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Artwork: Universal Destiny by Kathy Davis Patterson
Taking a Bite Out of Crime: The Cardula/Dracula Short Stories of Jack Ritchie
Michael J. Larsen
Many years ago, when I was finishing graduate school, I would take a break from reading great modernists and spend some relaxing hours reading gaudy periodicals like Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine. It was there that I became acquainted with the short fiction of Jack Ritchie, one of the most original writers and distinct voices I have ever come across.
Jack Ritchie (1922-1983) was born, lived, and died in Wisconsin. He never published a novel, but did publish more than 350 crime, mystery, and fantasy short stories. They were often reprinted, three collections of selected stories were published in the 1970’s and 80’s, and several of his stories were the basis for television episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents and Tales of the Unexpected. One of my favourites – “The Green Heart” – was made into a hilarious film entitled A New Leaf, in 1971, starring Walter Matthau and Elaine May. After his death, though, Ritchie’s work faded from view, until fairly recently when an excellent website was constructed for the purpose of introducing him to a new generation of readers and fans (http://henryturnbuckle.tripod.com). I’m indebted to the website for the impetus to read Ritchie again, and more extensively.
To give some brief examples of the world according to Ritchie: Detective Henry Turnbuckle, the hero of several of his stories, is a comically maladroit Sherlock Holmes figure whose powers of observation and deduction are great for sorting out long dead mysteries, but who cannot see the most obvious things in his day to day life. The unnamed narrator of his story “For All the Rude People” is diagnosed with a terminal illness and finds himself responding to instances of petty abrasiveness with deadly force; however, instead of creating panic, this sets loose a host of copycats, causing an outbreak of civility in his home town. In “Fair Play,” a husband and wife take turns trying to kill one another in ingenious and undetectable ways; and just when the husband is enjoying his moment of intellectual triumph, he has a deflating insight into how his now departed wife managed to poison him as well. “By Child Undone” is a clever variation on Agatha Christie’s The A.B.C. Murders. A police captain and his detectives are unable to find any meaningful link in a series of murders, only to have a brainy ten-year-old point out that each of the victims had the same name as a U.S. Vice President. And, the daft narrator of “Lily-White Town,” boasting about the town’s perfect teenagers, cannot see that her own comments make it obvious that the town’s darling, and its high school valedictorian, has committed cold-blooded murder to finance his further education.
Ritchie’s interest in tales of horror and the fantastic became particularly evident in a series of stories that was inaugurated with the publication of “Kid Cardula” in the June 1976 issue of Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine. I might say here that this series of eight stories clearly shows Ritchie’s ability to combine the fantastic and the ridiculous, in his own unique way. At any rate, “Kid Cardula” is narrated from the point of view of an old school boxing manager and trainer in the American Midwest somewhere, who is working with his latest hopeful one evening, without much enthusiasm, when in walks a tall, pale stranger, dressed entirely in black, asserting that because of acute financial distress he has determined to become a prize fighter to repair his fortunes quickly.
In addition to his exceptional pallor and black outfit, other details quickly alert the reader that this would-be fighter is no ordinary contender, or mortal for that matter. “I am strong,” he declaims, “incredibly strong,” and then demonstrates by a lift and jerk of barbells that are twice his weight. Yet, despite his obvious power, he seems oddly aged, even faintly decayed. His clothes look “like they been worn too long and maybe slept in”; he “smiles thin – like a kid with new braces”; and, in reaction to the manager’s stubborn scepticism about his chances, “He glares, at which he seems to be good.” Finally, he announces, “I am known as Cardula,” at which point, if not before, the alert reader twigs to the vampire allusions, recognizes that the name is an anagram for Dracula, and looks with anticipation to see how Ritchie will exploit the possibilities of this ingenious premise – a haughty, vampire count with money problems and a surprising plan to deal with them.
And, so it goes. Cardula signs with the manager, but is a challenge from the very outset: “he won’t even consider shadow boxing in front of a mirror,” complains the manager, who also bristles at Cardula’s aristocratic aloofness: “You got blue blood in your veins?” he inquires sarcastically, to which Cardula responds, “Occasionally.” When Cardula explains that he can only fight at night, because he suffers from “photophobia,” the worried manager asks, “This photophobia isn’t catching, is it?” “Not in the usual sense,” Cardula assures him. And so, after some bizarre negotiations and preparations, Cardula takes to the ring, and becomes a fighting sensation that men admire and women fantasize about.
