1001 Midnights


A 1001 MIDNIGHTS Review
by Robert E. Briney


JOHN DICKSON CARR – Castle Skull. Henri Bencolin #2. Harper & Brothers, hardcover, 1931. Reprint editions include: Pocket #448, paperback, 1947. Berkley G-412, paperback, 1959; F960, paperback, 1964. Zebra, paperback, 1987.

   Carr’s writing career began with a sports column in a local newspaper at the age of fourteen. During his prep-school years at the Hill School, he was already writing locked-room stories and an Oppenheim-style serial. At Haverford College he worked on the college’s literary magazine, The Havelfordian, and it was here that the first stories about his Parisian magistrate-detective, Henri Bencolin, appeared.

   When he wrote his first full-fledged mystery novel, it was only natural that he should use Bencolin as his detective. Bencolin’s debut in book form was in It Walks by Night (1930), and three other books in the series followed within the next two years.

   Castle Skull is the second of Bencolin’s recorded exploits. The setting is Schloss Schadel, a castle on the Rhine River near the city of Coblenz. The castle had been the home of the world-famous magician Maleger. Some time before the start of the story, Maleger had disappeared from a railway carriage that was under constant observation; his drowned body later turned up in the Rhine.

   In his will he left Castle Skull jointly to his two friends, the actor Myron Alison and the financier Jerome D’Aunay. Now Alison has been murdered in spectacular fashion: “The man’s vitality was apparently enormous. He had been shot three times in the breast, but he was alive when the murderer poured kerosene on him and ignited it. He actually got to his feet and staggered out in flames across the battlements before he fell.”

   Bencolin, on vacation from his official duties, is persuaded by D’Aunay to investigate Alison’s death. He is accompanied on the case by his “Watson,” an American writer named Jeff Marle, who narrates the story.

   This is the young Carr in full flight: a meticulously constructed formal detective story cloaked in extravagant melodrama and exuberantly macabre trappings, peopled by doom-laden characters. The relative smoothness and restraint of Carr’s later work is little in evidence, but there is no denying the power and fascination of the story.

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   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 Marcia Muller


VERA CASPARY – Laura. Houghton Mifflin, hardcover, 1944. Reprinted many times, including: Bestseller Mystery #B74, paperback, no date stated. Popular Library #284, paperback, 1950. Dell D188, paperback, Great Mystery Library #3, 1957. Avon, paperback, 1970. The Feminist Press at CUNY, softcover, 2005. Film: 20th Century Fox, 1944. TV adaption: Season 1, episode 2 of The 20th Century-Fox Hour, as “A Portrait of Murder,” 19 October 1955. TV movie: ABC, 24 January 1968 (co-screenwriter: Truman Capote). [See also the comments.]

   The main strength of Vera Caspary’s writing is her depth of characterization; in fact, in many of her mysteries the actual crime takes a back seat to her detailed studies of the persons involved. In this, her first novel, the persona of Laura Hunt, the heroine- initially thought to have been the victim of a brutal murder is so well described that the reader can visualize her and anticipate her actions and reactions long before she appears on the scene.

   The other principals — a crime writer and close friend of Laura’s, and the investigating officer who finds himself falling in love with his image of her — are likewise drawn in meticulous detail, through the use of their individual narrative voices. (The story is told in sections, each from the viewpoint of one or the other of the main characters.)

   The story they tell is basically a simple one. A young “bachelor girl,” Laura Hunt, has been shot to death in her apartment in Manhattan’s East Sixties.She took the force of the blast in the face, and is virtually unrecognizable except for her attire. Mark McPherson, a police officer with a distinguished record, is assigned to the case and acquires much of his knowledge of Miss Hunt from her friend, a sexually amorphous writer named Waldo Lydecker.

   There was a fiance in Miss Hunt’s life — an impoverished copywriter from the ad agency where she worked; and an aunt who is quick to complain about the fiance’s shiftlessness — and to use him when convenient. As McPherson delves further into Laura Hunt’s life, he becomes entranced with the dead woman, a fascination that Lydecker, who narrates the first section, notices and plays upon.

   When McPherson takes up the narrative, we find that Laura is not really dead; she had loaned her apartment to a model frequently used by her agency and gone away to her summer cottage for a few days’ contemplation before her impending marriage. McPherson’s attention is now focused on the question of who killed the ordinary little model who was temporarily using Laura’s apartment, and his suspicions eventually point to Laura herself The ending, narrated by McPherson, with an intervening section told by Laura, is predictable, but completely satisfying.

