Stephen King Does Crime: “Fifth Quarter”, “The Doctor’s Case”, “Umney’s Last Case”

In the last three stories in “Nightmares & Dreamscapes”, Stephen King displays his skill at writing crime stories.

The first one, “The Fifth Quarter” is a muscular post-heist story that marches to the beat of 1970s violence with unashamed relish. The second is an unexpected treasure, Stephen King writing a Sherlock Holmes story that works wonderfully. The third starts as a Chandler homage/pastiche and morphs into something truly original.

“The Fifth Quarter” is an early Stephen King story, published in Cavalier Magazine in April 1972. I like the cleverness of the title and the muscularity of the prose.

In “The Fifth Quarter”, the criminal from whose point of view the story is told, sets out to revenge the death of his friend and to see if, in the process, he can get hold of the four quarters of a treasure map that shows where the haul from a bank robbery is buried.

It’s tense, terse, and filled with violence and betrayal. There’s nothing fancy here but there doesn’t need to be. Stephen King has perfect control over the pace and a complete focus on the action.

“The Doctor’s Case” appeared in “The New Adventures of Sherlock Holmes Anthology” in 1987. In it, Stephen King gives us a new Sherlock Holmes tale with two unique features. The first is that Watson is the one who has the insight that solves the case. I liked the fact that this rare turn of events hit the good Doctor so hard that he had to sit down and recover himself before he could speak. The second is that Holmes and Watson are confronted with a locked-room mystery, more akin to something from Golden Age detective stories.

I thought this story was great fun. There wasn’t much by way of characterisation, indeed we never meet the main suspects of the victim in the flesh, but the idea is clever, the impact on Watson is amusing and the whole thing moves along at a brisk pace.

“Umney’s Last Case” was published as one of the Orange set of Penguin 60s – a boxed set of sixty books of sixty pages each, released to celebrate Penguin’s sixtieth birthday.

“Umney’s Last Case” starts off sounding like a Raymond Chandler pastiche or, if you were feeling polite, an homage. It’s a good pastiche. It’s not Chandler but the writer clearly knows that, which invites the reader to smile at the slightly over-worked hard-boiled similes that Umney, 1930s L.A; gumshoe, pepper his speech with.

Before I could get comfortable with this Philip Marlowe wannabe wandering an “LA morning so perfect, you were looking for the little trademark symbol”, strange things started to happen that spoke more of Kafka than Chandler.

Bit by bit, Stephen King starts to deconstruct Umney’s world, stripping away everything that he values.

Umney struggles to understand what is happening to him but, being PI of the year two years running, he more or less has it worked out by the time he meets the architect of the disruption.

What happens next is very clever and very well done. What happens after that ends the story on a twist so tight it’s gotta hurt.

It’s wonderful, creative stuff that shows the true power of a writer’s imagination. One of the characters speaks to this In a line that seems written for today’s political landscape:

“It’s the dumbells of the world, politicians and lawyers for the most part, who sneer at imagination and think a thing isn’t real unless they can smoke it or feel it or fuck it. They think that way because they have no imagination themselves and they have no idea of its power.”

After having spent a little more than a year reading my way through “Nightmares & Dreamscapes”, I’m left in no doubt about the power of Stephen King’s imagination.

What he writes, I will read.

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