1001 Midnights

A 1001 MIDNIGHTS Review
by Karol Kay Hope

LINDA BARNES – Bitter Finish. St. Martin’s, hardcover, 1983. Fawcett, paperback, 1985. Dell, paperback, 1994.

   Michael Spraggue is falling down a flight of steps, the voice of his stunt instructor screaming at him to use his thighs and hips to break the impact of the sharp cement. As the star of Hollywood’s latest private-eye melodrama, shooting on location in Boston, Spraggue leaves the car chases to the pros, but the light stunts he likes to do himself.

   An independently wealthy ex-private investigator turned actor, he’s quit the business because he’s “mostly dug up dirt everybody would have been better off not knowing.” But an emergency phone call summons him back to California’s Napa Valley, where Kate Holloway, his not quite ex-lover and longtime business partner in the Holloway Hills Winery, is in jail as a material witness to murder.

   Kicking and screaming (he really does hate being a private eye), Michael flies to the rescue. The victim is Holloway Hills’ flamboyant Hungarian winemaker — the second in what the papers are calling the “car trunk murders.” Kate is notorious in the valley — she’s six feet tall, gorgeous, and makes as good a wine as many male vintners — and the not-so-bright deputy sheriff is certain she’s a killer as well. Michael seems to be the only person on the scene smart enough to figure out who stashed those cadavers in the trunks of cars, and the deputy sheriff, of course, won’t talk to him.

   The complicated love situation between Spraggue and Kate is probably the most interesting part of this story, although Barnes does give us a lovely picture of the Napa Valley at harvest time and lots of detail on the wine making industry. The action moves well, the clues are nicely hidden, and the reader isn’t bored — but neither is the reader glued to the edge of his seat.

   Spraggue ends up, predictably, all by his lonesome with a crazed killer in a deserted winery at the end of a rarely traveled road. The writing is light, entertaining, and stylistically sound; and hopefully as Linda Barnes matures as a writer, so will Spraggue and company.

   Michael Spraggue also appears in Dead Heat (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.

Bibliographic Notes:   Spaggue’s first appearance was in Blood Will Have Blood (1982). A fourth and final book in the series was Cities Of The Dead, published in 1986. In 1987 Linda Barnes switched series characters and wrote A Trouble of Fools, the first of twelve novels featuring cab-driving PI Carlotta Carlyle, based in Boston.

A 1001 MIDNIGHTS Review
by Marcia Muller

  JACK FINNEY – The House of Numbers. Dell First Edition A139, paperback original, May 1957. Expanded from a novella in Cosmopolitan, July 1956. Film: MGM, 1957, with Jack Palance, Harold J. Stone, Edward Platt, Barbara Lang.

   Jack Finney has the unusual ability to create edge-of-the-chair tension and sustain it throughout a long narrative. In this riveting tale, Ben Jarvis and Ruth Gehlmann conspire to help Ben’s brother, Arnie, escape from San Quentin. Arnie, who was sentenced for passing bad checks while trying to raise money to buy Ruth an expensive engagement ring, has attacked a guard; there is a paroled prisoner on the way back to San Quentin to testify about the assault, and the penalty for attacking a guard is death.

   Arnie appeals to Ben for help and lays out a dangerous but basically simple scheme for escape. Ben wavers but finally he and Ruth agree to aid Arnie. The scheme unfolds bit by bit, and the reader is solidly on Ben and Ruth’s side throughout, experiencing their apprehension and terror — and eventually agonizing over the same terrible decision they face.

   Finney knows San Quentin, although his view of it is colored by his association with then-warden Harley O. Teets, a humanitarian administrator to whom the book is dedicated. (In fact, the dialogue of the fictional warden reads a little like a public-relations release.) However the method Finney devises for the escape is ingenious, and characters are well drawn. The suspense, as with all of Finney’s works, is guaranteed to keep you turning the pages.

   Although best known for his science fiction and fantasy works, such as the popular Body Snatchers (1955), which was twice made into a film under the title Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956, 1978), Finney has also written three other suspense novels: Five Against the House (1954), Assault on a Queen (1959), and The Night People (1977). Five Against the House was made into an excellent film in 1955, starring Kim Novak and Brian Keith, and directed by Phil Karlson.

   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 Crider

G. G. FICKLING – This Girl for Hire. Pyramid G274, paperback original, 1957. Reprinted at least four times by Pyramid. Cover art by Harry Schaare.

   G. G. Fickling was the pseudonym of the writing team of Forrest E. (“Skip”) Fickling and his wife, Gloria, creators of Honey West, billed on the front cover, the back cover, and even the spine of This Girl for Hire as “the sexiest private eye ever to pull a trigger!” Honey’s sex is made much of in the course of the book: She spends as much time getting into and out of bathing suits as she does working on the case,and her measurements (38-22-36) are cited both on the back cover and in the text.

   The case itself, which involves eight deaths before it ends, begins when Honey is hired by a down-and-out actor whose apparent murder leads to the other killings, all of people involved in the television industry. Despite the setting, there is little actual insight into television, unless the actors, producers, and directors really do spend most of their days and nights drinking and carousing.