   Laura was made into a classic suspense film of the same title, starring Dana Andrews, Clifton Webb, and Gene Tierney, and directed by Otto Preminger, in 1944. In another notable novel, Evvie (1960), Caspary’s characterization of a genuine murder victim is even more sharp and haunting than that of Laura Hunt. And her mastery of the deviant but still socially accepted personality is demonstrated to great effect in Bedelia (1945) and The Man Who Loved His Wife (1966).

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   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


JOHN DICKSON CARR – The Arabian Nights Murder. Dr. Gideon Fell #7. Harper & Brothers, US, hardcover, 1936. Hamish Hamilton, UK, hardcover, 1936. US paperback reprints include: Hillman #1, 1943; Collier, 1965.

   For more than forty-two years, John Dickson Carr was a skilled and enthusiastic player in what he called “the grandest game in the world”: the construction of ingeniously plotted murder puzzles, set forth with an illusionist’s skill at deception for the bafflement and delight of his readers. Carr, under his own name and especially under the pseudonym Carter Dickson, showed a fondness for stories of impossible crime, particularly locked-room murders. He compiled a longer list of variations on this theme than any other writer.

   Even when no overt “impossibility” is involved, the crimes in Carr’s books often have bizarre trappings. Other characteristics are his use of comedy, his fondness for “bad” women, his expert evocation of eerie and threatening atmosphere, the frequent disquisitions on curiosities of history, and his use of the multiple solutions –the apparently complete explanation of the crime, which is shown to be flawed and is then replaced by a second (and sometimes a third) solution.

   Although Carr was born and educated in the United States (his father was a congressman during the first Wilson administration), he lived for many years in England, and a majority of his books have English settings. He was, however, equally at home on both sides of the Atlantic. He was an officeholder in both the prestigious Detection Club in London and the Mystery Writers of America.

   From the latter organization he received a special Edgar in 1949 for his biography The Life of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and again in 1969 in honor of his fortieth anniversary as a mystery writer. In 1962 he received MWA’s Grand Master Award. In addition to his books, he wrote several dozen short stories (two of which were award winners in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine‘s annual contests) and many radio plays for the BBC in England and such programs as Suspense in the United States. He also reviewed mystery fiction in both Harper’s Magazine and EQMM.

   Carr’s principal series detective, the bulky and bibulous Dr. Gideon Fell, was introduced in Hag’s Nook (1933). He is a retired schoolmaster who serves as an unofficial consultant to Scotland Yard. He has at his command a large fund of miscellaneous facts, a formidable analytical mind, and an ability to notice seemingly minute points and make connections between unlikely pieces of information.

   He is usually on stage for most of a case, stumping around on his two crutch-handled canes, beaming like Old King Cole, asking disconcerting questions, exasperating his friend Superintendent Hadley with his cryptic remarks, and finally gathering the key personnel together for the climactic revelation of the murderer’s identity.

   The Arabian Nights Murder is unusual in that Fell appears only in the few pages of the prologue and epilogue. The main text is taken up by the statements of Detective Inspector Carruthers, Assistant Commissioner Armstrong, and Superintendent Hadley, recounting their investigation of the murder of Raymond Penderel, an actor with an unsavory reputation.

   Penderel had been found inside an Elizabethan coach in a private museum, stabbed with an ivory dagger taken from a locked case nearby. The body was adorned with a set of ill-fitting false whiskers, and was clutching a cookbook in its arms. Suspects include rich Geoffrey Wade, owner of the museum; his wild daughter and ineffectual son; his prospective son-in-law, soldier of fortune Gregory Mannering; and assorted museum employees.

    When the three Scotland Yard men have finished their statements, Fell, in pure armchair-detective tradition, picks out just the right combination of overlooked or misinterpreted facts and hands them the solution to the crime.

   The book’s tour de force of a plot is clothed in Carr’s patented combination of atmospheric description, misdirection, action, interesting characters (including the engaging old financial pirate Jeff Wade), and a touch of romance. It is a prime example of Golden Age detection.

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   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 Marcia Muller


A. H. Z. CARR – Finding Maubee. G. P. Putnam’s Sons, hardcover, 1971. Bantam, paperback, 1973. British title: The Calypso Murders (Hale, UK, 1973). Film: MGM, 1989, as The Mighty Quinn.

