1001 Midnights


A 1001 MIDNIGHTS Review
by Newell Dunlap & Bill Pronzini


W. J. BURLEY – Wycliffe and the Scapegoat. Supt. Charles Wycliffe #8. Doubleday Crime Club, US, 1979. Avon, US, paperback, 1987. First published in the UK by Victor Gollancz, hardcover, 1978. Mills & Boon, UK, paperback, Keyhole Crime series, 1981. Corgi, UK, paperback, TV tie-in, 1997. Adapted as the episode “The Scapegoat” for the TV series Wycliffe, 7 August 1994 (Season 1, Episode 3).

   This story takes place in a clannish seaside English town that observes a rather strange All Hallows’ Eve ritual. On a wheel of fire, nine feet in diameter, is burned a life-size effigy –a scapegoat, as it were — and as it burns, the wheel is allowed to roll over a cliff and into the ocean.

   Thus is evil symbolically cast out for another year. The so-called Fire Festival dates back to Celtic times, but this year’s celebration may have been a little different. It develops that the murdered corpse of the town’s undertaker was used instead of an effigy. Certainly the undertaker, one Jonathan Riddle, was not a popular man, and the town is full of people who would have liked to see the end of him (including the members of his own family).

   Enter Detective Chief Superintendent Wycliffe, who, with his wife, is spending a long weekend near the town. He becomes interested in the case and undertakes his own investigation — a rather routine one, after the colorful dramatics of the Fire Festival. This is a bit of a letdown, although the characters are well drawn enough and the situation interesting enough to hold our interest.

   Writing in Twentieth Century Crime & Mystery Writers, Carol Cleveland says that Wycliffe is “an unconventional policeman who hates routine and authority, and proceeds about his murder investigations by the gestalt method. He immerses himself in the victim’s history and circle of acquaintances until he feels his way to a conclusion.”

   This is the pattern here, and while the method works well enough, Burley’s prose is so lacking in flair that it makes the book plodding in tone. The solution, though satisfactory, is not particularly memorable.

   Wycliffe appears in a number of other novels, among them Three-Toed Pussy (1961), To Kill a Cat (1970), Death in Stanley Street (1974), and Wycliffe in Paul’s Court (1980). Burley has also written two novels featuring Henry Pym, a zoology professor and amateur criminologist; these are A Taste of Power (1966) and Death in Willow Pattern (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.

[UPDATE.] There were in all twenty Wycliffe novels, the last being Wycliffe and the House of Fear (1995). There were no further adventures of Henry Pym. There were a total of 38 episodes of the ITV television series Wycliffe, including the pilot and a Christmas special, spread out over five seasons. Only the pilot and the six shows of the first season were based on Burley novels. According to Wikipedia, “Wycliffe is played by Jack Shepherd, assisted by DI Doug Kersey (Jimmy Yuill) and DI Lucy Lane (Helen Masters).”

A 1001 MIDNIGHTS Review
by Thomas Baird


JOHN BUCHAN – The 39 Steps. William Blackwood & Sons, UK, hardcover, 1915. Serialized in in Blackwood’s Magazine, UK, July-December 1915, under the pseudonym “H de V.” Previously serialized in All-Story Weekly, US, June 5 & 12, 1915. George H. Doran Co., US, hardcover, 1916. Houghton Mifflin, US, hardcover, 1919. Pocket #69, US, paperback, 1940. Reprinted many times since, and still in print today.

   One of Alfred Hitchcock’s best films was The 39 Steps, which he took from John Buchan’s excellent adventure/spy novel. While Hitchcock’s 1935 film differs in many details and mechanisms from the book, both artists mined the same vein, and it’s easy to see what made Hitchcock want to work his transformations on this tale.

   The romantic figure of the hero, Richard Hannay, is the perfect early example of the soldier of fortune. He’s sound of wind and limb, he’s courageous and slightly bored, and he is catapulted by treachery into facing a vast conspiracy that can determine the fate of the world. The writing doesn’t contain too much character to clutter up the plot, and there are no female roles in this adventure. (Hitchcock injected character into the story, partly by including female players in the game.)

