1001 Midnights

A 1001 MIDNIGHTS Review
by Bill Pronzini

BRIAN GARFIELD – Death Wish. McKay, hardcover, 1972. Fawcett Crest, paperback, August 1974. Mysterious Press, paperback, 1985. Other reprint editions exist. Film: Paramount Pictures, 1974.

   Brian Garfield is a highly versatile writer at any number of story types and forms. He began his career in the western field,where he published dozens of novels, including at least five of outstanding quality. In 1970 he shifted his sights to the contemporary novels with criminous themes that have earned him wide acclaim in this country ans best0seller status in England.

   These, published under his own name and the pseudonym John Ives, cover most of the criminous spectrum: action/adventure, political intrigue, comic farce, historical suspense, espionage, and urban crime. More recently, he has published a nonfiction book on western films, written screenplays, and formed his own Hollywood production company.

   Death Wish is probably Garfield’s most famous (some might say infamous) novel, not so much by its own virtue but as a result of the 1974 film version with Charles Bronson. It is certainly the work that catapulted him into national prominence, at least in part of his violent reaction to the film.

   The plot is simple and gut-wrenching. Paul Benjamin, a happily married cliff dweller on New York’s Upper West Side, receives a call from his son-in-law one hot, ordinary summer afternoon. Three young hoodlums have broken into his apartment (the building was supposedly secure) and brutally beaten his wife and daughter — attacks of such violence that neither woman survives.

   The police are helpless: they have no clear description of the youths, no way to track them down. Paul’s grief, frustration, and rage finally lead him to take action himself — to buy a gun and go hunting the three kids in their world: the deserted alleys and streets and byways of the city after dark. But his mission of vengeance soon assumes a much larger scope: It becomes a vendetta against all the criminals who prey on helpless victims, a one-man vigilante committee bent on destroying as many of the enemy as possible before he himself is caught.

   As the jacket blurb says, this “is the story of a society having a nervous breakdown. It is about something that causes a a secret uneasiness far back in the conscious minds of many people. What would happen to a man who is unable to keep to the narrow line that stands between being a victim or executioner?”

   Garfield does not glorify or advocate vigilantism: his is the story of Paul Benjamin’s descent into hell. The film version, however, does glorify Paul’s actions. Its makers misinterpreted the novel’s ambiguous ending and produced a paean to violence, an ultra-right-wing fantasy that ends with Bronson winking at the camera and silently promising more carnage to come.

   Garfield was so appalled at the film’s distortion of his novel that he ought — unsuccessfully, foe thr most part — to keep t from being shown on national television.

   In a sequel, Death Sentence (1975), Garfield completes Paul’s story, reaffirms the original intent of Death Wish, and makes a strong anti-violence statement. This novel, however, did not have the commercial success of Death Wish ad unfortunately seems to be one of Garfield’s least-known works. This reviewer, at least, accords it considerable respect.

   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 Kathleen L. Maio

SARAH CAUDWELL – Thus Was Adonis Murdered. Hilary Tamar #1. Scribner’s, hardcover, 1981. Penguin, paperback, 1982. First published in the UK: Collins, hardcover, 1981.

   In her first mystery novel, Sarah Caudwell provides proof that a Victorian epistolary novel, a mystery in the manner of the Golden Age, and a late-twentieth-century sex farce can all be harmoniously combined in one exceptional novel. But then, no less was expected from the child of British author Claud Cockburn and actress Jean Ross (who was Christopher Isherwood’s model for Sally Bowles).

   Caudwell is a barrister, so it is not surprising that the legal profession features prominently in her story. The central character is Julia Larwood, a gifted barrister who is hopeless with the simple details of daily life. She goes on an art lover’s tour of Venice to forget the dunning of the Inland Revenue (her archenemy) and to seduce a beautiful young man or two. Her sexual success (with a taxman, of course!) is quickly followed by disaster: Soon after Julia rises from the bed of her young swain, he is found stabbed to death. Julia, not surprisingly, is arrested.

   It is up to her colleagues back at Lincoln’s Inn, notably law professor Hillary Tamar, to find the real killer. Narrative and clues are provided by Tamar and supplemented by various letters, especially those of Julia to her barrister friend Selena. The tone is quasi-Victorian, very British, and highly amusing. The plot is improbable but skillfully handled. The characters are a delight. All in all, Thus Was Adonis Murdered marks a highly impressive debut.

