Reviews


A 1001 MIDNIGHTS Review
by Kathleen L. Maio

   

HOWARD ENGEL – The Suicide Murders. Benny Cooperman #1. St. Martin’s, hardcover, 1984. Penguin, paperback, 1985. Adapted for radio (CBC) and TV (CBC, 1985), with Saul Rubinek starring in the latter as Benny Cooperman.

   Until the 1980s, Canada was not known for its native detective fiction. The Benny Cooperman novels by Howard Engel — along with the work of Eric Wright and Ted Wood — represent the beginnings of a vital new school of crime writing in Canada.

   The Suicide Murders is the first of a series of mysteries starring Benny Cooperman, private eye. Benny is a nice Jewish guy who makes his extremely modest living as a detective in his hometown of Grantham, Ontario. He still goes home to have dinner with his elderly parents at least once a week. He possesses intelligence enough. and the requisite amount of determination. Still, life or a case too often forces him lo play the schlemiel.

   The novel opens with the classic scene of a beautiful woman entering his office and enlisting his aid. Myrna Yates thinks her successful husband may be cheating on her. She hires Benny lo trail him. This simple assignment becomes much more complicated when the seemingly faithful Mr. Yates dies of a gunshot wound to the head soon after buying himself an expensive new bike. The police say suicide. Benny disagrees. His investigation continues. as do the murders, until he brings the case to its sad, satisfying conclusion.

   Benny’s mean streets may be in Ontario and not L.A., but his adventures are still reminiscent of the classic American private eye. He is no tough guy, but he is strong as well as compassionate. The supporting cast of characters, including the murderer, arc also nicely realized.

   Benny Cooperman returns in The Ransom Game (1984), Murder on Location (1985), and Murder Sees the Light (1985).

     ———
   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.

Reviewed by TONY BAER:

   

E. BAKER QUINN – One Man’s Muddle. Heinemann, UK, hardcover, 1936. Macmillan, US, hardcover, 1937.

   James Strange just spent the past four years in prison for manslaughter and morphine dealing in London. He was insinuated with dirty members of Scotland Yard and was selling confiscated drugs as a side gig. It was a pretty lurid scandal at the time, and his face was infamous.

E. BAKER QUINN One Man's Muddle

   Upon release, he’s decided to go straight. So he heads for the nice, quiet village of Cold Spring. No history, no connections, no hassles. A chance to begin again.

   On arriving, first thing he does is run into one of his former junkies. She’s married the local squire, doing pretty well for herself. But still using junk on the sly.

   The junky freaks out on seeing Strange, sensing blackmail, and the squire comes finally to know of her junked out ways.

   And then she’s murdered. With Strange the leading suspect. Strange is forced to become detective again to prove himself innocent and find the one to blame.

   Strange has a compelling voice. Imagine morphing George Harvey Bone (of Hangover Square) with Philip Marlowe. Described as looking like Gary Cooper, sarcastic and witty, but with a flashing psychopathology that scares you enough that you don’t wanna invite him to dinner. Or turn your back.

   It’s a strong, tough, uncompromising piece of work, belonging on a shelf with Hangover Square and Brighton Rock. Long out of print, but worth checking out if you can get your hands on a copy.

NOTE: David Vineyard reviewed it previously here on this blog: https://mysteryfile.com/blog/?p=1369

A 1001 MIDNIGHTS Review
by Newell Dunlap

   

DAVID ELY – Seconds. Pantheon, hardcover, 1964. Signet P2507, paperback, 1964. Harper Voyager, softcover, 2013. Film: Paramount, 1966 (director: John Frankenheimer).

   A prosperous banker leaves his New York office at noon, knowing full well he may never see it again. Following an address on a slip of paper, he takes a cab to a run-down laundry in a slum area of the city. From there. he is directed to a warehouse. From the warehouse. he is taken in the back of a truck to a large office building, and it is here the transition process begins.

   For the banker (soon to be a painter known as Wilson) has elected literally to change his life and be “reborn” as a new man. A surgically altered cadaver shows up in a hotel room and the banker is officially pronounced dead of a heart attack. Meanwhile, we follow Wilson through his own surgical alterations, and before you know it, he has been relocated to California and lo the life of a single. moderately successful painter.