   Hannay sets out on the chase, first to hide out from the police, who want him for murder, and also from the German villains who want to stop the secret from getting out. By ruse and disguise, he traverses the well-described wilds of Scotland to stay undercover until the fatal hour. Falling in and out of the clutches of his facile fate, he enlists help as he runs, is chased by airplane, and is captured by his adversaries. This is where James Bond came from.

   The Scottish author John Buchan, Baron Tweedsmuir, was also a political official and governor-general of Canada. He wrote many books of history and biography, as well as other adventures, which he called “shockers.” The best of the other Hannay books is Greenmantle (1916). Another hero, Leithen, is featured in other stories, and Buchan is powerfully descriptive of southern Africa, Europe, and the Middle East.

         ———
   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.

Two 1001 MIDNIGHTS Reviews
by Bill Pronzini


LEO BRUCE – Case for Three Detectives. Geoffrey Bles, UK, hardcover, 1936. Stokes, US, hardcover, 1937. Academy Chicago Press, paperback, 1980.

   Case for Three Detectives is at once a locked-room mystery worthy of John Dickson Carr and an affectionate spoof of the Golden Age detectives created by Sayers, Christie, and Chesterton.

   When Mary Thurston is found in her bedroom, dead of a slashed throat, during a weekend party at her Sussex country house, it seems to all concerned an impossible, almost supernatural crime: The bedroom door was double-bolted from the inside; there are no secret passages or other such claptrap; the only windows provide no means of entrance or exit; and the knife that did the job is found outside the house.

   The following morning, three of “those indefatigably brilliant private investigators who seem to be always handy when a murder has been committed” begin to arrive. The first is Lord Simon Plimsoll (Lord Peter Wimsey): “… the length of his chin, like most other things about him, was excessive,” the narrator, Townsend, observes.

   The second is the Frenchman Amer Picon (Hercule Poirot): “His physique was frail, and topped by a large egg-shaped head, a head so much and so often egg-shaped that I was surprised to find a nose and mouth in it at all, but half-expected its white surface to break and release a chick.” And the third is Monsignor Smith (Father Brown), “a small human pudding.”

   The three famous sleuths sniff around, unearth various clues, and arrive at separate (and elaborate) conclusions, each accusing a different member of the house party as Mary Thurston’s slayer. But of course none of them is right. The real solution is provided by Sergeant Beef of the local constabulary, “a big red-faced man of forty-eight or fifty, with a straggling ginger moustache, and a look of rather beery benevolence.”

   Along the way there is a good deal of gentle humor and some sharp observations on the methods of Wimsey, Poirot, and Father Brown. The prose is consistently above average, and the solution to the locked-room murder is both simple and satisfying.

   Sergeant Beef is featured in seven other novels by Leo Bruce (a pseudonym of novelist, playwright, poet, and scholar Rupert Croft-Cooke), most of which have been reissued here by Academy Chicago in trade paperback. Among them are Case Without a Corpse (1937), Case with Four Clowns (1939), and Case with Ropes and Rings (1940). Each is likewise ingeniously plotted and diverting.

LEO BRUCE – A Bone and a Hank of Hair. Peter Davies, UK, hardcover, 1961. British Book Centre, US, hardcover, 1961. Academy Chicago, US, paperback, 1985.

   Croft-Cooke abandoned Sergeant Beef in 1952 and three years later began a second notable series of detective novels, also published under the Leo Bruce by-line, this one featuring Carolus Deene, ex-commando and Senior History Master at Queen’s School, Newminster, who solves mysteries as a hobby. Until recently, when Academy Chicago began reprinting these, too, in trade paperback, most of the twenty-three Deene titles were available only in England.

    A Bone and a Hank of Hair involves Deene in the strange disappearance of Mrs. Rathbone, Mrs. Rathbone, and Mrs. Rathbone — or are all three the same woman in different guises? Deene’s investigation, prompted by relatives of the original Mrs. Rathbone, takes him to an unpleasant home in remote East Kent, some curious parts of London, and an art colony in Cornwall.

