November 2021

A 1001 MIDNIGHTS Review
by George Kelley & Marcia Muller


FREEMAN WILLS CROFTS – The Cask. Collins, UK, hardcover, 1920, 2019. Seltzer, US, hardcover, 1926. Penguin, paperback, 1946. Dover Publications, trade paperback, 1977, 2019.

   Freeman Wills Crofts’ first novel, The Cask, is considered by many critics, including Anthony Boucher, to be one of the best and most important books in the mystery genre. The prime virtue of this and all the Crofts novels is their tight, logical plotting, in which every detail fits solidly and smoothly.

   His detectives work meticulously to piece the clues together, often in order to demolish a supposedly unshakable alibi; and because they are so logical, the endings are always exceptionally satisfying. Early in his career, Crofts experimented with a number of sleuths, but in his fifth novel,  Inspector French’s Greatest Case (1925), he introduced Inspector Joseph French, who was to appear in most of his subsequent books, Like Crofts’ previous heroes, French is a bit of a plodder who slowly and carefully works his way step by step through the process of deduction to a natural conclusion.

   In The Cask, the plot turns on alibis. When four casks fall to the deck of a ship during unloading, two of them leak wine, one is undamaged, and the last leaks sawdust.This last cask is examined more closely, and gold coins and the fingers of a human hand are found. But before the cask can be completely opened, it vanishes.

   Inspector Burnley of Scotland Yard is assigned to this bizarre case. Using the few clues available to him, he is able to locate the missing cask. And when it is opened, Burnley finds the body of a young woman who has been brutally strangled. There are no clues to the victim’s identity, so Burnley goes to Paris, where the cask was assembled.

   What follows is a detailed, complex investigation, involving timetables, a performance of Berlioz’s Les Troyens, and a group of suspects with a multitude of motives.

   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.



THE CLIMAX.  Universal Pictures, 1944. Boris Karloff, Susanna Foster, Turhan Bey, Thomas Gomez, Gail Sondergaard, George Dolenz, June Vincent, Ludwig Stossel, Scotty Beckett. Screenplay by Curt Siodmak and Lynn Starling based on the play by Edward Locke. Directed by George Waggner.

   What do you do when you have lavish opera house sets left over after making a major production like Universal’s remake of The Phantom of the Opera with Claude Rains in the lead?

   If you are Universal Studio in the Forties you make another horror movie with an operatic background capitalizing on those sets, film it in Technicolor as you did the first, and fill it with familiar faces and best of all a famous horror star to lead, Boris Karloff.

   The Climax for reasons unknown to me is one I had never even heard of before, much less seen, and while it is, like the Claude Rains Phantom, as much musical romance with comedy elements as horror or mystery, it is still well worth seeing for it handsome sets, and variations on the original.

   We know from the beginning, so no spoilers are involved, that Dr. Friedrich Hohner (Karloff) the physician who cares for the performers at the opera house murdered the beautiful soprano Marcellina (June Vincent) and hid her body using the secret passage between the opera and his nearby dwelling so it appeared she ran off. He was her rejected lover, and furious that her voice gave her such fame it was taking her away from him.

   He is, of course, quietly mad in only the way Boris Karloff could be quietly mad, but it is nice to see him getting to be so in white tie and tails in beautiful Technicolor lush surroundings and not so much as a mad scientist hair out of place. He must have appreciated the change too because there is no sense of overacting to his subtle, and more threatening for it, killer even when he finally cracks.

   I suppose for many that was a drawback, but I for one appreciated the break.

   Enter the beautiful soprano Angela Klatt (God that name!) played by Susanna Foster and her musical coach and young want to be lover Franz Munzer (Turhan Bey). They are auditioning at the opera house operated by director Thomas Gomez when Hohner overhears Angela singing exactly as Marcellina did and passes out in a dead faint.

   Not too shocking considering he murdered her to silence that hated voice.

   Gomez, who is of course having trouble with his annoying current Diva Jarmilla (Jane Farrar) and obsequious tenor (George Dolenz), is delighted to have such a great talent at hand and immediately cast her in a key role in his current production. Her debut is brilliant, and with its success Gomez determines to produce again the opera Marcellina was to star in when she disappeared.

   But unknown to any of them the night of her debut Hohner convinces Angela to come back to his office where he must examine her after her performance and there he hypnotizes her telling her only he can control her voice and gives her a spray which reinforces his hypnotic suggestion each time she uses it.

   When she leaves he goes upstairs to the locked room where the beautifully preserved body of Marcellina is kept on a filmy tier among lush satin curtains and swears he will destroy the voice that once took her away from him again.