“Kid Cardula” plays very cleverly with the Dracula myth. And, it seems likely that Ritchie was quite taken with his vampire protagonist but found the possibilities for Cardula limited by his prize fighting role. So, he brought him back the following year, again in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, in “The Cardula Detective Agency.”
This story is told from the point of view of Cardula himself, now the sole proprietor and operative of his own detective agency. And this story, as well as the seven subsequent Cardula stories published in the same magazine over the years, were all accounts of the exploits of a private investigator with some extraordinary abilities, predilections, and limitations.
So, “The Cardula Detective Agency” introduces the vampire/detective who enters his office one stormy evening to find Olivia, a young, attractive woman waiting for him. “She seemed a bit startled when she first saw me, but then most people are.” Her story is that she is distressed because someone took a shot at her saintly and wealthy Uncle Hector while he was dressing for dinner. All of the suspects, she explains, are relatives, with the apparent motive that Uncle Hector plans to alter his will in the morning, leaving his fortune to various charities rather than to them. She wants Cardula to protect her uncle for the evening, after which the motive for murder will have been removed. This is fine with Cardula who, as we know, only works at night.
The suspects in the story are the sort that only Ritchie could dream up, a cast of oddballs and misfits whose capacity for perpetrating evil seems distinctly limited regardless of any possible enthusiasm for it. They include “Cousin Albert [a compulsive bowler] whose right arm was three inches longer than his left, and Cousin Maggie [a dipsomaniac], who liked red port, and Cousin Wendy [a tireless but unpublished poet], who wrote the kindest rejection slips, and Cousin Fairbault [one time castaway and shipwreck survivor], who [ever after] “detested crustaceans.” Each of them, it becomes clear, has been bruised and maimed by life in some odd but comic way, and though they are not actually related to Hector or to each other, have been taken in and cared for by him out of his excessive generosity.
The one member of the entourage who would seem to be above suspicion is nasty Uncle Custis, Hector’s wealthy brother, who is visiting at the time. Yet, a crime has been attempted, and Uncle Hector would clearly seem to be in danger, so Cardula takes the case.
You will not be surprised to hear that the scene of the anticipated crime is a remote and looming monster of a Victorian era mansion during a fierce thunder and lightning storm. The sleuthing involves Cardula’s ability to shape shift at will, fly undetected above various suspects, discover even the faintest evidence of blood, avoid mirrors, and penetrate the most secret recesses of the human heart based on centuries of unique experience.
And it is this accumulated wisdom that gives Cardula the insight to recognize that the operating motive in all of this drama is generosity not greed, that mean Uncle Custis is the real target and is being set up for a kill by Hector, so that Hector will inherit his money and continue to be able to take care of his menagerie of walking wounded whom he loves, but now cannot provide for, given the economic recession that has drained his wealth. A particularly Ritchiesque moment occurs at the end when our vampire narrator informs us that he has no intention of letting dear Uncle Hector commit murder; he will cheerfully take care of Custis himself at an opportune time.
“Cardula and the Kleptomaniac” begins with an apparently simple, though strange assignment – an affluent, attractive young woman hires Cardula to find the person in her social set who has been stealing worthless trinkets for several years each time one of the group hosts a large party. She does not want the culprit exposed, or even confronted, she says. She just wants her curiosity satisfied, which has been stimulated by the odd fact that nothing of real value is ever stolen.
As one has come to expect with Ritchie, the suspects are anything but usual. There is Army Major Albert Spurrier, who obsessively collects awards and insignias; and Imogene McCarthy, who collects china elephants; and Dr. Herbert P. Jonas, who collects heartbeats on audio tape; and Agnes Williams, “a striking blonde with no disappointing proportions,” who collects husbands.
