A premier anthology of some of the finest mystery stories in literary history, including tales from Ray Bradbury, Roald Dahl, Aldous Huxley, O. Henry, and Mark Twain.
Tantalizing, as ingenious as they are devious, the classic stories in this continually arresting collection come with an irresistible challenge: At their end they leave it to you, the reader, to determine how they end.
For ultimately it’s the reader who authors the fate of the brave youth as he contemplates which of the two doors in the king’s arena he will choose in Frank Stockton’s famous and unforgettable “The Lady, or the Tiger?” And which of the two brothers in three-time Edgar-winner Stanley Ellin’s “Unreasonable Doubt” shoots a bullet square in the middle of their rich uncle’s forehead? And just what not-so-sweet secret is the prim Miss Spence hiding behind her smile in Aldous Huxley’s deliciously enigmatic tale? You decide.
In all, as in “The Moment of Decision”—a chilling tale that seals an escape artist inside an airless stone cell with a heavy wooden door, which may or may not open—the moment of decision is yours.
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About the Author
Mark Twain was the pen name of Samuel Langhorne Clemens (1835–1910), who grew up in Hannibal, Missouri, and worked as a printer, riverboat pilot, newspaperman, and silver miner before his short story “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County” brought him international attention. He would go on to write two of the great American novels, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and many other enduring works of fiction, satire, and travelogue. He is one of the most widely recognized figures in US history.
Stanley Ellin (1916–1986) was an American mystery writer known primarily for his short stories. After working a series of odd jobs including dairy farmer, salesman, steel worker, and teacher, and serving in the US Army, Ellin began writing full time in 1946. Two years later, his story “The Specialty of the House” won the Ellery Queen Award for Best First Story. He went on to win three Edgar Awards—two for short stories and one for his novel The Eighth Circle. In 1981, Ellin was honored with the Mystery Writers of America’s Grand Master Award. He died of a heart attack in Brooklyn in 1986.
O. Henry (1862–1910) was the pseudonym of American author William Sidney Porter. Arrested for embezzlement in 1895, he escaped the police and fled to Honduras, where he wrote Cabbages and Kings (1904). On his return to the United States, he was caught, and served three years before being released. He became one of the most popular short story authors in history, known for his wit, surprise endings, and relatable, everyman characters.
Read an Excerpt
Mark Twain's Medieval Romance
And Other Classic Mystery Stories
By Otto Penzler
Pegasus Books LLCCopyright © 2006 Otto Penzler
All rights reserved.
Some may choose Raymond Carver, or Joyce Carol Oates, or John Updike, but my choice for the greatest short story writer of the second half of the twentieth century is Stanley Ellin (1916–1986). The noted British critic Julian Symons stated that his Mystery Stories (1956) was "the finest collection of stories in the crime form published in the past half-century."
Dealing with such significant subjects as the rights of the elderly (in the Edgar-winning "The Blessington Method"), the morality of economic development (in "Unacceptable Procedures"), and capital punishment (in "The Question"), these and other stories transcend the genre, to use a dreadful phrase that is always true of the genuinely first-rate works of any genre. His most famous short work is "The Specialty of the House," the delicious story of a cozy but terrifying gourmet club which was intelligently filmed by Alfred Hitchcock for his TV series, as were so many of Ellin's stories.
Ellin won three Edgars, two for stories and for his novel The Eighth Circle, as well as being named Grand Master for lifetime achievement by the Mystery Writers of America.
"Unreasonable Doubt" will haunt you as a flawless riddle story, and here is a fair warning. The last story in the anthology also is by Stanley Ellin—and it's just as frustrating! "Unreasonable Doubt" was first published in the September 1958 issue of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine.
By Stanley Ellin
Mr. Willoughby was just starting a much-needed vacation. It was imperative that his mind be free of worry, tension—of any problems whatsoever. Relax, the doctor had ordered—and that's good advice to the reader too—IF YOU CAN!
MR. WILLOUGHBY FOUND a seat in the club car and gingerly settled into it. So far, he reflected with overwhelming gratitude, the vacation was a complete success. Not a hint of the headaches he had lived with the past year. Not a suggestion of the iron band drawing tight around the skull, the gimlet boring into it, the hammers tapping away at it.