   A. H. Z. Carr’s first and only suspense novel (which won the Best First Novel Edgar for 1971) is a police procedural with an unusual setting: the tropical island of St. Caro in the Caribbean. And even for that part of the world, St. Caro is unusual: It can claim to have “the highest rate of illegitimacy and the lowest rate of crime” of all the islands.

   Illegitimacy on St. Caro carries no special stigma; “outbabies” are usually acknowledged by the fathers. But the young men of this extremely libidinous locale are careful to guard against being saddled with the support of “bushbabies” (those whose paternity is questionable), and thus they keep little black books –sexual diaries.

   Dave Maubee’s little black book is a thick one, and he has managed to sire “two inbabies, six outbabies, and an undetermined number of bushbabies.” It is no wonder he turns to a life of crime — petty theft from tourists — to support these offspring. But when a wealthy tourist, Carl Lattner, is found murdered with a machete at the exclusive Mango Beach Inn, Maubee’s boyhood friend, Police Chief Xavier Brooke, is astonished to hear Dave is the prime suspect. It is his little black book, dropped at the crime scene, that points to him.

   Xavier, a mainland-educated St. Carovian, begins his investigation amid pressures from both the island’s acting governor and a fellow officer who has designs on his job. But despite their insistence on Maubee’s guilt, he finds inconsistencies at the scene and among the stories of the resort’s high-toned but not always high-principled guests.

   When he finally sets out to track down the missing Maubee, his search takes him all over the island to the homes of women Maubee has rated “A+” in his book. In his travels, he finds that his old friend’s life has taken a surprising new turn, and by the time he apprehends him, he is certain the murder is not as straightforward as it originally seemed.

   Carr’s characters are well developed and memorable, and the setting he employs is vivid. Issues such as racial strife, Caribbean politics, and obeah (voodoo) form a backdrop for a solid and intelligent procedural. Unfortunately, Carr (who wrote a number of criminous short stories, as well as other, noncriminous books) died shortly after Finding Maubee‘s publication in 1971, and his Edgar was awarded posthumously. More Xavier Brooke novels would have been enthusiastically welcomed by this reviewer.

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   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 & Newell Dunlap


MILES BURTON – Dark Is the Tunnel. Doubleday Crime Club, US, hardcover, 1936. First published in the UK by Collins as Death in the Tunnel, hardcover, 1936.Reprinted by Poisoned Pen Press, US, softcover, 2016, under the British title.

   During his thirty-seven-year career, tirelessly prolific British writer Cecil Street published almost as many novels under his Miles Burton pseudonym as he did under his more popular pen name of John Rhode. All but two of his sixty-three Burton titles feature the detective team of Inspector Arnold of Scotland Yard and his friend and amateur criminologist Desmond Merrion.

   These are traditional mysteries with emphasis on deduction rather than police procedure. Emphasis is also on the stories themselves the mechanics of the puzzle — with the result that Street’s characters tend to be sketchily drawn and in many cases two-dimensional. Arnold and Merrion are not exempt; in no book do they come across as much more than puzzle-solving agents, bereft of those human characteristics that make a series sleuth distinctive and memorable.

   Still, Street’s plots are carefully crafted and fairly clued, and offer the reader a variety of settings (many of them English country and seaside locales), as well as interesting back-grounds and themes.

   A good example is Dark Is the Tunnel, which features that ever-popular mix of murder and trains. The tunnel referred to in the title is a railway tunnel outside London-the two-and-a-half-mile Blackdown Tunnel. It is halfway through the Blackdown that the 5:00 p.m. train from Cannon Street unexpectedly comes to a stop. Apparently someone was working on the line, for the engineer saw a blinking red light, signaling him to stop, and then a green light, signaling him to proceed. But the odd thing is, there had been no report of workers in the tunnel.

   Almost simultaneously with the stop, an elderly gentle-man named Sir Wilfred Saxonby is found in his locked compartment, dead of a gunshot wound. A suicide? Perhaps, although nothing in his background suggests such a possibility.

   Arnold and Merrion follow a tangled skein of motives and of clues that include a pair of wallets, a rhododendron bed, and the movements of a garage repair truck over a thirty-six-hour period, and come up with the solution to the mystery. There is little action along the way, and Street’s prose tends to be on the dry and dusty side. But the puzzle is baffling enough to provide armchair detectives with a couple of hours of pleasurable escapist reading.