Also, as one comes to expect of Ritchie, the vampire puns pile up. For example, Cardula remarks about Major Spurrier, that he “could be described as ruddy, one of my favorite colors.” And when Dr. Jonas asks him if his heartbeat could be described as unusual, Cardula quips, “My heart is quite normal; I’ll stake my life on that.” Later when caught in a lie, he admits “I found myself blushing, which is quite a strain.”
Cardula has a penchant for peering below the surface of things and discerning hidden motives, likely based on his long, intimate acquaintance with the human soul. So, he intuits that his demure, attractive client has a hidden motive and dark intent behind her apparently innocent curiosity about a sneak thief. In the process of his investigation he uncovers her real plan, to find the culprit who killed her brother in the course of a bungled theft some years ago. Then, in an equally surprising double reversal, Cardula very cleverly and gallantly eliminates the evil that his lovely client hired him to discover for her. As we learn in these stories, Cardula has his own, idiosyncratic code of right and wrong. And, I suspect that this code reflects Ritchie’s own view of life.
An interesting and humorous example of this code can be found in “Cardula’s Revenge,” a story which pits him against his old nemesis Van Jelsing, or, more accurately, Van Jelsing’s grandson of the same name, who has taken up the family business of vampire hunting, and is currently in the United States on a lecture tour (Ritchie changed Bram Stoker’s Van Helsing to Van Jelsing for this story.) The story begins with Cardula reminiscing with an old flame, and vampire, Nadia, discussing their vampire associates from the old country, many of whom are now departed owing to the young Van Jelsing’s relentless persecution. Nadia hires Cardula to wreak vengeance upon the man who has so decimated their clan. And Cardula eagerly accepts the assignment, though both are very sceptical of any chance for success owing to the talisman that protects Van Jelsing, “a leather collar with . . . numerous cruciform inlays,” which he wears almost always.
In the story, Ritchie provides the Dracula myth with some comic updating and pseudo-scientific theorizing. For example, Cardula traces Van Jelsing to the home of a wealthy matron where the renowned scholar and vampire hunter is giving a lecture to the assembled guests. Van Jelsing tells them that vampires “have, during the course of the centuries, developed a certain ecological restraint. They no longer completely drain their victims, thereby encouraging overcrowding in their ranks and competition for the available food supply. Instead they now merely stop for a sip here and a sip there until their need is fulfilled.” As to why their victims don’t raise an alarm, he replies, “Because the victims are subjected to a hypnotically induced amnesia.” Cardula listens intently and plots his revenge.
This takes a very Ritchiesque form. Cardula tricks a jewel thief into stealing Van Jelsing’s talisman while he sleeps, thus enabling Cardula to exact his own version of poetic justice – by turning Van Jelsing into one of them, and then ensuring that he is always relentlessly pursued by yet another obsessive Van Jelsing across the globe. The poor, desperate fugitive thinks he has only one friend in the world, Cardula, who is always willing to lend him money and suggest a possible haven where he might finally be safe, a haven which – no surprise to the reader – is always compromised somehow.
If there is one thing that connects all these stories, aside from their ingenious juggling with the Dracula legend, it is the fact that Cardula himself is throughout something of a romantic, on the outside of life looking in, yearning to be united in some deep way with an attractive woman. We can see this, certainly, in one of the final Cardula stories, “Cardula and the Locked Rooms,” and this might be a good place to end the discussion.
In this story, Cardula is hired by Thompson, an art thief, to find a van Gogh painting stolen from him, a painting that he stole from a local museum five years earlier, and had kept in a locked room to which only he, as he thought, had access. There are, it turns out, only two possible suspects, one of them a mysterious and beautiful woman who discovers and coolly confronts Cardula as he searches her apartment one evening. So startled and unnerved is he by the confrontation that he vanishes in a flash. And, while it turns out that she is not the thief, he returns to her apartment after the case is concluded, explaining to her that he was irresistibly drawn back to her by “the magnificent pallor, those eyes, that absolute fearlessness.” She must be, he says, one of them, or else why would she – a truly beautiful woman – have nowhere in her apartment that most commonplace of feminine accessories – a mirror. So, it would seem that Cardula, ever gallant and acutely susceptible to female charm, has finally found the soul mate he has been thirsting for. Well, perhaps, for we don’t know. Ritchie died not long after this story was published, and thus ended the series, and the career of one of America’s most original writers of short fiction.