   Wilson cannot relax and enjoy himself, though. His new life strikes him as shallow and meaningless, and he feels an overwhelming desire to visit his wife and daughter. This he does, going against numerous warnings from representatives of the company that gave him his new identity. The company, it seems, creates about 3000 new identities each year, so it has a stake in seeing that no one jeopardizes its operation. Obviously Wilson is one of those people who will never make the transition properly, so he is brought back for further “processing.”

   Few books can match the suspenseful beginning of Seconds, as the reader wonders what in the world is going on. The suspense tapers off when we learn what is going on. but increases again as we begin to wonder what the company will do with the renegade Wilson. As it turns out, Wilson is not the only man who has made an unsuccessful transition-and from a business standpoint, the company’s disposition of these failures makes perfect sense.

   This unusual and nightmarish novel was made into an equally suspenseful John Frankenheimer film in 1966, with Rock Hudson and Salome Jens.

   David Ely has made a career of producing offbeat suspense fiction, both novels and short stories for Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine and such slick magazines as Cosmopolitan. (One of his Cosmo stories, “The Sailing Club,” was the recipient of the 1962 Best Short Story Edgar.) Among his other novels are Trot ( 1963), The Tour (1967), Poor Devils (1970), and the eerie Mr. Nicholas (1974).

         ———
   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.

   

Reviewed by TONY BAER:

   

RICHARD BISSELL – High Water. Little Brown, hardcover, 1954. Signet 1230, paperback, 1955. Minnesota Historical Society Press, softcover, 1987.

   Duke is first mate on a Mississippi tugboat. They’re hauling eight barges of coal upriver during a flood.

   It’s a novel of riverboat adventure with lots of authentic sounding dialogue of rivermen talking about women and weather and why they ended up stuck on a riverboat on the Mississippi.

   They rescue a good-looking woman from the roof of her house. Bad luck, say some. And then the fog rolls in, the steering breaks, and they hit a bridge. The boat starts to sink. And it’s every man (and woman) for themselves.

   A convincing tale. Known for being the book that Elmore Leonard credited as teaching him how to write, along with Hemingway. But where Hemingway lacks a sense of humor, Bissell imbues his characters with jokes, tall tales, loud braggadocio, and quiet ironies. And it ends up sounding less like perfect prose and more like life.

   I enjoyed it.

REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:

   

THOMAS STERLING – Murder in Venice. Dell D270, paperback, 1958. Originally published in the as The Evil of the Day (Gollance Ltd, hardcover, 1955; Simon & Schuster, US, hardcover, 1955). Filmed as The Honey Pot (1967), with Rex Harrison. (See also the comments below, which also include information about a play based on the book that preceded the film, plus a link to the book’s Wikipedia page.)

   A mid-1950s mystery based on a 17th century comedy, and a plot that sneaks up on you.

   For most of its length, Murder in Venice  is a light-hearted and pleasantly venomous re-working of Ben Jonson’s Volpone, as a rich-and-dying old man invites a few well-off friends to brighten his last days while he makes up his mind who to leave his money to. Naturally, with an inducement like that, they come a-sailing up to his doorstep (This is Venice, after all.) bearing gifts and greed. And a whole lot of ill-will towards each other, especially when one of them announces that she was the common-law wife of the near-deceased (whose name happens to be Fox, just to reinforce the Volpone connection) and she intends to inherit or at least muddy as anyone else’s claim if she’s not mentioned in the will.

   I’ll give you one guess who gets murdered, and as many guesses as you’d like as to whodunit: The rich-looking but broke barrister Voltan, the miserly hypocrite Sims, the not-really-dying Fox, his actor-secretary-stage manager William, the ex-wife’s much-abused paid companion Celia, the butler…

   You may even guess right, but I didn’t.

   Sterling’s prose is clear and uncluttered, his characters well-rounded but not overblown, and his Venice colorfully evoked in a few verbal brush strokes. But what really impressed me here was the ingenious plotting, which transforms Murder in Venice from a slavish take-off of a literary classic into a classic mystery. Check it out!

HOTEL ARTEMIS. 2018. Jodie Foster, Sterling K. Brown, Sofia Boutella, Jeff Goldblum, Brian Tyree Henry, Jenny Slate, Zachary Quinto, Charlie Day, Dave Bautista. Director: Drew Pearce.

   Although apparently a bomb at the box office, I haven’t been as cinematicly impressed with a movie since seeing Blade Runner for the first time. Blown away, I was. It takes place maybe 20 years in the future during a riot in downtown Los Angeles over the shortage of water in the city. (Some problems never end.)

