1001 Midnights


A 1001 MIDNIGHTS Review
by Bill Pronzini


  LEIGH BRACKETT – The Tiger Among Us. Doubleday Crime Club, hardcover, 1957. Also published as 13 West Street: Bantam J2323, paperback, 1962. Reprinted in the UK as Fear No Evil (Corgi, paperback, 1960).

   This is Leigh Brackett’s best crime novel — a simple, straightforward, consistently gripping, and powerful story of one man’s nightmare encounter with random teenage violence. Walter Sherris, an average family man and a white-collar employee of a company in an Ohio mill town, takes a walk along a dark road one night and is brutally beaten by five young “tigers” out looking for thrills.

   But that is only the beginning of his ordeal. When Sherris is finally released from the hospital, he sets out to do what the police haven’t been able to: learn the identities of his attackers and see justice done. It isn’t long, however, before he is again the hunted — and his family along with him. For the five boys, continuing their random attacks, have gone too far with another of their victims: They are already murderers and stand ready to kill again. Even if Sherris learns to wear the stripes of the tiger himself, even if he survives this second assault, he knows his life will never be the same.

   Fine writing and some genuinely harrowing scenes make The Tiger Among Us one of the best of the spate of Fifties novels dealing with juvenile delinquency. In the forcefulness of its message, in fact, it is second only to Evan Hunter’s mainstream novel The Blackboard Jungle. An effective screen version appeared under the title 13 West Street in 1962, starring Alan Ladd and Rod Steiger.

   Brackett’s other crime novels are An Eye for an Eye (1957) and Silent Partner (1969). She also ghosted a mystery for actor George Sanders, Stranger at Home (1946).

         ———
   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, Jr. & Marvin Lachman


EDGAR BOX
       Death in the Fifth Position, E. P. Dutton, hardcover, 1952. Signet #1036, paperback, 1953.
       Death Before Bedtime. E. P. Dutton, hardcover, 1953. Signet #1093, paperback, 1954.
       Death Likes it Hot. E. P. Dutton, hardcover, 1954. Signet #1217, paperback, 1955.
     – All three books have been reprinted several times, including one hardcover omnibus edition: Boxed In (Mystery Guild, 2011).

   Gore Vidal a mystery writer? Yes indeed, although the mystery in his three detective novels is much inferior to the writing. In the early 1950s, at the end of his first period as a mainstream novelist and the beginning of his career as a writer of live TV drama, Vidal took up the pseudonym of Edgar Box and spent about three weeks turning out a whodunit trilogy whose amateur sleuth is Peter Cutler Sargeant II, a thirtyish, pleasantly pig-faced public-relations consultant and (exclusively hetero) sexual gymnast. Although they’re not noteworthy as detective novels. Vidal’s guided tours through the worlds of art, politics, and high society entertain royally with countless gleefully sardonic jabs at every target in sight.

   The series opens with Death in the Fifth Position, in which Peter is retained to provide good PR for the Grand St. Petersburg Ballet. The dance group is feeling the pinch of McCarthyism, courtesy of a right-wing veterans’ organization (Motto: “In a true democracy there is no place for a difference of opinion on great issues”) incensed at the group’s having hired a “Communist” choreographer, Jed Wilbur.

   At the climax of Wilbur’s new ballet, its star is supposed to ascend into the wings in triumph. But on opening night, the wire cable snaps and the prima ballerina falls to her death before the eyes of thousands. Vidal then treats us to many pages of satire about professional dancers and their hangers-on and tedious speculation about homicidal motives, interspersed with two more gruesome deaths, before Peter unveils his surprising but unfair solution.

    Death Before Bedtime finds Peter in Washington as advisor to ultraconservative Senator Leander Rhodes and bedmate to Rhodes’s nymphomaniac daughter. Rhodes’ ambitions to be his party’s next presidential candidate come to an abrupt end when he’s blown to bits by a gunpowder charge in his fireplace. The investigation, long on speculation and short on substance, is interrupted in its stately progress toward nowhere by (surprise!) another murder, after which Peter uses a mix of guesswork and bluff to expose the guilty party.Once again a lackluster plot is saved by Vidal’s mocking gibes at politics, journalism sex, and society.

   In his third and last case, Death Likes It Hot, Peter is invited to a weekend house party at a Long Island – beachfront mansion and encounters tangled emotions and murder among a cast of ludicrous plutocrats and talentless pseudoartists. Its fairly complex plot, a few deft clues, and a dramatic climax make this the best mystery of the trio, but again it’s the pungent satire that brings the book to life.

