With a genius IQ, a past career as a circus acrobat, and a black belt in karate, criminology professor Dr. Robert Frederickson—better known as “Mongo the Magnificent”—has a decidedly unusual background for a private investigator. He also just so happens to be a dwarf.
Originally published in leading mystery magazines in the 1970s, these ten novellas—each introduced with notes from the author—offer new readers and diehard fans alike a tantalizing taste of the unique blend of hardboiled mystery, science fiction, and explosive action of this acclaimed series.
In the House of Secret Enemies—which includes The Drop, High Wire, Rage, Country for Sale, Dark Hole on a Silent Planet, The Healer, Falling Star, Book of Shadows, Tiger in the Snow, and Candala—is the 9th book in the Mongo Mysteries, but you may enjoy reading the series in any order.
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The Birth of a Series Character
For most writers of so-called genre fiction the quest is for a successful series character — a man or woman who, already completely brought to life in the writer's and readers' minds, leaps into action at the drop of a plot to wend his or her perilous way cleverly through the twists and turns of the story to arrive finally, triumphantly, at the solution. Great series characters from mystery and spy fiction immediately spring to mind: Sherlock Holmes, James Bond, Sam Spade, Lew Archer, Miss Marple, et al. These characters may simply step on stage to capture the audience's attention, with no need for the copious program notes of characterization that must usually accompany the debut of a new hero or heroine.
Almost two decades ago, when I was just beginning to enjoy some success in selling my short stories, I sat down one day to begin my search for a series character. Visions of great (and some not-so-great) detectives waltzed through my head; unfortunately, all of these dancers had already been brought to life by other people. The difficulty was compounded by the fact that I didn't want just any old character, some guy with the obligatory two fists and two guns who might end up no more than a two-dimensional plot device, a pedestrian problem solver who was but a pale imitation of the giants who had gone before and who were my inspiration. I wanted a character, a detective with modern sensibilities, whom readers might come to care about almost as much as they would the resolution of the mystery itself. Sitting at my desk, surrounded by a multitude of rejection slips, I quickly became not only frustrated, but intimidated. I mean, just who did I think I was?
It was a time when "handicapped" detectives were in vogue on television: Ironside solved cases from his wheelchair and van; another was Longstreet, a blind detective. Meditating on this, I suddenly found a most mischievous notion scratching, as it were, at the back door of my mind. I was a decidedly minor league manager looking to sign a player who might one day compete in the major leagues. What to do? The answer, of course, was obvious: If I couldn't hope to create a detective who could reasonably be expected to vie with the giants, then I would create a detective who was unique — a dwarf.
Believing, as I do, that it's good for the soul as well as the imagination, I always allow myself exactly one perverse notion a day (whether I need it or not). I'd had my perverse notion, and it was time to think on. What would my detective look like? What kind of gun would he carry, how big would it be, and how many bullets would it hold?
Would his trenchcoat be a London Fog or something bought off a pipe rack? What about women? How many pages would I have to devote in each story to descriptions of his sexual prowess?
The damn dwarf simply refused to go away, and his scratching was growing increasingly persistent. But what was I going to do with a dwarf private detective? Certainly not sell him, since it seemed to me well nigh impossible to make anybody (including me) believe in his existence. Who could take such a character seriously? Who, even in a time of dire need, would hire a dwarf detective? Where would his cases come from? He would literally be struggling to compete in a world of giants.
No longer able to ignore the noises in my head, I opened the door and let the Perverse Notion into the main parlor where I was trying to work. It seemed there was no way I was going to be able to exorcise this aberration, short of actually trying to write something about him.
Observing him, I saw that he was indeed a dwarf, but fairly large and powerfully built, as dwarfs go. That seemed to me a good sign. If this guy was going to be a private detective, he would have to be more than competent at his work; he would need extra dimensions, possess special talents that would at least partially compensate for his size.
Brains never hurt anyone, so he would have to be very smart. Fine. Indeed, I decided that he was not only very smart, but a veritable genius — a professor with a Ph.D. in Criminology, a psychological and spiritual outcast. His name is Dr. Robert Frederickson. Now, where could he live where people wouldn't be staring at him all the time? New York City, of course.
So far, so good. The exorcism was proceeding apace.
Fictional private eyes are always getting into trouble, and they have to be able to handle themselves physically. What would Dr. Robert Frederickson do when the two- and three-hundred- pound bad guys came at him? He had to be able to fight. So he'd need some kind of special physical talent.
Dwarfs. Circuses. Ah. Dr. Robert Frederickson had spent some time in the circus. (In fact, that was how he had financed his education!) But he hadn't worked in any sideshow; he'd been a star, a headliner, a gymnast, a tumbler with a spectacular, death-defying act. Right. And he had parlayed his natural physical talents into a black belt in karate. If nothing else, he would certainly have the advantage of surprise. During his circus days he had been billed as "Mongo the Magnificent," and his friends still call him Mongo.