   That’s only the background, though. The entirety of the film takes place inside the Hotel Artemis or just outside its entrances or the rooftop. What its exclusive clientele consists of are criminals who pay a membership fee, in lieu of medical insurance, for its top of the art medical facilities.

   Jodie Foster plays the elderly Nurse in charge, in her 60s perhaps, a woman who on the outside is tough and organized and ultra competent. But on the inside, over the night the film takes place in. another part of her personality is revealed, showing a huge weariness, sadness and melancholy resulting from the death of son several years ago.

   There are several additional stories attached to the patients who make their way to the hotel that evening, which I won’t go into, but as the paths of the assorted thieves, paid assassins, illegal arms dealers and general all around bad guys and henchmen begin to crisscross and intersect, it’s quite a dizzying task to keep at all straight who’s doing what to whom and why.

   The linchpin to all this (and don’t forget the massive riot going on outside) is the Nurse, trying to hold everything and (I think you can tell) not panic. And as the action never stops, some secrets are revealed, more than one.

   But if a pregnant police office can get an Oscar in another, totally different and otherwise straightforward crime thriller, my vote for this year’s one would have been for Jodie Foster.

   Watch the trailer. As trailers go, it’s a good one.
   

LOU GRANT “Cophouse.” CBS / MTM. 20 September 1977 (Season 1, Episode 1). Edward Asner (Lou Grant), Robert Walden, Rebecca Balding, Mason Adams, Jack Bannon, Daryl Anderson, Nancy Marchand. Created by James L. Brooks, Allan Burns, and Gene Reynolds. Director: Gene Reynolds.  Currently available on YouTube here.

   I remember watching this on the same night the series premiered, and I know for sure I wasn’t the only one. There have been spinoffs from other TV shows before, but I can’t think of any of them that jarred one’s (well, mine) expectations more. As I’m sure you all know, Lou Grant was Mary’s boss over on her show, which took place in a small TV station in Minneapolis.

   Now that gig is over (I think he may have been fired), Lou is in Los Angeles looking for a job. Thinking of going back to his first love, newspaper work, he tries his hand with the Los Angeles Tribune, where he has an old fiend who might put in a good word for him.

   The task seems daunting – he’s been away too long, and the new gadgetry in the city room makes him feel out of place. The Mary Tyler Show was a comedy, as I’m sure you’ll recall, and the first half of this program seems headed in much the same fashion, in an “old guy, new tricks” sort of story line.

   But once a viewer has settled in an old shoes comfortable way, all of sudden he finds that someone has gone off with his slippers. All of a sudden a story breaks out, a real story, a scandal in the making involving a certain precinct of the police department and some underage girls. The current fellow covering the police beat knows about it, but he’s been covering the beat too long and has become in effect one of the club.

   Should the paper cover the story or not? The owner of the paper says no, but Lou shows some guff and stands up to her, guff the previous Lou Grant, over at the TV station,seldom had. It’s quite a transition, almost from one semi-comic scene to the next one, with Lou in an instant becoming a tough tough city editor not afraid to tackle serious social issues of the day.

   Viewers must have liked it, though. Lou Grant the series was on for five seasons and in that time won all kinds of awards, including 13 Emmys.

REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:

   

W. R. BURNETT – Vanity Row. Alfred A. Knopf, hardcover, 1952. Pennant P7, paperback, 1953 (cover art by Harry Schaare). Stark House, softcover, 2015, with Little Men, Big World. Filmed as Accused of Murder (Republic, 1956); previously reviewed on this blog here.

   I felt the need of a strong sharp draught to rinse the taste of [some recent] fatty prose from my mind, and luckily came across Vanity Row,  by W. R. Burnett. Burnett has not come in for the reappraisal and revival so many of his contemporaries have earned, but he authored some classics: Little Caesar, High Sierra, The Asphalt Jungle, etc. and his writing at it’s best combines the terse energy of Hammett with the raised-eyebrow cynicism of Chandler.

   Though the title sounds like a turgid romance, and the dust jacket seems designed to scare away potential buyers, Vanity Row has its moments. Roy Hargis, known as “the Hangman”, is a Police Captain detailed to the Administration of a midwestern city to cover up problems and dispense rough justice when necessary.

