1001 Midnights


A 1001 MIDNIGHTS Review
by Marcia Muller


ERIC AMBLER The Light of Day

ERIC AMBLER – The Light of Day. Alfred A. Knopf, hardcover, 1963. Reprint paperback editions include: Bantam, 1964; Signet, 1968; Ballantine, 1978; Berkley, 1985; Carroll & Graf, 1992.

   This Edgar-winning novel is the story of Arthur Simpson, a roguish con man, petty thief, and sometime pornographer who, as the novel opens, is driving a car-for-hire in Athens. He makes his first mistake when he attempts to rob his client of some traveler’s checks and is caught; the man is no ordinary tourist, but an accomplished criminal, and he quickly blackmails Simpson into driving a Lincoln Continental to Istanbul.

   Simpson’s second and third mistakes are not searching the car thoroughly and not having a valid passport. (He is half English, half Egyptian, and the problem of his citizenship is a thread that runs through the narrative.)

ERIC AMBLER The Light of Day

   The border authorities search the Lincoln and discover weapons inside the doors. When Simpson finally admits how he was coerced into driving the car into Turkey, the Turkish police in turn coerce him into getting at the source of the weapons smuggling. Simpson delivers the car, finagles himself a job as guide for the three men and one woman to whom it seems to belong, then spends several tense days trying to find out what they have planned.

   As it turns out, all plans go awry — Simpson’s, the authorities’, and the smugglers’. Soon Simpson finds himself enlisted on both sides, in an even worse predicament than he could ever have imagined.

   This novel is Ambler at his best, full as it is of double-dealings and harrowing scenes. Arthur Simpson is a likable rogue and a finely drawn character. The reader can get a second glimpse of him in Dirt Story (1967).

ERIC AMBLER The Light of Day

   A film of this novel, called Topkapi, was made in 1964; starring Melina Mercouri, Maximilian Schell, and Peter Ustinov, it is colorful and entertaining and contains riveting scenes during which viewers who are afraid of heights would be well advised to keep their eyes shut. A paperback edition of the novel, also published that year, bears the same title as the film.

   Ambler carries out his theme of an innocent man caught up in a web of deceit and intrigue in other novels, notably Background to Danger (1937), Cause for Alarm (1939), and Epitaph for a Spy (1952).

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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


JONATAHN VALIN Natural Causes

JONATHAN VALIN – Natural Causes. Congdon & Weed, hardcover, 1983. Avon, paperback, 1984. Dell, paperback, 1994.

   Since the appearance of his Harry Stoner novel, The Lime Pit (1980), Jonathan Valin has been hailed as among the best of the present-day private-eye writers. Of the first Stoner adventure, Publishers Weekly said, “Wow! One of the roughest, toughest and most completely convincing private eye novels in a long time.”

   Other critics have praised Valin as the second coming of Chandler. That may not be fair, since Valin is a good writer and storyteller in his own right, and Stoner, a PI who works out of Cincinnati is a fully individuated character.

   In this, the fifth Stoner novel, the PI is hired by American Productions to go to California and find out who killed the head writer of their biggest soap opera, on Quentin Dover. In describing Stoner’s investigation. Valin also vividly depicts the world of a big-time soap opera — of which he knows much. He spent a year as a story consultant on a popular daytime soap.

   Stoner runs the gamut of Hollywood personae: directors, actors, agents, not to mention the victim’s beautiful alcoholic wife. Add drugs and murder and a jaunt south of the border, and you’ve got the story of how and why a man with a half-a-million-dollar-a-year job would get himself involved with something that could — and did — get him killed.

   Valin may indeed be one of the best of the present PI writers, but to compare him to Chandler is to do a disservice — one that critics all too frequently perform.

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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.

Editorial Comment: My review of The Lime Pit, Valin’s first Stoner novel, can be found here. I also reviewed Final Notice, the second book in the series here, a post that also includes some comments about the author and a complete bibliography.

A 1001 MIDNIGHTS Review
by Julie Smith


ROBERT UPTON – Fade Out. Viking, hardcover, 1984. Penguin, reprint paperback, 1986.

ROBERT UPTON Fade Out

   You could love private eye Amos McGuffin for his name alone — but he also has a wry way about him. After McGuffin crashes two cars, Ronald Worthy, the president of Executive Rent-A-Car, denies him any more vehicles. “Isn’t that just like Ron,” says our hero to the clerk. “As if I were the only guy sleeping with his wife.”