Mongo, naturally, tended to overcompensate, to say the least. He had the mind of a titan trapped in the body of a dwarf (I liked that), and that mind was constantly on the prowl, looking for new challenges. Not content with being a dwarf in a circus (albeit a famous one), he became a respected criminology professor; not content with being "just" a professor, he started moonlighting as a private detective.
But I was still left with the problem of where his cases were to come from. I strongly doubted that any dwarf detective was going to get much walk-in business, so all of his cases were going to have to come from his associates, people who knew him and appreciated just how able he was, friends from his circus days, colleagues at the university where he teaches and, for good measure, from the New York Police Department, where his very big brother, Garth, is a detective, a lieutenant.
I set about my task, and halfway through the novella that would become "The Drop," hamming it up, I discovered something that brought me up short: Dr. Frederickson was no joke. A major key to his character, to his drive to compete against all odds, was a quest for dignity and respect from others. He insisted on being taken seriously as a human being, and he was constantly willing to risk his life or suffer possible ridicule and humiliation in order to achieve that goal. Dr. Robert Frederickson, a.k.a. Mongo the Magnificent, was one tough cookie, psychologically and physically, and I found that I liked him very much.
And I knew then that, regardless of how he was treated by any incredulous editor, I, at least, would afford this most remarkable man the dignity and respect I felt he so richly deserved. I ended by writing "The Drop" as a straight (well, seriously skewed actually, but serious) detective story.
"The Drop" was rejected. The editor to whom I'd submitted it (he had published many of my other short stories) wrote that sorry, Mongo was just too unbelievable. (Well, of course, he was unbelievable. What the hell did he expect of a dwarf private detective?)
That should have ended my act of exorcism of the Perverse Notion. Fat chance! On the same day "The Drop" was rejected, I sent it right out again to another editor (after all, Mongo would never have given up so easily), who eventually bought it.
The next day I sat down and started Mongo on his second adventure. Mongo was no longer the Perverse Notion; I had created a man who intrigued me enormously, a man I liked and respected, a most complex character about whom I wanted to know more and who fired my imagination.
My Perverse Notion in that second story was to include a bit of dialogue in which Garth tells Mongo, after some particularly spectacular feat, that he's lucky he's not a fictional character, because no one would believe him. "High Wire" sold the first time out — to the first editor, and this time he never mentioned a word again about Mongo's believability. Nine more Mongo novellas followed and were published. In the tenth, "Candala," it seemed I had sent Mongo out too far beyond the borders defining what a proper detective/mystery story should be, into the dank, murky realms of racial discrimination, self-hate and self-degradation. I couldn't place "Candala" anywhere, and it went into the darkness of my trunk.
But Mongo himself remained very much alive. I was still discovering all sorts of things about the Frederickson brothers and the curious psychological and physical worlds they moved in; they needed larger quarters, which could be provided only in a novel.
Six Mongo novels later, Mongo and Garth continue to grow in my mind, and they continue to fire my imagination. In fact, that Perverse Notion proved to be an invaluable source of inspiration. Mongo has, both literally and figuratively, enriched my life, and he and Garth are the primary reasons that I was finally able to realize my own "impossible dream" of making my living as a writer.
"Candala" finally appeared in print, between hardcovers, in an anthology entitled An Eye for Justice.
It is always risky business to try to extrapolate one's own feelings or experiences into the cheap currency of advice to others (especially in regard to that most painfully personal of pursuits, writing). However, the thought occurs to me that a belief in, and a respect for, even the most improbable of your characters in their delicate period of gestation is called for. That Perverse Notion you don't want to let in, because you fear you will waste time and energy feeding and nurturing it for no reward, may be the most important and helpful character — series or otherwise — you'll ever meet in your life.
What I wrote is all well and good, and even true, but I might have included my strong suspicion that Mongo's birth was also strongly attended by the fact that I felt so much like a dwarf psychologically in the face of the awesome task of becoming a writer. And so we have the dwarf as metaphor for my own feelings of inadequacy as I tramped around in the puny foothills of what appeared to me to be the mountain of a towering and seemingly unscalable goal.
I can't help but wonder if Mongo does not owe a good part of his success to the fact that he may strike a similar chord in many readers, for it is the rare person who does not occasionally feel like a "dwarf in a world of giants"— giant people who press upon and threaten us in one way or another, giant problems that threaten to crush us. Perhaps Mongo, with his disdain for his "handicap" and his indomitable will to make the most of his talents, holds out to all of us the hope that, with courage, any of us may not only survive but prevail in that very large, occasionally cold and hostile environment that is our lives.
