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.