   Clever deductions, fair play with the reader, and the Christie-Queen bag of tricks are not Vidal’s strong points. But his mastery of the language permeates even these mysteries that he himself shrugs off as potboilers cranked out for money, and his tone of cynical, good-humored tolerance toward an America populated exclusively by crooks, opportunists, and buffoons is as close to the true spirit of H. L. Mencken as mystery fiction is ever likely to see.

   It appears that Vidal had a good time with mysteries, and his pleasure is conveyed to the reader. He must have especially enjoyed himself when he got to write the following, surprisingly accurate, blurb which appeared on the covers of the paperback editions of his three mysteries. “The work that Dr. Kinsey began with statistics, Edgar Box has completed with wit in the mystery novel.”

   Though Spillane and others had already broken down the barriers against writing about sex in the detective story, Vidal went further than anyone else, but he also did it with more humor.

         ———
   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


DOLORES HITCHENS – Sleep with Slander. Doubleday Crime Club, hardcover, 1960. Permabook M-4243, paperback, 1962; Berkley, paperback, 1969.

   Many people seem to feel that the best hard-boiled male private-eye novel written by a woman is Leigh Brackett’s No Good from a Corpse (reviewed here ). But that may because many people haven’t read Sleep with Slander. For the undersigned reviewer’s money, this is the best hard-boiled private-eye novel written by a woman — and one of the best written by anybody.

   Its protagonist, Long Beach-based Jim Sader, is a multidimensional character, much more realistic than the stereotypical tough detective; Sader uses his intelligence to accomplish his purposes. The plot, reminiscent in its complexity of both Chandler and Ross Macdonald, is better crafted, more compelling, and ultimately more satisfying than the Brackett.

   Sader is hired by a rich old man, Hale Gibbings, whose daughter gave birth to an illegitimate child five years earlier. The child, Ricky, was given away for adoption, not through a recognized agency but to a private couple, and Gibbings has heard nothing about the boy until recently, when an anonymous letter writer tells him the child is being mentally and physically abused.

   Sader undertakes the search for Ricky, following a trail that leads him to a conniving friend of Tina Champlain, the adoptive (and now presumed dead) mother; to a violent builder of boats and his drunken father; to murder, extortion, double-dealing, madness; and finally to the truth. The surprises Hitchens springs along the way are not at all easy to anticipate. A first-rate novel recommended not just to fans s of the hard-boiled school but for anyone who appreciates a quality mystery.

   Hitchens wrote one other novel featuring Sader: Sleep with Strangers (1957). This is also good reading, but marred by sentimentality and a shaky ending that reveals the wrong choice of murderer.

         ———
   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


LEIGH BRACKETT – No Good from a Corpse. Coward McCann, hardcover, 1944. Dennis McMillan, hardcover, 1998 [includes eight detective pulp stories plus title novel]. Reprint paperbacks: Handi-Book #32, 1944; Collier, 1964.

LEIGH BRACKETT No Good from a Corpse

   Leigh Brackett is perhaps best known for her science fiction and for her script work on the classic private-eye film The Big Sleep (1946); but she also wrote excellent crime fiction (and one very good historical western). Her mysteries tend to be tough-minded and realistic. No Good from a Corpse, in fact, can accurately be termed “hard-boiled” — and indeed has been called, by some critics and aficionados, the best traditional private-eye novel written by a woman.

   Los Angeles detective Edmond Clive embarks on an angry, vengeful hunt when an old girlfriend, nightclub singer Laurel Dane, is murdered. His quest leads him from Beverly Hills mansions to cheap night spots along the Sunset Strip; from rich playboys (and playgirls) to denizens of the underworld; from threatening telephone calls to a knock on the head to attempts on his fife; and from blackmail to several more murders before he finally uncovers the not altogether surprising identity of Laurel’s murderer and the truth behind a web of lies and half truths.

LEIGH BRACKETT No Good from a Corpse

   Critic Anthony Boucher stated in an introduction to a reissue of this novel in 1964 that Bracken was the one woman who “most successfully captured the authentic Chandleresque male tone.” True enough; the tone is very Chandleresque, to the point of pastiche. It is as if Miss Brackett deliberately set out to out-Chandler Chandler.

   About the novel itself, Boucher wrote, “Its ingredients are not startlingly new: it even includes the obligatory night clubs, in which detective-story characters spend so much more time than any other class of people. But the familiar ingredients take on fresh life, partly because Miss Brackett looks at and writes about Los Angeles itself and not its conventionalized fiction image.”

