February 2021

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).

   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.



WILKIE COLLINS – The Woman in White. Low, UK, hardcover, 1860. Harper, US, hardcover, 1860. First published in serial form in 1859–60, appearing in Charles Dickens’ magazine All the Year Round (UK) and Harper’s Weekly (USA)

THE WOMAN IN WHITE. Warner Brothers, 1948. Alexis Smith, Eleanor Parker, Sydney Greenstreet, Gig Young, Agnes Moorehead, John Abbott and John Emery. Screenplay by Stephen Morehouse Avery, from the novel by Wilkie Collins. Directed by Peter Godfrey.

   The ending is a bit cumbersome, but Wilkie Collins’ novel is a genuine Victorian masterpiece of plot and counter-plot, with lively characterizations throughout and a plot that defies synopsis.

   Briefly, the tale unspun in Woman in White involves Laura Farlie, a lovely young heiress, her almost-as-lovely and much-smarter companion, Marian Halcombe, and a mysterious young woman who resembles Laura, wandering about dressed in white — hence the title of the piece.

   All three ladies become enamored to one degree or another with art teacher Walter Hartright, but all three become the intended prey of the insidious Count Fosco and the ruthless Sir Percival Glyde.

   What follows is a panoply of melodrama, with false heirs and heiresses, secret agreements, lingering illness, the odd murder and involuntary impersonation, secret societies, death by fire….

   The wonder of it is that under Collins’ skillful pen it all reads much better than it sounds. The smooth prose and Dickensian characters kept me enthralled with this long after my willing suspension of disbelief had crashed to the floor.

   I should also add that among the characters, Count Fosco comes off the most compellingly. Rotund, loquacious, charming and venomous, he almost seems as if, writing in 1859, Collins foresaw the coming of Sydney Greenstreet and wrote the part just for him.

   Small wonder then that Greenstreet appeared as Count Fosco in the Warners film of 1948. Indeed, he is the linchpin of a sumptuous production with an excellent cast, despite the truncations of plot, and the unfortunate miscasting of Gig Young as the lead (A capable actor, but try to picture Bogart in Pride and Prejudice to get my drift.) the film is splendidly faithful to the tone and feel of Collins’ classic. Agnes Moorhead, John Abbott and John Emory sparkle in supporting roles, and Sydney Greenstreet was born to play the porcine, mellifluous Count Fosco. The fast resolution is a definite improvement on the book.

   But I found myself most intrigued by the happy ending, which (WARNING!) finds our hero and heroines vaguely landing in some sort of merry menage-a-trois. Oddly apt in view of Colins’ feelings about marriage (He spent his later years in the company of two ladies.) but surprising in a Hollywood film of its time.


   Did I tell you I am planning on starting up a chewing gum recycling factory? I just need a little help to get it off the ground.

RUSSELL D. McLEAN “Coughing John.” PI Sam Bryson #3. First published in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, July/August 2005. Collected in The Death of Ronnie Sweets (and Other Stories); see below.

   PI Sam Bryson’s base of operations is the small town of Dundee, Scotland, and while “Coughing John” is in many ways a small story, it is also one that is long on attitude and introspection. Dead is a homeless man whom everyone noticed, but whom was also part of the landscape, and when he was found dead, it is only Sam who puts any effort into finding his killer.

   Kids on the street who were simply bored, perhaps? Once Sam learns that the dead man’s name was John Woodrow, an actual name, he knows he needs closure, and the only way to do that is to find out who it was who was responsible for his death.

   As I said before, this is not a long story, but it may get under your skin as deeply as it does Sam Bryson. I’ve already purchased a copy of the collection, which I’m sure is the best way to find out more about the fellow, and after reading this story, I’d like to do so.

      The Sam Bryson series –

The Death of Ronnie Sweets. Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, June 2004.

Dudman’s Word. Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, December 2004.

Coughing John. Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, July/August 2005.

Regrets. Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, December 2005.

Like a Matter of Honour. Thrilling Detective, Fall 2006.

What Friends Are For. Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, April 2008.

Her Cheating Heart. Spinetingler Magazine, Summer 2008.

Davey’s Daughter. Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, September 2008.

Flesh and Blood. Collateral Damage, 2011.

The Water’s Edge. Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, November 2015.

Collection: The Death of Ronnie Sweets (and Other Stories). Independently published, 2011, Kindle; paperback, 2017. Includes all of the stories above except “The Water’s Edge.”



CHARLES EXBRAYAT – A Ravishing Idiot. Popular Library, US, paperback, 1965. Originally published in France as Une Ravissante Idiote (1962); translated by Peter Sourian.

UNE RAVISSANTE IDIOTE. France, 1964. Released in the US as Agent 38-24-36 (Seven Arts, 1964). Brigitte Bardot, Anthony Perkins, Gregoire Aslan. Screenplay by François Billettdoux, based on the novel by Charles Exbrayat. Directed by Edouard Molinaro.

   Harry was suffering from the worst of the Capitalists’ diseases: he was in love and he dreamed of giving the girl a Rolls Royce, a mink coat, and a cottage in Dorset — ideas, which had the Kremlin known about them, would have classified him as a hopeless reactionary.

   Harry Compton (Piotr Sergievitch Miloukine) is a Russian agent in London who is in love with the beautiful and very blonde Miss Penelope “Penny” Lightfeather, who it seems is Harry’s ticket into the Admiralty for a mission from Moscow run by Armenian restaurant owner Ter-Bagdassarian to uncover the recently completed British Naval plan to attack the Russian bases in the Baltic known as Avalanche.

   Moscow is desperate to uncover Avalanche, Ter-Bagdassarian is ruthless in his plans, and Harry and Penny are key to his success — poor devil, because his serious spy mission has just landed in the middle of a screwball comedy romance.

   The problem is Russian spy and traitor Harry is head over heels in love, and not overly bright or overly loyal, and Penny, well, Penny is her own way is a genius, or a lightweight flake, or possibly the finest agent in the British Secret Service, or just possibly all those things and more.

   In France where this was first published the book won the Gran Prix du Roman d’Advenures and was a bestseller so it isn’t surprising it was tagged to be filmed with Brigitte Bardot as Penny, Anthony Perkins as Harry, and Gregoire Aslan as the Armenian.

   Like the book the film is a fairly slight affair, a souffle rather than a main dish, and dependent on the viewers patience watching Miss Bardot look like Miss Bardot and Mr. Perkins mugging attractively as the inept spy Harry.

   I’ll grant I find the movie amusing, but I have no real problem with anyone who complains the souffle falls flat or that Bardot and Perkins aren’t quite enough to leave them satisfied. As comedy spy films go it is more romantic comedy than spy film and lacks even the relative excitement of a similar American souffle like the Doris Day/Richard Harris Caprice (which at least has a good opening).

   All things considered it is mostly a vehicle for Bardot to look like Bardot while Perkins mugs.

   That is enough for me, but I won’t argue with anyone who does not find it so.

   â€œBut of course I forgive you! You’re so funny…always asking me to forgive you without ever telling me what it is you want me to forgive.”

   … Penny tells Harry, and that pretty much sums up the film. I forgave it without ever being exactly sure why.

   The book is much more successful all around, written by a firm hand at keeping the reader turning pages for barely fifty thousand spare words since neither the conceit nor the story could stand up to one more paragraph than what is there, but manage to hold up playfully for its exact length.

   The book even manages to build a bit of suspense, which is more than the film does. It is a quick, literate, and very funny read thanks to its attractive leads, and the film only fails to the extent it doesn’t manage to send up the whole spy thing with the same panache, but handles that end of things all too ham-handedly. Harry is mindful of one of the hapless heroes of one of Graham Greene’s lighter entertainments and Penny is a delight on paper, less so on film.

   The film needed to be The Tall Blonde Man With One Red Shoe, but is too busy mugging to rise to that level. The book manages that delicate balancing act with precision.

   I liked the one, and was surprised how much I loved the other.


THE CLOUDED YELLOW. Carillon Films, UK, 1950. Jean Simmons, Trevor Howard, Sonia Dresdel, Barry Jones, Kenneth More. Director: Ralph Thomas. Currently available on YouTube here.

   Booted out of the British Secret Service after a long career but one failed mission, the only work ex-Major David Somers (Trevor Howard) can find is that of cataloguing the butterfly collection of the husband half of a couple living out in the country. (The title of the film refers to a particular specimen of butterfly.) It’s a relaxing job, but not quite what Somers was looking for.

   One mitigating factor, though, is the couple’s niece, Sophie Malraux (played to perfection by the always exquisitely beautiful Jean Simmons), who has been living with them since she was six. As the couple confide to Somers, the reason she often acts in such a “muddled” fashion, she that she was the first on the scene when she found the dead bodies of her parents, a murder-suicide, he is told.

   Then when the couple’s gamekeeper is found murdered, all the evidence points to Sophie. Not believing it for a minute, the obviously smitten ex-major and Sophie go on the run, all around England and constantly only a step or two ahead of the authorities. It is here, of course, where many reviewers bring up Alfred Hitchcock as an obvious point of comparison, and The 39 Steps in particular.

   Not so fast, I said to myself, however. The Clouded Yellow is good but certainly not that good. It’s fun to watch, but the first third moves awfully slowly, and the girl-and-guy-on-the-run story that follows has plot holes galore – not serious ones, but if you’re fond of picking nits in the movies you watch, you will find lots of nits to pick in this one.

