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A Talent to Burn

A GUIDE TO THE MYSTERY FICTION OF ARTHUR PORGES

BY RICHARD SIMMS

Although Arthur Porges had a very individual writing style, his work was nevertheless influenced by many different authors. Porges read a great deal of fiction as a young man, and had a wide range of favourites, among which were Jack London, Thomas Hardy, Rudyard Kipling, Charles Dickens and H. G. Wells. He learned much from authors such as John Dickson Carr, G. K. Chesterton, H. Rider Haggard, O. Henry, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Saki (the pseudonym of H. H. Munro). Some of Porges' stories do indeed echo Saki's work, in that they exhibit a dark and uncompromising sense of humor, in addition to an economic style of writing, where not a word is wasted. Porges only ever wrote short stories; he never attempted a novel. His impossible-crime stories, a sub-genre in which he was notably prolific, bring to mind Carr and Doyle as obvious influences. A good deal of Porges' stories have unexpected twists at the end, echoing the work of O. Henry; a major influence on his prose style. During the early years of his writing career in the 1950s, Porges was given invaluable advice by the editor and author Anthony Boucher (1911-1968), who aided Porges by taking an active interest in his writing and providing constructive criticism. Arthur Porges has since acknowledged Boucher's input, citing him as a major influence.

But while there were these definite literary influences on Porges as a young writer, he quickly managed to carve out a niche for himself, specialising in impossible-crime and scientific puzzle stories. The majority of his mystery stories neatly fall into these two categories. The inspiration that enabled him to come up with original scientific puzzles -- for his protagonists to solve -- was gleaned largely from the fact that he had read many scientific texts as a young man, often on very esoteric subjects. Having acquired a vast knowledge of maths, physics, chemistry and biology, as well as history, Porges was equipped with all manner of obscure facts mainly relating to the physical world. It was this knowledge, gleaned from his voluminous reading, that he went on to use as the basis for countless plot devices. Porges was also a teacher of mathematics, until his retirement to become a full-time author in 1957. His understanding of this subject was applied in a number of his impossible-crime stories, one example out of many being "The Missing Miles" (1965). Of his many skills as a writer, perhaps the one that distinguished him most of all was his ability to transplant into his stories the many facts obtained from his extensive reading. With so much of his output in this vein, it is amazing to see how he managed to churn out one inventive plot after another, for so many years.

Although Arthur Porges began his published career in 1950, with the publication of his fantasy tale "Modeled in Clay" in a little-known men's magazine, his first published story in the mystery genre was "The Diamond," in the June 1956 issue of Famous Detective Stories -- one of the last of the pulps. It was during the late 1950s and 60s that the majority of Porges' many stories were published. This was of course a highly productive and successful time in his writing career, the period in which Porges flourished as an author. In the pages of a variety of diverse periodicals, there is to be found much of the finest work he ever wrote. Porges was a regular contributor to various digest-sized mystery magazines such as Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, Mike Shayne's Mystery Magazine and The Man From U.N.C.L.E Magazine. Porges' mystery, thriller and suspense stories also found their way into such publications as Signature, Argosy, After Hours and Gent. By the mid-1960s, he had become a very well known short-story writer, often having three or four stories published -- in different magazines -- in one month alone! His crime and mystery stories began to be reprinted in numerous paperback anthologies, particularly in the long-running series of collections bearing the Alfred Hitchcock name that remained popular well into the 1970s; such lurid titles as Coffin Corner, Get Me To The Wake on Time, and Boys and Ghouls Together -- treasure troves of great short fiction.