   McGuffin lives in San Francisco, where he hangs out at Goody’s bar, putting away Paddy’s when he isn’t on a case — which is just about all the time of late. In fact, he’s just bending an elbow when Nat Volpersky tracks him down at Goody’s. It seems Volpersky’s son, Ben Volper, a Hollywood producer, is thought to have committed suicide by wading out into the Pacific Ocean after leaving an unsigned note on his typewriter.

   But Volpersky doesn’t believe it; and Izzy Schwartz the deli man, his only friend in California, has recommended McGuffin to find his son. That means McGuffin has to go to Los Angeles, where he encounters the Bronx Social Club- a group of Ben’s childhood friends who’ve made it big in show biz. “Who else can you trust?” Volpersky asks.

   But McGuffin isn’t so sure the old neighborhood pals are trustworthy. He’s even less inclined to put his faith in Aha Ben Mahoud, a wealthy Arab who financed Ben’s last picture. And he has serious doubts about Pedro Chan, the six-foot-six cop assigned to the case.

   After pursuing a single-minded inquiry throughout most of the book, he suddenly sees the light and pulls the solution out of a hat. Upton didn’t really play fair on this one, McGuffin’s latest case. (He made his debut in 1977 in Who’d Want to Kill Old George?) But no matter. Even though we can’t see it coming, the denouement is ingenious. And McGuffin is a delight.

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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.

      The Amos McGuffin series —

Who’d Want to Kill Old George? (n.) Putnam 1977.
Fade Out (n.) Viking 1984.
Dead on the Stick (n.) Viking 1986.
The Farberge Egg (n.) Dutton 1988.
A Killing in Real Estate (n.) Dutton 1990.

A 1001 MIDNIGHTS Review
by Bill Pronzini


JOHN HOLBROOK VANCE – The Fox Valley Murders. Bobbs-Merrill, hardcover, 1966. Ace, paperback, no date [1972].

JOHN HOLBROOK VANCE

   John Holbrook Vance is one of a handful of writers who have won major awards in two different genres. In the science-fiction field, where he writes as Jack Vance, received a Hugo for his 1963 novel The Dragon Masters — and in the mystery field, he received a Best First Novel Edgar for his 1960 tale of intrigue in Tangier, The Man in the Cage.

   Vance has published a dozen mysteries, most of the formal variety. The two best feature Sheriff Joe Bain of the fictional central California county of San Rodrigo; The Fox Valley Murders is the first of these.

   A smallish agricultural county south of San Jose, San Rodrigo is loosely modeled on the one in which Vance spent his childhood. He portrays it with a great deal of feeling and clarity, utilizing a variety of towns and rural settings much as Dennis Lynds, writing as John Crowe, would do a few years later in his “Buena Costa County” series.

   People and places are so strikingly depicted, and county history, social problems, and politics so well integrated into the narrative, that San Rodrigo inhabitants seem utterly real.

   In The Fox Valley Murders, Bain — a wild youth who has settled down to become a very good lawman — has been appointed acting sheriff after the recent death of old Ernest Cucchinello, the incumbent for many years and a man not above a little corruption. The county elections are not far off.

JOHN HOLBROOK VANCE

   Bain wants the sheriff’s job permanently, campaigns hard for it, but is facing stiff competition from a well-backed progress-and-reform group. He is also facing a volatile situation centered around Ansley Wyett, a native of the town of Marblestone, who was convicted sixteen years before — despite his protestations of innocence — of the brutal rape/murder of a thirteen-year-old girl. Now out of San Quentin on parole and back home, Wyett has written the same letter to eachof the five men whose testimony sent him to prison, asking: “How do you plan to make this up to me?”

   It isn’t long before the five recipients begin to die one by one in apparent accidents. Is Ausley responsible? And if not, then who is? And why? And, just as important, how? How do you make a man die of a heart attack in front of a witness (Bain himself)? How do you cause a man who has been picking mushrooms all his life to eat a poisonous toadstool? How do yon make someone fall off a ladder and break his neck in full view of his wife, with no one else around?

   Bain is hard-pressed to find the answers before local citizens decide to take the law into their own hands and/or the election sweeps him right out of office.

   Brimming with suspense, evocatively written, ingeniously constructed (with a number of dovetailing subplots and plenty of clues for the armchair detective), this is a first-rate novel that “fills the bill for real entertainment in the true sense of the word” (King Features Syndicate).

