1001 Midnights


A 1001 MIDNIGHTS Review
by Thomas Baird

   

EDMUND CRISPIN – The Glimpses of the Moon. Gervase Fen #10 (of 11, including two collections). Gollancz, UK, hardcover, 1977, Walker, US, hardcover, 1978.

   Gervase Fen, Oxford professor of English language and literature, who it seems spends more time being detective than don, is the creation of Edmund Crispin, who in actual fact is Robert Bruce Montgomery. Montgomery was an organist, choral-music composer, and wrote background music for many movies. Humorous passages about the plight of composers and musicians appear in some of the Fen adventures in major and minor keys.

   The Fen tales are academic (with Latin quotations and private jokes) but markedly satirical, and sometimes tumble into farce. Julian Symons said that “at his weakest he is flippant, at his best he is witty.”

   Fen is energetic, even frenetic, and when he gets going on the case, the narrative zips right along. If you like humor mixed with your crime, then all nine Gervase Fen novels will be of interest.

   Two collections of short stories have also been praised, but they are not as good as the novels. They are fair but flat, dependent on gimmicks, and Fen doesn’t really have room to operate.

   In The Glimpses of the Moon, Fen is on sabbatical from Oxford to write the book on the postwar British novel, and is not particularly interested in hearing about a two-month old murder that the police had handily solved, getting their man. Fen’s interest in the case is finally piqued when the second dismembered body is discovered and he realizes the head he has been toting about in a potato sack is the wrong one (of three).

   Beneath an apple tree where Fen is perched, the situation comes to a head in the pandemonious collision of a hunt, hunt saboteurs, a motorcycle scramble, a burglar’s getaway, a herd of cattle driven to pasture, a scouting helicopter, and police hurrying to arrest a miscreant. The fun almost pushes the investigation into the back seat.

   Crispin writes excellent set-piece scenes where the characters make exhibitions of themselves, and Glimpses is peopled by a superabundance of eccentrics: A retired cavalry man who loathes horses, a failed foreign correspondent, an anti-popish rector in drag, a gray bureaucrat from the power board, a laconic rustic, a mad-scientist pathologist, a reclusive publican, a horror-movie-music composer, a brooding pig farmer and his nymphomaniac wife, lively and deadly policemen, even an electric power pylon come to life — all set against a background of tranquil village life in peaceful Devon.

A 1001 MIDNIGHTS Review
by Karol Kay Hope

   

JOHN CREASEY – The Insulators. Dr. Palfrey #30. Hodder & Stoughton, UK, hardcover, 1972, Walker, US, hardcover, 1973. Manor 12311, US, paperback, 1975.

   One could speculate that John Creasey was really a trademark for some kind of bizarre writing machine secreted away in the English countryside. In reality, he was an individual who produced some 560 books under more than twenty pseudonyms over a forty-year period. Some writers are prolific. Creasey was incredibly so. No other mystery writer can boast of such an output.

   On the other hand, if you are writing to a rigid formula, as Creasey did, you can probably put a plot together during a TV commercial. Your characters are set and good; all you have to do is imagine a catastrophe that is suitable to the talents and circumstances of one of your heroes, and off you go. That is, if you have a mind with the inventive bent of Creasey’s — and more ideas per minute than most people entertain in a lifetime. That was Creasey’s real forte — the number and variety of his ideas.

   Under his own name-he also wrote under such pseudonyms as Gordon Ashe, Michael Halliday, J. J. Marric, and Jeremy York. Creasey created four basic heroes. Two — Richard Rollison (“the Toff”) and Superintendent Roger West — are involved with domestic crime, bringing to justice or disgrace bad boys and girls within the British borders. The other two — Dr, Palfrey and Gordon Cragie — are world travelers; they worry about international villains, the kind that alone or, usually, in gangs lust for world domination.

   The Insulators features Dr. Palfrey and the men of Department Z5. From the start we know the good guys are going to win. If they don’t, the world is going to blow up, and Creasey was the kind of writer who would never let that happen. He takes us to the brink, however, showing us the kind of absolute evil that exists in the world.

   The “insulators” of this title are a gang of mad scientists/power mongers who have discovered a magic gas that can insulate humans against atomic radiation. With that as a tool, along with the requisite bombs, they try to blackmail every world government into total capitulation.

   Department Z5, the good guys, is a gang of   international policemen headed by our hero, Dr. Palfrey — sort of a cross-cultural crime-fighting organization that pools its resources and its talents in times of world crisis. They come together in a fantastic effort to keep these scientists from erasing human misery through enslaving the world’s population.

   There are too many weaknesses in this plot, although it is  entertaining. How many of us can believe that the bad guys could build underground nuclear arsenals all over the world without anybody noticing? And it’s also hard to believe in Z5; Creasey’s good guys are just too good.

