William Link and Richard Levinson are undoubtedly best known today for their work done in creating TV crime-fighters Lieutenant Columbo, Jessica Fletcher, Joe Mannix, and Alexander and Leonard Blacke, as well as for a host of guest writing spots on other classic crime shows from the 1950s onwards. Shooting Script and Other Mysteries (2021) collects 17 stories by the pair that were published over a period of twelve years, mostly in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine.
I don’t know who I think the best writer of short mystery fiction was — Edmund Crispin is certainly up there, as is Arthur Porges — but I’ll die on the hill of the best writer of short crime fiction, with a focus on character and situation over plotting and clewing, being Stanley Ellin. I’ve said it before and I’ll keep saying it until I reread them and find my memory is embarrassingly faulty once again: The Speciality of the House (1979), which collects all Ellin’s short crime fiction into one volume, is staggering in not just the breadth but the brilliance on display. ‘The Cat’s-Paw’ (1949), ‘Death on Christmas Eve’ (1950), ‘The Orderly World of Mr. Appleby’ (1950), ‘The Faith of Aaron Menefee’ (1957), ‘The Last Bottle in the World’ (1968), ‘Generation Gap’ (1976)…goddamn, so many classics from one mind.
Anyhoo, I’m diverted into this reminiscence because I see fingerprints of Ellin’s work in these Link and Levinson tales, and that’s about the highest praise I’m able to give any such writing. ‘Whistle While You Work’ (1954), written when these two were teenagers, has the grit-under-the-fingernails feel of the best American crime stories, bringing home the intrusion of violence and death into an otherwise predictable milieu. The final line resonates with the sort of delight Ellin would drop into his straightforward tales of intrigue, and you can feel the justified satisfaction of the young authors radiating off the page.
Link and Levinson were in their thirties by the time these stories were published, and straight away the tonal shift is evident, concerned less with immediate narrative cleverness than with capturing the intrusion of crime as a terrifying-but-regenerative thing. ‘Shooting Script’ (1959), ‘Operation Staying-Alive’ (1959), and ‘Robbery, Robbery, Robbery’ (1959) — this last also published under the title ‘Robbery, Robbery!’, which manages to miss the point quite impressively — seeing ordinary people pulled into the maelstrom and emerging in different ways: bewildered, energised, sometimes terrified…
He cut into a side street, stumbled into a trashcan, and sent it clanging across the curb. Buildings again, high and black, on either side. The sky was dark, starless.
Henderson started running…
Sometimes the protagonists are inspired into further misdeeds, but sometimes it’s simply in trying to do the right thing that catches them out. And, even then, the likes of ‘Child’s Play’ (1959) hits hard precisely because of its lack of emotional stakes, the discovery of the drowned body of a boy who was attending a summer camp told, like ‘Generation Gap’, from the supposedly “wrong” side and thus so much more interesting. And the Frances Iles-esque ‘Suddenly, There Was Mrs. Kemp’ (1959) shows the possibility for easy savagery in Link and Levinson’s world, the working man worn down by life both winning and losing out for once.
These two guys in their thirties do stumble a bit when trying to capture the sense of regret and resignation at the end of a long life, however. ‘The Hundred-Dollar Bird’s Nest’ (1959) takes the long way round to what feels like an intended zinger of a final line that falls a little flat, even if the writing itself is still wonderfully on point at times:
Doctor Mowbray closed his eyes and the daydreams descended. He could picture himself taking a Caribbean cruise, or sunning himself on the lush shores of the Riviera. That was the way to die. Not sitting on the porch of a rotting boarding house, smoking a dime cigar, while the world, the real world, spun brightly out of reach.
And while the reluctance of the sheriff three weeks from retirement in ‘One Bad Winter Day’ (1959) contrasts neatly with the enthusiasm of a young deputy raised “on law enforcement the way it happened in films and on television”, this story of an escaped convict returning to the snowbound scene of his crime lacks direction and purpose. The little delays the sheriff tries to introduce, that they might get to the scene too late, are nice touches, but this again feels geared towards a final line where you’re definitely supposed to feel some kind of somethin’…probably about masculinity or bravery…but I have no idea what.