Those that read a lot of Porges' detective fiction could not have helped noticing that much of his output in this genre featured recurring characters, such as the wheelchair-bound sleuth Dr. Cyriack Skinner Grey, a retired scientist. The Grey tales are all locked-room mysteries, where the central puzzle-solving aspect and the witty interplay between the characters goes hand in hand. These stories never fail to bring a smile to one's face and particularly memorable entries in this series include "The Scientist and the Two Thieves" (1974) and "The Scientist and the Platinum Chain" (1974). Porges created several other series characters, all of them logicians, and each admittedly very similar in their personal outlook. Indeed, essentially they all sing with the same voice, so to speak, but are nevertheless very well drawn and likeable fellows. The condensed style of writing that typified stories by Porges would at first appear to preclude any worthwhile characterisation. But while the plot, or the central inventive idea make up the bare bones of a typical Porges story, he nevertheless showed great skill in drawing interesting protagonists. The common trait inherent in his sleuths is their ability to put their scientific knowledge to effective use in solving baffling crimes, usually coming up with quite unpredictable solutions. In addition, they often make their historical and literary erudition relate to the cases which they are trying to solve. With incisive and superb dialogue setting the mood, Porges' sleuths come to life in the reader's mind. The big four, who featured in dozens of Porges' crime stories, were Dr. Joel Hoffman, a pathologist, the aforementioned Dr. Cyriack Skinner Grey, Ulysses Price Middlebie and Julian Morse Trowbridge. Two wonderful stories with Trowbridge as the crime-solver are the stylish "The Cunning Cashier" (1967) and the superb "The Invisible Tomb" (1967). However, in this writer's opinion, the stories featuring the ingenious pathologist Dr. Joel Hoffman exemplify all that is best about Porges' impossible-crime stories. Set on the California coast, these narratives follow the astute doctor as he employs his keen mind to solve numerous locked-room mysteries. An element of ornithology plays an unexpected part in the brilliant Hoffman story "Circle in the Dust" (1960). "Horse-Collar Homicide," published in the same year, involves an especially confounding case, where a knowledge of physics is essential if the reader is going to have any chance of guessing the solution before our friend Dr. Hoffman. Other stories in this series include "A Puzzle in Sand" (1961) and "No Killer Has Wings" (1960); both of these tales featuring a murder that takes place on a beach!

Porges has written some stories which, although published in mystery magazines, are far from straightforward examples of that particular genre. Further to this, it is worth noting that there are in fact dozens of oddities in the Porges canon that have in the past been tenuously classed as mysteries, but are really not so easy to define. These stories make for curious reading and do sometimes reflect a more personal side to Porges' writing. There is a playful, witty and humorous take in less typical tales such as "The Second Debut" (1968). This story appeared in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine but is not a mystery in the usual sense, and was in fact later collected in the weird fiction collection The Mirror and Other Strange Reflections (Ash-Tree Press, 2002). It tells the story of two brothers, one of whom is a scientist and a failed pianist, who channels his frustrations onto his younger brother, a rather poor musician with a less strong personality. The older of the two brothers attempts, by a pioneering scientific technique involving genetics, to enhance his brother's musical abilities. In this story, the detailed descriptions of classical compositions show Porges' love for classical music, an aspect that also appears in the story "Perfect Pitcher" (1961), a wonderful tale of a young brother and sister, both child prodigies in the world of classical music, who are kidnapped and held to ransom. This story admittedly has the more common aspect of a police procedural, following, as it does for the most part, the operations of the detectives in charge of the case.

Other mystery stories by Porges contain a good deal of black humor, two examples of which appeared in the November 1965 issue of Bizarre! Mystery Magazine. The first, "The Creep Brigade" (1965), is one of his very best stories; both poignant and amusing. The second humorous yarn in this particular issue was the impossible-crime story "The 60 Minute Egg" (1965), which the editor printed under the pseudonym Derek Page -- Porges had three stories in this issue, the third, a dark conte cruel called "The Emperor's Dogs," went under the by-line Abel Jacobi. In "The 60 Minute Egg", the detective, with the aid of a one Elzevir Gutenberg Garstin (nicknamed "The 60 Minute Egg!"), must prove that someone has committed a quite unusual murder by first determining the exact method used. In keeping with the tradition of impossible-crime stories, Porges here, as in so many of his stories of detection, concentrates on how a murder has been implemented. The solution in this one is surprising, amusing and quite bizarre. An example of Porges' more serious side is the very strange and unusual tale, "Puddle" (1972). This understated, simply written piece, is a favourite of many, including Porges himself. This is another story that is not easily defined. It tells the story of a man's recollections of being bullied as a child and how his unusual fear of puddles is overcome -- or so he thinks. There is a striking imagery about this story, a quality more reminiscent of his fantasy work. In fact, although "Puddle" appeared in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, it could easily have been bought by one of the science fiction/fantasy magazines of the time, such as Fantastic. This is also true of the atmospheric "In The Tomb" (1960), a hard-boiled, grim tale, with a ghastly and bizarre conclusion. Again, this latter story is a curious mixture of crime and fantasy.