   Please don’t take this comment too much to heart. Both the acting and the photography are fine, and any movie with Jean Simmons in it is well worth your time. My time, anyway, any time.




VANISHING ACT. CBS / Richard Levinson–William Link Productions, 04 May 1986. Mike Farrell, Margot Kidder, Fred Gwynne, Graham Jarvis, Elliott Gould. Teleplay by Richard Levinson & William Link, based on a play by Robert Thomas. Director: David Greene. Can currently be seen on YouTube.

   Harry Kenyon (Mike Farrell) is on his honeymoon in the Rocky Mountains after a whirlwind romance in Las Vegas with a woman named Christine Prescott. But their wedded bliss is soon interrupted and Harry reports her disappearance to Lieutenant Rudameyer (Elliott Gould), a New Yorker more interested in eating a corn beef sandwich specially imported from a delicatessen on West 87th Street. It seems to be a fuss over nothing as Christine (Margot Kidder) is quickly found – only Harry doesn’t recognize her and refuses to believe she’s his wife!

   Christine is convincing, however, and knows everything about both herself and Harry. Her reasons for disappearing are also plausible and readily supported by local priest Father Macklin (Fred Gwynne). Adding to his frustration, Harry can’t be sure whether the woman is crazy or a confidence trickster, though his frustrated protests make everyone else think it is he who is unhinged.

   This seems even more likely as the priest dies before his eyes and later reappears. Soon, Harry learns the truth of the affair, but this only plunges him even deeper into a conspiracy of which there is no escape.


   This was a made-for-television film featuring a line-up of familiar faces headed by M*A*S*H actor Mike Farrell. He brings an endearing everyman quality to the role of Harry, a fellow who veers from disputatious confusion to occasional bursts of triumph as he struggles to prove himself right.

   Interestingly, unlike similar films, we aren’t asked to question his sanity. Margot Kidder (Lois Lane in the Christopher Reeve-starring Superman films) is on sparkling form and veers effectively from innocently concerned spouse to roguish femme fatale. Herman Munster himself, Fred Gwynne, also appears as a politely perplexed priest who may know more than he’s letting on.

   Elliot Gould, meanwhile, is reliably excellent, appearing here as his 1970s film career (including a shot at playing Phillip Marlowe in The Long Goodbye) had shifted to the small screen where a couple of failed sitcoms led him to several one-off television dramas. As Rudameyer, he is not a million miles away from that other ramshackle lieutenant, Columbo, also from teleplay writers William Link and Richard Levinson.


   This film could have fit snugly into that series. It is, however, a remake of two previous TV films and a tangled list of other antecedents including the brilliant British noir Chase a Crooked Shadow, a couple of 1940s radio plays and a French play titled, among other things, Trap for a Lonely Man. It’s this which is officially credited for Vanishing Act, though all are plausible influences. It has also sprouted several foreign language remakes, most recently the 2019 Malaysian horror thriller Misteri Dilaila, which didn’t acknowledge this heritage.

   Anyone familiar with these versions may recognize the final twist as a variation on a theme, but for others it will be genuinely jaw-dropping, surely leaving them interested, maybe even outright eager, to see the film again in order to espy any hidden significances. With the exception of one or two minor holes which could have been easily exorcized, the plot holds together admirably well, stocking itself with surprises, mild comedy and an army of red herrings. A pleasingly puzzling mystery, this is one of the best films of its kind.

Rating: ****



ELSPETH HUXLEY – Murder on Safari. Superintendent Vachell #2. Harper & Brothers, hardcover, 1938. Perennial, US, paperback, 1982; Penguin, US, paperback, 1989. First published in the UK by Methuen, hardcover, 1938.


   From its map endpapers to its satisfying conclusion, this is a very good book:

   For the fan of the classical fair play detective novel, it includes plenty of mystery, good physical clues, and even footnotes showing the reader where the key points were mentioned earlier in the story. For readers interested in the interaction of. character, the story describes a diverse group of Englishmen and Englishwomen whose greed and lust provide the motives. For those interested in setting, Murder on Safari has excellent descriptions of the African plain in the mythical country of Chania.

   Above all, Huxley knows how to make a story move. The book begins with Superintendent Vachell of the Chania CID being persuaded to pose as a .Great White Hunter in order to discover who has stolen Lady Baradale’s jewels. But then murder rears its ugly head – very ugly indeed, as Lady Baradale is shot and her body picked by vultures, While investigating the murder, Vachell is attacked by a stampeding buffalo and he survives a plane crash – no armchair detecting for Elspeth Huxley.

   I have lost track of the volumes in the current reprint series, but if Murder on Safari is not included, some publisher should sense a good thing and make it available again.

– Reprinted from The Poison Pen, Volume 4, Number 5/6 (December 1981). Permission granted by Doug Greene.


