1001 Midnights

A 1001 MIDNIGHTS Review
by Kathleen L. Maio

RAE FOLEY – Death and Mr. Potter. Dodd Mead, hardcover, 1955. Also published as: The Peacock Is a Bird of Prey. Dell, paperback, 1976. Thorndike Press, hardcover, large print, 1985.

   Rae Foley is, in mystery terms, a graduate of the Mary Roberts Rinehart and had-I-but-known school of writing. She is known as one of the leading lights of “romantic suspense,” yet in her early days Foley wrote mysteries that approximated the classic puzzler. Death and Mr. Potter is one of those efforts. It is the first in a series of books featuring mild-mannered Mr. Hiram Potter as amateur sleuth.

   Potter is Old Money. But that money had always been in the firm grasp of his autocratic mother. As the book opens, the matriarch’s funeral is concluding and the long-cowed and obedient son finds himself unexpectedly independent — both emotionally and financially. If that isn’t excitement enough, a young woman plunges from a neighboring high-rise into Potter’s garden. Hiram investigates out of a sense of moral outrage — and the suspicion that one of the mourners at his mother’s funeral must he the murderer.

   The story resembles standard murder-at-the-manor fare, except this time the manor is in Gramercy Park and not an English village. The characters are generally stock figures, from the blackmailing poor relations to the ethnic servants who (as Italians) are fat, drink too much wine, and smell of garlic.

   Still, there is a certain charm to Hiram Potter and his sincere, if largely ineffectual, sleuthing. The nine Potter mysteries represent Foley’s best mystery work. Although inferior in quality, Foley is better remembered for the more than twenty damsel-in-distress thrillers she produced in the Sixties and Seventies. In these, feminine but fluff-headed young women prove even more ineffectual at detecting than Hiram Potter. They are usually thoroughly bruised and battered by the time they stumble across the murderer, and into the arms of a dominant male suitor, at book’s end.

   Hiram Potter also appears in Back Door to Death (1963), Call It Accident (1965), and A Calculated Risk (1970).

   Reprinted with permission from 1001 Midnights, edited by Bill Pronzini & Marcia Muller and published by The Battered Silicon Dispatch Box, 2007.   Copyright © 1986, 2007 by the Pronzini-Muller Family Trust.

A 1001 MIDNIGHTS Review
by Thomas Baird

  J. S. FLETCHER – The Middle Temple Murder. Alfred A. Knopf, hardcover, 1922. First published in the UK: Ward Lock, hardcover, 1919. Reprinted many times including: Dover Press, softcover, 1980.

   Julian Symons, English author and critic, coined a good name for the multitude of middle-rank mystery writers who lacked literary skill and ingenuity — the Humdrums. J. S. Fletcher stood in the front rank of the prolific English phalanx of Humdrums. He wrote over a hundred books on a variety of subjects, and the majority were detective stories. These melodramas are extremely conventional, with the not-too-brilliant central puzzle dominating the story. They are a comfortable confirmation of decency and lawfulness for the moneyed middle class. Snobbery descends to racial prejudice (with several Chinese villains), and despicable, evil foreigners have dark complexions and comical accents.

   Not much scientific detection is involved, and the tenets of the Golden Age are not closely followed. There is too much reliance on coincidence, detectives missing details, failure to follow up clues, and mysterious figures who appear to wrap up the plot at the end.

   It is a trifling triumph to select one of Fletcher’s detective stories as his best. From The Amaranth Club (1926) to The Yorkshire Moorland Murder (1930), there is not much to choose from, except for The Middle Temple Murder.

   While the plot is fairly pedestrian, many of Fletcher’s defects are absent. It is one of his earliest works, and attracted the first real notice for Fletcher in the United States when it was championed by Woodrow Wilson. The story concerns Frank Spargo, subeditor of the Watchman, who happens to be present when a bludgeoned body is found in the Middle Temple.

   The hotshot reporter (he’s as bright as any latter-day Flash Casey) teams up with Ronald Breton, barrister, to follow the clues in this devious mystery. The victim is John Marbury, from Australia, who was struck down on his first night back in London after an absence of many years.

   This photo-procedural novel is a case of complicated theft, legacy, parentage, and includes a suspected empty coffin. A major motif (as in many Fletcher tales) is railway travel- checking timetables; confirming alibis; zipping around to discover clues; getaways and pursuits.

   Fletcher has been praised for his novels set in the English countryside, but the atmosphere in most of these is overwrought and the descriptions dull. Novels such as The Middle Temple Murder and The Charing Cross Mystery (1923) are vivid because most of the action takes place in the streets, byways, squares, stations, and buildings of London, and is reported in factual detail.