   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.

       The Hilary Tamar series —

1. Thus Was Adonis Murdered (1981)
2. The Shortest Way To Hades (1984)


3. The Sirens Sang Of Murder (1989)
4. The Sibyl In Her Grave (2000)

A 1001 MIDNIGHTS Review
by Robert E. Briney

JOHN DICKSON CARR – The Third Bullet and Other Stories. Harper & Brothers, hardcover, 1954. Bantam #1447, paperback, 1956.

   The virtues of Carr’s detective novels are present in his short fiction as well. He gets about his work with more directness, and there are fewer atmospheric side trips, but the ingenuity of plot, the sprightly dialogue, and the smooth misdirection are all in evidence. The seven stories in this collection are the cream of his detective short stories.

   The title story is actually a long novelette, originally published in England in 1937 and later reprinted in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, where all the other stories in the book first appeared. (The book is dedicated to Frederic Dannay, EQMM‘s founder and editor,” who inspired so many of these stories.” )

   “”The Third Bullet” is a fully developed locked-room story, complete with floor plan, false alibis, and a thoroughly detestable villain. In “The Clue of the Red Wig,” CID inspector Adam Bell and a delightful interfering reporter, Jacqueline Dubois, investigate the murder of health-and-exercise columnist Hazel Loring, found beaten to death, “half-dressed, in a public garden on a bitter December night.”

   Three of the stories are locked-room crimes investigated by Dr. Gideon Fell: “The Wrong Problem,” “The Proverbial Murder,” and “The Locked Room.” “The Gentleman from Paris” is an EQMM prize-winning story set in Paris in 1849, in which the identity of the detective is of as much interest as the solution to the crime. The remaining story, “The House in Goblin Wood,” originally appeared under Carr’s pseudonym, Carter Dickson, and features Dickson’s series detective Sir Henry Merrivale. A girl disappears from a country cottage, all of whose exits are locked or under observation. The story is one of Carr’s most ingenious, and also one of his grimmest, in spite of the classic pratfall with which it opens.

   This collection is a perfect accompaniment to “The Locked Room Lecture” [from The Three Coffins], offering cleverly wrought demonstrations of all of Dr. Fell’s analytical points. It also demonstrates the diversity that can exist within one seemingly restrictive category of detective story. And the stories are, above all, immensely readable.

   Among the more than fifty books published under the Carr by-line, many are worth special attention. The Blind Barber (1934) is a notably smooth blending of grisly murder and all-out farce, as a slasher-type killer is loose on an ocean liner. Dr. Fell is not on board, but acts as an armchair detective in the later chapters. Another of Dr. Fell’s cases, The Crooked Hinge (1938), has what is probably the most audacious of Carr’s plots.

   He Who Whispers (1946) and Below Suspicion (1950) expertly mix eerie atmosphere with baffing murders. The latter book features one of Carr’s most interesting secondary characters, the barrister Patrick Butler. Among the non-series books, The Burning Court (1937) is the most praiseworthy.

   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.

Note:   Earlier reviews of the novels of John Dickson Carr by Bob Briney taken from 1001 Midnights are:

     The Arabian Night Murder.
     Castle Skull.
     The Devil in Velvet.
     The Three Coffins.

A 1001 MIDNIGHTS Review
by Robert E. Briney

JOHN DICKSON CARR – The Devil in Velvet. Harper & Brothers, hardcover, 1951. Bantam F2052, paperback, 1960. Carroll & Graf, paperback, 1987.

   Carr’s lifelong fascination with history, specifically that of England, shows up in many ways in his books, from casual excursions to important plot elements. His first completed novel, never published and now lost, was a historical romance “with lots of Gadzookses and swordplay.” In 1934, using the pseudonym Roger Fairbairn, he published Devil Kinsmere, a novel set in the time of Charles II; many years later the book was rewritten and published as Most Secret (1964) under Carr’s own name. Carr’s first novel to merge the detective puzzle with historical construction was The Bride of Newgate (1950), well received by both critic and readers.

