Henry Slesar: Some of his Short Stories

I have only encountered Slesar’s work in novel format until today, and only one novel at that: Enter Murderers (1960). Nevertheless, I really enjoyed it and have been scouting around, on and off, for more to read by him. For my birthday I got a small selection of his short stories, which originally came from the short story collection: Murders Most Macabre (1986). These stories come from a range of time periods and in style remind me of the early stories by Stanley Ellin.

One Grave Too Many

Joe Helmer is far from satisfied with life. His wife won’t stop nagging him. But then again he is spending his days in the cinema rather than looking for a job. He is determined to wait for the “perfect” one. In the meantime, bills have piled up and their electricity and telephone are now cut off. Eviction is also looming. Yet his problems, at least temporarily, seem to be solved when a man collapses on the pavement. Joe cannot feel a pulse and assumes he is dead, happily taking his very full wallet. It is only when he gets home that he finds in the wallet a card which states that the man had a cataleptic condition and not to assume he is dead…

This tale has a wonderful tinge of Greek tragedy about it, made all the more pleasurable by the unlikableness of the protagonist who has landed himself in such a pickle of his own creation. It is very entertaining seeing what Joe decides to do about this out of the ordinary dilemma.

Great Men Can Die

Maxwell St John, a famous and objectionable writer, is being a difficult patient in hospital after surgery. The only person he wants to see is his supposed number one fan, Willard Higgins; a decision he will ultimately regret…

I think this story would have been better if it had been longer, as the ending is quite easy to anticipate.

The Right Kind of House

Mr Waterbury is determined to buy an old house in poor condition, despite it being overpriced. Why would he want such an undesirable home? Might the secret lie in the past of the current owner?

Whilst I think the story has to tell rather than show, it saves this for the end and still produces a dramatic finale to the piece, with a nice sting in its’ tail.

A Woman’s Help

Arnold Bourdon has lived off women all his life from his mother to his sister and now his wealthy wife. Yet he is not happy, as his wife suffers from a progressive muscle disease and has to receive a lot of care. She is said to have ‘clothed herself in its symptoms like a queen’ and rules the household with an iron fist. Of course when the young pretty nurse/companion arrives we know what is going to happen… But then what is going to happen after that?

I enjoyed this story quite a bit as I felt it took a well-known narrative and adds an ending with a strong kick.

The Case of M. J. H.

Maude Sheridan thought she was on the shelf until she met Jimmy French at a party. We should note she is the shocking age of 35! Yet Jimmy is no golden boy and in fact is a criminal. By his very honesty he draws Maude closer to him, who does not fully believe in his awfulness and may also see him as a bit of a DIY project. He wants her to help him commit one “final” crime, to provide for their future life together. Will she, or won’t she?

I found it harder to engage with the central characters in this piece, but again I thought Slesar delivers a very good ending to the story.

The Colonel’s House

Colonel Aldrich is faced with his grown-up children selling his house and moving him out to a retirement home. Yet can he avoid this fate with the aid of his manservant?

I think the solution devised in this piece is quite intriguing, very much turning things upside down, whilst holding on to the status quo. The ending is rather fitting, if a little melancholic.

The Contessa Collection

George Wadley hates the new sales manager, Harold Buckhalter, who has come to work for Kipness Gems. This hate intensifies when Harold makes him look bad in front of his boss and steals the eye of a woman at the office. So when a private detective approaches him considering the potential criminality of Harold, he jumps at the chance to get his revenge. But what has he let himself in for?

What makes this such a good story, and definitely one of my favourites, is that whilst the reader may anticipate part of the ending, the multiple reversals of fortune in the last couple of pages, ensure it is still a surprising read.

So a good read by Slesar on the whole. The adhoc hunt for more by him continues!

Rating: 4.25/5

10 comments

  1. Slesar is one of my favourite short story writers regardless of genre, and I don’t think he fully gets his due when crime short fiction is discussed. He won two Edgars in his lifetime but amazingly none of them for his short stories – heck, he NEVER was nominated for the Best Short Story award! His range was admittedly smaller than Ellin’s but he was a virtuoso plotter and his best stories all offer a half cynical, half melancholy look at the American way of life (he seems to have been most interested in couple issues and corporate life) His finest effort in the short form I think is a hard to categorize story titled “The Slave” which I read in an Alfred Hitchcock Presents anthology even though it is entirely devoid of any criminal content. It has a wonderful premise, a nice final twist and a Roald Dahl-like sardonic view of human nature.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Don’t know why this one shot before I finished it but well…

      So as you’ve probably guessed by now, I have a book to recommend and it’s by Henry Slesar. It’s called The Thing at the Door and it is Slesar taking on the gothic romance subgenre – sort of. I don’t want to say too much about it, but let’s say it’s about a childhood trauma that may or may not repeat in the present and whose exact nature is unknown until the end but cleverly and satisfactorily explained. It’s very close in spirit to Berckman’s Beckoning Dream and I think you’ll like it.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Over 45 of his short stories were adapted by Hitchcock for his TV series Alfred Hitchcock Presents and the Alfred Hitchcock’s Hour.These include 4 stories listed here: One Grave Too Many, The Right Kind Of House, A Woman’s Help, The Case of M.J.H.

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