1001 Midnights


A 1001 MIDNIGHTS Review
by John Lutz

   

K. C. CONSTANTINE – The Man Who Liked to Look at Himself. Mario Balzac #2. E. P. Dutton, hardcover, 1973. David R. Godine, paperback, 1987.

   Rocksburg, Pennsylvania, police chief Mario Balzic, despite misgivings, is persuaded by the new commander of the state troopers, Lieutenant Minyon, to accompany Minyon on the first day of hunting season. Balzic isn’t crazy about Minyon, and hunting (animals, that is) isn’t Balzic’s favorite pastime.

   Things go wrong. Minyon’s prize Weimaraner bites him in the hand while they are in the car on the way to the hunt. Then the dog causes even more problems for Balzic by rooting around in the woods and finding a human bone. Balzic is given the task of discovering who is missing, and finding the rest of the body.

   The someone missing turns out to be Frank Gallic, the partner in a discount meat business with Balzic’s friend Micky Samrnara. Sammara and his sister Tina have been operating the business for almost a year while waiting for Gallic to return. Minyon decides that Mickey had something to do with Gallic’s disappearance and arrests him, prompting Balzic to hire feisty Mo Vukanas, a local lawyer with a burning dislike for state troopers, to defend Sammara.

   This is offbeat crime fiction, written in a readable, literate style, tightly plotted and with believable, very human characters in familiar settings. Constantine knows how to maintain suspense. He lets it unfold to a logical and satisfying conclusion.

   Equally offbeat and worth reading are the other Mario Balzic novels, which include The Rocksburg Railroad Murders (1972), A Fix Like This (1975), the acclaimed Man Who Liked Slow Tomatoes (1982), Always a Body to Trade (1983), and Upon Some Midnight Clear (1985).

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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.

   

UPDATE: There have now been 17 books in Constantine’s “Rockburg” series, through 2002. I do not believe that Mario Balzac has been in all of them, or if so, only tagentially. #12 in the series, Good Sons (1996) is described thusly: “Detective Rugs Carlucci is the likely successor to Police Chief Mario Balzic…,” but in #13, Family Values (1997), Balzic is called back into service.

A 1001 MIDNIGHTS Review
by Barry N. Malzberg

   

RICHARD CONDON – Mile High. Dial Press, hardcover, 1969. Dell, paperback, 1970.

   In his strongest work — The Manchurian Candidate (1959), Winter Kills (1974) — Richard Condon has shown an unerring ability to find the hub throughout which the threads of American corruption, desire, insanity, politics, dread, and dreams pass, and to find that precise point of convergence which indicates that the history (and future) of the culture is as coherent and malevolent as death; in his weakest work, Condon has been a Boy Scout leader mumbling increasingly repellent horror stories around a fire to the wide-eyed troops, trying to give them a thrill at whatever cost.

   Mile High is somewhere in the middle. It is as paranoid as The Manchurian Candidate but lacks its purity; it runs out of plot two-thirds of the way through and has to make do with an imposed and inauthentic suspense melodrama. Condon believes his generalities here but cannot pay attention to the particulars.

   The premise is audacious, wholly workable, and possibly even correct (as correct as the brainwashed-and-programmed-human-time-bomb premise of The Manchurian Candidate, or the presidential-assassination premise of Winter Kills): American Prohibition was virtually the single-handed creation of one rich and brilliant businessman who knew that it would be great for the illegal liquor business and used his. modest inherited assets to build a network that, in its complexity, virtually overtook the country. When Prohibition finally collapses, Edward Courance West is worth many hundreds of billions of dollars (and it is his consolidation of widely held assets into hard cash that causes the depression).

   West, however, is an unstable personality; abandoned by his mother, a. dark Italian, in his childhood, he must replicate the abandonment by wreaking terrible vengeance upon his black mistresses. His psychosis leads to murder and to his. removal from American society to a mile-high palace in the central Adirondacks. Here, aging, monumentally rich, safe and mad, West raves to his lifelong manservant, Willie Tobin, of the Communist peril and the rise of “the terrible black hordes” that are his alone to combat. (There is not a cause of the lunatic right to which he will not subscribe millions of dollars.)