JOHN HOLBROOK VANCE

   Almost as good is Joe Bain’s second case, The Pleasant Grove Murders (1967), in which the likable and very human sheriff once again faces political problems and a baffling multiple homicide (three brutal hammer murders).

   Notable among Vance’s other mysteries are a pair under pseudonyms, both published in 1957 — Isle of Peril, as by Alan Wade, and Take My Face, as by Peter Held; The Deadly Isles (1969), a tale of murder in Tahiti and the Marquesas; and Bad Ronald (1973), a psychological thriller.

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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.

R.I.P. JOHN HOLBROOK VANCE (1916-2013). Jack Vance died last May at the grand old age of 96. He was far better known for his works of fantasy and science fiction. Personally I have been reading his novels and short stories since I was in my teens, and I hope to for many more years. It is his wonderful, often playful use of words and the English language that I will remember the most.

A 1001 MIDNIGHTS Review
by Marcia Muller


ERIC AMBLER – Doctor Frigo. Atheneum, hardcover, 1974. Bantam, paperback, 1976.First published in the UK by Weidenfeld & & Nicolson, hardcover, 1974.

ERIC AMBLER Doctor Frigo

   As the narrator of this novel, Ernesto Castillo, tells us, “In supermarket French the word frigo is used to mean not only refrigerator of freezer, but also, a shade contemptuously, frozen meat.” And “Dr. Frigo” is the nickname by which Castillo is called at the hospital where he works on the small island of St. Paufles-Alizes, in the French Antilles.

   Castillo, son of the assassinated dictator of a Central American republic, keeps to himself, close to no one but gallery owner Elizabeth Martens. Even in his relationship with Elizabeth, there is a sense of distance; she is an eccentric, a distant relation of the Austrian Hapsburgs, and tends to intellectualize current happenings in terms of the Thirty Years War.

   When Castillo is called to the prefecture one morning, he is puzzled; and he is further surprised to fmd that Commissaire Gillon wishes to talk about Manuel Villegas, nominal head of the exiled Democratic Socialist party of Castillo’s homeland, now residing on the island for reasons of health.

   Villegas has dismissed his doctor and wishes Castillo, whom he knew as a boy, to attend him. Gillon strongly advises the doctor to do so — and to report what he learns about a possible coup being planned for the Central American republic.

   Castillo complies reluctantly; he wants nothing to do with the politics of his native country — or, as some people, including his own mother, have suggested, with a plan to avenge his father’s murder. And as he is drawn deeper into a web of intrigue, Castillo must come to terms with both the events of the distant past and his immediate present.

   Although a bit on the talky side, this is a powerful novel showing a man who is torn between his heritage and the new life he has built for himself, between his basic humanitarian instincts and his desire to preserve his protective facade.

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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


POUL ANDERSON Murder Bound

POUL ANDERSON – Murder Bound. Macmillan, hardcover, 1962. No paperback edition.

   A celebrated writer of fantasy and science fiction for more than thirty-five years, Poul Anderson produced three mystery novels (and a handful of short stories) in the 1950s and 1960s featuring Trygve Yamamura, a half Norwegian, half Japanese/Hawaiian judo expert, samurai-sword connoisseur, and private investigator. Murder Bound is the last and in some ways best of the three — an eerie tale of murder and menace spiced with elements of the supernatural.

   On board the Norwegian freighter Valborg bound for San Francisco, a Nazi fugitive named Benrud is discovered masquerading as chief steward. Benrud, armed with a red fire ax, vanishes during the struggle to capture him. He is presumed drowned, and yet doubts linger in the minds of the Valborg’s crew and only passenger, mathematician Conrad Lauring.

   Those doubts prove prophetic: Later, in San Francisco, Lauring finds himself haunted by a faceless form-a man who whistles the Horst Wessel song, who drips seaweed, who carries a red fire ax. Is it the specter of one who died at sea, what the superstitious Norwegian sailors call a draug? Or is Benrud still alive and bent on further crimes?

   Trygve Yamamura is called in to investigate and sleuths his way to the truth in “a truly chilling climax in the ill-lit hold of the Valborg, when natural and seemingly supernatural forces meet and lock in deadly embrace.”

