07 July 2018

Unsung Heroes

by John M. Floyd

Today I'd like to talk about two deceased writers whose stories still delight and inspire me. One of these authors I heard about from an agent I had long ago and the other I discovered when I happened to stumble across one of his stories in an anthology. Both wrote mostly short fiction and were widely published, but almost no one seems to know their names.

The first is Jack Ritchie (born John George Reitci, in 1922, the son of a Milwaukee tailor). Over a period of 35 years Ritchie wrote and published almost 500 short stories, almost all of them mystery/crime/suspense tales, and--like O. Henry--his endings often had a diabolical twist. His fiction appeared regularly in Manhunt, Mike Shayne's Mystery Magazine, The New York Daily News, Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, and many other publications. (He once had two stories in the same issue of AHMM.)

The only book I own by Mr. Ritchie is Little Boxes of Bewilderment, a collection of 31 of his stories--but I think I've found and read most of the stories that he published. As I've said, a lot of them were featured in mystery magazines, but many can also be found in anthologies, including more than fifty Alfred Hitchcock anthos.

One of Ritchie's stories, "The Green Heart," was adapted into the feature film A New Leaf, starring Walter Matthau and Elaine May, and another of his stories, "The Absence of Emily," has been filmed twice and won the Edgar Award in 1982. Several of his stories were also adapted for TV series iike Alfred Hitchcock Presents and Tales of the Unexpected.

I actually have a connection, of sorts, to Jack Ritchie. His longtime agent, Larry Sternig, was also my agent for several years, until Larry's death in the late 90s. He was one of that rare breed of literary agents who represented short stories, and was in many ways a mentor to me back when I was just getting started in all this. (Larry once told me he talked Robert Bloch, another Milwaukee native, into writing Psycho.) Soon after agreeing to represent my stories, Larry said to me, "One of the things you should do to become a better writer is to read the stories of a guy named Jack Ritchie," and he mailed me two of Ritchie's collections, with an additional note telling me to send them back to him when I was done. I binge-read them both and returned them as requested, and it was only years later that I located a copy of Little Boxes of Bewilderment on Amazon and snapped it up. Ritchie's collections--and his only novel, Tiger Island--are mostly out of print and hard to find.

The other short-story writer I dearly love to read--and whose work has taught me a lot--is Fredric Brown. I had no idea who he was before finding one of his stories, "Voodoo," in an anthology years ago. That story, like many of Brown's, is only about 300 words in length--but it's brilliant.

Fredric Brown was born in Cincinnati in 1906, the son of a newspaperman, and worked as a journalist himself for most of his career. He wrote many novels and hundreds of short stories, and--oddly enough--his work was almost equally divided between mystery and science fiction. (His first novel, The Fabulous Clipjoint, won an Edgar Award in 1948.) I own several collections of his, including Miss Darkness (31 mystery/suspense stories), From These Ashes (116 science fiction and fantasy stories), and Nightmares and Geezenstacks (47 short-short stories, which Stephen King called a "particularly important work"). Interesting note: Brown seemed fond of punnish titles, like "Nothing Sirius," "A Little White Lye," and "Pi in the Sky."

Fred Brown's short story "Arena" was used as the basis for the episode of the same name in the original series of Star Trek, and was voted by Science Fiction Writers of America as one of the top twenty SF stories written before 1965. His short story "Naturally" was adapted into Geometrics, a short film by director Guillermo del Toro, and another story, "The Last Martian," was adapted into "Human Interest Story," an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents. His novel The Screaming Mimi became a 1958 movie starring Anita Ekberg and Gypsy Rose Lee.

These two writers had one thing in common, besides their love of the short form and their talent with mystery/crime stories: both had a minimalist style that was long on dialogue and humor and short on exposition and description, and almost always included surprise endings. In their stories, things started out fast and never slowed down. I love that.

If you're interested in trying new authors, here's a list of some of my favorites stories by these two writers:

Jack Ritchie:

Shatter Proof
Traveler's Check
The Absence of Emily
The Green Heart
For All the Rude People
Play a Game of Cyanide
The Best Driver in the County
Memory Test
Number Eight

Fredric Brown:

Nightmare in Yellow
The Laughing Butcher
A Little White Lye
The Arena
Placet Is a Crazy Place

I encourage you to find some of these stories--reading them won't take long. I think you'll like their authors.


