Powell’s crime short stories pack a quick punch - most of them are only a dozen pages or so. They are supposed to have been easy reading and generally very good. Having never consumed Powell’s crime fiction, I read a handful of his entries from multiple anthologies for these capsule reviews:

“Lone Witness”

Before appearing in the 1971 Hitchcock short-story collection, “Down by the Old Bloodstream,” this one was published in AHMM in January 1966. It is also included in the first volume of the “Talmage Powell Crime Megapack” for your Kindle.

Marco and Timothy are ostensibly best friends and business partners, but Marco secretly hates Timothy over a stolen girl. This presents a world of opportunities when Timothy comes to Marco’s house and confesses that he has just killed a man.

Marco snaps into action to leverage the situation and get rid of his frenemy for good. Unfortunately, it’s just not that simple. This short-short story is a total delight, and the twist ending is consistent with the Hitchcock brand.

“Mac Without a Knife”

The May 1965 issue of AHMM was the first appearance of this story, and it made the cut for the Hitchcock paperback, “Let It All Bleed Out” from 1973 - making the story a Bobby Darin reference inside a Rolling Stones pun.

The “Mac” is question here is our narrator, an ex-con fresh out of the joint named MacKensie who has taken a job at a low-end roadside aquarium at the insistence of his parole officer. The failing business is hemorrhaging money, and the boss is forced to sell the porpoise to make ends meet. It’s Mac’s job to catch the mammal in its tank and get it ready for the transfer without killing it.

Things go sideways quickly as we learn the truth of the boss’ real intentions, and Mac is trapped in the tank with the aquarium’s hungry shark, Atlilla. This was a very exciting adventure story - a classic man vs. man vs. shark tale in a confined environment. You definitely should check this one out.

“Old Man Emmons”

The 1970 Hitchcock anthology, “Get Me to The Wake on Time,” reprinted the story, “Old Man Eammons” after it initially appeared in AHMM in February 1962. It is also compiled in the first “Talmage Powell Crime Megapack.”

Charlie and Laura are newlyweds. Before the marriage, Charlie agreed that Laura’s sickly father could live with them, so Laura could give the old man the compassionate care of a loving daughter. The problem is that the old man is driving Charlie nuts. He decides that Old Man Eammons has to go, but what would Laura think?

This tale is a great example of Powell’s knack for economical storytelling. Over the course of nine pages, we get to read the setup, the plan, and the execution of deadly crime. Unfortunately, the twist ending to this one was a bit of a letdown.

“I Had A Hunch And...”

This supernatural crime story originally appeared in the May 1959 issue of AHMM and was later compiled in the Hitchcock anthology, “Witches Brew” In 1965. 

At the opening of the story, Janet realizes she’s dead and her ethereal form is floating around her suburban estate where her freshly-murdered body is awaiting discovery . She recalls that she was murdered by a servant after catching him stealing her jewelry from a safe. It becomes clear to Ghost Janet that her spirit won’t be free until the servant pays for his crimes.

This was an cute ghost story likely aimed at female mystery readers. Once again, Talmage’s prose was superb. The ending was clever enough to leave any reader happy to have invested 15 minutes enjoying this light tale.

“The Vital Element”

This Powell story of murder and its aftermath originally ran in November 1967’s AHMM and was included in Hitchcock’s 1978 “Rogue’s Gallery” anthology. It is also included in Wildside Press’ “Second Talmage Powell Megapack” for Kindle.

The first-person story opens with a scuba diver examining a woman’s corpse at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico with her ankles bound by rope attached to a cement block. The reader quickly learns that the discovery of the sunken corpse was no accident, and the diver is trying to solve the problem of the fraying rope that will eventually snap and lead to the discovery of the body when she pops up like a cork.

Just when the reader has it all figured out, the story ends with a twist on top of a twist. While the ending is a bit abrupt, it’s dark and diabolical stories like this that put Alfred Hitchcock on the map.

“The Heir”

In August 1969, AHMM ran the story “The Heir,” and it was selected for inclusion in the Hitchcock Dell paperback collection, “I Am Curious (Bloody)” published in 1971.

This is a really odd story and it took quite a few pages before revealing the direction it was headed. Richie and his friends are teenage juvenile delinquents (maybe more like at-risk youth) who are given an opportunity to live on the estate of a wealthy, do-gooding eccentric named Mrs. Duffield. The boys help her with chores but mostly get to loaf around her pool and grounds.

Mrs. Duffield takes a special liking to teenage Richie, and confides in him that she’s heartbroken that her son is an ungrateful hippie who has forsaken his mother. Out of a sense of loyalty to the woman who has extended her kindness to him, Richie decides to find out the deal behind her estranged son - and things get strange. This is another satisfying story that successfully captures a unique period in America’s counterculture with a sinister edge.

“Somebody Cares”

This story originally appeared in the December 1962 issue of “Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine” and was later collected in two excellent anthologies: “A Century of Noir” edited by Max Allan Collins and Mickey Spillane and “The Arbor House Treasury of Mystery and Suspense” edited by Bill Pronzini, et al.

It’s a police procedural about a new detective who is assigned to be partners with a seasoned veteran with decades of experience. A young girl Is found dead in a park, and the reader gets to ride along as the pair of detectives solve the case.

The beautiful thing about this story is that it does a very realistic job of portraying the drudgery associated with a police neighborhood canvass, yet the story itself is never boring. Powell’s first-person writing is superb, and the life lessons embedded in this mystery will stay with you long after the final page.