1001 Midnights


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).

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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.

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.

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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.

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.

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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


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.

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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.

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).

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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 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.)

A 1001 MIDNIGHTS Review
by Newell Dunlap


RICHARD BRAUTIGAN – Dreaming of Babylon. Delacorte, hardcover/softcover, 1977. Dell, paperback, 1980.

   The time is 1942, the place is San Francisco, and a private detective named C. Card is down on his luck. He already has sold everything of value he owns. He owes rent to his landlady, money to all his friends, and various domestic items to all his fellow tenants. Then, amazingly, his luck begins to change with two fortuitous events: (1) His landlady dies, and (2) he gets a client. The trouble is, he has no bullets for his gun and must find some before he meets his client. (What kind of detective goes around with an unloaded gun?)

   The search for bullets takes him to the Hall of Justice and to the city morgue, and many a mysterious stranger he meets along the way — a beautiful, crying blonde; a tough, smiling chauffeur; and a lovely, but dead, prostitute, to name but a few. Of course, the bullet search is not aided any by the fact that he keeps slipping into a daydream about ancient Babylon.

   This is Richard Brautigan’s only criminous novel and, to the average mystery aficionado, the story will seem rambling and plotless, having emerged as it did through the old, capricious byways of the author’s mind. It is a story not so much for fans of detective fiction but for fans of Brautigan fiction, for this is the popular poet/novelist who first came to us out of the hippie generation and is responsible for such works of gentle whimsy as Trout Fishing in America.

   Inexplicably, his later novels took on more violent themes. This would include Dreaming of Babylon, although, by the standards of modern detective fiction, the book is relatively nonviolent and the author’s fanciful comic inventiveness shines through.

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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.

Bibliographic Note:   Al Hubin includes two earlierr books by Richard Brautigan (1935-1984) in his Crime Fiction IV, those being The Hawkline Monster (1974) and Willard and His Bowling Trophies (1975).

A 1001 MIDNIGHTS Review
by Bill Pronzini


H. C. BRANSON – The Pricking Thumb. John Bent #2. Simon & Schuster, hardcover, 1942. Bestseller Mystery B76, digest-sized paperback, 1946.

   During his Ann Arbor days, Ross Macdonald (Kenneth Millar) was a close friend of H.C. Branson and an admirer of his work. It is easy to see why. Branson wrote literate, meticulously plotted (but flawed) novels in which the emphasis is on deep-seated conflicts that have their roots in the dark past.

   Branson’s detective, John Bent, like Macdonald’s Lew Archer, is less a human being than a vehicle around which to build a narrative, a catalyst to mesh all the elements so that each novel’s final statement becomes clear.

   In The Pricking Thumb, Bent is hired by an acquaintance, Marina Holland, to investigate the disappearance of her stepson, Bob, and the odd behavior of her husband, Gouvion. But when Bent arrives in the small town of New Paget (in an unnamed state, probably Michigan; a sense of place is almost nonexistent), he finds Gouvion dead of an apparently self-inflicted gunshot wound.

   Also found dead this same night are Marina and Gouvion’s doctor, Brian Calvert, under circumstances that suggest the two might have been lovers. It appears to be a case of double homicide perpetrated by Gouvion, who then committed suicide. But there are too many inconsistencies, leading Bent to believe that it is instead a case of triple homicide. His search for the truth takes him along a tangled trail of relationships, old and new hatreds and jealousies, and not a little double-dealing.

   There is a good deal of passion among the characters; unfortunately, there is very little in John Bent or in the writing. Bent is a virtual cipher, about whom we know only that he once practiced medicine. “Someone was feeding one of my patients arsenic,” he says to Marina Holland in the first chapter. “The only way I could cure him was to find out who it was and make them stop, which was a little more difficult than it sounds. At any rate, I ended up with a new profession.” The writing, while well crafted, is so detached and emotionless that the reader tends to lose interest.

   Had Branson possessed more of Ross Macdonald’s talent, had he been able to make Bent more human and sympathetic, had he injected some passion and vividness into his work, he might have become an important figure in the mystery field. As it is, he is chiefly notable not for his work but for his relationship with Kenneth Millar.

   Among his other novels, all featuring John Bent, are I’ll Eat You Last (1941), Case of the Giant Killer (1944), and The Leaden Bubble (1949).

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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 complete John Bent series —

I’ll Eat You Last (n.) Simon & Schuster, 1941.
The Pricking Thumb (n.) Simon & Schuster, 1942.
Case of the Giant Killer (n.) Simon & Schuster, 1944.
The Fearful Passage (n.) Simon & Schuster, 1945.
Last Year’s Blood (n.) Simon & Schuster, 1947.
The Leaden Bubble (n.) Simon & Schuster, 1949.
Beggar’s Choice (n.) Simon & Schuster, 1953.

A 1001 MIDNIGHTS Review
by Marcia Muller


CHRISTIANNA BRAND – Green for Danger. John Lane/The Bodley Head, UK, hardcover, 1945. Dodd Mead, US, hardcover, 1944. US paperback reprints include: Bantam F2858, 1965; Perennial Library, 1981; Carroll & Graf, 1989. Film: General Film, UK, 1947 (with Alastair Sim as Inspector Cockrill).

