Despite being a criminal, Tham always comes off well: the people whom he relieves of their wallets are often deserving of it, and he has a tendency to take on other, much worse crooks to give them their just desserts.
And, of course, there are scoundrels aplenty in his world: a rival pickpocket who moves in on his turf in "Thubway Tham's Baggage Check;" Shifty Shane, the holdup man, who calls Tham a coward because he doesn't use a gun; and Mr. Clackworthy, a slick grifter from Chicago, who looks down on "dips" as the lowest of thieves.
Call him an early antihero. Tham endears himself to readers because he has a moral compass. He knows his place is in the gutter of the world, but that doesn't mean he can't strive to better himself -- or others.
Introduction, by John Gregory Betancourt
Thubway Tham's Inthane Moment
Thubway Tham's Thanksgiving Dinner
Thubway Tham's Understudy
Thubway Tham's Baggage Check
Thubway Tham, Philanthropist
Thubway Tham's Chrithtmath
Thubway Tham's Glorious Fourth
Thubway Tham's Holdup
Thubway Tham Meets Mr. Clackworthy
Thubway Tham's Inthult
All stories originally appeared in Detective Story Magazine.
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Read an Excerpt
JOHNSTON McCULLEY will be forever famous as the creator of Zorro, the Robin Hood-like hero of old California. But few realize how truly prolific and creative McCulley was throughout his long career as a writer.
McCulley (1883-1958) made the first true specialist pulp-fiction periodical, Detective Story Magazine, a special home for his work. In its pages he launched series after series ... The Avenging Twins (who appeared in a series of eight adventures between 1923 and 1926), the Black Star (fourteen stories from 1916-1930), The Crimson Clown (seventeen stories from 1926-1931), The Man in Purple (three stories in 1921), The Spider (eleven stories between 1918 and 1919), Terry Trimble (four stories between 1917 and 1919), The Thunderbolt (three stories between 1920 and 1921) but most especially Thubway Tham (who appeared in more than one hundred and eighty stories between 1916 and 1948, at first in Detective Story Magazine, but later in such places as Thrilling Detective, with later reprints in The Saint Mystery Magazine, Mike Shayne Mystery Magazine, and others). The Thubway Tham series, you will note, starts before and lasts longer than all of McCulley's other mystery series combined! Clearly Tham was a favorite character, one to whom the author returned time and again.
Thubway Tham is a small, short-tempered gnome of a man, a professional pickpocket with an annoying lisp. But he is no mere thief ... he is the king of his chosen profession, a master "dip" who works only in the subways of New York City. Like all such villains, he faces a cunning adversary in Police Detective Craddock, who is always half apace behind. Craddock has sworn to put Tham behind bars, where he belongs. But Tham is clever enough to always remain one step ahead of Craddock and everyone else.
Despite being a criminal, Tham always comes off well: the people whom he relieves of their wallets are often deserving of it, and he has a tendency to take on other, much worse crooks to give them their just desserts. And, of course, there are scoundrels aplenty in his world: a rival pickpocket who moves in on his turf in "Thubway Tham's Baggage Check;" Shifty Shane, the holdup man, who calls Tham a coward because he doesn't use a gun; and Mr. Clackworthy, a slick grifter from Chicago, who looks down on dips as the lowest of thieves.
Call him an early antihero. Tham endears himself to readers because he has a moral compass. He knows his place is in the gutter of the world, but that doesn't mean he can't strive to better himself--or others.
If there is one theme running through these stories, it is that Tham is a thief with a heart of gold, even when it isn't always in his best interests. When he takes in a would-be apprentice in "Thubway Tham's Understudy," Tham knows very well that the boy may be his undoing. He does it anyway, and he nearly ends up in jail for his trouble. In "Thubway Tham's Insult," he takes offense at an actor's attitude toward thieves and decides to teach him a lesson. In "Thubway Tham's Baggage Check," he is disgusted by amateur thieves and plots to relieve them of their ill-gotten gains. Thieving should be left to professionals; amateurs are not permitted to dabble in Tham's trade. In "Thubway Tham, Philanthropist," Tham encounters an elderly couple living in squalor near his home and decides to help them, much to his eventual regret.
Tham also has time for charity on other holidays. On Thanksgiving, he gives a holiday dinner for nineteen newsies. On the Fourth of July, he takes time off to celebrate and gives advice to easy marks on how to protect their wallets and saves a lost little boy. On Christmas Eve, he sees an amateurish pickpocket steal a wallet on his beloved subway, so he steals in back and tries to return it to its rightful owner ... with less than happy results. His heart really is in the right place.
So, give Tham a chance. Once you get beyond his lisp and gruff exterior, you'll find a worthy and loyal friend. But keep an eye on your pockets; he's a master of his trade--as Mr. Clackworthy and so many others find out!