   The jacket blurb says, more or less accurately, “Everywhere he meets bizarre, sometimes richly comic, sometimes sinister characters who bring him at last to the (guaranteed unguessable) conclusion.” On hand as usual in this series, in minor roles, are Mrs. Stick, Deene’s housekeeper and conscience; and the Gorringers, Deene’s headmaster and his (half)witty wife.

   Deene and his investigative methods, and Bruce and his blend of sly humor, tricky plotting, and eccentric characters may not be for every taste. But in this and such other adventure as A Louse for the Hangman (1958),Jack on the Gallows Tree (1960), Nothing Like Blood (1962), and Death in Albert Park (1964), both perform admirably.

   Croft-Cooke also published several worthy criminous novels under his own name, including Seven Thunders (1955) and Paper Albatross (1968).

         ———
   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


MAX BYRD – California Thriller. Bantam, paperback original; 1st printing, April 1981. Reprinted several times.

   California Thriller is the first of three Mike Haller books, and the most noteworthy; it was awarded the Private Eye Writers of America Shamus Award for Best Paperback Novel of 1981. It was the author’s first novel

   Mike Haller is a transplanted Boston PI now working out of San Francisco. Although a viable character, he has been strongly influenced by Robert B. Parker’s Boston PI, Spenser. He’s as physical, well read, and quick with a wisecrack as Spenser, but where the latter works alone, Haller has an Irish partner who covers his back. He also has a regular lady friend, as does Spenser, and she is Dinah Farrell, who is a psychoanalyst — which, of course, comes in handy now and again.

   When one of the country’s leading journalists disappears in Sacramento’s Central Valley, the man’s editor, acting for his wife, hires Mike Haller to find him. With nothing but a two-year-old newspaper clipping to go on, Haller begins retracing the man’s steps. He becomes involved with a professor of biochemistry at Berkeley and an ex-cop who has made a fortune in private security work and has his eye on the governor’s seat.

   Before long a young girl turns up dead and Haller becomes convinced that somebody doesn’t want the journalist found. When Haller finally finds out what the journalist was onto — politics, murder, and private bacteriological-warfare tests — and gets his hands on some incriminating tapes, he’s running for his life and trying to save the lives of thousands.

   Byrd’s second Mike Haller novel is Fly Away, Jill (1981), and the third is Finders Weepers (1983).

         ———
   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 Ed Gorman


W. R. BURNETT – High Sierra. Alfred A. Knopf, hardcover, 1940. Reprint editions include: Avon Murder Mystery Monthly 40, digest-sized paperback, 1946. Bantam #826, paperback, 1950. Carroll & Graf, paperback, 1986. Film: Warner Brothers, 1941 (Ida Lupino, Humphrey Bogart).

   “Early in the twentieth century, when Roy Earle was a happy boy on an Indiana farm, he had no idea that at thirty-seven he’d be a pardoned ex-convict driving alone through the Nevada-California desert towards an ambiguous destiny in the Far West.”

   Thus begins what is, in effect, the biography of Roy Earle, a fictional creation who reflects the lives of several eminent American outlaws of the 1920s and 1930s. The structure and texture of the opening sentence signals the reader that this will be much more than simply a genre piece of tommy guns and molls. Burnett will attempt nothing less than a definitive appraisal of a bandit’s life as Earle leaves prison, falls in love, and works toward the robbery that will doom him.

   For many, Sierra is probably more familiar as the finest of Bogart’s films (with the arguable exception of The Treasure of Sierra Madre). In the film version, John Huston sought to create a romance, a complex variation on the Robin Hood myth, but Burnett creates a novelistic portrait of Roy Earle that is full of fire and contradiction.

   Chapter 37 is the key scene in the book. In the space of 3000 words, Roy Earle expounds on himself (“I steal and I admit it”); on his inability to trust (“The biggest rat we had in prison was a preacher who’d gypped his congregation out of the dough he was supposed to build a church with.”); and on the failure of the common man to fight for himself (“Why don’t all them people who haven’t got any dough get together and take the dough? It’s a cinch.”).