   Good enough to this point (or bad enough), and a serviceable, often terrifying roman à clef of several figures in mid-century American life; but there is an imposed and highly coincidental subplot dealing with the black artist wife of West’s second son (the point of view character of the unnecessary middle section of the novel) who reminds West of his mother and of the black women in whose image murder was committed.

   Having run out its exposition and its implication, Mile High turns into a somewhat clumsy (and clumsily transparent) novel of menace and oversimplifies ultimately; West’s “insanity” is the hole through which the book’s true implication and terror drain. West becomes merely a symbol, and unfortunately, the novel “symbolic” rather than the horrifying near-documentary that Winter Kills is.

   Still, Condon’s pacing, portentousness, and Clemens-like contempt for the human condition come  through and sustain the narrative. At half its 160,000-word length, Mile High might have been a tormented, glacial vision: a century of history compressed to nightmare.

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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 Crider

   

MICHAEL COLLINS – Blue Death. Dan Fortune #7. Dodd Mead, hardcover, 1975. Playboy Press, paperback, 1979.

   Blue Death finds Dan Fortune a little less introspective than in his earlier cases, but with no less of a passion for the truth. Once more he is brought into a case for a simple $50 fee, and once more he finds himself with more than he bargained for. What appears a simple matter – locating the member of a giant corporation who has the power to sign a lease agreement for a parking lot – turns out to involve quadruple murder.

   Along the way Fortune is beaten, drugged, and nearly starved, but he cannot be scared off the case. He suspects that a member of the corporation is blackmailing another member for murder, and his chain of reasoning is correct. All the facts fit. Unfortunately, he finds that he has been on the wrong track entirely, and before he is able to bring things to a close, the fourth murder occurs.

   The amoral world of the large corporations comes under savage attack in Blue Death; its members appear virtually unassailable in their complacency and power, and even in the end one cannot be sure that justice will be served.

   But justice is not always the point, or at least not justice under the law. Fortune is still looking for the perfect world where we are all free to run ourselves, and sometimes he gives others that chance. As in Act of Fear (reviewed here) the ending may not be entirely satisfactory, but it is appropriate. Anyone looking for the best in private-eye writing in the Chandler/Macdonald vein will appreciate any title by Michael Collins.

   Other notable books in the Dan Fortune series include The Brass Rainbow (1969), Walk a Black Wind (1971), The Nightrunners (1978), and Freak (1984).

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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 Marcia Muller

   

WILKIE COLLINS – The Moonstone. Tinsley, US, hardcover, 1868. Harper, US, hardcover 1868. Serialised in Charles Dickens’s magazine All the Year Round and in the US in Harper’s Weekly, circa 1868. Reprinted many times in both hardcover and soft. (The book has probably never been out of print.) Adapted many times for the stage, movies, radio, TV, comic books and (!) a podcast.

   (William) Wilkie Collins was one of the most popular and accomplished writers of the nineteenth century, and The Moonstone is an early classic of the suspense genre. Like Collins’ other criminous works, it contains elements that later became staples of mystery writing: a purloined gemstone, carefully secreted clues, obtrusive red herrings, sinister Indians who lurk threateningly in the background, a blighted love affair, several shakily constructed alibis, numerous cliff-hanging scenes, and a mysterious suicide. Although complicated, the plot is well constructed and the reader’s interest seldom flags.

   The yellow diamond known as the “moonstone” was stolen from an Indian religious idol by John Herncastle, a man who chose to ignore the story of bad luck following the diamond should it be removed from the possession of the worshipers of the moon god. Upon Herncastle’s death, the gem was willed to his niece, Rachel Verinder, and the young lady is about to receive it when the story opens (after a prologue and two tiresome chapters filled with background material).

   The diamond disappears, of course, on the night Rachel is presented it by solicitor Franklin Blake. And when Inspector Cuff of Scotland Yard appears on the scene, some clues point to Blake, while others indicate Rachel has secreted away her own diamond for some unknown and possibly unbalanced reason.