   Reprinted with permission from 1001 Midnights, edited by Bill Pronzini & Marcia Muller and published by The Battered Silicon Dispatch Box, 2007.   Copyright © 1986, 2007 by the Pronzini-Muller Family Trust.

A 1001 MIDNIGHTS Review
by Art Scott

JAY FLYNN – A Body for McHugh. Avon T-444., paperback original, 1960. MacFadden-Bartell 75-378, paperback, 1966.

   This is one entry in a nifty little five book paperback series that Flynn did in the early 19608. McHugh owns a backstreet San Francisco bar, the Door, that serves as the local watering hole for assorted spy types, ours and theirs.

   McHugh (no first name is supplied) is one of ours, working for one of those secret agencies tucked away in a Pentagon sub-basement; he periodically takes on assignments messing around in Mexican or Caribbean revolutions, recovering Nazi war prizes, and the like.

   Oddly, the books were packaged as if they were typical private-eye novels; consequently they may have failed to find the audience that would best appreciate these neatly crafted action yarns. Matt Helm fans,in particular, will find them right up their street.

   In this one, a man is knifed just outside the Door, and a scared young girl, apparently there to meet him, slips out the back way before McHugh (and the FBI and CIA agents hanging around) can get a line on her.

   The killings that ensue (some engineered by adept assassin McHugh) have to do with a missing suitcase full of money, the loot from a double-cross-infested operation by a group of Cubans trying to get their wealth out before Castro grabbed it.

   The action ranges up and down the California coast, from San Francisco to L.A. to Carmel, with assorted law-enforcement agencies, intelligence agencies, and the Mafia mixed into the caper.

   The other four books in the series are McHugh (1959), It’s Murder, McHugh (1960), Viva McHugh! (1960), and The Five Faces of Murder (1962). Flynn also wrote a number of nonseries suspense novels, among the best of which are Drink with the Dead (1959), about a bootlegging operation in northern California; and The Action Man (1961), about a heist involving a golf tournament modeled on the one at Pebble Beach.

   Reprinted with permission from 1001 Midnights, edited by Bill Pronzini & Marcia Muller and published by The Battered Silicon Dispatch Box, 2007.   Copyright © 1986, 2007 by the Pronzini-Muller Family Trust.

Editorial Note:   For a long personal profile of Jay Flynn by Bill Pronzini, along with a complete bibliography of the author put together by myself, check out this page on the primary Mystery*File website.

A 1001 MIDNIGHTS Review
by Bill Pronzini

FLETCHER FLORA – Skuldoggery. Belmont B50-738, paperback original, 1967.

   A talented writer whose work received regrettably little attention during his lifetime, Fletcher Flora was one of the best producers of criminous short stories in the 1950s and 1960s. His range was remarkable: everything from hard-boiled tales for such magazines as Manhunt to police procedurals, to straightforward whodunits,to light whimsey, to literary stories that transcended the genre.

   As a novelist however, Flora was less successful. His books are extremely well written, with engaging characters and strong suspense; but they are all short on plot, tending to be slices of life or collections of incidents rather than fully realized novels. Skuldoggery falls into that category, but everything
else about it is so good that it ranks as Flora’s best novel — though probably his least known, owing to the fact that it was published by a small paperback house and poorly distributed. (The fact that a front-line publisher failed to recognize its merits is beyond comprehension.)

   When Grandfather Hunter dies, he leaves an estate of $10 million, which his greedy family — Uncle Homer, Aunt Madge; Junior; Flo; and Flo’s twins, Hester and Lester –expects to inherit. Ah, but no; grandfather’s will instead gives the dough to Senorita Fogarty, who happens to be a Chihuahua of questionable breeding, for her exclusive use throughout her lifetime and the lifetimes of her pup’s pups ad infinitum.

   Of course there is a proviso that should Senorita Fogarty and all her subsequent pups expire, the inheritance then passes on to the family. And of course what the novel is all about are the humbling attempts of Uncle Homer, Aunt Madge, Junior, Flo, and Flo`s twins to dispose of Senorita Fogarty, and the determined efforts of grandfather’s faithful servants, the Crumps, to thwart them.

   This sort of farce is not unfamiliar, but it is nonetheless beautifully conceived and written with considerable drollery and wit. Anyone willing to spend the time and effort tracking down a copy will not be disappointed.