   He is, throughout the novel, idealistic, naïve, ruthless, and doomed in a way that is almost lyrical. Not unlike Studs Lonigan, Roy Earle becomes sympathetic because his faults, for all their outsize proportion, are human and understandable, and his humility almost Christ-like: “Barmy used to talk to me about earthquakes,” Roy says; “he said the old earth just twitched its skin like a dog. We’re the fleas, I guess.”

   Far from the myths created by J. Edgar Hoover’s biased attitude toward the criminals of the 1930s, Burnett gives us a sad, sometimes surreal look at a true outlaw. High Sierra is filled with every possible kind of feeling, from bleak humor to a pity that becomes Roy Earle’s doom. The book’s theme of time and fate is worthy of Proust. If you want to know what made the work of “proletariat” America so powerful in the 1930s, all you have to do is pick up this novel.

         ———
   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


J. F. BURKE – Location Shots. New York: Harper & Row, hardcover, 1974. Charter, paperback, 1980.

   This is the first of three medium-hard-boiled detective novels featuring Sam Kelly, the resident house dick at the Hotel Castlereagh on Seventy-second Street in Manhattan. Kelly is black, bald, and forty — one of the more recent black series detectives in crime fiction. His girlfriend is Madam Bobbie, a voluptuous blonde who lives in the hotel across the square, the Charmain Towers — but her girls do most of their work out of the Castlereagh.

   As this book opens, Sam and Madam Bobbie are awakened in her apartment by police sirens. They discover that the street in front of both hotels is full of cops, and Sam goes down to investigate. As it turns out, a woman in room 8A of Kelly’s hotel, Anna Jensen, was murdered during the night. Kelly knows for a fact that a friend of his, David Christopher, who lived in 9A, was a “friend” of the dead woman’s, but when he goes to 9A, he finds his friend dead as well.

   At odds with Commander Fuseli, the cop in charge, Sam also finds himself involved with characters indigenous only to New York, as well as talking birds and a search for a manuscript and a tape recording that might lead to the killer.

   Burke uses the city of New York so well that it virtually becomes another character in this novel and in the subsequent books in the series. Sam Kelly is also featured in Death Trick (1975) and Kelly Among the Nightingales (1979).

         ———
   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:   Burke also wrote two books about a nightclub pianist named Joe Streeter: The Kama Sutra Tango (Harper, 1977) and Crazy Woman Blues (Dutton, 1978).

A 1001 MIDNIGHTS Review
by Marcia Muller


FREDRIC BROWN Night of the Jabberwock

FREDRIC BROWN – Night of the Jabberwock. E. P. Dutton, hardcover, 1950. Paperback editions include: Bantam #990, April 1952; Morrow-Quill, 1984. Based on two pulp stories: “The Gibbering Night” (Detective Tales, July 1944) and “The Jabberwock Murders” (Thrilling Mystery, Summer 1944).

   This entertaining novel, which takes place in one bizarre night, is a perfect example of Fredric Brown’s somewhat eccentric view of the world. Doc Stoeger, editor of the Carmel City, Indiana, Clarion, sometime philosopher and devotee of the works of Lewis Carroll, has just put the small-town paper to bed. He has a drink in his office, wanders over to Smiley’s Tavern for a couple more, and laments the fact that nothing ever happens in Carmel City.

FREDRIC BROWN Night of the Jabberwock

   What wouldn’t he give, Doc says, for just one important story? Then, just as he is about to go home, things start to happen. At first they are mundane: Tuesday’s rummage sale is canceled and there is now a nine-inch hole in the front page; a messy divorce story needs to be rewritten because the charges against the husband were not true. But these are nothing like the surprise that visits Doc later at home.

