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.

   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.