   The story proceeds, divided into two periods, respectively titled “The Loss of the Diamond” and “The Discovery of the Truth” (which in itself is divided into eight narratives), plus an epilogue. In spite of these numerous sections, each broken into various chapters narrated by different characters, the reader finds himself as determined as Cuff to learn the truth. Who are the Indians? Was this caused by the curse of the moonstone? Will Rachel find happiness? Such questions are ever in the forefront. And when the end is finally reached, all clues are tied up, all questions are answered, and — yes — Rachel does find happiness.

   Collins’ other works are not nearly as well known as The Moonstone, but a number are just as engrossing and stand the test of time equally well. These include The Woman in White (1860), which seems to have been Collins’ personal favorite; and The Queen of Hearts (1859), a collection that contains the cornerstone humorous detective story “The Biter Bit.”

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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 Crider

   

MICHAEL COLLINS – Act of Fear. PI Dan Fortune #1. Dodd Mead, hardcover, 1967. Bantam H4369, paperback, 1969. Playboy Press, paperback, 1980.

   Dennis Lynds, using the name Michael Collins, is writing one of the very best of the contemporary private-eye series. All the novels under the Collins name feature Dan Fortune, a one-armed detective who operates out of the Chelsea district of New York City. Fortune’s handicap sets him apart and makes him vulnerable; he is also introspective and compassionate, a believer in absolute truth, a man who is driven to find the answers. Act of Fear, Fortune’s first novel-length case, won an Edgar for Best First Mystery of the year.

   Act of Fear begins, like many mystery novels, with a missing person. Fortune is hired by a young man to find a missing friend. Apparently the friend has good reason to be missing, and Fortune soon discovers that he is not the only one looking. The elements of the case include the mugging of a cop, two murders, and the savage beating of Fortune’s client. The plotting, as in all the Collins books, is intricate, with Fortune following an the threads to their sometimes frayed ends. His fee for the entire case is $50; he spends much more than that in solving it, but once he is involved, he has to find out the truth.

   As usual in Collins’ work, the book has a serious theme, in this case the difficulty of being true to oneself no matter what the consequences. It would be difficult to say that the ending is satisfying, but it is “right” in the sense that it is the only ending appropriate for the story that Collins tells.

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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 John Lutz

   

MAX ALLAN COLLINS – True Detective. St. Martin’s, hardcover, 1983 Tor, paperback, 1986; ibooks, paperback, 2003. Thomas & Mercer, softcover, 2011.

   In True Detective, Collins has created a brilliantly evocative period novel set in depression year 1933, Chicago, His hero, Nate Heller, is a cop who refuses to succumb to prevailing corruption on the police force. (This is a tightly woven blend of fact and fiction.) When Nate becomes involved in the shooting of gangster Frank Nitti, the corruption closes in on him. His testimony as to what happened in Nitti’s office during the shoot-out is vital to several parties; and given the climate of time and place, they all assume that Nate is for sale.

   Nate isn’t, as he explains to his pal, boxer Barney Ross. With no alternative to dishonesty other than to quit the police department, Nate goes private, working out of an office, complete with a Murphy bed, above Ross’s saloon.

   Nate has trouble and he has enemies, among them Chicago’s corrupt Mayor Cermak, the mover and shaker of the 1933 World’s Fair, and former vice president General Charles Gates Dawes, not to mention the unnamed but sufficiently dangerous Al Capone. It’s a good thing that Nate also has allies like Eliot Ness, Franklin Roosevelt, and even young sportscaster Dutch Reagan.

   The writing style here is hard-boiled and literate, and the novel is illustrated with black-and-white photographs of the book’s true-life characters and of depression-era Chicago. So artfully are photographs matched with text that they add wonderfully to the painstakingly created atmosphere of that almost-lost time.

   This novel won the Private Eye Writers of America Shamus Award as 1983’s best private-eye novel, and deservedly so. A lovingly and often elegantly written novel, this is marvelous entertainment and a must read for every fan of private eye fiction.