   Other titles in the same vein include the first Arnold and Merrion case, The Menace on the Downs (1931); The Platinum Cat (1938); Death Visits Downspring (1941), a livelier tale than most of the Burtons, in which Arnold and Merrion solve the wartime mystery of the murdered butler and the missing radio station; and Look Alive (1950), the last Burton novel to appear in the United States, although twenty-one additional titles were published in England between 1950 and 1960.

   Two other Buttons of note are The Secret of High Eldersham (1930), a tale of witchcraft in which Merrion appears alone; and The Hardway Diamonds Mystery, published that same year, which marks Arnold’s likewise solo debut.

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   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 Newell Dunlap & Bill Pronzini


W. J. BURLEY – Wycliffe and the Scapegoat. Supt. Charles Wycliffe #8. Doubleday Crime Club, US, 1979. Avon, US, paperback, 1987. First published in the UK by Victor Gollancz, hardcover, 1978. Mills & Boon, UK, paperback, Keyhole Crime series, 1981. Corgi, UK, paperback, TV tie-in, 1997. Adapted as the episode “The Scapegoat” for the TV series Wycliffe, 7 August 1994 (Season 1, Episode 3).

   This story takes place in a clannish seaside English town that observes a rather strange All Hallows’ Eve ritual. On a wheel of fire, nine feet in diameter, is burned a life-size effigy –a scapegoat, as it were — and as it burns, the wheel is allowed to roll over a cliff and into the ocean.

   Thus is evil symbolically cast out for another year. The so-called Fire Festival dates back to Celtic times, but this year’s celebration may have been a little different. It develops that the murdered corpse of the town’s undertaker was used instead of an effigy. Certainly the undertaker, one Jonathan Riddle, was not a popular man, and the town is full of people who would have liked to see the end of him (including the members of his own family).

   Enter Detective Chief Superintendent Wycliffe, who, with his wife, is spending a long weekend near the town. He becomes interested in the case and undertakes his own investigation — a rather routine one, after the colorful dramatics of the Fire Festival. This is a bit of a letdown, although the characters are well drawn enough and the situation interesting enough to hold our interest.

   Writing in Twentieth Century Crime & Mystery Writers, Carol Cleveland says that Wycliffe is “an unconventional policeman who hates routine and authority, and proceeds about his murder investigations by the gestalt method. He immerses himself in the victim’s history and circle of acquaintances until he feels his way to a conclusion.”

   This is the pattern here, and while the method works well enough, Burley’s prose is so lacking in flair that it makes the book plodding in tone. The solution, though satisfactory, is not particularly memorable.

   Wycliffe appears in a number of other novels, among them Three-Toed Pussy (1961), To Kill a Cat (1970), Death in Stanley Street (1974), and Wycliffe in Paul’s Court (1980). Burley has also written two novels featuring Henry Pym, a zoology professor and amateur criminologist; these are A Taste of Power (1966) and Death in Willow Pattern (1970).

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   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.

[UPDATE.] There were in all twenty Wycliffe novels, the last being Wycliffe and the House of Fear (1995). There were no further adventures of Henry Pym. There were a total of 38 episodes of the ITV television series Wycliffe, including the pilot and a Christmas special, spread out over five seasons. Only the pilot and the six shows of the first season were based on Burley novels. According to Wikipedia, “Wycliffe is played by Jack Shepherd, assisted by DI Doug Kersey (Jimmy Yuill) and DI Lucy Lane (Helen Masters).”

A 1001 MIDNIGHTS Review
by Thomas Baird


JOHN BUCHAN – The 39 Steps. William Blackwood & Sons, UK, hardcover, 1915. Serialized in in Blackwood’s Magazine, UK, July-December 1915, under the pseudonym “H de V.” Previously serialized in All-Story Weekly, US, June 5 & 12, 1915. George H. Doran Co., US, hardcover, 1916. Houghton Mifflin, US, hardcover, 1919. Pocket #69, US, paperback, 1940. Reprinted many times since, and still in print today.

   One of Alfred Hitchcock’s best films was The 39 Steps, which he took from John Buchan’s excellent adventure/spy novel. While Hitchcock’s 1935 film differs in many details and mechanisms from the book, both artists mined the same vein, and it’s easy to see what made Hitchcock want to work his transformations on this tale.

   The romantic figure of the hero, Richard Hannay, is the perfect early example of the soldier of fortune. He’s sound of wind and limb, he’s courageous and slightly bored, and he is catapulted by treachery into facing a vast conspiracy that can determine the fate of the world. The writing doesn’t contain too much character to clutter up the plot, and there are no female roles in this adventure. (Hitchcock injected character into the story, partly by including female players in the game.)