The darker, more reflective aspect to Porges' writings is apparent in mystery tales such as "Heat" (1960), a moody, atmospheric story about an horrific crime committed against a child. The setting for this story is that of a small town during a heat wave. "The Glint" (1965), a story of a mute child, is a heartbreaking, shocking piece, written with great skill. In this story there is a sinister look into the mind of a ruthless, manipulative killer and the outcome depicts a bloody revenge. Retribution occurs time and again in Porges' work, and some more extreme examples of this include the emotive "Born to Save" (1964), "A Small Favor" (1960) and "Shot in the Dark" (1963). Stories such as these work so well partly because Porges has an admirable knack for creating some truly objectionable, amoral villains. In "Chain Smoker" (1967), the vicious, heinous criminal is depicted in such horrid detail that one is compelled to applaud the drastic, vengeful action his victim is driven to. Writing in such a short, taut form, Porges has created some rare gems indeed and the many varying examples of this side to his work exemplify his versatility as a writer. If these changes in style weren't enough, Porges adds complexity to his stories, with a general undercurrent of misanthropism and a cynical slant being offset by an obvious faith in man's ability to overcome seemingly impossible odds. This is an element that is also apparent in his science fiction work.

threeporgesparodies.JPG (72606 bytes)Countless other mystery stories appeared during Porges' most prolific period of writing. Worthy of mention here are the beautifully written "Love and Death" (1963), "Stung" (1965), "The Pit and the Bottle" (1961) and "Coffee Break" (1964), the latter story featuring his series sleuth Ulysses Price Middlebie. Porges was amazingly prolific, but while many of his stories were anthologised, there was never a representative book collection of his crime and mystery stories published. The two collections that do exist are selections of Porges' Sherlock Holmes parodies, entitled Three Porges Parodies and a Pastiche (Magico Magazine, 1988) and the later The Adventures of Stately Homes and Sherman Horn (The Battered Silicon Dispatch Box, 2008). The first book, compiled by editor Michael H. Kean, a Sherlock Holmes enthusiast, contains the three Holmesian parodies that Porges wrote in the 1950s and 1960s. Also included was a never-before-published pastiche entitled "The Singular Affair of the Aluminium Crutch." This rare collection showcases some fine comic writing. There are puns galore and lots of inside jokes for Sherlock Holmes fans to delight over. In one of the parodies, Porges' characters Stately Homes and Sun Wat solve a baffling case in "Stately Homes ... and the Box" (1965). The seemingly unsolvable brain teaser in this story has a bizarre and outrageous twist at the end. However, to the delight of Arthur Porges' fans, five more Sherlockian spoofs, featuring the estimable Stately Homes, appeared between 2001 and 2004. It has been my privilege to collect these, along with the earlier tales, in the aforementioned, comprehensive The Adventures of Stately Homes and Sherman Horn, which happily includes an introduction by none other than Michael Kean!

But returning to Porges' earlier career as a writer, there was a marked decrease in his published output in the early 1970s. At the beginning of this decade, the mystery fiction digest magazines, that were such a fertile market for short story writers, such as Porges, were suffering from the same dwindling circulations faced by the science fiction magazines of the time. Many of them folded for the simple reason that short stories were falling out of fashion. The market did not totally evaporate, of course, and some, such as the long-running Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine and Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, have survived to this day. However, authors such as Porges, who only wrote short stories, suffered more than others. Porges himself was sixty years old by 1975, and his less prolific output from thereon may have been partly due to a quite natural desire to slow down. It can also be surmised that few authors can sustain such an incredible output of stories for very long; in the case of Arthur Porges, this remains a matter of conjecture. But whatever the case, reprints of his mystery work abounded throughout the 1970s, mostly in the multitude of anthologies that bore the Alfred Hitchcock name and were so successful in the paperback market. Earlier Porges stories were included in several of these anthologies, and many readers first encountered his work through the Hitchcock collections. With this very welcome extra exposure, Porges did continue to submit the odd mystery story here and there, though it is true that very few were appearing by 1975.