In Mongo's debut, it's obvious that I've recently returned from Italy and am anxious to make use of my impressions and travel notes.
He was a big man, filled with a guy-wire tension and animal wariness that even his three-hundred-dollar tailored suit couldn't hide.
He came in the door, stopped and blinked, then walked over to my desk. I rose and took the proffered hand, waiting for the nervous, embarrassed reaction that usually preceded mumbled apologies and a hurried exit. It didn't come.
Now, there are any number of disadvantages to being a dwarf, all compounded when you've chosen the somewhat unlikely career of a private investigator. I stand four feet eight inches in my socks. I've been told I don't exactly inspire confidence in prospective clients.
"I'm Frederickson," I said. "'Mister' will do."
"But you are the private detective who also teaches at the university?"
You'd be surprised at the number of people who get their jollies from playing practical jokes on dwarfs. For my own protection, I liked to try to size up people fast. He had manners, but I suspected they'd come out of a book and were things that he put on and took off like cuff links; it all depended upon the occasion. His eyes were muddy and the muscles in his face were tense, which meant that he was probably going to hold something back, at least in the beginning.
I put his age at around thirty-five, five years older than myself. I'd already decided I didn't like him. Still, there was an air of absorption about the man that suggested to me he hadn't come to play games. I wanted the job, so I decided to give him some information.
"My doctorate is in criminology, and that's what I teach at the university," I said evenly, determined to lay everything out in the open. "It's true that I operate a private practice but, to be perfectly frank with you, I haven't had that much experience, at least not in the field. I don't have a large clientele. Much of my business is specialized lab work that I do on a contract basis for the New York police and an occasional Federal agency.
"I'm not running down my abilities, which I happen to think are formidable. I'm just advising you as to the product you're buying."
I might have added that hidden beneath the brusque patina of those few brief words was the story of years of bitterness and frustration, but, of course, I didn't. I'd decided long ago that when the time came that I couldn't keep my bitterness to myself I'd move permanently to the protective cocoon of the university. That time hadn't come yet.
I waited to see if I'd scared my prospective client away.
"My name is James Barrett," the man said. "I don't need a list of your qualifications because I've already checked them out. Actually, I'd say you're quite modest. As a forensic lab man, you're considered tops in your field. As a teacher, your students are patiently waiting for you to walk on water. It was your work on the Carter case that finally —"
"How can I help you, Mr. Barrett?" I said, a bit curtly. Barrett was being oily, and I didn't like that. Also, he'd touched on the subject of my success, and that was a sore point with me. It's not hard to be a great civil servant if you've got a measured I.Q. of 156, as I have. It is hard to achieve in private life if you're a dwarf, as I am. And that was what I craved, private achievement in my chosen profession.
Barrett sensed my displeasure and made an apologetic gesture. I swallowed hard. I was the one who'd been pushing, and it was time to make amends.
"I'm sorry, Barrett," I said. "I'm out of line. You see, I run up against too many people who go out of their way to spare my feelings. You don't see many dwarfs outside the circus, and deformity tends to make people uncomfortable. I like to clear the air first. I can see now that it wasn't necessary with you."
The fact of the matter was that I had once been one of the dwarfs people see in the circus; eight years while I was studying for my degree.
"Mongo the Magnificent," which looked better on a marquee than "Robby Frederickson." Mongo the Magnificent, The Dwarf Who Could Out-Tumble the Tumblers. A freak to most people. The memory made my stomach churn.
"Dr. Frederickson, I would like you to go to Europe and look for my brother."
I waited, watching the other man. Barrett wiped his brow with a silk handkerchief. To me, he didn't look like the type to worry about anyone, not even his brother. But if it was an act, it was a convincing one.
"Tommy's a few years younger than myself," Barrett continued. "The other end of a large family. A few months ago he took up with a woman who was, shall I say, a bad influence on him."
"Just a minute, Mr. Barrett. How old is your brother?" "Twenty-five."
I shrugged, as if that was the only explanation needed.
"I know he's of age, and can't be forced into doing anything. But this problem has nothing to do with age."
"What is the problem, Mr. Barrett?"
I nodded, suddenly very sober. We'd established instant communications, Barrett and I. That one obscenity, drugs, spoke volumes to me, as it does to anyone who has spent time in a ghetto or on a college campus.
"I'm still not sure I can help, Mr. Barrett," I said quietly. "Addiction's a personal hell, and a man has to find his own road out."
"I realize that. But I'm hoping you'll be able to give him a little more time to find that road. Tommy's an artist, and quite good, I'm told by those who should know. But, like many artists, he lives in a never-never land. Right now he's on the brink of very serious trouble and he must be made to see that. If he does, I'm betting that it will wake him up."
Excerpted from "In the House of Secret Enemies"
Copyright © 2017 George C. Chesbro.
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