   Yamamura is much more a cerebral detective than a man of action, so the pace here tends to be rather slow. He is also rather colorless and sketchily drawn, despite his ethnic heritage and skills, and tends to hold some curious (and unappetizing) political and sociological opinions. Still, Murder Bound is entertaining, primarily because it is rich in the smell of sea and fog, and the flavor of Norse legends.

   Anderson’s other two Trygve Yamamura novels are Perish by the Sword (1959), which deals with a stolen samurai sword; and Murder in Black Letter (1960), which is concerned with a valuable pre-Renaissance manuscript on witchcraft and the murder of a history professor at the University of California.

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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 Francis M. Nevins


GEORGES SIMENON – The Strange Case of Peter the Lett. Covici Friede, US, hardcover, 1931. Hurst, UK, hardcover, 1933. Also published as Maigret and the Enigmatic Lett. Penguin, US/UK, paperback, 1963. Translation of Pietr-le-Letton (Paris, 1931).

GEORGES SIMENON

   Commissaire Jules Maigret is to French crime fiction what Sherlock Holmes is to British: the detective, the immortal. He has appeared in more than seventy novels and countless short stories and novelettes, translated into dozens of languages and turning their author, Belgian-born Georges Simenon, into not only the most famous of European novelists but the wealthiest.

   In a very real sense, however, the Maigrets aren’t mystery fiction at all. They contain no clues and deductions and usually only the barest minimum of plot. The great-hearted bear of an inspector does not reason from data; instead, he enters a milieu, walks around in the rain, patiently sucks on his pipe, stops in the local brasserie for a beer or calvados, mingles with the people and absorbs atmosphere until he is so much at one with his environment that the truth is clear to him.

   Simenon’s great strengths as a writer lie in the domains of character and setting. Already wealthy from the hundreds of books he wrote in the Twenties, Simenon created Maigret in 1929 while his bark Ostrogoth on which he was touring the canals of Europe was laid up for repairs at the Dutch port of Delfzijl.

GEORGES SIMENON

   The town has since erected a statue of Maigret to commemorate the occasion. He wrote a Maigret a month for the next year and a half. Those first eighteen Maigrets are ranked by many I connoisseurs as the finest Simenon ever wrote, although the first two are in some ways untypical.

   In The Strange Case of Peter the Lett, the first Maigret to be written, Simenon borrows from contemporary British thrillers to such an extent that his first London publishers promoted him as the Edgar Wallace of France.

   Maigret’s adversary in this debut novel is a chameleon-like mastermind with several identities and a wild scheme to organize the international gangster community. But Simenon uses this plot as he uses the domestic intrigues in his more typical Maigtets — as a screen on which to project the shadow play of character and atmosphere.

   And even in his first Maigret, he draws people and milieu with breathtaking skill — from a tormented Latvian intellectual to a passionate female derelict, and from a snobbish Paris luxury hotel to a squalid fishing village.

   More in the Maigret mainstream is M. Gallet Decede (1931). (Its first English translation was as The Death of Monsieur Gallet, Covici Friede, 1932, and Penguin has kept it in print for more than twenty years as Maigret Stonewalled.)

GEORGES SIMENON

   Here as usual the inspector probes a crime of private nature, the strange death and even stranger life of a petit bourgeois jewelry salesman who seems — like many of Simenon’s most compelling characters — to have had at least two identities.

   Unlike most Maigrets, this one is modeled on the British deductive puzzles of the Golden Age, with a beautifully dovetailed plot, genuine clues, and a noble surprise ending.

   Though filtered through translations that are sometimes terrible, Simenon’ s evocations of sight and sound and smell and feel bring places to life with such immediacy that readers who have never been to Europe are ready to swear they’ve seen the milieus he describes.

   The same skills vivify the shorter Maigrets that Simenon wrote for French magazines in the middle and late 1930s. Two generous selections of these stories and novelettes are available in the collections Maigret’s Christmas (1977) and Maigret’s Pipe (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.

NOTE: This and the following three books reviewed are part of this week’s tribute to author Georges Simenon on Patti Abbott’s blog and her ongoing Friday’s Forgotten Books series:

       Maigret’s Boyhood Friend.
       The Blue Room and The Accomplices.
       The Venice Train.

   For the reviews posted by others today, follow the link to Patti’s blog.

[UPDATE] 07-23-12. Add to the list of relevant posts above:

A TV Review by Mike Tooney: MAIGRET “Maigret et l’affaire Saint-Fiacre” (1995).

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