Spider Pete by Claude Stewart

STEWART Spider Pete

Sometime in 1946, Mitre Press published a 32-page (plus wraps) single-stapled booklet containing a selection of short stories by author Claude Stewart. I genuinely doubt that they are original to this publication. Most (if not all) of the Mitre collections of reprinted stories from a variety of sources: magazines, newspapers, journals, pulps, etc.

The cover features a young lady at her dressing table, putting on her facial makeup and screaming in absolute terror as a huge, hairy-legged spider tangles from the ceiling, about to pounce on her, while a creepy fellow lurks in the background.

Intrigued? Well, it was enough to hook me. I wanted to know.

Spider Pete leads off the collection, beginning on page 1 and ending on page 8. The story opens with Charlie Collins, Chief of Police to Wallington City, bored of his occupation and thankful that his contract was for only five years. Sadly, he was on the wrong side of completing those years. Nothing ever happened in Wallington City, nothing spectacularly out of the normal crimes, that is. Then a mysterious death is laid upon him to solve. A woman is found dead, and seems to show all the symptoms of dying from gas, however, her flat has no gas. He discovers an odd yellowish powdery substance near her, and suspects the powder to be the source of the problem. However, their scientific chemicals department hasn’t a clue what the item is. Yet another death occurs, this time a man. The newspapers carry the usual fanfare, that the police are stumped, murders go unsolved, etc. Collins is later in the week invited to a black tie affair, and while present, is shocked to see an old schoolmate, vastly different in appearance, but realizes it is he, for his mannerisms haven’t changed a bit, etc. This fellow is James P. Mullins, and after the party, they hook up. Drink, talk, the usual. He’s obviously the killer or the next to die, right? Ah, he’s the killer. While leaving the Chief alone in the room, Collins, unable to keep his natural instincts from investigating a covered bird-cage, discovers large spiders inside and…that yellowish powder, too. Mullins re-enters, discovers the game-is-up, explains he discovered these poisonous spiders while in Brazil, and brought them home. He trained them to follow orders and they released their poisonous yellow powders on cue, the gas given off kills the person. Mullins then releases one spider to attack the Chief, when, inexplicably, it turns and goes after Mullins…

Lend-Lease Murder spans pages 9 through three-quarters of page 18. Another typical story about irony. Young man rivals his brother, who is better at everything in life. Goes to war, while he himself is denied as inadequate. Brother obtains everything life can offer, while our fellow is dirt poor and can’t get his shit together. But, that aside, he loves and covets the finer things in life, appreciates them, something his brother does not. Fine art, clothing, drinks, lifestyle, etc., but, he can’t have them! So, we find our unlucky fellow working in a stylish nightclub, surrounded by the elite, when in walks a handful of American airmen. They party hard, get all the hot girls, become drunk…the place eventually closes for the night, and he and another worker are cleaning up the joint when he discovers one of airmen left his leather flight-jacket behind by accident. He keeps the jacket for his own. The two begin talking and he learns the other leads an unscrupulous life, working the black market trade. He wants in, so he can have money. The other agrees, they meet the big boss, and are instructed to hit a warehouse… Fast forward, the visit the warehouse, the night watchman stumbles upon our fellow and he bashes him over the head. They discover the warehouse 100% empty and figure they were played for patsies, and depart. Next day, our boy learns the watchman was found clubbed over the head and had died. Now he is freaking out, and nearly penniless. He figures he can’t return to his job, having practically quit, then spots an ad in the paper. A reward for the return of an American’s flight-jacket! He hates to part with it, but the money is too good to be true, so he brings it in, hands it over, receives the reward, goes to leave, and the cuffs are slapped on his wrists! What? Turns out that the jacket, had he gone through the pockets, contained various special papers, and when he knocked the fellow dead, those papers fell out, leaving the incriminating evidence behind. All the police now needed was for him to confess to the crime.