   A second Nate Heller adventure, True Crime (1984), involves the detective with J. Edgar Hoover and an FBI plot against the infamous John Dillinger, and is every bit as evocative and entertaining as True Detective. More Heller novels are planned for the future.

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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 Update: There are now 20 books in the series, the most recent being Do No Harm (2020), in which Heller finds himself involved in the Sam Shepard case, which in real life occurred in 1954. (I believe that all of Heller’s cases have appeared in chronological order, both his time and our time.)

A 1001 MIDNIGHTS Review
by Art Scott

   

MAX ALLAN COLLINS – Kill Your Darlings. PI Gat Garson. Walker, hardcover, 1984. Tor, paperback, 1988. Thomas & Mercer, softcover, 2012.

   Max Allan Collins is not merely a writer of mystery novels (and of the Dick Tracy comic strip); he is also a mystery scholar, collector, and fan. This book, third in a series featuring his detective alter ego, Mallory (like Collins, a mystery collector, fan, and writer from a small town in Iowa), is an “inside” story about mystery fans and fandom. It takes place at the Bouchercon, the annual convention for mystery fans and writers. (By a remarkable coincidence, Collins sets the story al the same Chicago hotel where the 1984 convention was actually held.)

   The murder victim is Roscoe Kane, a veteran paperback mystery writer, His once-popular detective, Gat Garson, is out of fashion, and Kane is on the skids. He’s at the con to receive an award from the Private Eye Writers Association, but drowns in the bathtub – an apparent accident – before the presentation. Mallory, Kane’s friend and fan, isn’t satisfied by the medical examiner’s hasty verdict and noses around, suspecting that Kane’s death might be linked to the upcoming publication of a “lost” Hammett Continental Op story.

   In an introduction, Collins makes the disclaimer that his fictional Bouchercon attendees, writers and fans, are mostly composites of real characters. However, initiates will have little trouble identifying many of them, including a self-absorbed guest of honor named Keats – the creator of a sensitive-macho private-eye character. Other inside jokes and fan tributes are scattered throughout; e.g., Collins’s borrowing of a gaudy metaphor from Spillane’s Vengeance Is Mine in the climactic shooting scene.

   This fast-moving and inventive novel is the newest addition to the very small subgenre of fandom mystery novels. Two others are Bill Pronzini’s Hoodwink (murder at a pulp collector’s convention) and Edward D. Roch’s Shattered Raven (murder at the MWA Awards Banquet).

   Mallory is also featured in The Baby Blue Rip-Off (1983), No Cure for Death (1984), and A Shroud for Aquarius (1985).

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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: Add to the books in the Mallory series: Nice Weekend for a Murder (1986).

A 1001 MIDNIGHTS Review
by Bill Pronzini

   

AGATHA CHRISTIE – And Then There Were None. Dodd Mead, hardcover, January 1940. Pocket Books #261, US, paperback, 1944. Prior serialization in the Saturday Evening Post in seven parts from 20 May to 01 July 1939 Published first in the UK (Collins, hardcover, November 1939). Reprinted in both countries many times in both hardcover and paperback. Numerous film adaptations, beginning with And Then There Were None in 1945.

   Perhaps the most famous of all of Dame Agatha’s novels, this is both a masterful cat-and-mouse thriller and a baffling exercise for armchair sleuths – a genuine tour-de-force. And like all of her best work, it has inspired countless imitations and variations – the ultimate compliment for any crime novel and crime-novel writer.

   Ten men and women, none of whom know one another, are either invited or hired to spend a weekend on isolated Indian Island off the Devon coast. Their host is someone calling himself “U. N. Owen” (Unknown), and it soon becomes apparent that he is either a separate individual who is hiding somewhere on the island or that he is one of the ten. Each guest harbors some sort of dark secret or past indiscretion that makes him or her a target for homicide. And one by one, they begin to die in bizarre and frightening ways that loosely coincide with the ten verses of the nursery rhyme “Ten Little Indians,” wherein lies the novel’s primary clue.