   Also true, pro and con. There is nothing really new in the novel; Brackett covers old ground- and covers it well, even expertly, but the fact remains that Chandler did it first and did it better. Clive is the only memorable character,and he pales alongside Philip Marlowe. With all due respect to Boucher and the book’s other boosters, No Good from a Corpse is not the best traditional male private-eye novel written by a woman. That distinction belongs to Dolores Hitchens’s Sleep with Slander (reviewed here ).

         ———
   Reprinted with permission from 1001 Midnights, edited by Bill Pronzini & Marcia Muller and published by The Battered Silicon Dispatch Box, 2007.   Copyright © 1986, 2007 by the Pronzini-Muller Family Trust.

A 1001 MIDNIGHTS Review
by Newell Dunlap & Bill Pronzini


JACK BOYLE – Boston Blackie. Gregg Press, hardcover, 1979. Reprint of the first edition published by H. K. Fly, hardcover, 1919.

   This is an unusual book in that it consists of previously published short stories put together and revised slightly to resemble chapters in a novel. It is the only Boston Blackie “novel” or collection to be published.

   The Boston Blackie stories began running in The American Magazine in 1914; later ones appeared in Red Book and Cosmopolitan. Although by today’s standards they contain overly dramatic language and sentimental plots, they still provide an entertaining insight into popular American fiction of the early 1900s.

   Included in this reprint edition is a scholarly introduction by Edward D. Hoch, the original illustrations, and still photographs from some of the various Boston Blackie films.

   For those unfamiliar with Boyle’s Boston Blackie, he was a criminal — primarily a safecracker — and was wanted by many police departments. But he was also a devoted husband, a “university graduate, a scholar, and gentleman.” The first half of his nickname derived from his Boston birthplace, the second half from his piercing black eyes.

   As interesting as Blackie himself may be, his creator is even more so. Jack Boyle was a San Francisco newspaper editor who became addicted to opium in the legendary dens of Chinatown. This cost him his job, and, unable to get another, he turned to a fife of crime — an unsuccessful one, for he was twice arrested and sent to prison, once for forgery and the second time for armed robbery.

   It was while he was in San Quentin on the robbery conviction that he wrote (and sold) his first Boston Blackie story to American, under the pseudonym “6606” — his prison number. Many of the subsequent Blackie stories were to employ drug and prison backgrounds. After his release, Boyle continued his writing career and helped adapt some of his stories for silent films.

   Several Blackie silents were made in the 1920s; the first of these, for which Boyle wrote the screenplay, was The Face in the Fog (1922) and featured Lionel Barrymore as Blackie. The character underwent a considerable transformation in the series of B-talkies that began in 1941 and starred Chester Morris: He became a wise-talking reformed-crook-turned-sleuth with a penchant for dames, danger, and sudden death. The Hollywood incarnation also appeared on the radio and briefly on television in its early years.

         ———
   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


RICK BOYER – Billingsgate Shoal. Doc Adams #1. Houghton Miff|in, hardcover, 1982. Warner Books, paperback, 1985; Fawcett, paperback, 1989.

   Rick Boyer won an Edgar for this, his first mystery novel — deserved recognition for a complex suspense novel set in coastal and suburban Massachusetts.

   Charles (“Doc”) Adams is a medical doctor turned oral surgeon. He is middle-aged, affluent, happily married, and intensely dissatisfied with his life. His depression and insomnia are symptoms of his mid-life crisis. The cure is worse than the disease, however, as Doc is thrown headlong into a very violent adventure. It starts with an early-morning sighting of a stranded fishing vessel on the title shoal, continues with the death of a young scuba diver who tries to check out the boat for Adams, and eventually escalates to a kill-or-die confrontation between Doc and the villains.

   Billingsgate Shoal has a little bit of everything for everybody. There is hidden treasure, political intrigue, and a murder mystery. There is even a good deal of gore for those who like their thrillers tough and bloody. But it is the believable and very personable voice of Boyer’s amateur sleuth that makes even the more outrageous elements of his plot come together in a way that seems realistic and truly suspenseful.

   Boyer’s second novel, The Penny Ferry (1984), a case focusing on present-day evidence of the guilt/innocence of Sacco and Vanzetti, is proof that Boyer’s talents are substantial and that Doc Adams has staying power as series sleuth.