   The surprise is a man with the unlikely name of Yehudi Smith, who claims to be a member of a group of Lewis Carroll enthusiasts called the Vorpal Blades (a name taken from Through the Looking Glass). Smith invites Doc to a midnight meeting in a haunted house, and Doc is fascinated enough to accept. However, other events intervene: Doc’s best friend is injured in an accident and no one can find out what happened; the bank is robbed in a strange way; an escaped lunatic is run to earth; and big-time criminals are on the loose.

   By the time Doc keeps his appointment with Yehudi Smith and the Vorpal Blades, he has covered and, for various reasons, had to suppress more major stories than most editors do in a year. And when he and Smith go to the haunted house, Doc is embroiled in an Alice-like adventure that leads him not down a rabbit hole or through a looking glass, but to the sheriff’s office.

    Night of the Jabberwock is definitely not a novel for reformed alcoholics or those with strong principles against the consumption of alcohol. Doc partakes of enough drink so that, in reality, he would have passed out by chapter 3. In spite of that — and the fact that there are enough holes in the plot to drive a liquor truck through — no reader will ever forget this one astonishing night in Carmel City, Indiana.

         ———
   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.

Three 1001 MIDNIGHTS Reviews
by Bill Pronzini


FREDRIC BROWN – The Fabulous Clipjoint. E. P. Dutton, hardcover, 1947. Bantam #1134, paperback, 1953. David R. Godine, trade paperback, 1986.

   Fredric Brown’s vision of the world was paradoxical and slightly cockeyed. Things, in his eye, are not always what you might think they are; elements of the bizarre spice the commonplace, and, conversely, elements of the commonplace leaven the bizarre. Madness and sanity are intertwined, so that it is often difficult to tell which is which.

   The same is true of malevolence and benignity, of tragedy and comedy. Brown seems to have felt that the forces, cosmic or otherwise, that control our lives are at best mischievous and at worst malign, that man has little to say about his own destiny, and that free will is a fallacy. The joke is on us, he seems to be saying on numerous occasions. And it is a joke that all too frequently turns nasty.

   Brown employed a deceptively simple, offhand style that allows his fiction to be enjoyed by those interested only in entertainment and also pondered by those interested in the complex themes at its heart. The Fabulous Clipjoint, his first novel and the recipient of an Edgar from the Mystery Writers of America, is a good example.

   On the one hand, it is a straightforward detective story that introduced the Chicago-based team of private eyes Ed and Am Hunter. Ed, the narrator, is young and idealistic; Ambrose, his uncle and a retired circus performer, is much more pragmatic and somewhat jaded- the voice of experience.

   When Ed’s father, Wally, is shot down in a dark alley, Ed enlists his uncle’s help and sets out to find the murderer. Their quest leads them into the seamy underbelly of 1940s society, the world of second-rate criminals, cheap bars, sleazy carnival folk; from a sideshow spieler named Hoagy to a beautiful tramp named Claire Raymond to assorted thugs and tough cops, and finally to a killer.

   On the other hand, there are deeper meanings to the narrative — underlying themes of obsession, a young man’s bitter and tragic coming of age, and the manipulation of those dark cosmic forces that Brown believed are in control of our fives. The handling of these themes is what makes the novel so grimly powerful. Not Brown’s best book, and not for every taste, but unquestionably much more than just another hard-boiled detective tale.

   Brown wrote six other Ed and Am Hunter books, none of which, unfortunately,approaches The Fabulous Clipjoint in quality. Among them are The Dead Ringer (1948); The Bloody Moonlight (1949, which has a werewolf theme); Compliments of a Fiend (1951); and Mrs. Murphy’s Underpants (1963).

FREDRIC BROWN – Knock Three-One-Two. Dutton, 1959. Bantam A2135, paperback, 1960. TV adaptation: “Knock Three-One-Two.” Thriller, 13 December 1960 (Season 1, Episode 13). Film: The Red Ibis (France, 1975; original title: L’Ibis rouge).

   Knock Three-One-Two has one of the most compelling (and chilling) opening lines in all of crime fiction: “He had a name, but it doesn’t matter: call him the psycho.” It is the best of Brown’s later novels, and one of his two or three best overall. It is also — in theme, mood, and final message — his most frightening work.