   Christianna Brand has written mainstream novels, short stories, and juveniles, but she is best known for her detective novels featuring Inspector Cockrill of the Kent, England, County Police. Cockrill (known affectionately as Cockle) is a somewhat eccentric, curmudgeonly fellow — less a character than a catalyst in the cases he solves. He delights in setting up situations that force the murderer’s hand, and the murderer’s identity usually seems quite obvious to the reader, until Brand introduces a twist designed to delight.

   At the beginning of Green for Danger, an unlikely group of characters assemble at a military hospital during the blitz of World War II. Each has his reasons for escaping his previous environment; each has expectations of what this assignment will bring. What none of them suspects is that a patient — the postman who, incidentally, delivered their letters saying they were coming to Heron’s Park Hospital — will die mysteriously on the operating table, and that all of them will come under Inspector Cockrill’s scrutinizing eye as murder suspects.

   The characters are numerous, but Brand nonetheless manages to instill unique qualities that enlist the reader’s sympathy and create dismay at the revelation of the murderer. The solution is plausible, the motivation well foreshadowed, and the evocation of both the terror and fortitude of those who endured the German bombing is very real indeed.

   Inspector Cockrill has also solved such cases as Heads You Lose (1941), Death of Jezebel (1948), London Particular (1952), and The Three-Cornered Halo (1957).

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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 Marvin Lachman


ELISABETH SANXAY HOLDING – Net of Cobwebs. Simon & Schuster, hardcover, 1945. Bantam #26, paperback, 1946 (copies with jackets exist). Detective Book Club, hardcover, 3-in-1 edition. Ace Double G-530, paperback; published back-to-back with Unfinished Crime. Stark House Press, trade paperback, 2004; published with The Death Wish.

   The psychological mystery, along with its first cousin, the film noir, became extremely popular during the mid-1940s. Elizabeth Sanxay Holding had been writing this type of book since the early 1930s, and Anthony Boucher, one of her biggest boosters, was quick to point out her preeminence in this subgenre. Raymond Chandler paid her extravagant praise indeed, saying, “For my money she’s the top suspense writer of them all.” Net of Cobwebs is one of her best books.

   Most of the Holding mysteries involve close family relationships. This is perhaps a carry-over from her early writing days, prior to 1930, when she primarily wrote romantic fiction. Critics Barzun and Taylor disliked the “family wrangling” in her books, but they are in a distinct minority; most fans and critics thought otherwise. In Net of Cobwebs it is his family that is an apparent refuge for Malcolm Drake, a merchant seaman who is recovering from the effects of having had his ship torpedoed.

   He carries the additional burden of guilt regarding the death of one -member. Plagued with nightmares and inability remember, he suffers the further trauma of being the primary murder suspect when a relative who made him her heir is murdered with his medication.

   Though women were generally her protagonists, Holding shows in this book that she has no difficulty in being equally convincing when writing from a male viewpoint, even that of a war veteran. We can accept and identify with Drake as easily as we can with the heroine of another Holding novel using World War II as its background. In The Blank Wall (1947), Lucia Holley seems to to be a typical middle-aged housewife, concerned with writing to her husband overseas and coping with wartime shortages. When a married man “takes up” with her teenage daughter and then is found murdered, Lucia’s life becomes a nightmare. The book, one of her most popular. was filmed in 1949 by Max Ophuls, with Joan Bennett and James Mason, as The Reckless Moment.

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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


EDWARD D. HOCH – The Thefts of Nick Velvet. Mysterious Press, hardcover, 1978. A limited edition of 250 copies was also published in slipcase, numbered and signed by the author, adding the story “The Theft of the Persian Slipper.”

   The best of Edward D. Hoch’s short stories are divided more or less equally among five outstanding series characters: Police Captain Leopold, whose cases are generally of the procedural variety; Rand, the retired spy, who is an expert at solving difficult codes and ciphers; Dr. Sam Hawthorne, a New England country doctor who solves “impossible” rural mysteries in the 1920s and 1930s; Simon Ark, a shadowy figure who claims to be a 2000 year-old Coptic priest and whose detections are tinged with elements of the occult; and Nick Velvet (born Velvetta, but he dropped the last two letters because the name sounded too much like a popular cheese), a master thief with a peculiar code of honor — he will risk his life and freedom to steal any object, no matter how impossible the challenge, so long as the item has no monetary value.

   This quirk alone makes Nick Velvet unique among crime-fiction protagonists, and also makes for some highly unusual, even bizarre, challenges to his professional expertise. “The Theft of the Clouded Tiger,” for instance, in which he is hired (he works by assignment only) to swipe a tiger from a zoo, Or “The Theft of the Silver Lake Serpent,” in which a hotel owner pays him to steal a sea serpent out of a small Canadian lake.

   Or “The Theft from the Empty Room,” in which Nick is evidently hired to steal nothing at all. Some of Nick’s adventures turn into fair-play whodunits in which he is forced to play detective; in others, it is the baffling motives behind the odd things he is asked to purloin that keep the reader guessing; and in still others it is the question “How in the world can Nick possibly accomplish that theft?”

   No matter what type of story it happens to be, it is certain to be wonderfully inventive and entertaining. Hoch’s mastery of the criminous short story is evident in every one of the thirteen entries in this collection.

   Nick Velvet shares one other collection (with Rand, the retired spy): The Spy and the Thief (1971), which has seven stories featuring each character. Simon Ark appears in three collections: The Judges of Hades and City of Brass, both published in 1971, and The Quests of Simon Ark (1985). Also published in 1985 was the first Captain Leopold collection, Leopold’s Way, which contains nineteen stories and a useful checklist.

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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.

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