The streets were dark with something more than night.”
— Raymond Chandler
His parents “destined me for the church or the law, I forget which, but I know they gave me the choice of two evils and that I chose a third that they never even dreamed of.”
That would be the evil less meandered. Talbot Mundy was born William Lancaster Gribbon in London, 1879, an undistinguished “black sheep” of a distinguished family whose early life of drifting, odd jobs, and globe trotting in periods of “tramping around the empire” saw such claims as tiger-shooting, joining the circus, serving in the Boer War, trips to Afghanistan, India, and Africa, and much more. Variously, he was a con man, bigamist, adulterer, and jailbird, at one time earning the Swahili nickname Makundu Viazi – White Arse – from local natives in British East Africa.
All those colorful adventures and exotic experiences – in a roundabout way — added up to a new life by the time Mundy came to America, becoming a citizen under his new name, on December 9, 1916. Falling back on old habits right away meant falling in with a bad crowd, and getting roughed up and robbed, beat almost to death. But he made the best of a bad situation during his recovery from his injuries, taking a stab at writing for a living.
One of the earliest pulp fiction writers — specializing in imaginative adventure tales – Mundy, who also wrote under the pseudonym Walter Galt, published his first story, “A Transaction in Diamonds,” which appeared in the February 1911 issue of The Scrap Book, one of the publications of Frank A. Munsey, the man credited with the creation of the first pulp magazine in 1896. In April of that same year Mundy came out with his first non-fiction article in Adventure, titled “Pig-sticking in India,” which describes a now outlawed sport practiced by British forces. His first story for Adventure was “The Blooding of the Queen’s Own,” about the Crimean War, in the December 1911 issue, and followed it with 16 stories and four articles in 1912. Mundy went on to become a regular contributor to the pulp magazines, especially Adventure and Argosy, and in 1912 he published his first novel, the adventure story Rung Ho!, set in India.
The relatively settled-down Mundy would go on, until his death in 1940, to write more than 40 books, novellas, and serials, the most famous and best loved work being the 1914 novel of intrigue, King – of the Khyber Rifles. Most fit firmly within the H. Rider Haggard vein of exotic adventure and with the British colonial settings established by Rudyard Kipling’s stories. In regard to the jarring depictions of British colonialism and racism paraded by much literature of the time, however, Mundy’s fiction is much more restrained. It went on to influence such writers as Robert E. Howard, Robert A. Heinlein, and Marion Zimmer Bradley, and to inspire James Hilton’s Lost Horizon, as well as the development of the sword and sorcery genre.
But Mundy was capable of some surprises now and then, turning down the worldly, extravagant hues a few notches to a little local color. The psychological thriller “An Offer of Two to One,” is a departure for Mundy, without a treasure hunter, Mata Hari-like spy, or fearless warrior to be had. But it is a skillfully crafted character study – originally published in the November 1911 issue of The Scrap Book — wrapped up in a satisfying and wry, sleight-of-hand ending.
Levy is a junior partner in the firm of Harris, Hart & Levy, better known as the Cosmopolitan Quick Loan Company. Just like Levy is a businessman, better viewed as a bouncer — of sorts: “It was his business to sit like Cerberus in the doorway,” the narrator declares,” listening to the tales of necessity. It was he who passed up likely applicants, or turned down unlikely ones, and kicked truculent visitors unceremoniously down the stone steps that were placed so conveniently for the purpose outside.”
With muscle-bound shoulders and bull neck, Levy had the physicality to back up the bullying, even with his business acquaintances, who were intimidated by him. As illustrated in the storyline of “An Offer of Two to One,” we find Levy and four other men sitting in a dingy, cheap restaurant in the midst of a discussion that soon erupts into an argument, due in part to Levy’s disagreeable ways — easily able at any second to trigger a Brutus-style clobbering with “his big, fat fist” clenched on the table, the “physical token of [his] mental attitude.”
That kind of put a damper on further discussion on the matter at hand: on whether a person can be killed by the power of suggestion. While the other four weren’t necessarily absolutists on the subject either way, not hardened to a particular position, they were willing to discuss the matter rationally and to consider all points of view, and at least hear others out.
On the other hand, obstinate Levy typically, dismissively digs in his heels and gruffly denies the possibility that this kind of killing can ever take place. “Bah!… You can’t tell me! It’s a lot of old women’s talk, and that’s all there is to it!”
Strutting back to his office to finish the work day, Levy finishes doing what he does best: Customer Service, but – as the people person he is — he takes it up a few notches. For example, the lawyer who has come in representing a client dissatisfied with the 240% interest slipped in on his loan got some personal attention – in the form of some lies, deceit, and verbal abuse. But the two men who came in together later on got the deluxe rush treatment. Before they could even talk, Levy had them sized up, grabbed one by the throat, “banged the two men’s head’s together, pushed them through the doorway, and kicked them both ignominiously down the stairs.”
At the end of the working day – Levy was tired, but it was a good kind of tired – he let the other employees out, and went into the strongroom to go through the days’ accumulations of contracts. One of the senior partners, passing by the outer office, saw the strongroom door open, and thinking that Levy had carelessly left it open, went in and closed it with Levy inside. And now Levy is locked in. In total dark. With no way of getting out until morning.
Soon a series of events ensue and several trains of thought take over. Shortly after Levy breaks the glass on his watch to feel the time the minute hand breaks off. Oh well – he still has the hour hand. He sets the watch on a certain spot on the ground where he’ll find it. Now he’s thirsty. Intensely, painfully so. But he’s strong, he can withstand 12 hours. Tobacco would be good, though. He has none. Just as well, too – smoke would’ve made that small space unbearable. But exactly how small is this space? How many cubic feet a minute did a man breathe? And how many times could a man breathe the same air over again before it becomes absolutely poisonous? The air began to feel stuffy already, and, getting up to see if it was fresher higher up, he steps on his watch and smashes it, and now he’ll never know the time, which sends him into a panic, and he starts beating the door again with both hands and shouts — almost screams…
The senior partner is the one who opens the strongroom door in the morning, discovering the body of Levy inside. The doctor, having been summoned, is puzzled over the reason Levy died. He rejects the idea that he died from suffocation, noting that the air inside is fresh. He asks for the janitor to come and asks, “Is this strongroom ventilated?”
“Certainly it is,” said the janitor. “That’s not a strongroom. It’s nothing but a very small office with a safe-door fitted onto it. It’s a sort of recess. There’s a ventilator at the back – look, you can see it – that communicates with the main ventilating shaft of the building. Every room in this building is ventilated.”
“What killed him then?” asked the senior partner, amazed.
“Couldn’t say without an autopsy,” answered the doctor.
“Looks to me though – Ever hear of auto-suggestion?”
Now this story, along with Talbot Mundy’s other 40 books, novellas, and serials, could never have been written by a man who acquiesced to parents who “destined me for the church or the law.” Just remember there’s always a loophole: the choice of the third evil. Of course, that’s just a suggestion.