August 2023

A 1001 MIDNIGHTS Review
                   by Robert E. Briney


CARTER DICKSON – The Curse of the Bronze Lamp. Morrow, hardcover, 1945. Paperback editions include: Pocket 568, 1949. Berkley, 1967. Carroll & Graf, 1984.

   When it became clear that John Dickson Carr’s output of mystery novels — seven novels in less than four years — was more than his original publisher could handle, some of the books were diverted to a second publisher, to be issued under a pen name.

   The first of these pseudonymous works, The Bowstring Murders ( 1933), carried the by-line Carr Dickson. This was a publisher’s error and was quickly corrected to the scarcely less obvious Carter Dickson. Dickson’s series detective, Sir Henry Merrivale (“H. M.”), was introduced in The Plague Court Murders in 1934.

   Like Carr’s Dr. Gideon Fell, H.M. is fat, funny, and formidably intelligent. His appearance and mannerisms arc more reminiscent of Churchill than of Chesterton, who was the model for Gideon Fell. H.M. is more overtly comic: a large, bald, vulgar, and frequently childish figure, fond of practical jokes, continually outraged at the twist of fate that put him in the House of Lords, and full of insults for the government bureaucrats with whom he must deal in his somewhat mysterious capacity as “that astute and garrulous lump who sits with his feet on the desk at the War Office.”

   Almost all of the H.M. stories involve locked rooms or impossible crimes. The centerpieces in The Curse of the Bronze Lamp are a pair of vanishings as startling as any produced by stage illusionists. Helen Loring, daughter of British archaeologist Lord Severn, has been presented by the Egyptian government with a bronze lamp taken from a Twentieth Dynasty tomb.

   An Egyptian fortune-teller, Alim Bey, claims that the lamp carries a curse, and that Helen will be “blown to dust as if she had never existed” if she takes the lamp out of Egypt. Helen returns to England with the lamp, having announced her intention to disprove the curse. Arriving at Severn Hall with friends, Helen gets out of the car and runs ahead of them into the entrance hallway. A few moments later, her raincoat and the bronze lamp are found lying in the middle of the hall floor, and Helen has vanished without a trace.

   Shortly thereafter, Lord Severn arrives from Egypt and disappears from his study in the same fashion, leaving behind his outer clothing-and the bronze lamp. H.M., whom Helen had asked for advice in Egypt (where his encounter with an Arab taxi driver provided a memorable interlude of slapstick humor), is drawn into the case.

   Romantic entanglements, stolen antiquities, the activities of H.M.’s Scotland Yard nemesis, Inspector Humphrey Masters, and the continuing doom-filled prophecies of Alim Bey supply only part of the smoke screen through which H.M. must find his way, which of course he does in satisfactory fashion.

   As always in Carr/Dickson, the clues prove, in retrospect, to have been fairly planted, but it is a rare reader who can recognize them and put all the pieces together ahead of the detective.

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.



DAVID DANIEL – The Skelly Man. Alex Rasmussen #2. St. Martin’s, hardcover, 1995. No paperback edition.

   I thought Daniel’s The Heaven Stone, winner of St. Martin’s 1993 Best First Pl Novel contest, wasn’t really of award quality, though it wasn’t actually bad. I got a copy of this when it came out, but just now got around to it.

   A famous homeboy, the king of late night TV, is returning to Lowell, Massachusetts, and may be bringing trouble with him.. He’s coming to town to kick off a proposed new show, but not everyone’s thrilled. He’s been receiving cryptic threatening messages, and he wants PI Alex Rasmussen to find out who and why, and stop them. The answer is somewhere in the man’s past, but where? And can it be found in time?

   I closed the review of Daniel’s first book with this:  “… but I guess the main problem was that it’s the same old recipe, and the ingredients weren’t special enough to make the end product anything really out of the ordinary.”

   The same could literally be said of this one, but while the earlier review was mostly damning with faint praise, I liked this book somewhat better. It still isn’t anything really exceptional, but it is solid genre fiction. with a decent lead, good first-person prose and narrative, nice sense of place and an adequate plot.

   Bigger names among PI writers haven’t always done that well these last few years.

— Reprinted from Ah Sweet Mysteries #25, May 1996.