However, as I mentioned at the outset, there is the website devoted to Ritchie for those who might want to dip into his work. And recently, a notice was posted there that “The Cardula Detective Agency” has been republished in the March 2011 issue of Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine. Perhaps others in the series will appear there as well. I hope so. Ritchie deserves a new generation of readers who can enjoy his unique take on the world.
This is a very powerful collection dealing with core truths and eternal searches, contradictions and dreams. The power in the unfailing artistry of control of language and poetic forms is matched here by Bryan’s power to engage us and trouble us with fundamental human concerns. Bryan Dietrich has a real, intuitive and carefully crafted skill with words, rhythms and those human concerns about what we believe in, invest in, fool ourselves with, and still need. ‘The Engineer’, the opening poem, has the heavy weight sounds, the end and internal rhyme, the chain links of alliteration suited to the voice and vision. Bryan’s work, with the variations and repetitions, deliberate inconsistencies, revisiting of his own versions of the rondeau, hurtle us forward into space, backward into essential needs and fears, creating the engineer’s steel girders of the future while also offering the abyss of knowing this is only a construction, an investment, and maybe that alone.
One of the interesting things about poetry which uses
the speculative, sci-fi, horror, or fantasy is the possibility, enacted
here in Bryan’s poems, of connecting the popular imagination with
the search for fundamental underpinning truths. God the engineer is
in here, so are space travellers boldly going, and echoes of Wilfred
Owen’s ‘Strange Meeting’ –the trekking forwards
is mired in trekking backwards; seeking the future grows from, recalls,
echoes, and is caught by the past.
‘Revelation without apocalypse,
‘It was like catching your God with Her knickers
Indeed, about celestial visitation
References ‘Musee des Beaux arts’ while, ‘The Astronomer’ references Yeats’ ‘The Second coming’ – ‘should some aliens answer our roll round at last, will we be ashamed of what we’ve asked?’
One points out that we’ve missed the point, the other that we’ve misinterpreted most points and ignore the inevitable at our peril. So the tones are speculative, questioning, querulous and repetitive because the search, the speculation, the fantasising, investment, doubts and proofs are also repetitive, with some variants, rather, something terrible about humankind’s print of the earth being little more than Nazism and a bunch of sitcoms – but that’s precisely the kind of distillation of high art and popular culture whose remnants one might bury in a time capsule – or which could be picked out in a brief glance at another planet. Terrifying too that what’s seen from outer space as a sign of life on earth is probably only the great wall of China, and what’s causing holes in the ozone layer is little more than methane – the grandiose views from space, and the ludicrous – cattle farts – combined undermine any aspirations of human achievements and actually make all those constructions and inventions small and vulnerable, and all constructions and inventions:
Bryan’s language is a combination of the grandiose and the insultingly demeaning, the paltry, enacting and emphasising hubris, and exposing the need to construct but question. It’s also funny of course: ‘Each shoddy assembly of facts, gods, Freudian faux pas may leave much of the Galaxial song unsung’ and humbling – over interpretation is a mess, a mistake and in the midst of that we’ll miss the essential, the galaxial song.
In ‘The Author’ he revisits,
‘The assumption always was that I would fail,
And of course much of this collection is like Bryan’s previous work, personal in its references and its focus on the emerging poet. How much nonsense now are the lines of self doubt, how wrong any assumption of the wrong headedness of directing the imagination into the realms of science fiction and horror when we know how Bryan’s previous collections have so carefully disinterred childhood memories, fond and frightening, exposing the developing mind of the author, his father’s popular culture influences.
But the spirit behind Bryan’s own particular turn of mind, seen throughout his work, yokes the dark with the light, pushes forward out of the monstrous and uses it to explain and explore the human.
The Arthur C Clarke epigraph to ‘The Believer’
could help define the spirit of The Assumption:
While belief and religion are infused throughout the whole collection, so too is scepticism, and the tales told of invasion from space, of alien races, offer, as does all good science fiction, a speculative liminality in which to question, undercut, problematise, or reinforce, depending on your own beliefs.
But nothing can ever be taken at face value, not even
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