Small House of Everything

Small House of Everything

Wednesday, October 5, 2022


 "The Music of Robert the Devil" by Karl W. Detzer (from True Tales of the D.C.I., 1925

Karl Detzer was born in Indiana in 1891.  At age 16 he began working for a Fort Wayne newspaper as a reporter and photographer.  Over the next nine years he worked at three different newspapers and gained a reputation as an investigative reporter.  In 1916 he joined the army and was sent to Mexico to fight Pancho Villa's insurgents.  The following year he went to Officer Training School and emerged as a Captain.  Detzer was then sent to France as a company commander of the 84th Division where he saw heavy fighting.  Following the Armistice, the Army put him in control of the newly-formed Department of Criminal Investigation (D.C.I.) in the American zone of control, which ranged from Paris to Brent.  There Detzer was mainly concerned with rogue American criminals and deserters.  

In 1920 Detzer was returned to America to face court martial for allegedly mistreating and torturing American prisoners.  One account said that some 100 witnesses testified against Detzer; another that 125 witnesses were called, most of them for the defense.  Durng the trial it was revealed that there was a wide-spread plot to discredit Detzer, who, on assuming command, had transferred the former commander and some 70 enlisted men for inefficiency or abuse of prisoners.  It was also revealed that the friction had developed between the judge advocate general's office (including the assistant prosecuter handling Detzer's case) and Detzer's unit.  Some of the prosecution's witnesses gave contradictory testimoney.  In the end Detzer was cleared of all 28 charges and restored to rank.

Following the court marshall Detzer left the army and began working as an advertising director of a Chicago department store.  While in Chicago he met his future wife and they were married in 1921.  Around that time he decided that he could make his living as a writer.  He quit his job and the couple moved to Michigan when the family had a cabin.  Thus began a long career as a short story writer.  Detzer was noted for his tales of firemen, many based on his experiences riding with firemen in Chicago.  He also used his experience riding along with members of the Michigan State Police.  When seven of his stories about firemen were used as the basis of the Fred McMurray film Car 99,   he moved to Hollywood and began a four-year stint as a screenwriter and technical director.

In 1938 Detzer was hired by Reader's Digest and soon became a roving editor for that magazine.  In 1941, he enlisted in the army once again  and was active in the China-Burma theater.  He received a Distinguished Service Medal and the rank of Colonel.  Following the war, he and his wife bought a local newspaper; his wife remained to run the paper when he was recruited as a special advisor on the Berlin Airlift.

Detzer died in 1987 at age 95.  His wife had predeceased him in 1982 and his only son died five years after World War II of wounds he had suffered.  One daughter survived him/

Detzer's short stories were published in many of the major magazines of the time, both pulps and slicks -- Argosy, Adventure, Munseys, American Boy, The Saturday Evening Post, Collier's, Short Stories, and many others.  The Pulp Flakes blog states that he published over 1000 short stories; FictionMags Index list over 225 tales.  In addition, Detzer published twelve books, including a somewhat fictionized account of his experiences at D.C.I., True Tales of the D.C.I.  Eugene Thwing, in his 1929 anthology The World's Best One Hundred Detective Stories (where I read "The Music of Robert the Devil") reprints three stories from that book.

The story concerns Sergeant Carl Faulkner (Detzer used ficticious names for the book) of the Le Mans branch of the C.I.D. had been sent to Ballon for a rest.  He and others had exhausted themselves chasing a gang of thieves known as "the chateau robbers" across France; five of the gang had been captured and eight or nine were still at large.  The gang was known not to be hesitant to use firearms.  While he travelled in the North, Faulkner was asked to look into reports of "outrages" -- theft of wine and chickens (mainly) in that area.  

In Ballon, the locals did not have time or interest in American deserters.  They acted nervous and congregated only in groups.  Faulkner found this was because "Robert the Devil" was back.  It turned out that Robert the Devil lived some 900 years ago, ruling the area from his high castle, now in ruins  Robert would take local girls, use them for his pleasure, then throw them off a cliff to the rocks below when he tired of them.  After disposing of each girl, he would then play his violin on the castle wall.  Locals back then were afraid of him and the men he commande but finally they rallied and stormed the castle and slew him.  Since then, local legend has it that, once every fifty years, Robert and his men would return for a period of  five or six days, robbing the townspeople and instilling fear.  Several of the townsfolk claimed to remembered the last time this happened, half a century before.  Now mucsic can heard coming from the castle again and wine and chickens have gone missing.  The townspeople barricaded themselves in at night for their own protection.

Faulkner then heard the music through the night air and determined to face whatever this "Robert the Devil" might be (he had a good suspicion), but could get no one -- not even the local gendarmes -- brave enough to go with him.  Finally he found an old man who had moved into the village a few years before and was not susceptible to the local superstitions to accompany him.  Cautiously they entered the castle ruins and came across three rough-looking men drinking wine and roasting a chicken.  Faulkner and the old man easily got the drop on the trio, who turned out to be part of the "the chateau robber" gang of Americans who had deserted.

Asked by Detzer later why he thought the men were Americans, Faulkner replied, "I didn't think it likely, sir, that this Rlbert the Devil bird would be playing My Old Kentucky Home on a mouth organ."

More of a clever anecdote than a story, Detzer effectively used the local superstitions to the tale's best advantage.  Cute, quick, and entertaining.

True Tale of the D.C.I. is availble online at Hathi Trust.


  1. I'm a fan of stories about deals with the Devil. Robert Bloch wrote a couple of my favorites!