   Most of Flora’s other novels were also paperback originals; among the more notable of these are The Hot Shot (1956) and Leave Her to Hell (1958), both of which are in the tough vein. He also published three hardcovers, Killing Cousins (1960), another delightfully murderous farce, which won the Macmillan Cock Robin Award; The Irrepressible Peccadillo (1962); and Hildegarde Withers Makes the Scene (1969), which he was commissioned to finish when Stuart Palmer died, and which he completed shortly before his own untimely death [in 1968].

   Reprinted with permission from 1001 Midnights, edited by Bill Pronzini & Marcia Muller and published by The Battered Silicon Dispatch Box, 2007.   Copyright © 1986, 2007 by the Pronzini-Muller Family Trust.

A 1001 MIDNIGHTS Review
by Ed Gorman & Max Allan Collins

HORACE McCOY – They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? Simon & Schuster, hardcover, 1935. Reprinted several times, including Penguin Signet #670, paperback, 1948; Berkley #108, paperback, 1955; Avon SS10, paperback, 1966; and included in Crime Novels: American Noir of the 1930s and 40s, Library of America, hardcover, 1997. Film: Cinerama, 1969; director: Sydney Pollack.

   The basic plot of Horses is simple enough. In Hollywood during the early years of the depression, two young people, Robert and Gloria, meet and decide to become partners in a marathon dance contest. They need the prize money desperately. And there’s always the possibility that they will be “discovered” by a talent scout in the crowd of onlookers. Robert and Gloria both have aspirations of being stars. This seems to be just one more sweaty and forlorn part of the necessary ritual.

   There are other characters in the novel, of course — Rocky the emcee, the quintessential cynic; the Reverend Oscar Gilder, who manages to debase even the notion of God; and assorted doomed figures, each alive only to his or her pain, who grind in endless circles on the dance floor- but Robert and Gloria remain the indisputable focus of the book. Early on she says, “Why are these high-powered scientists always screwing around trying to prolong life instead of finding pleasant ways to end it? There must be a hell of a lot of people in the world like me — who want to die but haven’t got the guts.”

   And so we have Gloria, failed beauty, misery addict, in a life perfectly symbolized by a marathon dance: You dance till you drop, literally, in a process without dignity or meaning.

   McCoy’s novel is told in fragments — in effect, flash-forwards as well as flashbacks. Robert’s narration is interspersed with the words of the judge who sentences Robert to death, for we know from page one that Robert killed Gloria. The burden of the book is to explain why — much as, in a similar work, Orson Welles hung the life of Citizen Kane on “Rosebud” as a way to drive the narrative.

    “It was the first time I had ever seen her smile,” Robert says in the first fragment. He refers to the last look on Gloria’s face before he pulled the trigger. Then: “I was her very best friend. I was her only friend.” That, of course, was why he killed her — because he was her friend and because she asked him to. It was perhaps the one transcendent act of his life. Not that society understands. Robert will be executed for his action.

   In almost every respect — from the bitter tone of the narrative, to the complicated ethics of killing somebody out of mercy, to the curiously innocent perceptions of Robert as revealed in key scenes — Horses is arguably the most original novel in American literary history. Sartre and the French existentialists agreed, embracing it as one of the great novels of their movement; its success in France far exceeded its impact here.

   McCoy had hoped that the novel would free him from Hollywood and studio hackwork. It didn’t. Like Robert, he was doomed to a dance that would go on and on until he dropped (literally, from a heart attack). Yet Horses remains a “perfect” book — perfect in the way a poem can be but a novel almost never is. It is both dirge and hymn and is without peer in the language.

   Horses was filmed in 1969, starring Jane Fonda, Michael Sarrazin, and Gig Young (as the master of ceremonies, a role which won him an Oscar).

   McCoy’s other works are tough-guy in flavor, certainly; but like Horses they are concerned (as critic Paul Buck puts it) with “social comment rather than crime.” I Should Have Stayed Home (1938) deals with a naive extra coping with a Hollywood that couldn’t care less about him. Somewhat neglected, this novel is worth a look; although its criminous aspects are tangential, the crisp prose and dark out make it read like a particularly good James M. Cain novel, minus the murder. No Pockets in a Shroud (1959)is a somewhat autobiographical crusading-reporter tale. McCoy’s posthumous Corruption City (1959) is, like Chandler’s Playback published the previous year, a novelization of an unproduced screen treatment.

   Reprinted with permission from 1001 Midnights, edited by Bill Pronzini & Marcia Muller and published by The Battered Silicon Dispatch Box, 2007.   Copyright © 1986, 2007 by the Pronzini-Muller Family Trust.