   Hannay sets out on the chase, first to hide out from the police, who want him for murder, and also from the German villains who want to stop the secret from getting out. By ruse and disguise, he traverses the well-described wilds of Scotland to stay undercover until the fatal hour. Falling in and out of the clutches of his facile fate, he enlists help as he runs, is chased by airplane, and is captured by his adversaries. This is where James Bond came from.

   The Scottish author John Buchan, Baron Tweedsmuir, was also a political official and governor-general of Canada. He wrote many books of history and biography, as well as other adventures, which he called “shockers.” The best of the other Hannay books is Greenmantle (1916). Another hero, Leithen, is featured in other stories, and Buchan is powerfully descriptive of southern Africa, Europe, and the Middle East.

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   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.

Two 1001 MIDNIGHTS Reviews
by Bill Pronzini


LEO BRUCE – Case for Three Detectives. Geoffrey Bles, UK, hardcover, 1936. Stokes, US, hardcover, 1937. Academy Chicago Press, paperback, 1980.

   Case for Three Detectives is at once a locked-room mystery worthy of John Dickson Carr and an affectionate spoof of the Golden Age detectives created by Sayers, Christie, and Chesterton.

   When Mary Thurston is found in her bedroom, dead of a slashed throat, during a weekend party at her Sussex country house, it seems to all concerned an impossible, almost supernatural crime: The bedroom door was double-bolted from the inside; there are no secret passages or other such claptrap; the only windows provide no means of entrance or exit; and the knife that did the job is found outside the house.

   The following morning, three of “those indefatigably brilliant private investigators who seem to be always handy when a murder has been committed” begin to arrive. The first is Lord Simon Plimsoll (Lord Peter Wimsey): “… the length of his chin, like most other things about him, was excessive,” the narrator, Townsend, observes.

   The second is the Frenchman Amer Picon (Hercule Poirot): “His physique was frail, and topped by a large egg-shaped head, a head so much and so often egg-shaped that I was surprised to find a nose and mouth in it at all, but half-expected its white surface to break and release a chick.” And the third is Monsignor Smith (Father Brown), “a small human pudding.”

   The three famous sleuths sniff around, unearth various clues, and arrive at separate (and elaborate) conclusions, each accusing a different member of the house party as Mary Thurston’s slayer. But of course none of them is right. The real solution is provided by Sergeant Beef of the local constabulary, “a big red-faced man of forty-eight or fifty, with a straggling ginger moustache, and a look of rather beery benevolence.”

   Along the way there is a good deal of gentle humor and some sharp observations on the methods of Wimsey, Poirot, and Father Brown. The prose is consistently above average, and the solution to the locked-room murder is both simple and satisfying.

   Sergeant Beef is featured in seven other novels by Leo Bruce (a pseudonym of novelist, playwright, poet, and scholar Rupert Croft-Cooke), most of which have been reissued here by Academy Chicago in trade paperback. Among them are Case Without a Corpse (1937), Case with Four Clowns (1939), and Case with Ropes and Rings (1940). Each is likewise ingeniously plotted and diverting.

LEO BRUCE – A Bone and a Hank of Hair. Peter Davies, UK, hardcover, 1961. British Book Centre, US, hardcover, 1961. Academy Chicago, US, paperback, 1985.

   Croft-Cooke abandoned Sergeant Beef in 1952 and three years later began a second notable series of detective novels, also published under the Leo Bruce by-line, this one featuring Carolus Deene, ex-commando and Senior History Master at Queen’s School, Newminster, who solves mysteries as a hobby. Until recently, when Academy Chicago began reprinting these, too, in trade paperback, most of the twenty-three Deene titles were available only in England.

    A Bone and a Hank of Hair involves Deene in the strange disappearance of Mrs. Rathbone, Mrs. Rathbone, and Mrs. Rathbone — or are all three the same woman in different guises? Deene’s investigation, prompted by relatives of the original Mrs. Rathbone, takes him to an unpleasant home in remote East Kent, some curious parts of London, and an art colony in Cornwall.

   The jacket blurb says, more or less accurately, “Everywhere he meets bizarre, sometimes richly comic, sometimes sinister characters who bring him at last to the (guaranteed unguessable) conclusion.” On hand as usual in this series, in minor roles, are Mrs. Stick, Deene’s housekeeper and conscience; and the Gorringers, Deene’s headmaster and his (half)witty wife.