         ———
   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 Doc Adams series —

Billingsgate Shoal (1982)
The Penny Ferry (1984)

The Daisy Ducks (1986)
Moscow Metal (1987)
The Whale’s Footprints (1988)

Gone to Earth (1990)
Yellow Bird (1991)
Pirate Trade (1994)
The Man Who Whispered (1998)

A 1001 MIDNIGHTS Review
by Bill Pronzini


ANTHONY BOUCHER – Exeunt Murderers: The Best Mystery Stories of Anthony Boucher. Southern Illinois University Press, hardcover, 1983.

   Boucher published some sixty short stories during his thirty-year writing career, about equally divided between mystery/detective and science fiction/fantasy. The twenty-two stories in Exeunt Murderers clearly show that he had a fine hand with the form — a finer hand, perhaps, than he had with novels.

   Included here are all nine of the Nick Noble stories, Boucher’s best series and most inspired work. Noble is an ex-cop who was thrown off the force in disgrace for taking graft, something he resorted to in desperation to pay for an operation his wife needed — an operation that failed and left him a widower. The combination of tragedies turned him into a wino who spends most of his time at a cheap bar called the Chula Negra, drinking rotgut sherry and fending off an invisible fly that keeps pestering him.

   But even though he is “the lowest and soddenest kind of drunk that even the Skid Row of Los Angeles can exhibit,” he can still deduce with the best, as he proves whenever his friend, Lieutenant MacDonald, brings him cases no one in the department can solve. Dying messages and codes are Noble’s specialties. And among his best deductions are those that clear up the murder of a priest in “Screwball Division,” the murder of a librarian in “QL 696. C9,” and a football mystery in “The Punt and the Pass.”

   Also included are a pair of cases featuring Sister Ursula, the cloistered nun whom Boucher created for a pair of early novels published under the pseudonym of H. H. Holmes. ” The Stripper” is the grisly tale of a Jack the Ripper-style murderer on the loose in southern California. “Coffin Corner,” like the Nick Noble case mentioned above, has a college-football background.

   Boucher’s best nonseries stories are here as well: the wonderfully macabre “The Retired Hangman,” a much tougher story than was usual with him; “Mystery for Christmas,” a story-within-a-story that features Donald Duck and Mickey Mouse; “The Smoke-Filled Locked Room,” which combines deduction with some of Boucher’s political views; and “The Ultimate Clue,” a short-short (again about football) with the ultimate detective-story ending.

   An insightful introduction by Francis M Nevins, Jr. (who co-edited the volume with Martin H. Greenberg), rounds out what is surely one of the best and longest overdue collections to be published in the past several years.

         ———
   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 Ellen Nehr


FRANCIS BONNAMY – The King Is Dead on Queen Street. Duell, Sloan & Pearce, hardcover, 1945. Penguin #629, paperback, 1947.

   The combination of the Great Intellect and his Loyal Chronicler has been a mainstay of detective fiction since Watson first began keeping records. Academics with plenty of time on their hands to devote to travel and detection have also always been popular. Mix these elements with a colorful wartime setting in Alexandria, Virginia, and eclectic characters who are both native to the area and transient, and you have a perfect recipe for murder.

   Peter Shane, former professor and head of the Department of Criminology at the University of Chicago, and his assistant, Bonnamy, are now living in a third-floor apartment in Alexandria while on military assignment. Both are present at a neighborhood party when much-disliked Joe Long, a well-known photographer known as “The King,” is found dead — presumably from a fall down the steps of his home.

   When it is discovered that someone had tied a string across Long’s steps, Shane and Bonnamy must attempt to clear their friends and landlady from suspicion, and their investigation focuses on the interrelationships between the party guests, each of whom had an intense reason for wishing to see Long dead. Even the family dogs and the layout of the house do not escape the pair’s scrutiny as they study the past histories of this set of oddly associated people.

   Francis Bonnamy is a pseudonym for Audrey Boyers Waltz; she wrote seven Shane/Bonnamy novels, taking full advantage of local color and geography of Chicago, Maine, Arizona, and other interesting locales. All loose ends are convincingly tied up at the ends of these humorous books, and the treatment of Shane’s detective skills is particularly good.

   Other noteworthy titles are Death on a Dude Ranch (1937), which has a Wyoming setting, Dead Reckoning (1943), which deals with murder in Washington, D.C., and buried pirate treasure on Cape Fear; and Portrait of the Artist as a Dead Man (1947), which, like The King Is Dead on Queen Street, is set in Alexandria and involves interplay among a group of diverse people in the art world.

