This volume from Crippen & Landru brings together the first 14 stories featuring Ben Snow, a 19th century adventurer often mistaken for Billy the Kid. What is particularly noteworthy about the collection is that includes both the initial stories Hoch wrote about the character in the 1960s, in the early days of his career, and the first batch published two decades later, when the series was revived by an author now at the peak of his success. All offer enticing mysteries and some of them are absolutely corkers!
I offer this review as part of Bev’s 2014 Vintage Silver Age Mystery Challenge
“A thing, something bulky, curled into itself in the dust, and ahead were the running footsteps of a murderer” – from The Ghost Town (1961)
The 14 historical mysteries included here offer a fascinating example of an author revisiting their own creation after a considerable gap. Edward Hoch began writing the Snow tales in 1960 for The Saint Mystery Magazine before moving on to pastures new (sic). Snow was unexpectedly revived for Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine at a time when the author was in the middle of a record-breaking association with the magazine, no issue being published between May 1973 and his death in 2008 without featuring one or more of his tales. This collection zigzags across the map detailing the cases solved by a man born in 1859, the same year as William H. Bonney, aka Billy the Kid. Despite the fact that the celebrated gunslinger died in 1881, many choose to believe that he is merely in hiding, possibly under the pseudonym of ‘Ben Snow’. Because Snow is also a very quick draw and is leading a nomadic experience to get away from some bad experiences, he is usually mistaken for the famous gunslinger.
The stories are set between 1883 and 1902 and mostly appear chronologically though later on Hoch started moving around the timeline. Here are the stories, with the original publication date attached:
- Frontier Street (1961)
- The Valley of Arrows (1961)
- The Ghost Town (1961)
- The Flying Man (1961)
- Man in the Alley (1962)
- The Ripper of Storyville (1962)
- Snow in Yucatan (1965)
- The Vanished Steamboat (1984)
- Brothers on the Beach (1984)
- The 500 Hours of Dr. Wisdom (1984)
- The Trail of the Bells (1985)
- The Phantom Stallion (1985)
- The Sacramento Waxworks (1986)
- The Only Tree in Tasco (1986)
In his introduction, Hoch admits that he considered dropping some of the earlier titles as he thought they were quite weak, and it’s hard not to agree. The first two in particular are clichéd and poorly plotted, characterisation and scene-setting barely passing muster. Things quickly improve though with the spooky The Ghost Town (which includes a man killed with a harpoon int he middle of a desert town) and especially The Flying Man offering solid mysteries and fascinating historical details, features that would come to define the series. Man in the Alley is especially good, set around the assassination of President McKinley and the Buffalo expo of 1901, though the cream of the early stories is undeniably the title story. In the introduction, Hoch tells us with pride that Cornell Woolrich was apparently a big fan of this one (it originally appeared in the same issue of The Saint Magazine as the master’s own ‘The Poker Player’s Wife,’ one of his last stories), and it’s easy to see why. Its combination of New Orleans atmosphere, fascinating details on the organisation of prostitution at that time (details of the women were published in a ‘blue book’) and the potential re-appearance of Jack the Ripper, this also boasts a really complex and satisfying plot that makes this a very densely structured and very fine mystery story.
“Something clicked in Ben’s mind then, like the final bullet sliding into the chamber”
In the later stories, the style is a bit looser and plotting more compact but with ingenuity to spare. There is a disappearing steamboat in one and in The Phantom Stallion a dying old man is seemingly knocked off by an invisible in a story that also features a highly unusual locked room within another locked room that contains an early air conditioning system. Snow’s horse also gets a name, ‘Oats’ (named for Joyce Carol Oates apparently) and our hero gets mixed in several important historical events, such as the Wright brother’s first recorded flight in Brothers on the Beach in 1903, while The 500 Hours of Dr. Wisdom takes us back twenty years and one of Snow’s earliest cases. A really entertaining collection, one that contains several gems, beautifully presented by Crippen and Landru in an edition that incorporates a very useful guide to the stories written by Marvin Lachman,
I submit this review for Bev’s 2014 Silver Age Vintage Mystery Challenge Bingo in the ‘short story collection’ category as all the stories were first published between 1961 and 1986: