Monday, December 5, 2016

The Bleeding Scissors / The Evil Days by Bruno Fischer

This beautiful Robert Maguire cover was an unused design for the original Bleeding Scissors paperback edition.

Stark House Press’s The Bleeding Scissors / The Evil Days double edition is an exciting and compulsively readable book, featuring two examples of fine pulp storytelling, suspense, and literate psychological insight.

According to Gary Lovisi’s introduction, The Evil Days was published in 1973, after a long hiatus from novel-writing. (The back cover blurb suggests that Fischer had writer’s block.) It reads very much like a valedictory— a great, insightful writer putting everything he’s got into one last statement. The story is divided up into days and is narrated by Caleb Dawson, an editor at a New York publishing house who takes the train to the city and then back to his Mount Birch home every weekday like clockwork. He has two sons, and an attractive wife with a “very kissable mouth” (Wednesday 3) named Sally. Over the course of one very, very bad week, their relationship is tested and their lives placed in serious danger thanks to a series of events that begins with Sally’s finding a leather pouch of jewels worth a substantial amount of money.

She explains that she found the pouch in the parking lot of the local shopping center. She believes that the pouch must have fallen out of the purse of a woman who got them out of a safety deposit box from the bank at the shopping center. They decide to hang on to them and wait and see if anyone reports them as lost, thinking that they might be able to get a reward.

Meanwhile, Caleb has decided to pass on a new volume of poetry pitched by Mount Birch poet Gordon Tripp. Caleb “can’s see any kind of market for the collected works of a third-rate poet.” (Thursday 3). The owner of Lakeview Press, Edward Martaine, intervenes on Tripp’s behalf, calling Caleb into his office to ask him to publish the volume, despite the fact that Caleb has already mailed the rejected manuscript back to Tripp. Over the course of this meeting Caleb also learns that Martaine’s wife is the one who lost the jewels that Sally found, and that Sally’s theory about someone getting them from a bank safety deposit box and dropping them in the parking lot while getting into her car is eerily, almost suspiciously correct.

When Caleb’s secretary isn’t able to reach Tripp, Caleb decides to visit Tripp’s home himself, to retrieve the manuscript and to explain that the rejection letter enclosed within the envelope was sent in error— the dream of freelance writers everywhere. Unfortunately when he arrives at Tripp’s home he finds that the reason that Tripp’s been inaccessible for two days is that he’s been brutally, horribly murdered.

Suddenly the sleeping little burg of Mount Birch has had two extremely exciting developments that seem completely unrelated.

As the Dawsons deal with the fallout of the discovery of the jewels and the murder of Gordon Tripp, the casual lies with which they’ve been living are exposed. There’s infidelity, a kidnapping, political intrigue and, in my favorite touch, an extremely annoying neighbor who keeps helping himself to Caleb’s lawnmower—among other things.

The Robert Maguire cover that was actually for the original edition is pretty good, too!

The first book in the volume, The Bleeding Scissors, was published in 1948, during a much more fruitful period in Fischer’s literary career. It’s a hardboiled mystery story that begins with Leo Aikin returning home through the ice and snow after a night of poker with his friends. Leo’s not very lucky at cards; in fact, he’s having ongoing monetary problems that stem from the spendthrifty ways of his wife and live-in sister-in-law, the locally famous “Runyon Girls.” (“[A] tradition in Jorberg; anything they did could be explained by a smile and a shrug” (Chapter 3). Finding the house empty he and his neighbor go out searching. When he comes back later he finds that some of his wife’s and sister-in-law’s clothes are gone.

Did they skip out on their own, or were they kidnapped? Who was the young man who was seen at their home a few days before their disappearance? What’s the significance of the bloody scissors that Leo’s wife Judith dreams about? And, what the hell kind of name is “Eat” (“short for Eaton?”)?

Leo’s investigation leads him from his Connecticut home town to New York City, where he meets a “genial detective” (Chapter 10) called Singleton. The two of them explore the seedy underbelly of New York’s theater scene, from “legitimate” theater to a burlesque house featuring a “refined stripper” and run by a “psychologist” (Chapter 16). The story moves along at a breakneck pace, and Fischer does a great job of combining mystery, crime, and psychological suspense.

The biographical blurb on the back of the Stark House Press edition says that Fischer was educated at a school “established by the American Socialist Party,” and mentions that he wrote for Labor Voice and Socialist Call, and ran for the New York state senate as a Socialist candidate. Reading these two books none of that is surprising; there’s a strong undercurrent of class resentment and anger. There are characters in each of the novels who, significantly and tragically, see others getting rich from nefarious actions and make their own attempts to “get theirs,” only to find that the world has conspired against them.

Both novels end in the middle of important scenes that are left unresolved. There’s a feeling of hopefulness in both, but in each case there's the potential for disaster. I suppose these endings could be sort of Rorschach tests— optimists and pessimists will have their own interpretations. Whatever your outlook on life, there’s an awful lot to like about both of these novels, and I’m pleased to see that there are several other Bruno Fischer books available in print and as ebooks. His work is definitely worth your time.

Bleeding Scissors Signet edition cover source.
Evil Days cover source.

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