   The second of Carr’s historical mysteries, The Devil in Velvet, sold better than any of his other novels. Here the detective and historical elements were joined by a third ingredient: the strain of overt fantasy that had cropped up from time to time in his earlier work.

   Nicholas Fenton, history professor at Cambridge in the year 1925, makes a deal with the devil to be transported back to the year 1675 in order to solve, and possibly prevent, the murder by poisoning of Lydia, Lady Fenton, the wife of an earlier namesake. Transported back into the body of the Carlie Nicholas Fenton, the protagonist finds himself immediatel3 enmeshed in political intrigue: the efforts of Lord Shaftesbury to subvert the monarchy and solidify the power of Parliament.

   Fenton must also juggle the attentions of two lovely women, Lydia and the mysterious and temperamental Meg York. Eventually he comes to realize that he must do something much more difficult than solving a murder: He must outwit the devil himself in order to save his own life and that of the woman he loves.

   Bawdy, turbulent Restoration London is re-created with verve and meticulous attention to historical detail, and the events of the story are viewed with a beguiling combination of twentieth- and seventeenth-century sensibilities.

   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 Three Coffins. Dr. Gideon Fell #6. Harper & Brothers, US, hardcover, 1935. Published in the UK by H. Hamilton under the title The Hollow Man hardcover, 1935. Reprinted many times, in both hardcover and soft.

   In this Dr. Fell novel, one of the most intricate in the series, the author loses no time in making his intentions clear. In the very first paragraph, two impossible crimes are announced: a locked-room murder and what might be called a “locked-street” murder.

   The victim in the first crime is Professor Charles Grimaud, a lecturer and writer of independent means, whose habit it is to visit a local pub every evening and hold forth to a fascinated audience on magic, the supernatural, vampirism, the Black Mass, and similar topics. One evening the professor’s lecture is interrupted by a man who identifies himself as Pierre Fley, “Illusionist.”

   Although he tries to hide the fact, the professor is terrified by Fley’s cryptically threatening remarks. Some days later, Grimaud is in his study at home when a mysterious visitor arrives, forces his way into the room, and locks the door. The door is thereafter under constant observation; the room has no other exits and no hiding places. A shot is heard, and when the door is forced, Grimaud is found alone in the room, dying of a gunshot wound. His visitor has vanished.

   On that same evening, some distance away, Fley is also shot to death. The crime takes place in the middle of an empty, snow-covered street, with watchers at either end; yet no one sees the murderer, and there are no footprints in the snow.

   It quickly develops that Grimaud and Fley shared a deadly secret, with roots going back to tum-of-the-century Hungary. This connection from the past provides the book’s title: Fley once told an acquaintance, “Three of us were once buried alive. Only one escaped.” When asked how he had escaped, he answered calmly, “I didn’t, you see. I was one of the two who did not escape.”

   It also supplies the motive for the crimes. But Fell must delve into more-modern relationships and unravel some subtle trickery in order to explain the apparently impossible circumstances of the crimes and identify the guilty. When the last piece of the puzzle has fallen into place, with an extra twist in the concluding lines of the book, Fell says, “I have committed another crime, Hadley. I have guessed the truth again.”

   Chapter 17 of the novel has become famous among mystery enthusiasts, and has been reprinted separately. It is “The Locked Room Lecture,” in which Fell systematically classifies the principal types of locked-room situations. Other writers — notably Anthony Boucher and Clayton Rawson — later added to this discussion, and many others have profited from it in constructing their own plot devices.

   This chapter also contains a comment that has disconcerted more than one reader. When Fell brings the topic of detective fiction into his analysis of impossible situations, he is asked why he does so. “‘Because,’ said the doctor frankly, ‘we’re in a detective story, and we don’t fool the reader by pretending we’re not. Let’s not invent elaborate excuses to drag in a discussion of detective stories. Let’s candidly glory in the noblest pursuits possible to characters in a book.'”

   The device of having a character acknowledge that he is a fictional character and comment on the fact has been used more than once in “high” literature. For Carr, it was simply part of playing the game — “the grandest game in the world” — with his readers, and for those readers willing to enter into the spirit of the game, it is a clever and charming touch.

   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 – 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.

   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).

   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.

   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.

   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.

   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.

Next Page »