Editorial Update: As it turns out, the book was reprinted in paperback soon after this review appeared (Perennial, 1982); and not only that, but a few years later on once again (Penguin, 1989).

      The Superintendent Vachell series –

Murder at Government House. Methuen 1937
Murder on Safari. Methuen 1938
Death of an Aryan. Methuen 1939



YOU ONLY LIVE ONCE. United Artists, 1937. Sylvia Sidney, Henry Fonda, Barton MacLane, Jean Dixon, William Gargan, Jerome Cowan, Chic Sale, Margaret Hamilton, Warren Hymer, Guinn ‘Big Boy’ Williams. Directed by Fritz Lang. Currently streaming on Amazon Prime, Criterion Channel and other platforms.

   An early entry in the “lovers on the run” crime film subgenre, You Only Live Once blends American sentimentalism with German Expressionist fatalism to a largely successful effect. Eschewing the gritty realism of Warner Brothers’ prison films for a more nuanced, psychological portrayal of a man caught up in a Kafkaseque predicament, the movie is too early chronologically to be properly considered a film noir. Nevertheless, it definitely contains numerous thematic elements which would become hallmarks of films noir in the 1940s; first and foremost, a doomed protagonist.

   Here, it is ex-convict Eddie Taylor (Henry Fonda). He is, as far as the audience can tell, an everyman just trying to get by in a cold world. At first glance, Taylor doesn’t have any particular character traits which would distinguish him from many other men. This is on purpose. But as the film progresses, the audience is made aware of one very salient fact; namely, that his first encounter with the legal system stemmed from an incident with frogs.

   But not in the way one might think. As a child, Taylor apparently watched another boy being horribly mistreating a frog. It upset him so much – the cruelty of it all – that he attacked the potential future sociopath. This sent him to on a path no longer of his own making. Shipped off to reform school, Taylor never once was able to get his life on track. All for protecting a helpless creature.

   Taylor explains the frog story to his new wife, the electrifyingly innocent Jo Graham (Sylvia Sidney). As he tells her that frogs cannot stand to live alone, the camera pans to a close up of two frogs living side by side. The symbolism may be a little too on your nose, but it works. Eddie and Jo are made for each other. They can’t survive apart.

   After Eddie is accused of a bank job that leaves six people dead, Jo does everything she can to support her one true love. But it’s too much for even intrepid public defender Stephen Whitney (Barton MacLane) who is, among other things, her boss. The story contains numerous twists and turns, invoking fatalism at nearly every corner. Just as you think things are going to look up for Eddie, everything goes dark again.

   The final fifteen minutes or so of the movie showcases Eddie and Jo reunited for the last time. Lovers on the run, hiding out from the law. But there’s no glamour, no romanticism in their perilous journey through the backroads of a rapidly transforming America. It’s just about surviving day to day. Frogs united together in a cruel, unjust world until the very end.




E. C. R. LORAC – Fell Murder. Inspector Robert Macdonald. Collins Crime Club, UK, hardcover, 1944. Poisoned Pen Press / British Library Crime Classics, US, trade paperback, January 2020.

   The fell country of Yorkshire is lovingly drawn by Lorac in this first story of Chief Inspector MacDonald’s encounters with these quiet, reserved farmers. The Garths have farmed here for generations. Now, in wartime, the farm is inhabited by old Mr. Garth, a tyrant in his family; his son Charles, home from Malaya because of the war; his daughter Marion, who farms as well as a man; and his son by his second marriage, Malcolm, who is lame. A Land Army girl, Elizabeth Meldon, works with them. Another son, Richard, was driven away by his father when he married the daughter of a tenant farmer,

   As the book opens, he has come back, his wife and child dead. He is there only to take a look, not to see the family, but the land. Marion is angry with her father because he won’t allow her to use modern farm methods; Charles, because his father works him bard and pays him nothing. Malcolm is a poet, something his father has no sympathy for. Then the old man is killed.

   There is a plethora of motives but little hard evidence against anyone, MacDonald arrives from Scotland Yard, and his own quiet ways put him in tune with the local people, who had been annoyed with the local inspector. Careful detective work brings about a solution that satisfies the mind, though my emotions protested a second, unnecessary death.

– Reprinted from The Poison Pen, Volume 4, Number 5/6 (December, 1981). Permission granted by publisher/editor Jeff Meyerson.


Editorial Update: While E. C. R. Lorac wrote over 40 books in her Inspector Macdonald series, it wasn’t until the recent burst of interest in vintage detective fiction that anyone could obtain copies to read. With several presses working overtime to get nice-looking reprints back in the hands of readers, it’s good to see a large number of Lorac’s books available again — and like this one, for the first time in this country. (And extremely cheaply, too, if you can read books on a Kindle.)

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