   At the press affair announcing the new production her voice does fail, and Karloff suggests she must stay with him while she recovers. But of course under his hand she does not recover.

   Munzer is suspicious though. With the help of old soldier and opera employee Carl Bauman (Ludwig Stossel) Munzer sets out to free Angela though he has no idea from what exactly. When Gomez reluctantly cancels Angela’s performance, Munzer and Carl, using Carl’s status as a highly decorated soldier get the boy king (Scotty Beckett) to order Angela perform at a command performance.

   With the help of Carl and Hohner’s housemaid (Gale Sondergaard) who had been Marcellina’s maid and worked all these years for Hohner hoping to prove he murdered her mistress, Munzer gets Angela away from Hohner and summons the police.

   At the opera Munzer smashes the bottle of throat spray freeing Angela from Hohner’s hypnotic grip, but just as she begins to sing Hohner overpowers Carl and …

   For most of you, I assume there will be far too much light operatic singing, too many musical numbers, nowhere near enough suspense, horror, or drama, and while attractive neither Bey nor Foster quite romantic enough to compensate, but despite that the film is handsomely produced, well directed and written, and has a certain charm of its own. Sans the big dramatic moments of Phantom I frankly liked it a bit more than the Rains film, maybe because I didn’t have to put up with Nelson Eddy or Edgar Barrier chewing scenery or compare it to the Chaney original.

   It’s a curious little film, something different on Karloff’s resume, and one I suspect he enjoyed filming having a decent budget for once, elegant costume, and no prosthetic make up to suffer under. There is something to be said for getting to see a master flex his muscles without breaking a sweat.


Reviews by L. J. Roberts


S. J. ROZAN – The Art of Violence. Bill Smith/Lydia Chin #13. Pegasus Crime, hardcover, December 2020.

First Sentence: Shifting colors on a monster billboard bled through the April evening mist, showed me a shadow in the alley.

   Chronic alcoholic Sam Tabor has mental health disorders and experiences blackouts, except when he paints. After being convicted of murdering a woman and serving five years in prison, art lovers arrange for Sam’s release. Now, two new women have been murdered and, because of the means of their deaths, Sam fears he is the killer. As a former client of investigator Bill Smith, Sam wants either to be proven guilty of the murders, or absolutely convinced of his innocence.

   A first line, both evocative and threatening, immediately draws one into an unusual premise. Rozan is a joy to read. Her writing is thoughtful and literary with passages of text— “By now, it was half past eight. … All traces of last night’s mist had burned away under the April Sun … This unsullied light, this bright vision, they’re beautiful, but they’re false … It’s not until the day gets older, wearier, that it stops making the effort to lie.” –that contrast to her natural, realistic dialogue with touches of wry humor— “‘Can I pick the restaurant?’ … ‘I’ve heard of it. I don’t think I’m cool enough.’ ‘No, but I am.”

   Characters drive the story, and Bill and Lydia are wonderful characters. Rozan’s books alternate between which character takes the lead, and this is Bill’s turn. Bill is interesting in that he’s a combination of the Golden Age PI with his cigarettes, a bit of the 70’s television PI Banacek with his love of classical music and knowledge of art, but with more contemporary sensibilities in his personal relationship with Lydia and consideration for her mother, as well as his respect for her skills. These elements add dimensions to Bill one might not expect. Lydia plays a secondary role in the story but is still significant to the plot.

   Although his mental illness, beyond OCD, isn’t defined, Sam is the most intriguing character of them all. The description of Sam’s paintings conveys their impact and inspires curiosity but leaves one disquieted. Through him, one sees the absurdity and price of celebrity— “…it had made him famous. He belonged to it now … belonged to didn’t mean ‘fit in with.’ It meant ‘was owned by.” and those who follow it.

   While there is the usual “bad” cop, Rozen counters that with Detective Angela Grimaldi who is tough, thorough, and smart, provides an explanation of the types of serial killers, and who believes in working the evidence to find the killer. And there is Lydia’s traditional Chinese mother who is always a delight.

   One may suspect the killer quite early on. While this is somewhat disappointing, the quality of Rozan’s writing compels one to keep going, and it’s worth it. After all, with very clever twists, additional murders, and the age-old, never-resolved question as to what is art, one’s suspicions may not be accurate.

   The Art of Violence could be considered a low spot for Rozan in that it’s a bit muddled, and not always easy to keep the characters straight. Even so, it does keep one engaged to the end.

Rating: Good.

by Francis M. Nevins


   The first three of the six Maigret novels that Georges Simenon wrote in France while that country was under Nazi occupation were published, as we saw two months ago, in the 528-page omnibus volume MAIGRET REVIENT (Gallimard, 1942). Simenon and his family had moved back to Fontenay-le-Comte from Nieul-sur-Mer before he wrote the earliest of the later trio, SIGNÉ PICPUS, in the summer of 1941. A translation by Geoffrey Sainsbury was issued in England (as TO ANY LENGTHS, Routledge & Kegan Paul 1950, Penguin pb #1225, 1958) but only came to American shores in an edition published a few days before Simenon’s death (MAIGRET AND THE FORTUNETELLER, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich 1989).

   We open on a fiercely hot August evening when Maigret is visited in his office on the Quai des Orfèvres by Joseph Mascouvin, a dull unobtrusive clerk in a firm of estate agents. He claims that he embezzled a thousand-franc note from office funds and then, plagued by second thoughts, dropped into a café for a drink, asked for pen and paper—apparently a common request in French cafés—-and started to write a note of confession to his employers, only to discover on a sheet of blotting paper the reverse image of a message which, using his eyeglasses for a mirror, he was able to read: “Tomorrow afternoon on the stroke of five I am going to kill the fortuneteller.”

   Giving the novel its title, the message is signed Picpus. Maigret takes this bizarre story seriously and has the police keep an eye on the 82 known fortune-tellers in Paris. But at a few minutes after five the next afternoon, a report comes into the Police Judiciaire that a clairvoyant who had flown under the official radar has been found stabbed to death in her apartment.

   Maigret visits the crime scene and finds the door to the kitchen of the apartment locked with no key in sight. When it’s opened by a locksmith, a strange old man is found among the pots and pans. He claims that he was visiting Mlle. Jeanne when suddenly she had heard someone coming and locked him in. Maigret takes the bewildered and frightened old man back to the apartment he shares with his wife and daughter but soon senses something wrong: it seems that the old man, a retired ship’s doctor named Le Cloaguen, is kept locked in his cell-like bedroom, given only enough food to keep him alive, and is not allowed any money when he goes out although the family is living on an annuity of 200,000 francs a year.

   Then Mascouvin suddenly leaps into the Seine and comes near killing himself. Maigret patiently explores the situation—at one point spending a Sunday afternoon at a riverside inn very similar to the one he stayed at in LA GUINGUETTE À DEUX SOUS (1932; translated as GUINGUETTE BY THE SEINE)—and eventually exposes a colossal fraud scheme and a ring of blackmailers. With plenty of Paris atmosphere and a plot more complex than usual (although the astute reader may well intuit at least the fraud part of the plot along with Maigret), this is one of the wartime gems.

   Sainsbury’s translation features a number of noticeable Anglicisms: Maigret wears braces rather than suspenders, and at one point there is fear that a juge d’instruction will kick up a shindy. But I was distracted much more by Sainsbury’s strange habit of italicizing all street names, for no better reason than that they’re French. Are the British locutions and italics preserved in the U.S. edition? Je ne sais pas.


   During the winter of 1941-42 Simenon wrote what we might call the first Maigret novelet. “Menaces de mort” was published as a six-part serial in the weekly Révolution National (8 March-12 April 1942) but until very recently was available in English only on the Web. (It’s now the title story in a new Simenon collection, DEATH THREATS AND OTHER STORIES, Penguin 2021.)

   Like SIGNÉ PICPUS it begins with a threatening note, this one without even a fanciful signature. Constructed out of words from various newspapers, it was delivered to the head of a rag-and-scrap company, predicting that he’ll die on the coming Sunday before 6:00 p.m. Being blessed with thirty million francs and excellent political connections, Emile Grosbois prevails on the Police Judiciaire to supply him with a bodyguard, and Maigret is assigned to accompany the junk dealer to the weekend retreat on the Seine, near Coudray, which he shares with his twin brother, his widowed sister and her son and daughter.

   Calling the Grosbois family dysfunctional would be like calling King Kong a cute little monk. Maigret arrives at Coudray by train on the Saturday afternoon and witnesses roughly 24 hours of vicious infighting among the family members, who uniformly leave him disgusted, but nothing violent happens—until just before 6:00 on Sunday when Emile suddenly keels over on his terrace.

   Maigret recognizes that he’s been poisoned, saves his life by making him vomit, and the story ends, except for a Monday morning recap when the Commissaire explains everything to his boss: “It’s nice to save people but it would be better if they deserved it.” His claim that he knew the truth about the death threat since the get-go must rank as just about the most ridiculous thing he ever said.