Overall, the best story in this feature is a scientific-crime thriller entitled Pay or Vanish, spanning the bottom quarter of page 18 through half of page 22. Now while I say “best,” I don’t mind any stretch mean that is a good tale. It has holes in the plot so big a semi-truck could roll through without scraping the edges. Our hero is an English secret agent and while checking in at a pay-phone he sees someone has written a message on the wall: “Rixley 3450.” Believing it to be a secret communication, he dials RIX 3450 and a woman answers. Keeping his voice low, he replies and she believes it is her lover. They meet and he shocks her by not being her lover (of course) but explains he understands she is in a predicament and wants to assist her. Uncannily, instead of thinking he a nutter, but fearful for her life, and needing to trust someone, she explains that they worked for a scientist in a secret laboratory. A special science was discovered, by which means the madman intends to blackmail the world for riches. Her boyfriend was supposed to the scientist and destroy everything, but has never returned. So, these two enter the premises, and our agent thinks the whole thing is a joke but discovers otherwise. The scientist is there, and before his eyes, he destroys the girl. Poof. She vanishes. Nothing left but her silver change and jewelry made of silver, which for some reason does not vanish. Another pile on the floor has more silver coins, and we learn that that is all remains of her boyfriend. The agent fires five bullets into him, but, the scientist hurls the substance out a window into the river. To his horror, people continue to disappear. How? Why? Has the madman already sold the secret to various parties? Or did they drink from the river?

Fatty Gives Evidence begins on lower quarter of page 22 and finishes on mid-28. I always despise the British “fatty” stories. They often turn up in young boys periodicals, making fun of fat kids, etc. Where will this one lead me? Fatty is an ex-model who turned to fat. When she was young and beautiful, she was scooped up by a rich millionaire and she got lazy and ate and ate and he told her she looked great until one day he said otherwise and it was too late to turn back. She was large and couldn’t be a model any longer. She assists a younger, lovely model with her wardrobe and makeup (for a living) now and insists the girl cease dating a particular wealthy man or he’ll steer her wrong. Return the gifts, etc or she might end up in a bad spot. She does. Fatty departs and is offered a ride home by another worker, when he stops, and claims he forgot something. Fatty knows that he is infatuated with the model, but says nothing. He comes running back, and begs her to forget that he ever went back in. She agrees. Next day, she discovers the girl was slain in her dressing room. The evidence points to the fellow, but, she turns the evidence to the suitor instead. The police investigate and learn that he did in fact murder the girl! Later, the innocent man asks why Fatty did this. She explains her past history, and that the suitor was actually HER original suitor. When she is finished, he never calls her Fatty again.

The final tale is The House with the Monkey Puzzle Tree, spanning the bottom quarter page 28 and ending on page 33 (inside rear cover). With such a title, I was hoping for a weird tale, but no luck there. It’s a crime story, of sorts. A woman and her child are roomers in a remote house far from town, and they are sneaking away in the night. The woman seems to have lost her marbles, and the child too young and useless, when they finally make it to town and look for help. A woman listens, then believing something is amiss, gets the police involved, but disregard it as the woman comes across as a mental lunatic. The woman still feels something is wrong and gets another cop to accompany her. The only bit of evidence that came through clearly was the near-whereabouts in which she may have roomed and a peculiar tree. They finally locate it at night, break in, find the place empty. The woman and cop split up, the cop disbelieving he is involved in this investigation, until the lady discovers a corpse. She faints and the story unveils that the place was used by black marketeers to move stolen goods, etc. and if the police had acted her the crazy woman’s ramblings earlier in the day, they would have caught all of them in the act. The irony? The first person the crazy lady came across at an intersection was the cop on traffic detail. She had tried to tell him the story but he dismissed her. Now, he realizes the error he made…

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Spider Pete by Claude Stewart

Death Stills the Brush by F. W. Gumley

GUMLEY Death Stills The Brush

I won’t lie. The crudely-executed cover art drew me in… I’ve read many short stories and novels that deal with artist and murder, so expected not too much from this one.

Death Stills the Brush was written by F. W. Gumley (better known for his children’s / juvenile stories) and published by the Mitre Press, 1946. It is a small side-stapled 32-page pamphlet, typical of the war and early postwar years. Mitre Press’s fiction division flourished during the war years, but didn’t last long.

The story is fairly simple. A young lady is modeling for an artist, whom is working on a sculpture. While he is using one lady for her body, he desires the other girl for her head and face. The former is jealous and we are led to believe that she later destroys the piece while it as yet not unveiled at a museum. The guard shits a brick when he sees the defacement, realizing his career is over.

The girl’s father discovers her daughter is modeling for the artist. Turns out he despises the man, for some “past” reason. Angered, he orders the girl to desist. He personally visits the artist and threatens the man’s life.

In typical fiction-fashion, the man is found dead, murdered. Witnesses heard the threat and of course, her father is investigated.