--John Gregory Betancourt
DETECTIVE CRADDOCK stepped nearer the front of the little cigar store on the corner and almost pressed his nose against the window as he glanced inside. There was an expression of bewilderment on the countenance of the detective. His eyes bulged and then narrowed to two tiny slits as if he was considering something highly unusual and wondering just what it might mean. His lower jaw drooped and then came up again with a snap, expressing determination. To "get the goat" of Detective Craddock, who was a terror to those of the underworld, it was necessary only to attempt to "put something over" on him.
And Detective Craddock was not absolutely certain, of course, but he feared that a certain person was attempting to put something over on him now. And, to make matters worse, that certain person was no less a personage than Thubway Tham.
Thubway Tham was a clever pickpocket, one of the cleverest in the business, and he worked only in the subway during rush hours. He long ago had earned the name in the underworld of Subway Sam. And because, lisping, he called himself "Thubway Tham," everybody else did the same.
Some time since, Detective Craddock had resolved to "get" Thubway Tham. He had been honest enough to inform Tham of his determination, and between detective and dip there was a constant duel in which Craddock continually found himself the loser. Failure only whetted the appetite of the detective to take Thubway Tham in, however.
And now Detective Craddock looked through the window of the little cigar store, amazed. For Thubway Tham was inside and not purchasing a package of cigarettes or begging for a box of matches. Thubway Tham was behind the counter, waiting on trade.
Detective Craddock waited until there came a time when no customers were in the little shop, and then entered and stepped up to the counter. He grinned at Thubway Tham, but Tham's face expressed only the fact that he was a business man.
"What's the big idea?" Craddock wanted to know.
"I fail to grathp you," Thubway Tham told him.
"You do, eh? Try again. You grasp me, all right. What's the big idea of masquerading as an honest working man?"
"That ith what I am," Tham replied.
"Yeth! And don't you come around here pethterin' me, either. I've got an honetht job, and I don't want to be bothered."
"There's something awfully fishy about this," Craddock said, "I haven't much faith in your reformation, Tham."
"No! If it's a new game, Tham, old boy, I'll land you sooner or later."
"There you go! Justht becauthe once I wath thent up the river, you think I am alwayth goin' to be a crook! You don't give a man a chance, you copth!"
"No? Cut out the comedy, Tham. It doesn't impress me at all."
"The only way to impreth you would be with a brick againtht the bean!" Tham told him.
"Does your employer know you are a crook?"
"He knoth I wath once in prithon, if that ith what you mean." Tham said. "He thaid he wath ready to help a man get on the thraight path again."
"Very kind of him," Craddock commented.
"And if you pethter me, there'll be a howl! I'm thtraight, and you got to let me alone!"
Craddock purchased a cigar and stepped aside to light it as another customer entered. He stood back in a corner and watched Tham handle the customer. Presently he got the chance to speak to him once more.
"Go right ahead, Tham, old boy," he said. "But don't forget that I'll have an eye on you. This thing is a puzzle to me, but I'll work it out."
"I jutht dethided to be thraight," Tham complainingly told him. "I'm goin' to be honetht and work for my livin'. Every perthon hath an inthane moment now and then. Maybe thith ith my inthane moment."
"There's sure something crazy about it," said Craddock.
The detective left the store, watched from the corner for a time, and then went about his business. He could not hope to catch Thubway Tham picking pockets while he was working behind the counter of a cigar store.
THAM GRINNED after Craddock had gone down the street and then gave his entire attention to the trade. It was the first day on duty, and he wanted to impress his boss, who would be coming in soon from the wholesale house. It might have been an insane moment, but Thubway Tham was enjoying it hugely, the more so because his actions mystified Detective Craddock.
He sold a package of cigarettes to an evil-looking youth and changed a five-dollar bill. Ten minutes later his employer, going through the cash register, found the bill and informed Thubway Tham that it was a counterfeit.
"Thtung!" Thubway Tham said. "I mutht be a thimp! I've got to thtand good for it, I thuppothe."
"You have," said his employer.
"I'll get thquare with that man, you can bet. I remember his fathe. I'll get him, all right!"
Thubway Tham was of a mind that it was a reflection on his cleverness to be stung like that. Were they playing him for an "easy mark" on his first day on the job, he wondered. He had agreed to work for fifteen dollars a week, and here was a third of his week's wages gone the first two hours on the job.
Thubway Tham put the counterfeit bill in his vest pocket and went about his business. During the noon hour he found little time to think of anything except selling cigars and tobacco. Then he went to luncheon, and was not pleased to discover that Detective Craddock was watching him closely.
Thubway Tham had an hour, and luncheon took but fifteen minutes. But he did not spend the other forty-five in the subway, "lifting a leather." He wandered around the streets, keeping away from subway entrances lest temptation prove too great, and at the appointed time returned to the cigar store and assumed his duties.
Detective Craddock, disgusted, went to another section of the city and sought to apprehend an evildoer.
