The Thing in B-3 by Talmage Powell (1969)
Talmage Powell (1920-1980) was a reliable writer of genre stories, always readable, always entertaining. He started in the pulps with about 200 stories covering almost every genre. With the death of the pulps he continued with another 300 stories, many in the digest mystery magazines. The five books in his Ed Rivers private eye series in the late Fifties-early Sixties were well regarded. He also contributed several books as by Ellery Queen and a scattering of YA novels as tie-ins to the Mission: Impossible television series. In addition to other novels and at least one non-fiction book, Powell also wrote several teleplays for television. Now he's pretty much forgotten.
Also pretty much forgotten is The Thing in B-3, a young adult supernatural novel published by Whitman in 1969. The book went through only one edition (but three possible printings) in 1969; a Spanish translation appeared in 1971. Worldcat lists only seven copies available in US libraries. Abebooks lists ten copies available from US dealers for $4-11, along with one dealer aspires to sell a copy for $90. There really doesn't seem to be much demand for this title, which is kind of a shame.
B-3 in the title refers to a refrigerated drawer in the city morgue. It is supposed to be empty, but college student Bill Latham, who works five nights a week at the morgue, discovers that it isn't. The body is of a young woman whose face has been destroyed beyond recognition. There is no tag identifying the corpse, which bill assumes is due to a rare procedural cock-up. The corpse is also wearing a yellow dress when there should only be a white sheet according to procedure. Another cock-up?
Bill reports this to his supervisor and they to look at drawer B-3. The body is still there, but Bill's supervisor cannot see it. He finds it difficult to believe that the always so reliable Bill would pull such a cruel and senseless joke, but the body just isn't there. Bill, however, still sees the body.
One of the psychology classes Bill is taking is taught by a psychic researcher. And Bill is beginning to think there might be something to the paranormal. A short time before, Bill's father -- a respected cardiologist -- had a feeling he was needed in the emergency room and when he got there her found a patient of his being wheeled in from an ambulance; Dr. Latham had arrived -- unexpectedly -- just in time to save his patient's life.
Bill has several people take a look at B-3. None of them saw a body, although Bill still did each time.
As Bill investigates further he finds that the last occupant of that drawer was a young and lonely girl, Elizabeth Braxley, the daughter of a reclusive woman who now is letting her estate fall apart. The girl's father was Dr. Jonathan Fitfield Braxley, a noted atomic scientist who had died from accidental radiation poisoning shortly before Elizabeth's birth. Elizabeth had shown some psychic abilities as a child and some theorized that her genes had been altered in some way by dose of radiation that killed her father. It turns out that this is something that Elizabeth's mother surely believed. On learning of Bill's experiences she attempts to keep Bill at her estate permanently so that Bill could be a psychic conduit for her daughter.
Bill escapes and circumstances convince that the body he see is not Elizabeth. But who is she? The only clue Bill has is the yellow dress he saw on the body. Could Bill have received a message that someone wearing that dress is about to die horribly?
A search of local dress shops finds that such a dress had been sold recently. The purchaser was Bill's wealthy girlfriend. Bill then manages to stop his girlfriend before she wears the dress and the dress is destroyed.
Relieved, Bill returns to the morgue expecting the thing in B-3 to be gone now that no one could wear the dress. Unfortunately, the body...and the dress...are still there. It turns out that the store had another copy of the yellow dress...
Although published in 1969, The Thing in B-3 has a heavy late Fifties-early Sixties vibe to it. Nothing you could out your finger on, just a distinct flavor that the book came from nearly a decade earlier than 1969. Despite being written for a juvenile audience, the book reads well, flows nicely, and can be enjoyed by any age.
Before I read The Thing in B-3, I thought I might be able to draw a comparison with Christopher Golden's ten-book Body of Evidence series (the last five written with Rick Hautala) featuring Jenna Blake, a college student who works in a morgue. But there is no comparison. Jenna Blake and Bill Lathom belong to different times with different atmospheres. Those who have read the Body of Evidence books (and I recommend everyone does) should not approach Powell's book with the same mindset. A quite different pleasurable reading experience awaits you.
One final note. This book would have made a great episode on the old television show One Step Beyond.