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