One final, for now, trip to Four Corners, “the kind of one-horse burg where they leave the doors open at night”, and the story of ‘Daisy Boy’ Dumont and the Curlew fortune.
Where the previous four tales of Theodore Roscoe’s fictional small town have focussed on the community at large — dismissing an old codger, castigating a man for perceived cowardice, always putting civic pride and public face front and centre — ‘Daisies Won’t Tell’ (1938) take a different approach. We’re told early on that Doc Curlew’s grandson Andy — raised by the old man and his wife — “rob[bed] the village tavern when he was sixteen and then [ran] away to Australia after Doc had paid plenty to hush it up”. Andy was something of a ne’er-do-well, with more than a few questionable deeds in his past, but this was the last straw for the old man, who banished him from the house, refused to allow the boy to be spoken about, and eventually “died of heart-break”.
Twelve years pass, and Gramma Curlew begins to wonder what has become of her boy, so takes out an advert in the personals column of a New York newspaper:
Will Andrew Curlew, or anyone having information concerning the whereabouts of Andrew Curlew…please communicate with Mrs. Nathaniel Curlew, R.F.D. 7, Four Corners? His grandmother is lonely and wants him back.
As luck would have it, someone who does know the whereabouts of Andrew Curlew sees the advert, but since those whereabouts are decidedly more underground than Gramma would be hoping for, they put this knowledge to a use of their own: they bring it to the attention of ‘Daisy Boy’ Dumont, hiding out, wanted for two murders, and bearing a striking resemblance to the physical description of young Andy provided by the old lady. And ‘old’ here is the operative word. Because who but an old lady would be credulous enough to welcome back with open arms someone who claims to be her long-lost grandson? Who would be desperate enough to overlook the inconsistencies in his memory, or the reluctance he displays to contact his old friends or even to engage with the town at large?
Roscoe’s decision to shut the tight-knot community out of the majority of this story is a good one, since this is essentially a two-hander that is going in only one direction, and there’s little to be gained from the wider acceptance or rejection of the folk of Four Corners. Parallels can be drawn with the Titchborne Claimant, of course, a story already well-explored in crime and mystery fiction, and the focus here on ‘Daisy Boy’ and his intentions where the rumoured $200,000 Curlew property, including three diamonds as “big a New York”. The difficulty remains, given that this is the shortest story in this collection, of how to write about it without giving away the direction things take, especially as we’re divested of the usual concerns of the wider community.
The core ingredients here are far from original, with the two examples I can cite off the top of my head — ‘The Shadow Points’ (1933) by MacKinlay Kantor and ‘Mr. Manning’s Money Tree’ (1958) by Robert Arthur — straddling this in chronology and each playing out according to a slightly different thread. Of course, what compels this to me is Roscoe’s gift with description (“[T]he sullen, hard-faced man, whose eyeballs were points of furious light gleaming through red-edged cracks, paced the floor like a cooped-up animal.”) and the sort of folksy homespun wisdom that feels right at home in this little town (“Men were like dogs, it took ’em a while to settle down.”). Of course, the town must achieve some awareness of these events somehow, because these stories are relayed by Roscoe’s narrator as a new member of said township, and at that stage we’re again treated to some delightful turns of phrase, such as the general remembrance of the events herein…
…painting the scene with the vivid colors of recollection only a little more lurid for the mixture of hard cider and imagination — brushing up the high-lights — adding the touch of caricature — dusting off for local memory…
This also demonstrates in a small way Roscoe’s acuity with a sudden plot development, since a delightfully macabre touch at about the two-thirds point throws all manner of questions into the air and give the reader, for a little while, reason to doubt what they think they know about events to that point. I don’t want to write too much more about this one, because the necessarily small focus is clearly a decision made by Roscoe to allow his plotting to show through, but it pays off magnificently and ties up with another clever use of repetition that (appropriately…) echoes the use of that device in ‘He Took Richmond’ (1937) from earlier in this very collection. It’s true that I’d’ve liked a little more reflection on the insular nature of the town as a whole — that’s something I’ve come to really enjoy in these tales, watching Roscoe set up an edifice based on the town’s assumptions, only to send in the wrecking crew with his delicate sentences and dazzling analogies — but the back-and-forth framing of this is novel enough to support the tale on its own, and this is the one story you could lift from here wholesale and put in a collection without losing anything by removing the context of the stories that precede it.
Overall, then, this first tranche of visits to Four Corners has been a joy. Roscoe’s accomplishment here is to create whole cloth somewhere that is at once uncannily familiar and recognisably flawed without overdoing the former or offering any judgement on the latter. Indeed, the very nature of the disclosures in these stories, and the way the apparently closed-minded denizens of Four Corners react to the revelations that challenge their perceptions make this almost seem a utopia in our increasingly divided age. The themes are nothing original or new, but the manner of their exploration is a delight, with arresting prose telling propulsive stories that inform about their characters and surroundings even as they progress by solid actions grounded in understandable, fallible human emotions.
You can expect another visit, or set of visits, to Four Corners on The Invisible Event at some undetermined future point, but for the time being this collection comes highly recommended whether you know Roscoe’s writing or not. I can well believe that these rank among the very best of the hundreds of stories the man wrote, but imagine if they’re simply typical of the quality he brought to his writing for the pulps. That would mean a positive ocean of amazing prose out there waiting to be rediscovered. Good heavens, what an exciting prospect…
The Four Corners stories by Theodore Roscoe
‘Ghoul’s Paradise’ (1938)
‘The Man Who Hated Lincoln’ (1939)
‘There Are Smiles That Make You Happy’ (1939)
‘Stay As Sweet As You Are’ (1939)
‘Ghost on Lonesome Hill’ (1941)