1001 Midnights

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.

A 1001 MIDNIGHTS Review
by Robert E. Briney

HELEN McCLOY – Cue for Murder. William Morrow, hardcover, 1942. Reprint editions include: Dell #212 , paperback, [1948], mapback edition; Bantam, paperback, 1965.

   In his introduction to a reprint edition of Cue for Murder, Anthony Boucher recalled the reception of Helen McCloy’s first novel, Dance of Death (1938): “Few first mysteries have received such generous critical praise, as the reviewers stumbled over each other to proclaim [the author] a genuine find … combining a civilized comedy of manners with the strictest of logical deduction.”

   In addition to an urbane and literate style, McCloy’s work is characterized by psychological insight, meticulous plotting, and the sheer ingenuity with which she handles seemingly impossible situations.

   McCloy was one of the founding members of the Mystery Writers of America, and was that organization’s first woman president in 1950. She was married for fifteen years to mystery writer Davis Dresser, who, as Brett Halliday, created the popular private detective Michael Shayne. In addition to writing fiction, McCloy has been a publisher, editor, and literary agent. In 1953 she received an MWA Edgar for Mystery Criticism.

   McCloy’s series detective, Dr. Basil Willing, was introduced in her first book; Cue for Murder is his fifth appearance. Willing is a psychiatrist, once a consultant to the Manhattan district attorney’s office and now, in the early months of World War II, working with the New York office of the FBI.

   He is in the audience at the Royalty Theater on opening night of a modern-dress revival of Sardou`s Victorian melodrama Fedora. At the end of the first act, it is discovered that a murder has been committed on stage during the performance, but no one can identify the victim.

   Willing is drawn into the investigation both throughm his police connections and through a family friendship with the production’s costume designer. The clues include a knife sharpener’s canary released from its cage, the odd behavior of a housefly, a mysterious figure on a fire escape, and a script containing an underlined cue for murder.

   Cue for Murder is almost a textbook example of the classic fair-play detective novel, an intricate framework in which the clues fit together like the interlocking pieces of an elaborate jigsaw puzzle. The framework is fleshed out with diverting characters, acute psychological observation, a satiric and knowledgeable rendering of the theatrical background, and a vivid portrait of wartime Manhattan, complete with blackouts and air-raid wardens.

   The book’s strength as a novel is measured by the fact that it can be read with pleasure even after its secrets are known.

   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

JO BANNISTER – Striving with Gods. Doubleday Crime Club, hardcover, 1984. First published in the UK by Robert Hale Ltd., hardcover, 1984. Reprinted as An Uncertain Death, Severn House, UK, hardcover, 1997. No paperback edition.

   New to the mystery-reading public, Jo Bannister has produced an excellent medical thriller in Striving with Gods. Her heroine, Clio Rees, is a physician turned mystery writer who makes a further transformation to amateur detective when her dearest friend dies. Clio’s friend, a gay man named Luke, was found dead with a young boy in an apparent suicide pact. Clio doesn’t buy the police scenario, and uncovers evidence of a double murder and cover-up. Dr. Rees further finds a medical conspiracy behind the murder.

   Bannister’s novel is more thriller than mystery. And Clio is more avenging fury than detective. Early on it becomes clear to Rees and the reader who the prime villain is. The greatest mystery is whether Clio will be able to bring the malefactors to justice and avenge her friend before she, too, falls victim. Despite our faith in a happy ending, Bannister does a good job of sustaining the suspense. The murderous confrontations are dramatic, though an extended chase scene goes on a bit long.

   But it is the character of Clio Rees and her first-person narration that are the making of Striving with Gods. There is a wry quality to her voice that nicely balances the more melodramatic aspects of the plot. She is by no means the omnipotent and omniscient detective. She is a caring, fallible woman. She is also strong and resolute and totally devoid of the feminine failings of the mystery-Gothic heroine. She has, in fact, all the makings of a series sleuth. If only Jo Bannister will oblige.

   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.

Bibliographic Notes:   Kathi Maio’s wishes were to be fulfilled. Among Jo Bannister’s 30 or more mystery novels are three additional ones in the Clio Rees series. Many of her other books are thrillers and/or police procedurals in several other series. Her next one will be Buying Freedom, scheduled for publication later this year.

      The Dr. Clio Rees Marsh series —

Striving with Gods. Hale, 1984.
Gilgamesh. Piatkus, 1989.
The Going Down of the Sun. Piatkus, 1990.
The Fifth Cataract. Severn House, 2005.