   We don’t know whether it was Simenon’s decision to leave this farrago of silliness out of all subsequent French collections of his stories and, until recently, to exclude it from the English language completely, but if so it was a wise move. Luckily it didn’t discourage him from writing more and much better Maigrets of the same length after the war.


   Intent on providing his infant son Marc with a better climate, Simenon had moved his family again, this time to the village of La Faute sur Mer, before May 1942 when the next Maigret was written. FÉLICIE EST LÀ (translated as MAIGRET AND THE TOY VILLAGE, Hamish Hamilton 1978, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich 1979) is lighter in tone than almost any other Maigret, and Simenon liked to cite it as an illustration of his skill as a humorist.

   If he arranged the details of character and setting in “Menaces de Mort” so as to evoke our repugnance, in FÉLICIE he goes to the opposite extreme to make us feel at peace: sunlight, the pleasant odor of flowers, pink brick cottages, twittering birds, le tout monde or, as a Yank might say, the whole nine yards.

   Maigret visits a new housing development outside of Paris, looking into the murder of Lapie, a one-legged retired bookkeeper living on a pension, who was shot to death in the bedroom of his pleasant cottage on a spring morning. Sharing the cottage with him was his 24-year-old servant girl Félicie, “a caricature of a woman out of a storybook….” Maigret describes her as ”thin as a stick, with a pointed nose and a forehead like a nanny goat’s, always decked out in all the colors of the rainbow….”

   She seems to live in a fantasy world, imagining herself alternately as Lapie’s mistress, his illegitimate daughter, a princess incognito, and the heroine of one of those cheap French romance novels Simenon had turned out at dizzying speed back in his early twenties. This weird woman gives Maigret no end of trouble as he hunts for clues, to the point of hiding the murder weapon and slipping off to Paris where she plants it on a stranger in the Métro. (Simenon serves up a huge credibility croissant when he has Maigret and Félicie stop for lunch at the same Paris restaurant where the man on whom she planted the weapon is eating.)

   The murderer never comes onstage for even a moment, and whatever humor the French may have found in these pages—like the Breton accent of a character who says maisong and mossieu, the mano a mano between Maigret and a live lobster, and most of all the interplay between the Commissaire and Félicie—is not likely to make coffee spill out the noses of us Yanks. But Simenon does a fine job creating a rich light atmosphere that generates a sense that the world is an okay place.


   It’s hard to believe the number of moves Simenon and his family were able to make during the years of war and occupation, but we must remember that the author was a wealthy and influential figure even under the Nazis, and that movies based on Maigret novels, starring Albert Préjean as the Commissaire, were being released regularly during the Occupation.

   By early 1943 they had moved from Fontenay to a rented villa in Saint-Mesmin-le-Vieux, about 40 kilometers away. There he spent February and early March writing the sixth and final Maigret novel of the war years, L’INSPECTEUR CADAVRE (translated as MAIGRET’S RIVAL, Hamish Hamilton 1979, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich 1980). The title is the nickname of lugubrious Justin Cavre, a former member of Maigret’s squad who now works as a private detective.

   The Commissaire’s role from first page to last is wholly unofficial as, at the behest of a juge d’instruction, he travels on a dark January day to the marshy little village of Saint-Aubin, in the Vendée 22 kilometers from Fontenay, to look into the death of a young man who was supposedly run over by a train. There have been rumors and anonymous letters claiming that the youth was murdered by Etienne Naud, a local bigwig who happens to be the brother-in-law of a certain juge d’instruction.

   On the train to the village Maigret encounters Cavre and begins to suspect that the ex-cop has been hired on the same case. As usual, the Commissaire sets out to absorb the local environment, checking out rumors that are roundly denied throughout the village—that the dead youth’s bloody cap had been found near the Nauds’ house and that his widowed mother had come into a large sum of money—and trying to process the confession to him by the Nauds’ 20-year-old daughter that she’s three months pregnant by the dead boy.

   After the climactic confrontation scene Maigret returns to Paris with the murder not only officially unsolved but not even recognized as a murder. The plot is rather sloppy, as interested readers may explore by clicking here, but the atmosphere—darkness, ice, mud and cynicism in roughly equal parts—is superbly created.


   The three novels I’ve discussed here were first published in France, along with a number of stand-alone short stories, in a huge omnibus volume simply titled SIGNÉ PICPUS (Gallimard, 1944). American readers didn’t get to see these novels in their own language until generations later. The three mark the end of Maigret’s so-called middle period, followed by a sort of sabbatical during which Simenon wrote no more about the Commissaire until after the war when, fearing that he’d be punished in France for having been too cozy with the Nazis, he emigrated to North America.

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