It was clearly around this time that the concept of unbreakable alibis occurred to Link and Levinson, because, with the exception of ‘The Joan Club’ (1959) — which isn’t criminous, being instead a very good joke — the theme gets repeated in quick succession. Starting with “two hen-pecked fools distilling bravery from a bottle”, ‘Memory Game’ (1959) sees a return to unhappy marriages, brings to mind half a classic from nine years earlier, and cuts off just as it gets interesting, and ‘Who is Jessica?’ (1960) is a well-wrought piece of domestic suspense, playing on the entrenched neuroses and anxiety of a wife whose husband has whispered the eponymous name in his sleep and then headed off on a suspiciously sudden business trip:
Then, quite suddenly, she understood why the house was so quiet. It was Thursday, the maid’s day off. She would be alone for hours, no one to talk to, no one to protect her. How in heaven’s name could Arthur have been so cruel?
Best of the bunch, though, and possibly highlight of the collection, is the magnificent ‘Dear Corpus Delicti’ (1960), in which we follow a man’s perfect scheme to murder his wife and start a new life with his mistress. Not only is the character of our murderer revealed as suitably unpleasant through a couple of superbly subtle turns of phrase, the clicking into place of the events he masterminds builds to a beautifully savage ending. Maybe this story is famous already but, if it isn’t, it deserves to be.
‘No Name, Address, Identity’ (1961) is the first appearance of Mannix…Dr. Ralph Mannix, that is, whose name and address a young man finds in his pocket along with a thousand-dollar bill. The only problem is that this young man was hit by a car a few minutes previously and has lost his memory. Keen to find out who he is and why he’s carrying no identification of his own, he heads to the address and really only one of two options is likely from that point on. It’s light, quick, and fun, but short of these guys at their best.
There’s more than a little of Roald Dahl’s Tales of the Unexpected about ‘Top-Flight Aquarium’ (1962) — concerning, as with ‘The Hundred Dollar Bird’s Nest’, the universal theme of temptation put in the way of someone minding their own business but hoping for more — a story that’s very successful if only because of the extra time spent establishing its slightly sombre air behind its off-kilter setting (“People get old, they need company, he decided. Human or animals, it doesn’t make any difference. As long as they have something to take care of.”). ‘The End of an Era’ (1962) and ‘Exit Line’ (1962) show Link and Levinson running on fumes a little, crying out for even the slightest smidge of further information to make their eventual end points land more effectively (I don’t need a full timetabled breakdown of everything, but a hint about Miles Grubb’s wife would turn the former into something of a classic, I’m sure). Still, the plots barrel along nicely and prose remains taut and full of purpose:
The two men stumbled across the pavement with the drunken lurch of amateur ice-skaters…
Finally, ‘The Man in the Lobby’ (1966) is perhaps the most Hitchcockian in impetus: a police officer spotting a man he thinks is a murder suspect checking in to a hotel, and hauling him down to the station for questioning. From the suspect’s perspective, this could be a classic Wrong Man thriller, but the authors here have other ideas that, arguably, make this a less than criminous note on which to end. It’s not a bad story by any means, however, and rounds this collection off in a more serious than playful mood.
As someone possessed of a broad appreciation of Link and Levinson’s TV work, who nevertheless gets a little mumbly where specifics are concerned, I found a lot to enjoy in this collection. The clustering of dates gives an impression of the themes that they were seeking to explore, and the chronological ordering of them in this collection helps appreciate the development of the two as writers and plotters where prose stories are concerned, and speaks of a keen, questing intellect that would transfer itself to the small screen very well indeed.
Were I to pick a top five, I guess they’d currently be:
- ‘Dear Corpus Delicti’
- ‘Whistle While You Work’
- ‘Suddenly, There Was Mrs. Kemp’
- ‘Top-Flight Aquarium’
- ‘The Man in the Lobby’
…but ‘The Joan Club’ is a perfectly-formed gem of a story that doesn’t really bear comparison with the rest and so should be taken as an entity all of its own. All told, this is a very enjoyable collection, and its contents more than warrant the attention that the names attach will draw. With thanks to Jeff Marks for the review copy, Shooting Script and Other Mysteries is available now from Crippen & Landru.
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