"Tension," the doctor had said. "Physically you're sound as a nut, but you sit over your desk all day worrying over one problem after another until your mind is as tight as a mainspring. Then you take the problems home and worry them to death there. Don't get much sleep, do you?"
Mr. Willoughby admitted that he did not.
"I thought so," said the doctor. "Well, there's only one answer. A vacation. And I do mean a real vacation where you get away from it all. Seal your mind up. Don't let anything get into it but idle talk. Don't think about any problems at all. Don't even try a crossword puzzle. Just close your eyes and listen to the world go round. That'll do it," he assured him.
And it had done it, as Mr. Willoughby realized even after only one day of the treatment. And there were weeks of blissful relaxation ahead. Of course, it wasn't always easy to push aside every problem that came to mind. For example, there was a newspaper on the smoking-table next to his chair right now, its headline partly revealing the words NEW CRISIS IN—Mr. Willoughby hastily averted his head and thrust the paper into she rack beneath the table. A small triumph, but a pleasant one.
He was watching the rise and fall of the landscape outside the window, dreamily counting mile posts as they flashed by when he first became aware of the voice at his elbow. The corner of his chair was backed up near that of his neighbor, a stout, white-haired man who was deep in talk with a companion. The stout man's voice was not loud, but it was penetrating. The voice, one might say, of a trained actor whose every whisper can be distinctly heard by the gallery. Even if one did not choose to be an eavesdropper it was impossible not to follow every word spoken. Mr. Willoughby, however, deliberately chose to eavesdrop. The talk was largely an erudite discourse on legal matters; the stout man was apparently a lawyer of vast experience and uncanny recollective powers; and, all in all, the combination had the effect on Mr. Willoughby of chamber music being played softly by skilled hands.
Then suddenly his ears pricked like a terrier's. "The most interesting case I ever worked on?" the stout man was saying in answer to his companion's query. "Well, sir, there's one I regard not only as the most interesting I ever handled, but which would have staggered any lawyer in history, right up to Solomon himself. It was the strangest, most fantastic, damndest thing that ever came my way. And the way it wound up—the real surprise after it was supposedly over and done with—is enough to knock a man out of his chair when he thinks of it. But let me tell it to you just as it took place."
Mr. Willoughby slid down in his chair, pressed his heels into the floor, and surreptitiously closed the gap between his chair and his neighbor's. With his legs extended, his eyes closed, and his arms folded peaceably on his chest he was a fair representation of a man sound asleep. Actually, he had never been more wide-awake in his life.
Naturally [the stout man said], I won't use the right names of any of these people, even though all this took place a long time ago. That's understandable when you realize it involves a murder. A cold-blooded murder for profit, beautifully planned, flawlessly executed, and aimed at making a travesty of everything written in the law books.
The victim—let's call him Hosea Snow—was the richest man in our town. An old-fashioned sort of man—I remember him wearing a black derby and a stiff collar on the hottest days in summer—he owned the bank, the mill, and a couple of other local interests. There wasn't any secret among folks as to how much he was worth. On the day of his death it came to about two million dollars. Considering how low taxes were in those days, and how much a dollar could buy, you can see why he was held in such high esteem.
His only family consisted of two nephews, his brother's sons, Ben and Orville. They represented the poor side of the family, you might say. When their father and mother died all that was left to them was a rundown old house which they lived in together.
Ben and Orville were nice-looking boys in their middle twenties about that time. Smooth-faced, regular features, much of a size and shape, they could have been a lot more popular than they were, but they deliberately kept apart from people. It wasn't that they were unfriendly—any time they passed you on the street they'd smile and give you the time of day—but they were sufficient unto themselves. Nowadays you hear a lot of talk about sibling rivalries and fraternal complexes, but it would never fit those two boys.
They worked in their uncle's bank, but their hearts were never in it. Even though they knew that when Hosea died his money would be divided between them it didn't seem to cheer the boys any. Fact is, Hosea was one of those dried-out, leathery specimens who are likely to go on forever. Looking forward to an inheritance from somebody like that can be a trying experience, and there's no question that the boys had been looking forward to that inheritance from the time they first knew what a dollar was worth.