Although Porges sold few of his short stories between the early 1970s and 1990s, some of his later stories exhibit the same strengths that typified his earlier work. There is, in intricate and suspenseful tales like "A Talent to Burn" (1975), a combination of stylish writing and an original premise. In fact, "A Talent to Burn" is one of his best, in that it boasts humor, crisp dialogue and a deliciously ingenious outcome. The ending is pure Porges, with the "never say die" attitude exhibited by the protagonist being ultimately rewarded with success. Furthermore, some later stories by Porges echo a few of his more unusual tales, in that they are not easy to categorise. "Mystery and Magic on the Steppe" (1990), as its title suggests, combines mystery and fantasy to create an eerie, haunting piece. The mystery is anything but traditional in format; in this story we have a small enactment of medieval European history. Two barbarians, scouts from the main body of a horde of Tartars, enter a lonely valley and encounter a Slav hermit who is possessed with unexplainable powers over animals. There is a harsh, cynical outlook to this story, embodied in the uncaring attitude of the raiders, whose unbelief and callous treatment of the old man gives the story an abrasive quality. This yarn borders on fantasy, and is yet another story that editor Mike Ashley deemed suitable for inclusion in his supernatural collection The Mirror and Other Strange Reflections. "Mystery and Magic on the Steppe" certainly has an interesting historical backdrop. War and history, two subjects which Porges has obviously read much on, are aspects of "The Only Survivor" (1994), a very short piece narrated by a dying old man who is telling the story of how he survived a massacre in which he was the only survivor. There is mystery here, in which the reader is compelled to wonder how indeed the old general managed to live through the experience. The mood created in this story is one of poignancy, and the main thrust behind this powerful narrative is the man's terrible guilt. Without moralising, Porges, in stories such as this, tells of human experience with understanding and compassion.

From the early 1990s onwards, Arthur Porges began to appear a good deal more frequently in the pages of Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine and Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine. Stories from this later period include "Aunt Rutabaga" (1994), a devilishly immoral tale of a nephew's plot to murder his aunt. The inventive idea is a blood chilling, medically oriented one here and the late Cathleen Jordan considered it good enough to reprint it in her mystery anthology Murder Most Medical (Severn House, 1995). In "Five Finger Exercise" (1996) and "The Microdot Puzzle" (1997), Porges creates another memorable sleuth in the form of the charming Elizabeth Buffington Blake, also known as "B-Cubed," a Maths professor who uses her deductive abilities to help the state department solve cases which have baffled their best detectives. It is a shame that this promising series only ran to two stories, although it must be said that Miss Blake's use of plausible inferences owed a lot to Porges' earlier sleuth Cyriack Skinner Grey! In the February 2001 issue of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, the first of the new wave of the aforementioned Sherlock Holmes parodies appeared, the amusing "Stately Homes and The Invisible Slasher." The last Sherlockian spoof Arthur ever wrote was "Stately Homes and the Cuththroat Ghost" (2004), published in an elegant, limited edition chapbook by Michael Kean.

Arthur Porges' large body of work in the field of mystery and detective writing is highly respected among mystery aficionados. He is well remembered by those readers who recall with fondness the golden era of the fiction digests; such titles as Mike Shayne's Mystery Magazine, Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine and Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine published his work on a regular basis. To many, his name is synonymous with the 1960s period; his by-line appeared time and again alongside writers such as Edward D. Hoch, Henry Slesar, Jack Ritchie, C. B. Gilford, Elijah Ellis and Helen Nielsen. In terms of mystery stories that feature a locked-room, or impossible-crime puzzle, Porges was immensely prolific. A master at writing plots that revolve around a scientific idea, Porges produced, during his lifetime, a diverse body of work within this disciplined literary field.

I trust that what I have written above has inspired readers to search out at least some of Arthur Porges' many crime and mystery stories. Visit the Checklist of Stories page for information on where certain stories appeared. In conclusion, I should point out that there are a good few stories that this reader has yet to discover! With somewhere between 250 and 300 stories out there, many buried in obscure publications, it will be a formidable -- perhaps near impossible -- task tracking them all down. But hey, it's worth the trouble! Finding and reading these wonderful stories is a joy.  I hope those reading this will discover that for themselves.

This essay is Copyright 2007 Richard Simms

 

 

Copyright 1999 - 2016 by Richard Simms