   On the surface, Knock is a straightforward mystery that interweaves the lives of a maniacal rapist/strangler who preys on women alone at night in their apartments; a liquor salesman named Ray Fleck who is addicted to gambling; a Greek restaurateur, George Mikos, who is in love with Fleck’s wife, Ruth; a mentally retarded news vendor named Benny; Dolly Mason, a promiscuous and mercenary beauty operator; and several other characters.

   But as the opening lines intimate, this is not a whodunit: The identity of the psycho is irrelevant to the plot; rather, he is a catalyst, an almost biblical symbol of evil. The suspense Brown creates and sustains here is of the dark and powerful sort perfected
by Cornell Woolrich, yet uniquely Brown’s own in style and handling. It all builds beautifully, inexorably, to a shocking and ironic climax- Brown at his most controlled, dealing with material at its most chaotic.

   Equally good are Brown’s two other major suspense novels, The Screaming Mimi (1949) and The Far Cry (1951). Mimi is the story of an alcoholic Chicago reporter named Sweeney and his search for both a beautiful woman and a Ripper-style killer; it is also an allegorical retelling of “Beauty and the Beast.” The Far Cry, set in New Mexico, has been called Brown’s tour de force — a fair judgment, for the treatment of its theme of a love/hate obsession is uncommon and its denouement is both horrific and surprisingly bleak for its time.

FREDRIC BROWN – Mostly Murder. E. P. Dutton, hardcover, 1953. Pennant P-59, paperback, 1954.

   Brown wrote excellent short fiction, including dozens of mordant short-shorts — a demanding form at which he proved himself a master. It can be argued, in fact, that except in a half-dozen or so cases, he was a better short-story writer than he was a novelist.

    Mostly Murder, his first collection, contains eighteen of his best early stories., from Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine and such pulps as Black Mask and Dime Mystery.

   Among them are his masterpiece of psychological horror “Don’t Look Behind You,” a tour de force in which the reader is the intended murder victim; an unusually dark and powerful treatment of the “impossible crime” theme, “The Laughing Butcher”; an ironic little chiller, “Little Apple Hard to Peel”; a Woolrichian tale of terror and suspense, “I’ll Cut Your Throat Again, Kathleen”; the wryly humorous “Greatest Poem Ever Written”; and two of his best short-shorts. “Town Wanted” and “Cry Silence.” An outstanding collection.

   A second gathering of Brown’s criminous stories, The Shaggy Dog and Other Murders (1963), is likewise first-rate. Also well worth reading are several recent collections: Homicide Sanitarium (1984), Before She Kills (1984), Madman’s Holiday (1985), and The Case of the Dancing Sandwiches (1985), all limited editions of obscure but entertaining pulp stories; and Carnival of Crime (1985), which contains some but not all of his short mysteries, including several from Mostly Murder, and a complete checklist of Brown’s published works.

         ———
   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


HOWARD BROWNE – The Taste of Ashes. Paul Pine #4. Simon & Schuster, hardcover, 1957. Dennis McMillan, trade paperback, 1988. TV adaptatation: Pilot episode of Bourbon Street Beat (ABC, 5 October 1959).

   An early contributor to the Ziff-Davis line of pulps in the 1940s, Howard Browne later became managing editor of several of that Chicago-based publisher’s science-fiction and fantasy magazines. He also wrote extensively for radio and early TV, scripting more than 700 dramatic shows for the two media.

   In 1946 he published his first mystery novel, Halo in Blood, under the pseudonym John Evans, and followed it with two more, Halo for Satan (1948) and Halo in Brass (1949); all three feature Chicago private detective Paul Pine, one of the best of the plethora of tough-guy heroes from that era. Although the Pine novels are solidly in the tradition of Raymond Chandler, they have a complexity and character all their own and are too well crafted to be mere imitations.