But what they seemed to be concerned with, meanwhile, was something altogether different from banking and money—something Hosea himself could never understand or sympathize with, as he told me on more than one occasion. They wanted to be song writers, and, for all I know, they had some talent for it. Whenever there was any affair in town that called for entertainment, Ben and Orville would show up with some songs they had written all by themselves. Nobody ever knew which of them did the words and which did the music, and that in itself was one of the small mysteries about them that used to amuse the town. You can pretty well judge the size and disposition of the place if something like that was a conversation piece.
But the situation was all shaken up the day Hosea Snow was found dead in his big house, a bullet hole right square in the middle of his forehead. The first I heard of it was when a phone call got me out of bed early in the morning. It was the County Prosecutor telling me that Ben Snow had murdered his uncle during the night, had just been arrested, and was asking me to come to the jail right quick.
I ran over to the jail half dressed, and was pulled up short by the sight of Ben locked in a cell, reading a newspaper, and seemingly indifferent to the fact that he was on his way to a trapdoor with a rope around his neck.
"Ben," I said, "you didn't do it, did you?"
"They tell me I did," he said in a matter-of-fact voice.
I don't know which bewildered me more—what he said or the unconcerned way he said it.
"What do you mean?" I asked him. "And you'd better have a good story to tell me, boy, because you're in serious trouble."
"Well," he said, "in the middle of the night the police and the County Prosecutor walked in on Orville and me, because Uncle Hosea was killed, and after some talking they said I did it. When I got tired of them nagging me about it I said, all right, I did do it."
"You mean," I said, "they've got evidence against you?"
He smiled. "That'll come out in court," he said. "All you've got to do is call Orville as my witness at the trial, and you won't have any trouble. I'm not going to testify for myself, so they can't cross-examine me. But don't you worry any. Orville'll take care of everything."
I felt a terrible suspicion creeping into my mind, but I didn't let myself consider it. "Ben," I said, "have you and Orville been reading law books?"
"We've been looking into them," he admitted. "They're mighty interesting"—and that was all I could get out of him. I got even less from Orville when I went over to the bank and tried to talk to him about his testimony.
Considering that, you can imagine my state of mind when we finally came to trial. The case was the biggest sensation the town had ever known, the courthouse was packed, and here I was in the middle of things with no idea of what I could do for Ben, and Ben himself totally indifferent. I felt sick every time I got a look at the prosecutor's smug and smiling face. Not that I could blame him for looking like the cat that ate the canary. The crime was a brutal one, he and the police had solved it in jig time, and here he was with an airtight case.
In his opening address to the jury he threw the works at them. The motive was obvious: Ben Snow stood to inherit a million dollars from his uncle's death. The method was right there on the clerk's desk where everyone could see it: an old pistol that Ben Snow's father had left among his effects years before, and which was found—one bullet freshly discharged from it—right in the kitchen where Ben and Orville were drinking coffee when the police broke in on them. And the confession signed by Ben before witnesses settled things beyond the shadow of a doubt.
The only thing I could do in the face of this was put blind faith in Ben and do what he wanted me to. I had Orville Snow called as my first witness—and my only witness, too, as far as I could see—and then, without any idea of what he was going to say, I put him on the stand. He took the oath, sat down, straightened the crease in his trousers, and looked at me with the calm unconcern his brother had shown throughout the whole terrible business.
You see, I knew so little about the affair that it was hard to think of even a good opening question for him. Finally, I took the bull by the horns and said, "Would you please tell the jury where you were the night of the crime?"
"Glad to," said Orville. "I was in Uncle Hosea's house with a gun in my hand. If the police had only gotten to me before they started pestering Ben about this, I could have told them so right off. Fact is, I was the one who killed uncle."
Talk about sensations in court! And in the middle of the uproar I saw Ben eagerly signaling me over to him. "Now, whatever you do," he whispered to me, "don't you ask that this trial be stopped. It's got to go to the jury, do you understand?"
