Sunday, January 24, 2010

"I Was the Kid With the Drum" -- Theodore Roscoe (ARGOSY, Oct. 30, 1937)

Theodore Roscoe is probably best known (among those of us who remember him at all) for a fine series of French Foreign Legion stories about an old Legionnaire named Thibault Corday. These ran in the pulp ARGOSY during the Thirties, and a few of them were collected in a small press volume called TOUGHEST IN THE LEGION back in the Eighties.

But Roscoe wrote a lot of other things for ARGOSY besides Foreign Legion yarns, among them this novelette that takes place in a small upstate New York town called Four Corners, during the early days of the Twentieth Century. That’s such a striking cover image (by Emmett Watson, by the way) that it makes me wonder if the editor at ARGOSY had the cover painting to start with and asked Roscoe to write a story around it. Despite the words “Mystery Novelet” on the cover, you look at that Norman Rockwell-esque picture and expect some lazy, gentle piece of Americana from bygone years, don’t you? Sort of like a visit to Mayberry, only from an even earlier era, right?

And that’s what you get . . . if Andy and Opie had to solve a particularly gruesome case of murder involving spiritualism, adultery, a bass drum, and a dead cat.

“I Was the Kid With the Drum!” is one of the weirdest concoctions I’ve read in a while. It’s narrated in Huckleberry Finn-like fashion by Bud Whittier, the twelve-year-old son of Four Corners’ sheriff. One night while he’s getting into mischief where he’s not supposed to be, behind one of the town’s spookiest old houses, he discovers the bass drum that belongs to the drummer from the town’s band playing by itself. The next day, the drummer’s wife turns up missing. More strange stuff happens, mixed in with the preparations for the big marching band contest among the towns in the area that will take place at the Labor Day County Fair. Bud’s job is to help the drummer carry the big drum, but he’s more interested in playing detective.

If you read this story, you’ll think that you have everything figured out pretty early on, but Roscoe is mighty tricky. He throws a lot of plot twists into approximately 15,000 words, and this is one of those stories where you’ll look back and see that all the clues were there, only Roscoe was slick enough to slip some of them right past the reader. He slipped them past me, anyway, and came up with a really entertaining and satisfying tale. The writing is a little old-fashioned in places, but you have to expect that in a story written nearly 75 years ago.

Now, I understand that you can’t just run out and pick up a copy of the October 30, 1937 issue of ARGOSY on my say-so. But if you already have that issue in your pulp collection and haven’t read it yet, my recommendation is that you do so. Or if you happen to run across a copy in a flea market or an antique mall or at a pulp show and remember that distinctive cover painting, grab that sucker if it’s not priced too high. I’m going to be reading the other stories in it and will probably have a few words about them in due time.


Evan Lewis said...

Cool! I'm pretty sure I have this ish because of the Richard Sale story. I'll be digging for it!

Laurie said...

Great review, James. I'm going to put a link to it right now on my blog. I love that cover, too.

Jeff said...


As someone who got an Amazon Kindle for Christmas, I've been disappointed by the lack of backlist books. For example, I would love to be able to get all the Nameless Detective novels on my Kindle, but only a few of his most recent books are available.

The reason that I mention it is I wonder what the electronics rights issues are with a bunch of the old pulps. It'd be wonderful to be able to get old stories like the one you mentioned in eBook format. Especially, because you can't go out and buy that story unless you're willing to find the old pulp on eBay.

Just a thought . . .


Evan Lewis said...

I'm really curious about rights to pulp stories, too, and have been tempted to ask John Gunnison about it. Just where do you go to find out if the rights to a story have been renewed?

James Reasoner said...

I'm not sure about the status of electronic rights on pulp stories. I suspect that the copyright holders on those that aren't in public domain somehow claim eBook rights on them, too. Somewhere along the line there'll have to be some test cases.

Which leads to Dave's question. Unfortunately, the only way to be sure about post-1922 copyrights is to physically search the records at the Copyright Office, or pay somebody to do so. Of course, there are entire lines of pulps where it's been pretty well established that no renewals ever took place, so that's where the majority of the on-line reprints come from.

Ed Gorman said...

Just looking at the cover takes me back to a very different era, one that was ending just as I was born, two days before Pearl Harbor. But the movies and comic books and Big Little Books of that time stayed around for many years after.

James Reasoner said...

I'm not quite old enough to remember that era, but all the pop culture artifacts from it were still so common when I was a kid that sometimes I feel like I was raised during the Forties.

Jeff said...

Project Gutenberg, an organization devoted to creating electronic copies of public domain novels and stories, has a lot of Edgar Rice Burroughs' novels available.

It'd be great if there was a group of people devoted to getting a lot of the pulp stories - those in public domain, of course - inputted and available in electronic format.

beb said...

Jeff, ERB's first novel was 1912. So by 1923, the cut-off point for expired copyrights, Burroughs had written, not merely a ton of novels, but easily all his best work.

James, I got to say that that cover would have pushed me away from reading that story. The kind of smaltzy Americana promised by the cover makes me ill. Your description of the story, on the other hand was down-right fascinating.

Juri said... has lots of pulp stories digitized for anyone to read for free.