   The book is filled with incident, even including a strip-poker game, but the plot is so confusing that the reader is unlikely to be convinced by its unraveling, which comes about more by accident than by good detective work. Still, there is a certain pre-feminist charm in seeing the hard-boiled Honey at work in a man’s world, despite Lieutenant Mark Storm (his real name) and his attempts to persuade her to leave the brain work to the men.

   Pyramid Books occasionally referred to Honey West as “literary history’s first lady private eye,” and undoubtedly the novelty of a female first-person narrator helped sell the series, but James L. Rubel’s Eli Donavan was playing the same part years earlier in Gold Medal’s No Business for a Lady (1950). Still, it was Honey who wasa success, starring in eleven books and a TV series in which she was portrayed by Anne Francis.

   The Ficklings produced one other short-lived series for Belmont Books, this one featuring a male private eye named Erik March, in such titles as The Case of the Radioactive Redhead (1963).

   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 Marvin Lachman

ROBERT L. FISH – The Green Hell Treasure. Putnam’s, hardcover, 1971. Hardcover reprint: Detective Book Club, 3-in-1 edition. No paperback edition found.

   Though the Edgar-winning Fugitive (1962) was the first of ten mystery novels Robert Fish wrote about Jose Da Silva, The Green Hell Treasure is far more typical of the series. Because The Fugitive is about an escaped Nazi war criminal in South America, it is, of necessity, more serious than its successors.

   As his series progressed, Fish would make increased use of Brazil, where Da Silva, a police captain, acts as liaison between the Brazilian police and Interpol. The subject matter of his books became more exotic, and humor played a greater role.

   Robert L. Fish knew Brazil intimately, having spent more than ten years there as a consulting engineer with a Brazilian vinyl plastics firm. Fish always preferred to use places in which he had lived or traveled as background for his work. Brazil, a combination of virtually impenetrable jungle and modern cities and resorts, is ideal for a man like Da Silva who is at home in any of these settings.

   Early books such as Isle of the Snakes (1963) and The Shrunken Head (1963) emphasize the primitive, especially the exotic and dangerous fauna and Indian headshrinkers. Though on the surface detective stories, they are as much thrillers. By the time of The Green Hell Treasure, the series had become a satisfying blend of sophistication and adventure.

   Throughout the series, Wilson, an undercover agent at the American Embassy in Rio de Janeiro, plays “Watson”to Da Silva. If their byplay is not quite in the Wolfe-Goodwin class, it is still very witty indeed. In The Green Hell Treasure, they start out in Brazil, as usual, but then travel to Barbados in pursuit of half a million dollars in stolen jewels, the titular treasure.

   In an extremely amusing scene, the intrepid Da Silva is transformed into a nervous wreck due to his fear of flying. If the solution is somewhat obvious, the book is resolved in an exciting climax told in almost cinematic language. This is not surprising when one remembers that Fish, under his Robert Pike pseudonym, wrote Mute Witness (1963), which wasadapted to the screen as the very exciting Steve McQueen film Bullitt (1968).

   Nor should the humor in The Green Hell Treasure amaze us when one thinks of Fish as the author of The Incredible Schlock Homes and, under another ichthyological pen name. A. C. Lamprey, an amusing series of comic definitions in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine called “Gumshoe Glossary.”

   Fish’s other books under his own name are equally diverse. The novels The Hochmann Miniatures (1967), Whirligig (1970), The Tricks of the Trade (1972), and The Wager (1974), and the short-story collection Kek Huuygens, Smuggler (1976).

   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 Crider:

  BRUNO FISCHER – So Wicked My Love. Gold Medal #437, paperback original; 1st printing, 1954. Reprinted twice. A shorter version appeared in Manhunt, November 1953, under the title “Coney Island Incident.”

   Ray Whitehead, the narrator of So Wicked My Love, rejected by his fiancée, gives her ring to a redhead he picks up in Coney Island. He goes to the redhead’s hotel room with her, discovers that she has been involved in an armored car-robbery, and watches her stab a man to death.

   All of this happens in the first twenty pages of the story, and the redhead continues to make life miserable for Ray Whitehead.

   She is one of those wonderfully amoral sexpots of paperback-original fiction that are more easily acquired than gotten rid of. Ray does manage to get rid of the $80,000 that he is stuck with (the loot from the robbery), but the girl keeps turning up at the most inopportune times.

   For example, when Ray’s fiancée realizes that she loves him after all, who should turn up but the redhead, of course –wearing the ring. In fact, the girl becomes something of a millstone to Whitehead, involving him in all sorts of difficulties with her past and present criminal associates.

   Though not as tightly plotted as some of Fischer’s other works (it was expanded from a magazine story), So Wicked My Love is typically fast-paced. The main characters, especially Whitehead, in the role of the innocent man drawn into criminal events, are particularly well done.

   Other Fischer paperbacks of interest are Knee-Deep in Death (1956), Murder in the Raw (1957), and Second-Hand Nude (1961).