However, there is more wrongdoing occurring behind the scenes, as a man of mystery surfaces early, claiming to an once-popular artist whom was railroaded into prison. Having lost the ability to work with his hands, he wishes to exact his own vengeance.

So, who killed the artist? The jealous girl? The other girl’s father? The imprisoned artist? Or, someone else???

Lucky for you, if you remotely care, I own a spare copy of this title….

Death Stills the Brush by F. W. Gumley

Jeff Cook, illustrator / artist

Over two decades ago, I made a conscious effort to shift from American publications to British, with a focus on wartime and postwar mushroom publishers.

While visiting the house, or, more precisely, the attic of Howard Devore, I purchased a few wartime efforts by the Mitre Press. One was “The Man Who Tilted the Earth” by Justin Atholl. The copy appeared to me desperately distressed, with worn covers and fraying, well-thumbed edges. However, this title is not the point of this article. The point is, I love the crudely executed artwork that burped into existence seemingly only during those war years.

ATHOLL The Oasis Of Sleep

The Atholl cover was not signed, but, I had read the story and began hunting further Atholl books. My next title was “The Oasis of Sleep.” This was signed by illustrator Jeff Cook, and the vibrantly bold style caught my eye immediately. I wanted more by this guy. But, what other books had he illustrated? The Internet was still young back then, I was still on dial-up, and I was on the wrong side of The Great Pond to pursue a research endeavor at the British Library. So, I did it the hard way, and learned that Jeff Cook did not simply appear during the war years.

He began much earlier….

The earliest illustrated effort by Jeff Cook appears to be actually not with books, but, on sheet music covers! His artwork can be found on pieces released by Lawrence Wright Music Company (as early as 1929), B. Feldman & Co., Gilbert & Nicholls, and Cecil Lennox Ltd., etc. The last known piece that I have traced appears in 1935, with perhaps one further in 1940. For the most part, none of the covers are exciting. So, how did he hop from sheet music to book covers? I haven’t the foggiest, but, I hold out hope that someone from his family may one day find this article and fill in the blanks.

Moving along, the earliest known book illustration occurs in 1933, with children’s books for the publishers Art & Humour Publishing:

  • Elfin Adventures
  • Woodland Fairies

He next appears handling a handful of dust jackets for Wells, Gardner & Co., illustrating the covers of the following books:

  • Alice A. Methley “Summer Hours and Summer Flowers” (1937)
  • Alice A. Methley “Winter Days and Winter Ways” (1937)
  • William Rainey “Admiral Rodney’s Bantam Clock” (1938)
  • Harold Bindloss “The Boys of Wildcat Ranch” (1938)
  • Daniel DeFoe “Robinson Crusoe in Short Words” (?)
    cover art by Gordon Robinson, with interiors by GR and Cook

From 1939 to 1941, I have found no evidence of his output. Could be I simply haven’t located them yet, or, perhaps, he enlisted. Cook resurfaces, illustrating several covers for Everybody’s Books and Mitre Press, from 1942-1944.

He then turned his hand to children’s books, illustrating covers and supplying interior art for the Walker Toy Book ‘Dinky Series’ published by Renwick of Otley, with such titles as:

  • Kitchen Capers” (#75)
  • The Old Chimney Corner” (#80)
  • The Old Mill” (#83)
  • Scarum Sam” (#87)
  • Tea Time Tale“(#91)

Also for the same publishers, “Our Boys’ Tip Top” was an omnibus loaded with tales by F. W. Gumley and others. The frontispiece was by Jeff Cook, and internally, he supplied illustrations to tales by Arthur Groom and L. E. Shorter.

Additionally, he supplied art to at least one postcard, for “The White Horse Hotel, Bampton, Devon.”

So, who is Jeff Cook?  With his earliest known piece appearing circa 1930, I wanted to believe that he got into illustrating at a fairly young age, perhaps out of high school or college. With that purely as my basis, this, below, I believe to me by man. If anyone has any further information about Jeff Cook, please contact me.

Jeffrey Cook (11 Feb 1907, died 13 Oct 1979)
son to Frederick COOK and Kate Annie ROWLAND (married 1894)
siblings:
Gladys (10 May 1900; died 1982)
Clifford (Dec 1905)
Bernard (19 Feb 1908; died 1990)
Kate (3 Feb 1910; died 1998)
Elizabeth (20 Dec 1914; died 1999)
It’s also possible he had two earlier sibs, names of Donald and Hilda.

 

Jeff Cook, illustrator / artist