   But there is no detective, professional or amateur, here; no one left at all, in fact – except the reader – to explain the murders when the weekend (and the book) draws to a close. Thus And Then There Were None is a perfectly apt title.

   The effects of the novel are multiple: a gradually mounting sense of terror and suspense that binds reader to chair; a skillful shifting of suspicion from one individual to another, principally through the introduction and manipulation of red herrings; in-depth characterization (not always Christie’s long suit); and a surprising denouement that perhaps justifies one critic’s judgment of the novel as “the ultimate in whodunits.”

   And Then There Were None was filmed three times: in 1945, 1965, and 1975. The first of the three versions, directed by René Clair and starring Barry Fitzgerald, Walter Huston, and Louis Hayward, is by far the best and most faithful to the novel – a small classic in its own right.

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   Slightly revised 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

   
G. D. H. and MARGARET COLE – Knife in the Dark. Collins, UK, hardcover, 1941. Macmillan, US, hardcover, 1942.

   G. D. H. and Margaret Cole were extremely prolific writers between the two world wars: individually and collaboratively, they published well over two hundred books of fiction, nonfiction, and verse. G. D. H. was a prominent social and economic historian; his five-volume A History of Social Thought is considered a landmark work. Dame Margaret is best known for her biographies of Beatrice Webb and of her husband (The Life of G. D. H. Cole, 1971).

   The Coles co-authored more than thirty “Golden Age” detective novels, beginning with The Brooklyn Murders in 1923, and six volumes of criminous short stories. Knife in the Dark is their next to last novel, and the only one to feature Mrs. Warrender as its protagonist. “A naturally trim and tidy old lady,” Mrs. Warrender is the mother of private detective James Warrender (who affectionately calls her, among other things, “an incurably meddling old woman”). She is also solidly in the tradition of such “little old lady” sleuths as. Miss Jane Marple and Hildegarde Withers, although less colorful than either of those two indefatigable crook-catchers.

   Knife in the Dark takes place at a mythical ancient English university, Stamford, during the dark days of World War II. Kitty Lake – wife of Gordon Lake, a teacher of Inorganic Chemistry whose mother is a cousin of Mrs. Warrender’s – is stabbed to death during an undergraduate dance which she herself arranged. Any number of people had a motive to do away with the mercurial Kitty, who had both a mean streak and a passion for other men; the suspects include her husband, an RAF officer, a young anthropologist, a strange Polish refugee named Madame Zyboski (who may or may not be a Nazi spy), and a dean’s wife whom James Warrender describes as “an awful old party with a face like a diseased horse and a mind like a sewer.”

   Like all of the Coles’ mysteries, this is very leisurely paced; Kitty Lake’s murder, the only one in the book, does not take place until page 104, and there is almost no action before or after. Coincidence plays almost as much of a role in the solution as does detection by Mrs. Warrender (who happens to be staying with the Lakes at the time of the murder); and the identity of the culprit comes as no particular surprise.

   For all of that, however, Knife in the Dark is not a bad novel. The characters are mostly interesting, the university selling is well-realized, and the narrative is spiced with some nice touches of dry wit. Undemanding fans of the Golden Age mystery should find it diverting.

   Mrs. Warrender’s talents are also showcased in four novelettes collected as Mrs. Warrender’s Profession (1939). The best of the four is “The Toys of Death,” in which Mrs. W. solves a baffling murder on the south coast of England.

   The Coles also created three other series detectives, none of whom is as interesting an individual as Mrs. Warrender. The most notable of the trio is Superintendent Henry Wilson of Scotland Yard, for he is featured in sixteen novels, among them The Berkshire Mystery (1930), End of an Ancient Mariner (1933), and Murder at the Munition Works (1940); and in the collection of short stories, Superintendent Wilson’s Holiday (1928).