         ———
   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 Note:   Other books in this series are: Death by Appointment (1931), A Rope of Sand (1944), Blood and Thirsty (1949) and The Man in the Mist (1951).

A 1001 MIDNIGHTS Review
by Kathleen L. Maio


JOHN & EMERY BONETT – Dead Lion. Doubleday Crime Club, hardcover, 1949. Pocket #738, paperback, 1950. Perennial Library, paperback, 1982.

   John and Felicity Carter Coulson (who write under the names John and Emery Bonett) have collaborated in a fruitful mystery career as well as a marriage. Their official joint debut came with the publication of Dead Lion, a fine example of the post-World War II British mystery.

   Simon Crane comes to Britain to meet his famous uncle — critic, author, and BBC intellectual Cyprian Druse — for the first time. Instead, he finds Druse’s body, his head stuck out a window and his neck bloody and broken. It soon becomes clear that many people wished to break Druse’s neck: the many authors he destroyed with his vitriolic criticism, and the many women he seduced, humiliated, and abandoned.

   When Simon finds himself in love with one of his uncle’s embittered conquests, he no longer wishes to play sleuth. Unfortunately, Professor Mandrake does. Mandrake, an anthropologist by trade, had been a BBC colleague of Druse’s. More important, he is a natural-born busybody and student of humanity just waiting for a chance to try his hand at detecting. While Simon tries to shield the woman he loves, Mandrake continues to happily meddle, eventually triggering the novel’s tragic conclusion.

   Dead Lion is an exquisitely crafted classical mystery. But besides providing a satisfying puzzle, like its many Golden Age predecessors, this novel also features three-dimensional, modern characters with psychological quirks and motivations. With small touches, the authors also manage to convey what life was like in England after the war. Theirs is a classic puzzle with new depth and Professor Mandrake as a lovable series sleuth.

   The fat, homely professor appears in two other books — A Banner for Pegasus (1951) and No Grave for a Lady (1959). Later Bonett novels with a Spanish sleuth and Costa Brava locale are well constructed but lack the charm of the Mandrake mysteries.

         ———
   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


NICHOLAS BLAKE – End of Chapter. Harper & Brothers, 1957. Perennial Library, paperback, 1977, 1988. First published in the UK by Collins Crime Club, hardcover, 1957.

   The London publishing firm of Wenham & Geraldine has always been a conservative one, but now they are about to become embroiled in a scandal — a libel suit that could cost them both money and reputation. No one can prevent the suit from being filed, but something must be done to ensure that the unfortunate circumstances that prompted it will never happen again.

   Nigel Strangeways is summoned by the firm’s partners, who explain the problem of the memoirs of General Richard Thoresby: When the general’s manuscript was received, it contained passages that libeled Thoresby’s rival, Major General Sir Charles Blair-Chatterley. After some argument, the author agreed to delete them, and did so. However, before the manuscript was delivered to the printer,someone reinstated the passages. The book has been withdrawn, but the damage has already been done. Strangeways agrees to investigate, under the guise that he has been hired by the firm to do some specialized reading.

   The cast of characters Strangeways encounters includes Stephen Protheroe, the author of one great poem, who has withdrawn into the obscurity of his editorial office for twenty-five years; Millicent Miles, writer of torrid romances, who is currently using the office next to Stephen’s to write her steamy memoirs; Herbert Bates, the production manager, who has been forced into early retirement after many years with the firm; General Thoresby himself, and Cyprian Gleed,the ne’er-do-well son of Miss Miles.

   Any of these people — plus a number of less important employees — had the opportunity and motive to alter the proofs. But by the time Strangeways has delved deeper into the situation, murder has been done, and the motive turns out to be more complex than any he has imagined.

   This is a well-plotted novel and a good depiction of the publishing world, but it moves very slowly, and Nigel Strangeways fails to come alive in contrast to the other characters — some of whom are extremely memorable. Blake has an irritating habit of making cryptic forecasts such as “He could not know that one of the questions he had asked this morning would lead directly to a murder.” Without these, perhaps the suspense would be greater; as it is, End of Chapter contains few surprises.

   Strangeways’s other investigations include The Smiler with the Knife (1939); The Corpse in the Snowman (1941); Minute for Murder (1947), which Barzun and Taylor term Blake’s “masterpiece”; and The Worm of Death (1961). The best of Blake’s non-series crime novels is probably A Penknife in My Heart (1959).

         ———
   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 »