   The Taste of Ashes is the fourth and (at least as of this writing) final Paul Pine adventure. Browne evidently chose to publish this one under his own name because it is longer, more tightly plotted, and more ambitious than the “Halo” books. Offbeat, violent, exciting, it is the story of Pine’s involvement with the lethal Delastone clan:

    “… the Colonel, who wore his hair like the late William Jennings Bryan and was more afraid of scandal than of sudden death; Martha, a member of the sensible-shoe set; the lovely Karen, who owned a temper and a burglar tool; Edwin, who had gone to Heaven, or some place, leaving a monument of horror behind; and Deborah Ellen Frances Thronetree, age seven, an authority on the Bible and Captain Midnight, who was plagued by nightmares.”

   A hood with the wonderful name of Arnie Algebra, a reporter called Ira Groat, and the haunted widow of another private eye are just three of the rich array of other characters Pine encounters on his violent professional (and personal) odyssey.

   All three of the John Evans titles are also first-rate. Both Halo in Blood and Halo for Satan have highly unusual opening situations: In the former, Pine joins twelve other persons in the burial of a nameless bum; and in the latter, a Chicago bishop is offered a chance to buy a manuscript purportedly in the handwriting of Christ for the staggering sum of $25 million.

   Browne is also the author, under his own name, of a nonseries novel, Thin Air (1954); the sudden, inexplicable disappearance of advertising executive Ames Coryell’s wife and his utilization of his ad agency and its methods to track her down form the basis for this tale of suspense. Thin Air has received considerable praise, but this reviewer finds it somewhat farfetched and Coryell a less than likable protagonist. Paul Pine is a much better character, and the private-eye novel the true showcase for Browne’s talents.

         ———
   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 Update:   Published in 1985 by Dennis McMillan was the collection of Peter Pine stories entitled The Paper Gun, which included the unfinished and never before published title novel, plus the novelette “So Dark for April,” which previously appeared in Manhunt, February 1953, as by John Evans

A 1001 MIDNIGHTS Review
by Art Scott


MICHAEL BRETT – Slit My Throat, Gently. Pocket Books, paperback original; 1st printing, April 1968.

   Michael Brett’s series of paperback originals about private eye Pete McGrath were likely intended to provide Pocket Books with a series character to rival Fawcett’s Shell Scott, Dell’s Mike Shayne, and Signet’s various Carter Brown series. McGrath appeared a bit late in the game and apparently failed to find a loyal readership, since only one of the books made it past a single printing. (Sales were probably not helped by the unattractive photo covers.)

   Nevertheless, the McGrath novels are entertaining and adroitly written — satisfying, off-the-rack private eye yarns that should please most unfussy readers of this sort of thing. One odd note about the seriesL Brett seems to have been unsure as to what sort of private-eye novel to produce. Some titles, like this one, are straightforward hard-boiled actioners. Others. like The Flight of the Stiff (1967), have a strong farcical element, in the manner of Richard S. Prather. Pete McGrath never quite came into his own as an identifiable character, though in one respect — his penchant for talking to himself — he probably leads the field.

   Here McGrath is hired to find a missing heiress who has run off with a small-time crook and drug addict. Also looking for her — or maybe just for her boyfriend — is a big-time mob boss, who takes drastic measures to get McGrath out of the picture.

   Corpses with their throats cut start turning up, and McGrath has quite a time with it. Two excellent scenes stand out: McGrath adroitly pumping a shady Atlantic City motel owner by posing as a sleazy divorce detective, and McGrath playing hardball with a junkie prostitute to turn up a lead.

   One of the Pete McGrath novels, Lie a Little, Die a Little (1968), much changed, was filmed as a moderately pornographic detective spoof, Cry Uncle, which attained a modest cult status. Other enjoyable books in the series: Kill Him Quickly, It’s Raining (1966), Dead Upstairs in the Tub (1967), Turn Blue, You Murderer (1967).

         ———
   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 Kill Him Quickly, It’s Raining also included a complete list of the Pete McGrath books, all of ten of them, with covers shown for about half. (You will be able to see for yourself how unattractive they are, just as Art says.)

Next Page »