   Other titles about the men of Z5 include Traitors’ Doom (1970), The Legion of the Lost (1974), The Voiceless Ones (1974), and The Mists of Fear (1977).

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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

   

FRANCES CRANE – Death-Wish Green. Random House, hardcover, 1960. No paperback edition.

   Pat and Jean Abbott, a private investigator and his wife, are returning to foggy San Francisco from a weekend in the sun. As they reach the toll plaza of the Golden Gate Bridge, they spot a familiar car being inspected by highway patrolmen and the local police.

   The car, which was abandoned on the bridge, belongs to Katie Spinner, daughter of friends of the Abbotts, and it appears she has jumped off the bridge. Jean Abbott, however, is not convinced the girl committed suicide; and when Pat is hired by Katie’s aunt to investigate the disappearance, it becomes apparent Katie is still alive.

   The Abbotts, who often work as an investigative team, focus on bohemian North Beach, one of the last places Katie was seen before she started across the bridge. There they encounter an art-gallery dealer with a taste for Zen Buddhism and opium; a model who calls her favorite color “death-wish green,” and dies wearing it; a mysterious stranger with a large auburn beard who was seen with the missing girl in a coffeehouse; and errant sons and daughters of some of the city’s wealthiest and most respected families. For all Pat Abbott’s investigative skills, in the end it is Jean who sees most of the action and carries the day.

   Frances Crane’s descriptive powers are considerable, and the sense of place — particularly of the fog and its effect on San Francisco — is powerful. Her secondary characters are well drawn and indeed far more vividly drawn than either Pat or Jean. Jean, the narrator/observer, remains just that, and we come away without really having gotten to know her. Pat, the detective, is merely a figure going through investigative motions.

   Frances Crane has written many other novels, all of them with colors in their titles, featuring the Abbotts. Among them are The Amethyst Spectacles (1944), The Buttercup Case (1958), and The Amber Eyes (1962). In addition to San Francisco, they are set in such locales as Tangier (The Coral Princess Murders, 1954); New Mexico (Horror on the Ruby X, 1956); and New Orleans (The Indigo Necklace, 1955).

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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

   

JONATHAN CRAIG – Morgue for Venus. Pete Selby #2. Gold Medal #582, paperback original, 1956. Cover by Barye Phillips. Belmont Tower, paperback, 1973.

   The popularity of the radio and television series Dragnet was responsible for the publication of several series of police procedurals in the middle 1950s. The best-known of these, and certainly the longest-lived, is Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct series, but another, almost equally good, came from Jonathan Craig. Craig’s work has now faded into undeserved obscurity, possibly because he chose to tell his stories through a first-person narrator, Pete Selby, and thus did not. develop the gallery of characters that McBain did.

   All the cases handled by Selby and his partner, Stan Rayder, have strong overtones of kinky sex, and Morgue for Venus is no exception. The squeal begins when a body is fished from the East River. The body is that of a young woman wearing stockings and a dress, but no underwear. The case is immediately complicated by the fact that the girl has no known enemies but has apparently been associated with criminals, specifically burglars who attempted to rob the photography studio where she was working.

   The robbery and the murder are tied together, but just how is not clear to Rayder and Selby. Eventually, however, the crime is solved by painstaking police work. Craig has a good narrative sense; the story’s pace never lags, even when Craig is working in the details of police routine and procedure that form an integral part of the novel. His dialogue is crisp, and the characters encountered by the detectives in the course of their investigation are interesting and convincing.

   All the books in the Selby series are worth looking for, including The Dead Darling (1955), Case of the Cold Coquette (1957), Case of the Beautiful Body (1957), Case of the Petticoat Murder (1958), and Case of the Nervous Nude— “all she wore was a terrified expression” (1959).

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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

   

GEORGE HARMON COXE – Murder with Pictures. Kent Murdock #1.  Knopf, hardcover, 1935. Dell #101, paperback, mapback edition, 1945; Dell #441, paperback, 1950. Perennial Library, paperback, 1981. Film: Paramount, 1936, with Lew Ayres as Kent Murdock.

   This is Coxe’s first novel and introduces news photographer Kent Murdock, who works for the Boston Courier-Herald and moves with seeming ease through the various strata of that city’s society — stumbling over corpses with predictable regularity. As this first adventure opens, the jury has just delivered an acquittal in the Nate Girard murder trial.

   Murdock is on the job, snapping pictures; but later his concern with Girard turns personal, when he encounters his estranged wife, Hestor, with the former liquor racketeer at a celebratory party. Hestor won’t give Murdock a divorce, in spite of a year’s separation; Murdock wants out of the marriage, and he calls on Jack Fenner to help him.

   But before that situation even begins to be resolved, Girard’s attorney, Mark Redfield (who is to receive a $50,000 fee for his client’s acquittal), is murdered, and Murdock finds himself sheltering a girl he has noticed at the victory party — a stranger who bursts into his apartment while he is taking a shower and jumps in with him.