   Deene and his investigative methods, and Bruce and his blend of sly humor, tricky plotting, and eccentric characters may not be for every taste. But in this and such other adventure as A Louse for the Hangman (1958),Jack on the Gallows Tree (1960), Nothing Like Blood (1962), and Death in Albert Park (1964), both perform admirably.

   Croft-Cooke also published several worthy criminous novels under his own name, including Seven Thunders (1955) and Paper Albatross (1968).

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   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 J. Randisi


MAX BYRD – California Thriller. Bantam, paperback original; 1st printing, April 1981. Reprinted several times.

   California Thriller is the first of three Mike Haller books, and the most noteworthy; it was awarded the Private Eye Writers of America Shamus Award for Best Paperback Novel of 1981. It was the author’s first novel

   Mike Haller is a transplanted Boston PI now working out of San Francisco. Although a viable character, he has been strongly influenced by Robert B. Parker’s Boston PI, Spenser. He’s as physical, well read, and quick with a wisecrack as Spenser, but where the latter works alone, Haller has an Irish partner who covers his back. He also has a regular lady friend, as does Spenser, and she is Dinah Farrell, who is a psychoanalyst — which, of course, comes in handy now and again.

   When one of the country’s leading journalists disappears in Sacramento’s Central Valley, the man’s editor, acting for his wife, hires Mike Haller to find him. With nothing but a two-year-old newspaper clipping to go on, Haller begins retracing the man’s steps. He becomes involved with a professor of biochemistry at Berkeley and an ex-cop who has made a fortune in private security work and has his eye on the governor’s seat.

   Before long a young girl turns up dead and Haller becomes convinced that somebody doesn’t want the journalist found. When Haller finally finds out what the journalist was onto — politics, murder, and private bacteriological-warfare tests — and gets his hands on some incriminating tapes, he’s running for his life and trying to save the lives of thousands.

   Byrd’s second Mike Haller novel is Fly Away, Jill (1981), and the third is Finders Weepers (1983).

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   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


W. R. BURNETT – High Sierra. Alfred A. Knopf, hardcover, 1940. Reprint editions include: Avon Murder Mystery Monthly 40, digest-sized paperback, 1946. Bantam #826, paperback, 1950. Carroll & Graf, paperback, 1986. Film: Warner Brothers, 1941 (Ida Lupino, Humphrey Bogart).

   “Early in the twentieth century, when Roy Earle was a happy boy on an Indiana farm, he had no idea that at thirty-seven he’d be a pardoned ex-convict driving alone through the Nevada-California desert towards an ambiguous destiny in the Far West.”

   Thus begins what is, in effect, the biography of Roy Earle, a fictional creation who reflects the lives of several eminent American outlaws of the 1920s and 1930s. The structure and texture of the opening sentence signals the reader that this will be much more than simply a genre piece of tommy guns and molls. Burnett will attempt nothing less than a definitive appraisal of a bandit’s life as Earle leaves prison, falls in love, and works toward the robbery that will doom him.

   For many, Sierra is probably more familiar as the finest of Bogart’s films (with the arguable exception of The Treasure of Sierra Madre). In the film version, John Huston sought to create a romance, a complex variation on the Robin Hood myth, but Burnett creates a novelistic portrait of Roy Earle that is full of fire and contradiction.

   Chapter 37 is the key scene in the book. In the space of 3000 words, Roy Earle expounds on himself (“I steal and I admit it”); on his inability to trust (“The biggest rat we had in prison was a preacher who’d gypped his congregation out of the dough he was supposed to build a church with.”); and on the failure of the common man to fight for himself (“Why don’t all them people who haven’t got any dough get together and take the dough? It’s a cinch.”).

   He is, throughout the novel, idealistic, naïve, ruthless, and doomed in a way that is almost lyrical. Not unlike Studs Lonigan, Roy Earle becomes sympathetic because his faults, for all their outsize proportion, are human and understandable, and his humility almost Christ-like: “Barmy used to talk to me about earthquakes,” Roy says; “he said the old earth just twitched its skin like a dog. We’re the fleas, I guess.”

   Far from the myths created by J. Edgar Hoover’s biased attitude toward the criminals of the 1930s, Burnett gives us a sad, sometimes surreal look at a true outlaw. High Sierra is filled with every possible kind of feeling, from bleak humor to a pity that becomes Roy Earle’s doom. The book’s theme of time and fate is worthy of Proust. If you want to know what made the work of “proletariat” America so powerful in the 1930s, all you have to do is pick up this novel.

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   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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