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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 Susan Dunlap & Marcia Muller

   

AGATHA CHRISTIE – The ABC Murders. Hercule Poirot #13. Dodd Mead, US, 1936. First published in the UK by Collins, hardcover, 1936. Reprinted many time, in both hardcover and paperback. Film: MGM, 1966, as The Alphabet Murders, with Tony Randall as Hercule Poirot. TV adaptations: (1) As an episode of ITV’s Agatha Christie’s Poirot (1992) with David Suchet as Poirot. (2) BBC, three part mini-series, 2018, with John Malkovich as Hercule Poirot

   Agatha Christie has long been acknowledged as the grande dame of the Golden Age detective-story writers. Beginning with her moderately successful The Mysterious Affair at Styles (1920), Christie built a huge following both in her native England and abroad, and eventually became a household name throughout the literate world. When a reader – be he in London or Buenos Aires – picks up a Christie novel, he knows exactly what he is getting and has full confidence that he is sitting down to a tricky, entertaining, and satisfying mystery.

   This enormous reader confidence stems from an effective combination of intricate, ingenious plots and typical, familiar characters and settings. Christie’s plots always follow the rules of detective fiction; she plays completely fair with the reader. But Christie was a master at planting clues in unlikely places, dragging red herrings thither and yon, and, like a magician, misdirecting the reader’s attention at the exact crucial moment. Her murderers – for all the Christie novels deal with nothing less important than this cardinal sin – are the Least Likely Suspect, the Second Least Likely Suspect, the Person with the Perfect Alibi, the Person with No Apparent Motive. And they are unmasked in marvelous gathering-of-all-suspects scenes where each clue is explained, all loose ends are tied up.

   As a counterpoint to these plots, Christie’s style is simple (even undistinguished). She relies heavily upon dialogue, and has a good ear for it when dealing with the “upstairs” people who are generally the main characters in her stories: the “downstairs” people fare less well at her hands, and their speech is often stilted or stereotyped.

   Christie, however, seldom ventures into the “downstairs” world. Her milieu is the drawing room, the country manor house, the book-lined study, the cozy parlor with a log blazing on the hearth. Like these settings, her characters are refined and tame, comfortable as the slippers in front of the fire – until violent passion rears its ugly head. Not that violence is ever messy or repugnant, though; when murder intrudes, it does so in as bloodless a manner as possible, and its investigation is always conducted as coolly and rationally as circumstances permit. One reason that Christie’s works are so immensely satisfying is that we know we will be confronted by nothing really disturbing, frightening, or grim. In short, her books are the ultimate escape reading with a guaranteed surprise at the end.

   Christie’s best-known sleuths are Hercule Poirot, the Belgian detective who relies on his “little grey cells” to solve the most intricate of crimes; and Miss Jane Marple, the old lady who receives her greatest inspiration while knitting. However, she created a number of other notable characters, among them Tuppence and Tommy Beresford, an amusing pair of detective-agency owners, who appear in such titles as The Secret Adversary (1922) and Postrn of Fate (1973); Superintendent Battle of Scotland Yard, who is featured. in The Secret of Chimneys (1925), The Seven Dials Murder (1929), and others; and the mysterious Harley Quin.

   The member of this distinguished cast who stars in The ABC Murders is Hercule Poirot. Poirot is considered by many to be Christie’s most versatile and appealing detective. The dapper Belgian confesses gleefully to dying his hair, but sees no humor in banter about his prized “pair of moustaches.” And yet he has the ability to see himself as others see him and use their misconceptions to make them reveal themselves and their crimes.

   A series of alphabetically linked letters are sent to Poirot, taunting him with information about where and when murders will be committed unless he is clever enough to stop them. The aging detective comes out of retirement, he admits, “like a prima donna who makes positively the farewell performance … an infinite number of times.” Is the murderer a madman who randomly chooses the victim’s town by the letter of the alphabet, or is he an extremely clever killer with a master plan? And why has he chosen to force Poirot out of retirement?

   These questions plague Poirot’s “little grey cells” as the plot thrusts forward and then winds back on itself time and time again. Well into the novel, Christie teases the horrified reader by introducing a coincidence that looks as if it will solve the cases, then snatches it back, dangles another possibility, snatches that one back, too. And so on, until the innovative and surprising conclusion is reached. Poirot is al his most appealing here, and Christie’s plotting is at its finest.

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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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