  1. Thanks so much, John. I will look these two up and get to reading.

  2. Nice blog about two outstanding writers. I read stories by both as well as Frederic Brown's novels THE SCREAMING MIMI and THE WENCH IS DEAD. The man has great titles for his novels, including:

  3. David -- I think you'd like the stories of both these authors. If you do check 'em out, please let me know.

    O'Neil, I didn't say much about Brown's novels, but yes, they're wonderful as well. (Ritchie's only novel, Tiger Island, I have never read.) And yes, most of Brown's titles are interesting.

    The single most remarkable thing about the fiction of both these writers, to me, is their style. Neither of them wastes words, AT ALL, and things move very quickly in their stories. I think all of us can learn from them.

    Thanks, guys, for the comments!

  4. John, I MAY have heard of both of these writers, but that's about it.

    I think Brown wrote a short story called "The Weapon" that appeared in an anthology I used in classes back in the 1970s. Its premise is chillingly appropriate today, too.

    I'll look for more by both of them. Thanks for the tip.

  5. Hey Steve -- Yes, Brown wrote "The Weapon," another of those short-shorts that he was so good at. Check out some more of his stories, both mystery and SF--you'll enjoy them.

  6. To be added to the reading list! Thanks.

  7. I think you'll like their stories, Janice. Best place to find them is probably in anthologies (and, for Ritchie, old AHMMs and EQMMs).

  8. I will add them to the reading list - thanks!

  9. Thanks, Eve. If you find and read any of these, please let me know!

  10. As you know I am a Ritchie-head of the first order. You should try to get his book The Adventures of Henry Turnbuckle.

    I had no idea "The Absence of Emily) was turned into a movie. Did you know "The Green Heart" was turned into a musical?

    I would add one more to your list of great Ritchie stories: "The Day the Sheriff Walked."

    Several of my own stories use his "unknown narrator" technique, (like Emily and Sheriff) and my story "Two Men, One Gun," was inspired by his many stories that use that set up.

  11. He has inspired me also, Rob, and many of my stories. I have read Turnbuckle, but no longer have the book. Wish I did.

    Yes, I'd heard "The Green Heart" was also a musical but I've not seen it. I did enjoy the movie. And I admit I've not seen "The Absence of Emily" production, and haven't read "The Day the Sheriff Walked"!!! I'll try to find it.

    Folks like you and me have to spread the word about this great writer. I'm so grateful I discovered his work, long ago.

  12. I've read them both, although I haven't found much by Ritchie. I would only allow myself to read one or two of the stories in From These Ashes in a row, so the book would stay new to me for a couple of years. I wish someone would compile all of Frederic Brown's mystery stories into a book.

  13. Hey Liz -- More than thirty of the best of Brown's mystery stories are in the collection Miss Darkness--I have it here on the shelf. I got it from Amazon a few months ago, and it has a lot of stories of his that I hadn't been able to find elsewhere. And yes, From These Ashes is wonderful--some very short stories, some very long, and all of them are fun. Thanks for the comment!

  14. Thanks for the tip, John. More to read!

  15. Thanks, Barb! I don't think you'll be disappointed with any stories written by these two folks.

  16. Dear John: Read both Ritchie & Brown: Love 'em! Love 'em! Love 'em! I recommend ANY of their work highly! Take note of "The Best of Frederic Brown" (from Ballentine, I think) from about 45 years ago which has an introduction by his friend Robert Bloch!

  17. Oops! I misspelled his first name! It's "Fredric!"

  18. Jeff, I don't have that collection of Brown's, so I'll have to search it out. Like you, I truly like both these writers, and I don't believe I've ever read a bad story by either.

    Thanks so much for the mention of this book!

  19. Fine post, John — read this yesterday and meant to respond then. I'd heard of Brown, but not sure whether I've read any of this stories. Ritchie is completely new to me. Nice to get these recommendations and some information about their work!

  20. Thanks, Art. As I've said to the others, I think you'd like the work of both these writers. I might never have heard of Ritchie if Larry Sternig hadn't pointed me to him, and almost none of my writer friends seems to know about Fred Brown. And now I can't imagine not having read their stories. Thanks for the comment!!

  21. Perhaps oddly, Ritchie's stuff seems to be fairly readily available--in German translations--on ABE. So if any of you read German well, you might be in luck.

    Frederic Brown, of course, is god.

  22. Don, thanks for that info! And for stopping in here at SleuthSayers.


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