There came a lull in business in the middle of the afternoon, and then it was that a well-dressed young man entered and announced his intention of purchasing a box of cigars that retailed at fifteen dollars the box.
Thubway Tham showed the goods eagerly, still determined to make an excellent record on his first day. He opened half a dozen boxes, that the prospective customer might select the particular color he desired. The telephone rang.
Tham hurried back to the instrument, which was at one end of the counter. It was his employer who called, and he gave minute instructions regarding a package of goods that should be wrapped up for a certain customer. Thubway Tham made a note with a pencil on a sheet of paper, hung up the receiver, and turned toward his customer again.
The customer was gone, and so were two boxes of the cigars, stock worth thirty dollars.
Thubway Tham gasped at the nerve of it. He realized that the man had had time to mingle in the crowd outside and get away. And the cigars, being of that special brand, would be missed. Unless the money was in the cash register for them, Thubway Tham's employer would think he had stolen them himself--for Tham remembered that the boss knew his past reputation.
Thubway Tham sighed and extracted thirty dollars from his own pocket and put the money in the till. He was getting wages of fifteen dollars a week, the first day of work was not done, and it had cost him thirty-five dollars altogether.
"It doth not pay to try to be honetht," Tham told himself. "A crook ith the motht honetht perthon in the world. I have been thtung again!"
He stored up anger against the man who had given him the counterfeit bill, and against the one who had stolen the cigars. Thubway Tham remembered faces well, and he promised to make those two men pay if ever he met them again.
The evening rush began, and Tham's, employer returned to aid him with the trade. For two hours Thubway Tham was kept busy continually, and then was told to go and get his dinner. He returned at the end of an hour, again successfully fighting away the temptation of the subway, and his boss went to get the evening meal.
There entered a man who filled Thubway Tham's heart with joy--until he remembered that he had turned honest.
"Ith thith your firtht vithit to New York?" Tham asked as he offered a box of cigars.
"How did you guess it?" the customer wanted to know.
"Oh, I jutht guethed it!" Tham replied.
"I'm here to see the sights."
"Yeth? You want to watch out for crookth."
Some sense of delicacy prevented Tham telling the visitor to the city that his appearance and manner were a standing invitation to pickpockets.
"I've heard tell about these New York slickers, but they won't get me, you betcha," replied the customer.
"I'll bet thix thenth," said Thubway Tham, "that you've got your coin in a wallet in your hip pocket."
"How'd you know that?" demanded the other suspiciously.
"A man like you alwayth carrieth coin in a wallet in a hip pocket," Tham told him. "It ith a thilly thing to do."
"Where's the best place to carry it?"
"In your inthide vetht pocket," Tham replied. "And don't pull it out where everybody can see it. And don't get drunk."
"Free with your advice, young man, ain't you?" the customer asked. "When I get so I can't attend to my own affairs, I'll retire to an old folks' home."
"I reckon I've carried my wallet in a hip pocket a good many years, and nobody ever stole it yet."
"All right," said Tham. "Far be it from me to thuggetht anything more."
The customer was mollified. He announced that he would shake dice with Tham for the cigars. Tham agreed, and they shook. The customer from out of town lost a couple of times, and then grew excited. The gambling fever entered the blood of Thubway Tham, too.
They continued to shake dice, and the customer from out of town began winning. He won continually and consistently. Thubway Tham didn't like that--he was getting the house in a bad hole. Almost before he realized it, the customer from out of town had won ten dollars.
He was going to quit, the customer announced. If it was all the same with Tham, he'd take five dollars cash. Tham agreed, since it was a sub rosa rule in the store to give customers half their winnings in cash if they so desired.
Tham's boss came back, and the customer hurried away.
"The old coot trimmed me for five," Tham explained, in a manner apologetic.
"Must have shaken dice like a fiend," the boss commented.
"I thought I could rattle 'em, but I couldn't touch him," Tham admitted.
The boss began laughing. "I should think not," he said. "Look here. He went away in a hurry, and he took our dice and left his own."
"Hith own?" Thubway Tham gasped.
"Loaded, you simp! Look here! Try 'em!"
Thubway Tham's face paled.
"Thimp ith right!" he said.
He felt in his vest pocket, took out a five-dollar bill, and put it in the cash register. Then he reached for his hat.
"It's not quitting time yet, young fellow," his boss remarked.
"It ith for me. I have been workin' here for one day, and it hath coth me' forty dollarth. A crook ith an honetht man compared to anybody elthe. I am a thimp! I am an eathy mark! I ought to go and thoak my head! A baby could trim me eathy! Thith ith no place for an honetht crook!"
"Now, see here--"
"I thaid I wath done, and I am! It cotht too much to work in thith plathe. I'm a thimp! I quit!"
Without waiting to argue the matter, Thubway Tham hurried down the street, came to Union Square, and darted toward the entrance to the subway.
A short distance behind, Detective Craddock followed.