Following on from last week’s post about John Sladek’s Thackeray Phin short stories, we turn our attention to the remaining crime stories collected in Maps, all of which were published in 1968. Is that significant? Let’s find out…
First we have ‘Just Another Victim’, which recalls to my mind the work of Cornell Woolrich in its semi-suspense setup — from the third sentence it’s established that one of two people is about to die and the second is going to have some sort of hand in it. The three characters who feature here are each captured quickly and efficiently, and even if Ann’s murderous rage seems rather flimsily established, well, it’s a fun time. You could see Alfred Hitchcock having a field day with this.
‘You’ve Got a Friend at the Fengrove National’ is again very quick to establish its players — most of these stories are only 4 or 5 pages long, so Sladek isn’t hanging about — and has a reasonably clever bank robbery scheme that Sladek doesn’t feel the need to condescend to explain, trusting you to figure it out for yourself (though as cheques become a thing of the past this may be lost on future generations…which would be a shame, I think). The final sting isn’t quite as devastating as it might be, but it pleasingly brings to mind Stanley Ellin’s ‘The Orderly World of Mr. Appleby’…and anything that recalls that masterpiece is always welcome in my house.
Next up, ‘The Switch’ starts out reading like something that would fit into the collected stories of Leo Bruce, but very quickly turns into something with a decidedly more nihilistic twist. It occurs to me that detailing the events of these stories would somewhat ruin the surprise since they’re so short, so giving you a sense of the mood is probably safer, hence the repeated references to other authors. The precise direction this takes scratches at the edge of my memory for an appropriate comparison but I can’t quite exhume the name from all the pages that have passed before these eyes. It will hopefully come to me in time.
The next one is much easier, though: ‘Timetable’ is without a doubt one of Roald Dahl’s Tales of the Unexpected that was deemed far too terrifying to include in what was essentially a kids’ book. You may get a sense of where it’s going — yet again, someone is planning to kill someone else, it’s almost like Sladek had some rage he was trying to Mary Sue out of his system — but you also might not believe he’ll actually see it through. Does he? Well, that’d be telling. But the main idea that makes the resolution possible is so darkly hilarious that you’ll feel ashamed of yourself for laughing, though laugh you probably will (and should).
‘Now That I’m Free’ — in which a man kills his wife in the opening line in order to be with another woman — is pure James M. Cain, from its simple (and largely ignored) alibi problem all the way to the kicker in the final few lines. It’s a tonal tightrope to walk precisely, and Sladek has every inch of this down perfectly: from the certain knowledge of how long his projectionist protagonist has to step outside and smoke a cigarette between reel changes right the way through to the moment where “he automatically looked at the screen, where the law was winning”. A beautiful little piece of darkness.
The final short-short is ‘Practical Joke’ in which a boorish joker in the style of Bruce Elliott’s You’ll Die Laughing (1945) oversteps the mark and, well, things happen. By this point it’s obvious what sort of murky waters Sladek has dragged us into, and there’s not really time for the suspense of Woolrich or the timepiece construction of Ellin. From now on, something this bleak and inevitable might just have to be labelled “Sladekian” since I’m not sure what else I’ve read that comes close to this. Jim Thompson springs to mind, but he at least had a little sense of hope behind his failures.
Finally, at a positively gargantuan 15 pages, ‘Publish and Perish’ concerns the workings of a university Physics department where — to put it mildly — job interviews have somewhat fallen out of favour and a new tradition established in their place. Of all these more crime-oriented stories, this hews most closely to the SF trappings where Sladek would make his name. If you especially enjoy this, I can heartily recommend the stories of Philip K. Dick, who has the same streak of creative perversity and whimsy running through his own works; I suggest the collection Second Variety (1987) would be the exact kind of thing you’re after.
Is there anything especially 1968 about these stories? Well, it was a year so full of so much strife in Sladek’s native United States that has passed down the decades into near legend — rise of both the anti-Vietnam War and Civil Rights movements, that amazing image of Tommie Smith and John Carlos in controversial protest on the Olympic podium after their gold and bronze medal wins, the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy, the first full reports of the famine in Biafra reaching the Western world — that it’s tempting to see the impact of these events and more in anything produced in that time. But sometimes fiction is just fiction, y’know? A case could be made either way.
What we certainly do have here is a sense of the ‘little people’ taking a conscious stand in their lives, no longer just accepting the situations in which they find themselves — situations they, in most cases, have willingly put themselves — and seeking to take drastic, decisive action to correct those imbalances, those injustices they see around them. From here — given the twisted, thwarted, frustrated, and often up-ended conclusions such efforts attain — I’ll leave you free to draw your own conclusions: is Sladek making some commentary on the folly of uniformed action, is he lambasting those who spring too hurriedly into a breech whereof they don’t fully understand, or questioning the wisdom of focussing on such individual and petty furies in the face of the wider societal difficulties he saw going on around him?
Or, y’know, maybe he’s just having fun with the form…