   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 Crider:

  BRUNO FISCHER – The Silent Dust. Dodd Mead, hardcover, 1950. Signet #892,paperback, 1951.

   Bruno Fischer had a great deal of success in both the hardcover and pulp fields; and when the pulps gradually died out, he went on to sell millions of copies of paperback novels. In Paperback Quarterly (Vol. 1, No. 4) Fischer described his “usual manner” of writing as containing “movement and suspense with very little violence,” and as being about “ordinary people in extraordinary situations.”

   The Silent Dust (one of his hardcover mysteries) is narrated by Fischer’s strongest series character, private detective Ben Helm, one of the few successfully characterized married private eyes in fiction. Helm is not cast in the typical mold of the early Fifties private eyes in other ways, either. He is more intellectual than physical, and the major clues in The Silent Dust are literary ones. The book’s title is an allusion to Gray’s “Elegy,” and in the course of the story, other British poets are prominent.

   There are two offstage murders, one of an author and one of her husband, both motivated by a desire to stop publication of the author’s book, entitled A Handful of Ashes. The author, it seems has a nasty habit of portraying her friends and acquaintances in her works, revealing things about them that they wouId rather not have publicized. The suspects include a former gangster, his wife, a fifteen-year-old genius, a chauffeur with a criminal record, and a matinee idol.

   The writing is literate; Helm is compassionate; the story is tight and well told. And no doubt Fischer had writing the excerpts from the dead author’s book.

   Another good Ben Helm book is More Deaths Than One (1947) in which Fischer does a fine job with the difficult multiple first-person-point-of-view technique.

   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 & George Kelley:

STUART PALMER & CRAIG RICE – People vs. Withers and Malone. Simon & Schuster, hardcover, 1963. Paperback reprints: Award A146F, 1965; International Polygonics, 1991.

   Intermittently from the late Forties into the early Sixties, Palmer and his good friend and fellow mystery writer Craig Rice, with whom he had worked on the scripting of the 1942 film The Falcon’s Brother, collaborated on half a dozen novelettes for Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine.

   Each story teams the crusty Miss Withers, that “tall, angular person who somehow suggested a fairly well-dressed scarecrow,” with Rice’s hard-drinking, womanizing Chicago lawyer, John J. Malone. And all six are collected in this volume.

   Working in tandem, Withers and Malone solve what the dust-jacket blurb describes as “hectic, hilarious homicides.” A fair assessment: Both Palmer and Rice wrote cleverly constructed, fair-play whodunits flavored with (sometimes wacky) humor, and the blending of their talents produced some memorable stories.

   One is the title novelette, in which Hildegarde and John J. hunt for a missing witness in the murder trial of a Malone client and wind up pulling off some courtroom pyrotechnics to rival any in the Perry Mason canon.

   In “Cherchez la Frame,” the two sleuths travel to Hollywood to look for the missing wife of a Chicago gangster and find her strangled with Malone’s tie in his hotel bathroom.

   But the best of the stories is probably the first Withers and Malone collaboration, “Once Upon a Train” (original title: “Loco Motive”). This spoof of the intrigue-on-the-Orient-Express genre takes place on the Super-Century en route from Chicago to New York and features a dead man lurking sans clothing in Miss Withers’s compartment, the murder weapon conveniently planted in Malone’s adjoining compartment, and a combination of quick thinking by the little lawyer and a bizarre dream by the angular spinster that unmasks the culprit.

   “Once Upon a Train” was one of two Withers and Malone stories sold to MG — “resulting finally,” Stuart Palmer writes in his preface, “in Mrs. O’Malley and Mr. Malone, a starring vehicle for James Whitmore, in which Miss Withers mysteriously changed into Ma Kettle.” Palmer and Rice were two of the scriptwriters on that 1951 film.

   Each of these six stories is enjoyable light reading and should appeal not only to fans of either or both series, but to anyone who enjoys what Ellery Queen refers to in the book’s introduction as “madcap capers … full o’ fun.”

   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] 08-09-09.   The following comment was left by Jeffrey Marks on Yahoo’s Golden Age of Detection group, and is reprinted here with his permission. Jeff is the author of Who Was That Lady? Craig Rice: The Queen of the Screwball Mystery (Delphi Books, 2001).

   “The stories, delightful as they are, were written almost exclusively by Palmer (a few were written after Rice’s death, so it’s a certainty.)

   “Rice had indicated that although she had not known Palmer when she began the Malone series, Palmer epitomized the character — she thought Palmer resembled him in mannerism, appearance and dress.

   “So she didn’t have a lot of qualms in turning him over to Palmer to write stories. Palmer made a few minor changes to the character. Malone, who had just been a rumpled dresser, now wore colorful ties and nicer suits. Other than that, Malone stayed close to Rice’s version of the lawyer.

   “Rice was very uninvolved in the movie as well, being a ward of the state when it was being made. She was able to use the money to get out of debt and get control of her finances back as well.”

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.

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