   When a prominent local attorney is apparently rubbed out by out-of-town hoods, Hargis is called in to make a quick arrest– but since the Administration is currently negotiating a Gambling agreement with these hoods, Hargis’s job is simply to find a convenient patsy for the killing, and the late attorney’s jilted mistress seems tailor-made for the part.

   The ensuing tale gets sappy at times, but Burnett keeps it fast, straight, and quite readable. He also manages to make his characters seem quite tough without the usual shoot-outs, beatings and car chases of the genre, with a fast-paced narrative perched right on the edge of violence.

— Reprinted from The Hound of Dr. Johnson #7, May 2000.
A 1001 MIDNIGHTS PI Review
by Robert E. Briney

   

STANLEY ELLIN – The Specialty of the House and Other Stories: The Complete Mystery Tales, 1948-1978. Mysterious Press, hardcover, 1979.

   Stanley Ellin made his first impact on the mystery field as a writer of short stories; and in spite of more than a dozen highly praised novels, it is still as a short-story writer that many readers think of him. This hefty collection contains, in chronological order, all thirty-live of the stories written during the first thirty years of his writing career. All but one of them originally appeared in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, where the author’s “annual story” is still an eagerly awaited event. The first seven stories in the collection, starting with the title story (surely one of the most impressive debuts in the field), were prizewinners in the annual Ellery Queen contests.

   Here we have “The Betrayers,” in which a young man constructs an air-tight solution to the wrong crime; the Edgar-winning fantasy “The House Party”; a second Edgar winner, “The Blessington Method,” with its unique approach to gerontology; “You Can’t Be a Little Girl All Your Life,” the story of a rape and its aftermath; “The Crime of Ezechicle Coen,” with its roots going back to the German occupation of Rome in World War II; “The Twelfth Statue,” a novelette of murder in a Rome film studio; “The Corruption of Officer Avakadian,” concerning doctors who ref use to make house calls; and “The Question,” in which the whole point of the story is compressed into a single devastating three-letter word in the final sentence. The stories vary widely in theme and setting. but exhibit the same polished craftsmanship.

   In his introduction to the volume, speaking of another master of the short story, Guy de Maupassant, Ellin wrote: “Here was a writer who reduced stories to their absolute essence. And the ending of each story, however unpredictable, was, when I thought of it, as inevitable as doom.”

   These words might have been written about Ellin’s own work. When Ellin’s first ten stories were issued in book form under the title Mystery Stories in 1956, the book was praised by Julian Symons as “the finest collection of stories in the crime form published in the past half-century.” With the addition of twenty-five stories and twenty years, the judgment still stands.

         ———
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.

Reviewed by TONY BAER:

   

A. A. AVERY – Anything for a Quiet Life. Farrar & Rinehart. hardcover, 1942. Bantam #38, paperback; 1st printing, June 1946.

   Donovan’s an ad man for a trade magazine in New York City in the late 1930’s. He’s not too into it. What he’s really into is sailing his skiff in the South Seas.

   His best buddy and sailing partner has come into a bunch of money, and a sporting girl has gotten her hooks into him. Not only is she gonna take him to the cleaners, but it’s going to play havoc with Donovan’s sailing plans.

   So Donovan is set with trying to break up the marriage before it happens.

   Turns out the sporting gal is being sicced on Donovan’s buddy by design of some dangerous mobsters.

   The mobsters have a number of fish to fry, only one of which involves Donovan’s buddy.

   The biggest fish set to fry is based on the real-life McKesson & Robbins, Inc. scandal of 1938. Said scandal involved a bogus bootlegging corporation manipulated to merge with a legit pharma company. A fake balance sheet formed the basis for a merger worth millions to the fraudsters passing off the valueless shares of the shell company to the stockholders of the legit one.

   Donovan gets his hands on proof that the balance sheet is fake and aims to leverage this information to sabotage his buddy’s marriage and save both his sailing plans and the shareholders from a soaking.

   If it sounds convoluted, it is. But as convoluted as it is, you don’t have time to think about it — Donovan (and you, dear reader) is too busy being chased by men with guns all thru the city, warding them off by his swift wits and fisticuffs. With the help of a lovely lass he meets along the way (who happens to be not only executive assistant of the pharma company but an excellent sailor to boot!).

   The book is fast as hell and twice as fun. It’s not a book to ponder. But it’s a breathtaking ride.

« Previous PageNext Page »