A 1001 MIDNIGHTS Review
by Marcia Muller

OLIVER BANKS – The Rembrandt Panel. Little, Brown, hardcover, 1980. Pinnacle, paperback, 1982.

   Boston art dealer Sammy Weinstock and “runner” Harry Giardino seem to have little in common. Weinstock is reputable and knowledgeable, with a shop on Charles Street at the foot of Beacon Hill. Giardino is one of those characters who hang around on the fringes of the art world, buying up works here and there, peddling them to dealers, always waiting for a big score.

   However, when both are murdered in a particularly brutal and sadistic manner, Homicide men O’Rourke and Callahan sense a connection. Unable to find what it is, they accept the help of international art detective Amos Hatcher, who is taking time off from a seemingly dead-end case in Europe.

   Hatcher joins forces with the murdered dealer’s assistant, Sheila Woods, and in searching the shop they find an old and rare frame, minus its painting, with fingerprints on it that definitely link the two victims. With this discovery, the two (now lovers) start on a trail that takes them from Boston to Amsterdam to Zurich to Cape Cod — and eventually to a missing Rembrandt, a linking of Hatcher’s two cases, and a cold-blooded killer.

   This is an excellent novel, packed with information about art and the people who make their livings from it. The characterization is uniformly good, especially the established relationship between O’Rourke and Callahan (which is full of humorous camaraderie) and the growing one between Hatcher and Woods.

   This, plus the vivid depiction of the somewhat seedy side of Beacon Hill and the various foreign settings, does a great deal to make up for the fact that the plot moves slowly. We know all along who the killer is and what his motivations are, but nonetheless the story sustains our interest on the way to a satisfying conclusion.

   Banks’s second novel, The Caravaggio Obsession, which also has an art background, was published in 1984.

   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.

Bio-Bibliographic Notes: Amos Hatcher also appeared in Banks’s second novel, but this pair of art-oriented novels are the only mysteries he wrote. For another review of The Rembrandt Panel, check out J. F. Norris’s blog here. Banks himself was an art consultant and critic in New York City. He died in 1991, only 50 years old.

A 1001 MIDNIGHTS Review
by Marcia Muller

FRANKLIN BANDY – Deceit and Deadly Lies. Charter, paperback original, 1978.

   Kevin Maclnnes is known as the “Lie King.” A specialist with the Psychological Stress Evaluator (lie detector), he makes a living by taking voice readings of people and assessing their truthfulness. For a handsome fee, he will aid any client — governmental or private — in a situation where getting at the truth is paramount; and the fee goes to support his elegant but enigmatic mistress, Vanessa.

   One of the subjects Maclnnes is asked to evaluate is brought to him by a New York assistant district attorney; the client is a cabby who claims to have overheard two men talking about an assassination plot, something “really big.” The man apparently is telling the truth, and Maclnnes, spurred by a combination of patriotism (he is a former army officer) and curiosity, aids the authorities by embarking on a search for one of the men described — a search that nearly costs him his lover and his life.

   Maclnnes is interesting, and so is his work. In the course of the novel, he aids a businessman in making a low bid on a tract of land (and suffers sleepless nights when the seller kills himself); rigs a voice test in such a way as to prove a battered wife accidentally killed her husband (he knows she is really guilty, and he loses sleep over that, too); helps a wealthy Mexican family find where the killer of their young son has hidden his body; and bugs a bedroom conversation between himself and his mistress to evaluate whether she really loves him.

   The uncertain relationship with Vanessa is a thread through the story, as are Maclnnes’s fears about misusing his skills.

   For all its merits, this novel could stand to be about 100 pages shorter. It is padded with Harold Robbins-like descriptions of expensive clothing, hotels, gourmet meals, and brand names of liquors and wines.

   There is also a gratuitous side trip into Maclnnes’s attempt to cure a temporary bout of impotence with a call girl, which causes us to lose track of the main focus of the narrative — finding out who is to be assassinated and stopping the killers. But on the whole, it’s a good rainy day book for those who like their settings luxurious and their characters sophisticated, if a trifle stereotypical.

   This novel won the MWA Edgar for Best Paperback Original of 1978. In addition, Franklin Bandy has written The Blackstock Affair (1980) and The Farewell Party (1980).

   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.

Bibliographic Notes:   The Blackstock Affair was the second and final recorded adventure of Kevin MacInnes. Bandy, who died in 1987, also wrote a book called The Shannonese Hustle (1978) and as Eugene Franklin (his first and middle names), three books in a series of cases solved by Berkeley Barnes and Larry Howe, about whom I know nothing.

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