Reviewed by Steve Finbow
Imagine a mutant coupling of J. D. Salinger and Jimmy Cagney and you’ll get somewhere close to the tone of this short story. Martin Thorpe, 14, a student at Clark’s Military Academy, can’t sleep at night – Tommy Smith, the brother of his girlfriend Marie, is on death row awaiting execution by hanging for the killing of their father. Not only that but Thorpe has to put up with the punks, the pokes, and the putrids – the other students who attend the not-so-elite school – and what’s with that fucking bugler? Not to mention the young detective Duff Ryan who’s dating his girlfriend’s older sister Ruth. Fishy and dodgy at the same time.
After a visit to the sisters, Thorpe and Duff try to work out what happened the night of the murder to prove that Tommy is innocent. Somewhat of a child prodigy when it comes to sex and intellect – at least in his own mind – women fascinate Thorpe, but he’s none too keen on religion, and not that happy about killing a kitten Detective Ryan happens to have with him – or is he? Although a school’s mascot goat happened to break all of its legs falling down a flight of stairs after Thorpe had kidnapped it as a prank; and, yeah, OK, he admits, he stabbed that calf to death but it was an accident really, dude; oh, and yes, yes, he did try to drown that boy in oil – and what about those reform schools and the month-long stay in the state institution?
But who’s the crazy violent one here? Thorpe watches in disbelief (and with just a little jealousy) as the detective swings the kitty against a pillar, pulping its tiny head. Well, at least the violence means he’ll sleep well. And – how do these things happen when Thorpe is around – that fat bugler boy failing to fly after being shoved out of a six-floor window – what’s up with that? His punked body resembling a burst water balloon. After a lie in, Thorpe spends the next day looking forward to Tommy’s hanging – things will be normal again afterwards, maybe Marie won’t cry so much, maybe he’ll get more than a shoulder to squeeze.
Waiting for the news of Tommy’s death, Thorpe and Marie make fudge (no euphemism – this story comes from 1938). Thorpe paces the kitchen, looking at the clock, willing it to tick towards 10:30pm when Tommy will swing in the rain-soaked courtyard of San Quentin. Shit… She’s only started playing hymns on the piano – what with the hammering rain and the blood boiling in his veins, it’s too much for a spunked-up teenager to take. The knife – blood – the murder weapon – blood – kitchen – blood – now – blood – hot – blood – hammers – blood – slut – blood – hymn – blood – piano – blood. Bloody detective spoiling his fun. Damn and damned.
A confession leads to reform school but what of his other killings? Well, teenage bragging rights don’t always lead to belief. The boy’s a killer and one day he’ll be free. Keep those doors locked, those windows fastened, and your daughters safe and sound. Steve Fisher (1912–1980) wrote hundreds of short stories, over two-hundred television scripts, and more than fifty screenplays including – arguably – the first ever film noir: I Wake Up Screaming. The economy and concision needed for screen writing is apparent in this story, an enjoyable excursion into the torturous and tortuous mind of a trainee serial killer.
Steve Finbow is the author of Balzac of the Badlands.