Friday, February 24, 2023

Theodore Roscoe's Z Is For Zombie

Theodore Roscoe (1906-1992) was an American pulp writer and also a distinguished naval historian. Like most pulp writers he worked in a number of different genres. If you wanted to make a decent living as a pulp writer it was desirable to be able to sell stories to as many different pulp magazines as possible which meant you pretty much had to write in multiple genres. Roscoe wrote excellent adventure tales and dabbled in fantasy and horror and he also wrote murder mysteries. Z Is For Zombie, published in serial form in Argosy in 1937, spans at least three and possibly four different genres. It’s a blend of horror (with voodoo elements of course), adventure in the tropics, spy thriller and murder mystery. And the murder mystery involves an impossible crime.

The setting is Haiti (Roscoe had actually visited Haiti). Dr Jim Ranier is in a waterfront dive in a remote village in Haiti and he’s drunk. That’s not unusual. He spends a lot of time drunk. He had at one time been a very successful surgeon but he lost everything in the stock market crash and now he’s a ship doctor on a tramp steamer and when he’s not drunk he spends his time feeling sorry for himself. He had been married, until his wife broke the news to him that while she was delighted to be married to a rich successful surgeon she had no interest whatsoever in being married to a struggling small town doctor. So Ranier has some valid reasons to feel sorry for himself.

Ranier and a number of passengers from the steamer have gone ashore intending to drive along the coast (getting a look at the real Haiti) before picking up the ship again at Port-au-Prince.

Being drunk he gets into an argument with one of the passengers, a German named Haarman, and he gets slugged and thrown out into the street. He wanders back into the bar and finds himself a quiet corner in which to drink and brood. He notices that Haarman is awfully quiet now. Too quiet. In fact the guy seems dead. He’s not dead, but he’s dying. With a knife wound in the back. But that’s impossible. Nobody could have stabbed him. Someone would have seen it happen. And the knife is nowhere to be found.

Ranier is a drunk but he’s still a doctor and he has to try to save Haarman. There’s a small hospital nearby, run by a Dr Eberhardt. And now the weird fiction elements start to emerge. Dr Eberhardt is nowhere to be found. His laboratory has been wrecked. His nurse (and niece although we later discover she’s not really his niece), a German girl named Laïs Engles, is mystified. She reveals that Dr Eberhardt had been working on some very strange research, something to do with reanimating dead tissue. Maybe even reanimating dead people. And there are all those frogs. Hundreds of them. It’s all a bit strange. Things get even stranger when Haarman dies. It appears that after dying Haarman got up and left.

That’s not the end of the strangeness. Not by a long chalk. Laïs Engles recognises Haarman. The last time she saw him was fourteen years ago and he was dead at the time. Now he’s dead again. Maybe.

Laïs has a very strange story to tell. A story of wartime intrigue and top-secret missions and journeys through the Amazon jungles and shipwreck. The poor girl is clearly mad. But Ranier doesn’t think she is mad. He’s convinced she’s telling the truth. Or at least that she thinks she’s telling the truth. Some of it may actually be true. More worrying is the possibility that all of her story is true.

The book now becomes a crazy journey from graveyard to graveyard, with corpses that apparently not only get up and walk, they undertake cross-country travels.

To add to the fun the locals are convinced that they’re dealing with evil voodoo witch doctors and they know how to deal with people like that - you hunt them down and kill them or you burn them out if they’re hiding. There are also people running around with guns taking pot shots at each other and soon there are more corpses. These ones really are dead. Probably.

The really fun part is that because this is a story from an adventure pulp rather than a detective pulp the reader can’t be entirely sure there’s going to be a rational explanation, and indeed it’s hard to imagine a rational explanation that would make sense.

Roscoe knows what he’s doing. He brings all the crazy plot strands together and gives us a wholly satisfying resolution although naturally I’m not going to give you any hints about that resolution. Whether there’s any actual supernatural element involved is something else I’m not going to tell you. There is however a solid murder mystery plot here.

The impossible crime angle might disappoint those who love amazingly complex impossible crimes but this one at least has the virtue of being totally plausible.

The novel was originally serialised in six parts so at times Roscoe gives us brief recaps of previous events. The novel does not appear to have been edited in any way, which is a very good thing. Once you succumb to the temptation to do a bit of editing the danger is that you’ll start thinking your readers are over-sensitive children and you’ll start editing out all the politically incorrect stuff. Happily Steeger Books have reprinted Z Is For Zombie in all its politically incorrect glory.

You can enjoy this book as an outrageous but well-crafted murder mystery but it’s equally enjoyable as an adventure tale and a horror story. Whichever way you take it it’s superbly written (Roscoe’s prose is an absolute joy) and immensely entertaining. Very highly recommended.

I bought this book after reading the glowing review at Beneath the Stains of Time. There’s another fine review at The Invisible Event.

I’ve reviewed a couple of collections of Rocoe’s short stories - The Emperor of Doom and Blood Ritual. They’re both well worth a look.


  1. Theodore Roscoe was the John Dickson Carr of the pulps and you really should get a copy of Murder on the Way. It also takes place on Haiti during a zombie scare, but differently told and executed in every other way from Z is for Zombie. I compared the former to a roller coaster of insanity and the latter to a haunted house ride, but both are great as, what some have termed, alternative classics. Hope you continue to enjoy Roscoe!

    1. I've read quite a few of Roscoe's adventure short stories and I enjoyed them enormously. I haven't read Murder on the Way but I'm going to add it to my shopping basket right away.