   Quickly Murdock is back on the job at the scene of the lawyer’s murder. And he soon uncovers a tangle of lies, infidelity, and intrigue that involves the dead man’s wife; a “man-about-town” named Howard Archer; Archer’s sister Joyce; gangster Sam Cuslik (whose brother Girard was accused of murdering); a “cheap punk” named Spike Tripp; Girard; and Hestor herself. By the time he has untangled this mess, Murdock has found the solution to more than one killing — and a unique way to resolve his marital problems.

   This is a typical Coxe novel, with multiple threads that all tic together in a satisfactory manner at the end, and a love interest spiced with sex that seems oddly innocent by current standards.

   Kent Murdock is also featured in, among others, The Camera Clue (1937), Mrs. Murdock Takes a Case (1941), The Fifth Key (1947), Focus on Murder (1954), and The Reluctant Heiress (1965).

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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

   

GEORGE HARMON COXE – Fenner. Alfred A. Knopf, hardcover, 1971. Manor Books, paperback, 1974.

   George Harmon Coxe was an extremely prolific writer whose early work appeared in such pulp magazines as Black Mask, Dime Detective, and Detective Fiction Weekly. His news-photographer hero, Flash Casey, first appeared in Black Mask in the early  1930s, and later Coxe used him in a number of novels, among them Silent Are the Dead (1942) and Error in Judgment (1961).

   His other news-photographer sleuth, Kent Murdock, appears in many more novels than Casey, and is a more fully realized character than the creation of Coxe’s pulp-writing days. Coxe also created series characters Paul Standish (a medical examiner), Sam Crombie (a plodding detective), Max Hale (a reluctant detective), and Jack Fenner (Kent Murdock’s private-eye sidekick who starred in several novels of his own).

   Many consider Fenner the most entertaining of Coxc’s later novels. Although published in 1971, it has the feel of the Forties. (Indeed, the hippie reference seems an anachronism.) Coxe has a simple formal style; he describes his characters but seldom invites the reader to identify with them. Action-oriented readers may find Coxe’s work dull; there is virtually no violence, but rather a charming concern for decorum (another hint of bygone days).

   In Fenner, Coxe begins with heiress Carol Browning’s escape from a state mental institution. (Her husband committed her.) The scene shifts to Fenner’s office, where the husband, George Browning, hires the detective to find his wife. Why, with all her money, did he send her to a state hospital rather than a more tolerable private one? Fenner asks. Browning’s answer is unconvincing. Before Fenner can get to the bottom of this, Browning is murdered-in his wife’s apartment. There’s the hook; expect some good twists and a plausible conclusion. No more, no less.

   Jack Fenner reappears in The Silent Witness (1973) and No Place for Murder ( 1975), as well as playing a role in many of the Kent Murdock novels.

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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 George Kelley & Marcia Muller

   

DESMOND CORY – Deadfall. Frederick Muller, UK. hardcover, 1965. Walker, US, hardcover, 1965; paperback, 1984. Also: Fawcett Crest, US, paperback, 1967.  Film:  1968, starring Michael Caine.

   Desmond Cory (a pseudonym of Shaun Lloyd McCarthy) has published a wide variety of suspense fiction, including espionage novels, detective novels, and thrillers. He has a firm grasp of psychological principles, and his characters show considerable depth. The details of his settings – frequently Spain – are richly evocative and suggest careful research and firsthand knowledge.

   He is best known for his books featuring British agent Johnny Fedora; in five of these, Fedora matches wits with Soviet spy Feramontov. There is a powerful tension in these novels – Undertow (1963), Hammerhead (1964), Feramontov (1966), Timelock (1967), and Sunburst (1971) – and their plots are complex and action-packed.

   One of Cory’s best books, however, is a nifty caper novel, Deadfall. Set in his favorite locale, Spain, it features an unlikely trio of characters: Michael Jeye, an acrobatic burglar; Moreau, a genius who plans jewel heists; and Moreau’s wife, a beautiful and mysterious woman named Fe. As the three work together to steal a fortune in jewels, Jeye finds himself falling in love with Fe. This loss of emotional control is dangerous, both to their plans and to Jeye personally – especially since the relationship between Fe and Moreau is soon revealed to be not exactly as it seems.

   Against a background of professional crime, Cory weaves a thrilling plot with deep psychological undertones. The three complex personalities are caught up in deadly motion, and themes including incest and homosexuality emerge. The pacing of Deadfall is more deliberate than the nonstop action of the Fedora series, and the overall effect is haunting.

   Deadfall was disappointingly filmed in 1968, with Michael Caine and Giovanna Ralli. Other Cory novels notable for their psychological depth are A Bit of a Shunt Up the River (1974), in which a sociopath escapes from prison; and The Circe Complex ( 1975), which deals with a former prison psychologist who finds himself imprisoned for a crime he didn’t commit.

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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

   

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.

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