      The Alex Rasmussen series —

1. The Heaven Stone (1994)
2. The Skelly Man (1995)
3. Goofy Foot (2004)
4. The Marble Kite (2005)

Reviewed by TONY BAER:


LAURA LIPPMAN – Sunburn. William Morrow, hardcover, February 2018; trade paperback, July 2018; mass market paperback, June 2019.

   Adam Bosk, a Baltimore PI, has been hired to track down Polly Costello. She’s a pretty redhead, mid-30’s.

   He finds her in the High Ho Tavern in Belleville, Delaware. He sits at the bar and tries to connect. She’s got a sunburn.

   Polly’s first husband, Ditmars, was a wife-beating arson detective. Ditmars made an unholy alliance with an insurance broker to underwrite a bunch of insurance policies and burn stuff down, splitting the proceeds.

   Polly wasn’t given much of an allowance from Ditmars, so she entertained herself going to the library film series. One day, the library put on a James M. Cain series, showing Mildred Pierce, Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice. But it was Double Indemnity that got her attention. She loved it. And read the book, becoming a Cain acolyte.

   Polly then took out a big policy on her husband, made their daughter the beneficiary, and made her husband a big turkey dinner, stuffing and mashed potatoes filled with crushed up sleeping pills, and homemade apple pie with whipped cream whipped by hand.

   That night the same hand that did the whipping grabbed a huge kitchen knife and plunged it deep into her husband’s heart.

   She was later pardoned by the governor among a slew of other murderers suffering from battered woman’s syndrome. The governor’s office did a crappy job of vetting her case (the premeditation, the insurance), and later regretted her pardon — but too late. She was free.

   The insurance broker never got his kickback. And hired PI Adam Bosk to spy on her and find out where she was keeping the money.

   But Bosk ends up falling for Polly, just like every other man she’s ever wanted, or needed, or used. And Bosk throws in with Polly, casting both his client and his caution to the wind.

   Polly is even more complicated than she appears to be. And darkness descends. Enveloping Adam Bosk and all else in Polly’s orbit.


   It’s a very well-done modern take on the classic noir tale. If anyone is wondering if noir is still a viable thing, check it out. It’s also interesting to see the femme fatale from a modern female writer’s perspective. She’s ambiguous, lusty and sexy as hell. But she’s also three dimensional and at the end of the day, you can empathize with her in a way that James M. Cain and many of the old timey noir practitioners were incapable.

   It’s a legit noir. And it’s from 2018. So there. It can still be done. And with a fresh take, too. Thanks to Juri Nummelin for the recommendation:

R. A. LAFFERTY – Past Master. Ace H-54. [Ace SF Special, series one.] Paperback original; 1st printing, 1968. Cover by Diane Dillon and Leo Dillon. Reprinted by The Library of America (trade paperback, 2019). Also included in American Science Fiction: Eight Classic Novels of the 1960s (Library of America, hardcover, 2019). Nominated for a Nebula as Best Novel, 1969, and also a finalist for a Hugo as Best Novel, 1969.

   The world of Astrobe was constructed as the realization of Utopia; the people lived in wealth and perfection, yet it was decaying. Rejection of the comfort of the cities led to the settlement of Cathead and the Barrio, huge sores on the planet, where men lived in poverty, disease, and misery.

   The mystery prompts the leaders of the planet to send for Thomas More, the Past Master, to act as world president, to solve the crisis.

   Thomas More was chosen because of his one moment of honesty, but he is the same Thomas Moe who wrote of the original Utopia. A thesis could be written analyzing the parallels, the the Astrobe dream, which one wonders might be confused with the American Dream, is dying with the loss of individuality, with Finalized Humanity, which may mean perfection, or which may mean termination. Life must have challenge and suffering, or mankind cannot be distinguished from the Programmed People.

   Tremendous: Lafferty has his goals set high.

Rating: *****

— April 1968.


Reviewed by TONY BAER:


JAMES R. LANGHAM – Sing a Song of Homicide. Simon and Schuster, hardcover, 1940. Popular Library #63, paperback, no date [1945]. Film: Paramount, 1942, as A Night in New Orleans (with Preston Foster & Patricia Morison; screenwriter: Jonathan Latimer; director: William Clemens).

