#802: Minor Felonies/Little Fictions – ‘The Vanishing Passenger’ (1952) and ‘Hard Case’ (1940) by Robert Arthur

Herewith, my thoughts on the last two stories in Robert Arthur’s Mystery and More Mystery (1966) collection that I’ve not previously read. Not “the last two stories”, you understand, because there are two more in the book after these. But those actual last two stories, coming next week, I’ve encountered previously. Grammar’s a bastard, isn’t it?

Anyhoo, the links to all my reflections from this collection are here:

And now, onwards.

‘The Vanishing Passenger’ (1952) is listed in Skupin as an impossible crime involving a passenger, er, vanishing from a moving train without anyone having disembarked, but I don’t know if that’s strictly accurate. Following the train-based murder of an expert witness due to testify at a forgery trial (we’re told that the content of his testimony was unknown, but surely you’d be able to figure it out based on whether he’d been called for the prosecution or the defence, right? I’m pretty sure witnesses don’t spring surprise revelations on their handlers like in the movies), our unnamed — presumably female — novelist narrator and her nephew Jonathan Duke investigate. Jonathan’s motives may be less than entirely selfless, given the attractive young woman who falls under suspicion (her father is the defendant, and “[m]aking the acquaintance of attractive young women is as close as [Jonathan] has yet come to a definite career”), but the circumstances warrant investigation anyway.

Peggy Andrews admits being outside Horace Harrison’s compartment around the time of the murder, but insists that he had been attacked before she got them and that a man in a grey suit and hat both can clear her and should come under suspicion himself. The only problem? They can find no-one in a grey suit and hat in the entire train, and the only evidence found of anyone using the compartment in which the man was travelling is a long dark hair and a distinctive odour of perfume which would appear to implicate a woman (the cleaners on these trains clearly aren’t paid enough, since it’s taken as read that the hair came from whoever was using it during that journey — but then cleaners aren’t paid enough anyway, amIright?). And so a search of the train begins, with our narrator using the setup to construct a mystery plot she’ll write up, and suggesting a perfectly workable solution as to why the man cannot be found (hence the lack of impossibility — people can jump from trains, though it is not advised).

“Neither is murder!”

I don’t think this quite works — the terminal deduction is faulty in a rather key way (ROT13 for spoilers: jbzra pna nyfb jrne jvtf) — but even as a faulty mystery it has plenty of Arthur’s charm and casual asides. That a man insecure about his diminutive stature will only hire workers shorter than he is fuel for a discrimination tribunal but also part of the tapestry woven so easily through Arthur’s (ahem) short fiction, and some moments are simply glorious in how hard they land their punches:

We all stood gawking at [the compartment’s] emptiness, as if we had expected to find a murderer there, his hands stained crimson, waiting for us.

The various tones adopted throughout are masterfully juggled, too: the narrator’s frustration with yet clear affection for her wastrel nephew, the stark horror of the young woman facing an accusation of murder, the almost comical mock forbearance of our attractive young man as he is pressed into service interviewing all the attractive young brunettes on the train who are wearing the tell-tale scent. The mystery might not convince, and the clues certainly don’t play fair, but as evidence of Arthur’s pure writerly skill this is hard to beat.

Old man Morris who “showed no emotion…made no threats, gave way to no grief” upon the shooting of his 18 year old son Harry is our eponymous ‘Hard Case’ (1940). Harry had been “bringing back the sale money for an exceptionally fine lot of cattle”, and when a series of robberies of men carrying money succeed his murder it becomes clear that someone is targeting those with new-found wealth before they get to enjoy it. An investigation by the sheriff’s deputies turns up no clue to the identity of the killer, and so “men who had to transport money in the Cochino River country no longer traveled alone”.

And so when Old man Morris is able to sell a piece of long-disregarded land that has found itself in the midst of oil country and, after the sale, sets out with “no protection except an ancient ten-gauge shotgun, carrying a charge of buckshot sufficient to tear a man in half”, there can be little doubt as to where things are headed. It spoils nothing in this short, sharp tale to reveal that Morris is gulled by the man responsible for this son’s murder and a demand for the money is made. In the style of, say, ‘The Black Ledger’ (1952) by Ellery Queen, the criminal is invited to search Morris for the money under the understanding that it will never be found despite admittedly being upon his person, and…well, the rest you’re best discovering for yourself.

The Wild West was, we understand, something of a violent place, and given that the cover of this collection advertises itself as “10 Stories of Detection, Suspense, Mystery and Magic for Young People” it’s fairly surprising just how brutal a turn this story takes. The violence is robbed of the lazy brutality of pure shock by being related with an almost Cormac McCarthy-esque blank-eyed simplicity that may result in it flying over the heads of younger readers, but for anyone paying attention there’s a genuine savagery not out of place in the works of Jim Thompson, though invested with an almost poignant air given its direction. Pitched somewhere between stoic romanticism and stark realism, this is an unusual beast in Arthur’s oeuvre, but again one that shows his skill at working with a genuine tonal palette in a surprisingly small amount of space.

“I take up a small amount of space!”

This collection continues, as expected, to showcase the sheer range of Arthur’s talent when playing in what should be a shallow and narrow fictional pool. That the same man can produce this and ‘Larceny and Old Lace’ (1960) — both superb examples of their type, but as tonally distinct as you can imagine — is somewhat marvellous. How is more of Arthur’s short fiction not collected? Good grief, the wealth of excellent material we’re being denied must be staggering.

2 thoughts on “#802: Minor Felonies/Little Fictions – ‘The Vanishing Passenger’ (1952) and ‘Hard Case’ (1940) by Robert Arthur

  1. I ordered Pick your Victim about a week ago, and it’s due to arrive today. Unfortunately, I doubt I’ll get to it before your review. I bought the book because 1. Xavier raved about it and 2. (most important) the title.

    It got me thinking if there exist any other weapons that are both nouns and verbs. I didn’t work very hard on it but…

    1. Axe your Victim a Question!
    2. Join the Club (…bing of Another Victim!)
    3. This Will Not Be Good for your Victim’s Self-Esteam! — This is about a killer who locks his victims in saunas overnight. The plot’s a little wacky.

    Like

    • I’ve been meaning to get a copy of Pick Your Victim for years, but I haven’t found the Dell map back for under my $10 goal. Oddly though, I did get McGerr’s The Seven Deadly Sisters (as a map back no less), even though it seems to be much more rare.

      Like

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