I understood, all right. I had had my suspicions all along, but for the sake of my own conscience I just didn't want to heed them. Now I knew for sure, and for all I hated Ben and Orville right then I had to admire them just a little bit. And it was that little bit of admiration which led me to play it Ben's way. With the prosecutor waiting hangdog for me to ask that the trial be stopped I went back to Orville on the witness stand and had him go ahead with his story as if nothing spectacular had happened.
He told it like a master. He started way back when the desire for his uncle's money had seeped into his veins like a drug, and went along in detail right up to the killing itself. He had the jury hypnotized, and just to make sure the job was complete I wound up my closing speech by reminding them that all they needed in finding a man innocent was a reasonable doubt of his guilt.
"That is the law of this state," I told them. "Reasonable doubt. It is exactly what you are feeling now in the light of Orville Snow's confession that he alone committed the crime his brother was charged with!"
The police grabbed Orville right after the verdict of "Not Guilty" was brought in. I saw him that evening in the small cell Ben had been kept in, and I already knew what he was going to tell me.
"Ben's my witness," he said. "Just keep me off the witness stand and let him do the talking."
I said to him, "One of you two killed your uncle, Orville. Don't you think that as your lawyer I ought to know which of you it was?"
"No, I don't," said Orville, pleasantly enough.
"You're putting a lot of faith in your brother," I told him. "Ben's free and clear now. If he doesn't want to testify for you the way you did for him, he gets two million dollars and you get the gallows. Doesn't that worry you any?"
"No," said Orville. "If it worried us any we wouldn't have done it in the first place."
"All right," I said, "if that's the way you want it. But tell me one thing, Orville, just for curiosity's sake. How did you decide which one of you should kill Hosea?"
"We cut cards," said Orville, and that was the end of it, as far as he was concerned.
If Ben's trial had stirred up the town, Orville's had people coming in from all over the county. It was the prosecutor's turn to look sick now when he faced that crowd. He knew in his bones what was coming, and he couldn't do a blessed thing about it. More than that, he was honestly outraged at what looked to be an obscene mockery of the law. Ben and Orville Snow had found a loophole in justice, so to speak, and were on their way to sneaking through it. A jury couldn't convict a man if it had a reasonable doubt of his guilt; a man couldn't be retried for a crime when a jury has acquitted him of it; it wasn't even possible to indict the two boys together for conspiracy to commit murder, because that was a lesser charge in the murder indictment and covered by it. It was enough to make any prosecutor wild with frustration.
But this one held himself in check until Ben had finished telling his story to the jury. Ben told that story every bit as well as Orville had told his at the previous trial. He made it so graphic you could almost see him there in the room with his uncle, the gun flashing out death, the old man crumpling to the floor. The jurymen sat there spellbound, and the prosecutor chewed his nails to the quick while he watched them. Then when he faced Ben on the stand he really cut loose.
Excerpted from Mark Twain's Medieval Romance by Otto Penzler. Copyright © 2006 Otto Penzler. Excerpted by permission of Pegasus Books LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
- Cover Page
- Unreasonable Doubt Introduction
- Unreasonable Doubt
- A Dilemma Introduction
- A Dilemma
- Nunc Dimittis Introduction
- Nunc Dimittis
- The Lady, or The Tiger? Introduction
- The Lady, or The Tiger?
- The Discourager of Hesitancy
- The Lady, and The Tiger Introduction
- The Lady, and The Tiger
- The Blind Spot Introduction
- The Blind Spot
- The Mysterious Card Introduction
- The Mysterious Card
- The Mysterious Card Unveiled
- Karmesin and the Meter Introduction
- Karmesin and the Meter
- One Hundred in the Dark Introduction
- One Hundred in the Dark
- The Whole Town's Sleeping Introduction
- The Whole Town's Sleeping
- At Midnight, in the Month of June Introduction
- At Midnight, in the Month of June
- Thimble, Thimble Introduction
- Thimble, Thimble
- The Gioconda Smile Introduction
- The Gioconda Smile
- Tea for Two Introduction
- Tea for Two
- The Lady and the Dragon Introduction
- The Lady and the Dragon
- A Medieval Romance Introduction
- A Medieval Romance
- The Moment of Decision Introduction
- The Moment of Decision
- Copyright Page