A 1001 MIDNIGHTS Review
by Bill Pronzini

JOHN FRANKLIN BARDIN – The Deadly Percheron. Dodd Mead, hardcover, 1946. Reprints include: MacFadden Bartell, paperback, 1968; Penguin, paperback, 1988; Poisoned Pen Press, trade paperback, 1998; Centipede Press, 2006.

   New York psychiatrist George Matthews is visited by a young man named Jacob Blunt who wears flowers in his hair, gives away quarters to people on the street, and fears he is losing his mind — all because of the manipulation of three-foot-tall “leprechauns.”

   Matthews doesn’t believe in the leprechauns, of course, but neither does he believe Blunt is anything but sane. He agrees to accompany the young man to meet one of the gnomes, Eustace, who looks suspiciously like a midget and who insists that Blunt now start giving away horses instead of quarters, beginning with a Percheron to the star of a hit Broadway show.

   The star turns up murdered, the man the police arrest as Jacob Blunt turns out to be an imposter, and an attempt is made on Matthews’s life in a subway station. At which point matters really become bizarre. Matthews wakes up in a mental hospital some six months later, suffering from partial amnesia and with a hideous scar disfiguring his face.

   It is only after he adopts an entirely new identity that he is able to effect a release from the hospital and to begin, torturously, to piece his life back together and seek out the truth about the strange events surrounding Jacob Blunt, the leprechauns, and the deadly Percheron.

   A most unusual and ingeniously constructed mystery up to a point. Suspense is high throughout, and there are some forcefully written scenes. But the book’s weaknesses far outweigh its strengths. Other scenes and much of the plot strain credulity to the breaking point, the characterization is weak (Matthews isn’t very likeable, for one), the dialogue is stilted, and the explanation behind all the bizarre happenings is downright silly. All in all, The Deadly Percheron is a vaguely irritating and unsatisfying novel.

   Bardin has his admirers, who praise the hallucinatory quality of this and such other mysteries as The Last of Philip Banter (1947), Devil Take the Blue-Tail Fly (1948), Purloining Tiny (1978), and four published under the pseudonyms Gregory Tree and Douglas Ashe. But he is definitely an acquired taste, like olives and rutabagas.

   Reprinted with permission from 1001 Midnights, edited by Bill Pronzini & Marcia Muller and published by The Battered Silicon Dispatch Box, 2007.   Copyright © 1986, 2007 by the Pronzini-Muller Family Trust.

A 1001 MIDNIGHTS Review
by Robert E. Briney

HELEN McCLOY – The Singing Diamonds and Other Stories. Dodd Mead, hardcover, 1965. No paperback edition.

   Helen McCloy wrote relatively few mystery short stories, and only four of the eight stories in this collection fall into the mystery category. All of them, however, are superior examples of the form. They all appeared in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, and each of them was a prizewinner in the magazine’s annual contests.

   The book opens with what is probably the author’s most famous short work, “Chinoiserie,” written in Paris in 1935 but not published until 1946. It makes use of the author’s art background in a tale of obsession and revenge set in nineteenth-century Peking.

   The title story, “The Singing Diamonds,” features Basil Willing. The “diamonds” of the title are a species of flying saucer: “nine flat, elongated squares, like the pips on a nine of diamonds, flying in V-formation at 1,500 miles per hour,” seen by a navy pilot and by six other eyewitnesses scattered around the country and overseas.

   Shortly after the sighting, the witnesses, one by one, die in unexplained ways. One of the survivors comes to Basil Willing for help. Are the deaths just an amazing coincidence, or are they murder? And how could such murders have been carried out? Willing’s acute mind is equal to the task of ferreting out the truth. The story may be too fantastic for some tastes, but it is an astonishing tour de force of mystery and detection.

   Another Basil Willing story, “Through a Glass, Darkly,” was expanded to a full-length novel under the same title. The remaining mystery, “The Other Side of the Curtain,” is a gem of psychological suspense: A young wife, troubled by a threatening dream, visits a psychiatrist for help, but finds herself sinking deeper and deeper into the nightmare….

   It is difficult to believe that the other four stories in the book were written by the same author. “Number Ten Q Street,” “Silence Burning,” “Surprise, Surprise!” and “Windless” are science fiction of a ponderous and heavily didactic variety, minor exercises at best. But the four mystery stories make the volume worth tracking down.

   Reprinted with permission from 1001 Midnights, edited by Bill Pronzini & Marcia Muller and published by The Battered Silicon Dispatch Box, 2007.   Copyright © 1986, 2007 by the Pronzini-Muller Family Trust.

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