   Sammy Abbott is a detective working out of the DA’s Office.

   Sammy’s wife went to high school with handsome scoundrel Harvey Wallace.

   She wrote him some pretty juicy love notes back in the day. Juicy enough for public embarrassment. And embarrassing enough that Harvey Wallace tries to blackmail her.

   Turns out that Harvey’s been blackmailing all sorts of people all over town. And people don’t seem to like it too much.

   So when Sammy burglarizes Harvey’s home to retrieve the love letters, he encounters Harvey’s fresh, bloody corpse. It makes him happy and he sings a song of homicide.

   Sammy ain’t the most reliable narrator in the world, and makes a habit of lying to everyone constantly: his wife; his boss; his friends. He’s obviously in it for himself. And it’s never clear to the reader, up til the very end, whether in fact Sammy himself is the murderer.

   Sammy spends half his time half-heartedly investigating the murder and the other half concocting false alibis, planting concocted evidence, and rubbing red herrings across the trail of the police lieutenant in charge of the homicide investigation (a ‘red herring’ is literally a stinky fish that hunters would draw across a fox trail to put an end to their hound’s hunt).

   It’s an amusing shaggy dog tale that kept my attention til the end. But while it makes Ken Bruen’s Top 10 all-time noir list [see Comment #1], I don’t see it. In fact, I don’t even think it’s noir. It’s so light you’re afraid the wind might carry it away. But not too afraid as it would not be that great a loss.

   And I’d be shocked if Langham plotted it out ahead of time. It seems like Langham is just making the thing up as his fingers hit the typewriter keys. Up until the very last second you really wouldn’t be surprised to find out that any one of the innumerable characters ‘did it’ — or even to find that the victim wasn’t really dead. All strings are tied up at the end in a haphazard way by way of Sammy making a wild accusation with a crazy story pulled out of the left field bleachers and the accused simply confessing a la a standard episode of Perry Mason. But it really could’ve been anything or anyone.

   So, yeah. It’s okay. It’s entertaining. But disposable. Infinitely disposable. Lemon jello for the mind.

   A more positive review of the book can be found earlier on this blog here.

   I got my copy from Thriftbooks for $8.00. It was a hardcover in its shirtsleeves (i.e. without the jacket) signed by the author with a note to a local record store owner, wishing that they enjoy the book as much as he likes their records.

   You all know what famous musical this song comes from, don’t you?

   As for Kristin Chenoweth’s version of it, I have only word to describe it, and that is “Wow!”

   From a Q&A newsletter called Quora that comes into my email inbox a few times a week, a question was asked, “What do you think are the four best noir films of all time, ones you would use to introduce the genre to, say, teenagers today?”

   The answer as given, in order:

1. Double Indemnity
2. The Maltese Falcon
3. Laura
4. Detour

   Not a bad list, but what do you think? If you were add a number 5, what would it be?

The Amazing Colossal Belgian:
A Quartet of Christie Expansions
Part 2: “Murder in the Mews”
by Matthew R. Bradley


   “The Market Basing Mystery” (The Sketch, October 17, 1923; The Blue Book Magazine, May 1925) was collected in the U.S. in The Under Dog and Other Stories (1951), and in the U.K. first in Thirteen for Luck! (1966), a catch-all volume for young readers, and then in Poirot’s Early Cases (1974). It was expanded into the title novella (aka “Mystery of the Dressing Case”) of Murder in the Mews and Other Stories (truncated as Dead Man’s Mirror; 1937), which debuted in Redbook Magazine (September & October 1936). With his formidable “little gray cells,” Agatha Christie’s Belgian super-sleuth, Hercule Poirot, perhaps found the mystery itself less baffling than that barrage of appearances and titles!

   First mentioned here, and thought to be based upon Basingstoke and/or Christie’s future home of Wallingford, Market Basing would be the setting for stories and novels featuring Jane Marple, Superintendent Battle, and Tommy and Tuppence Beresford; Poirot himself returned there in Dumb Witness (aka Poirot Loses a Client; 1937). Inspector Japp, while off duty “an ardent botanist,” suggests a weekend with Poirot and Hastings in that “little country town,” where he craves anonymity: “Nobody knows us, and we know nobody.” But Constable Pollard, transferred from a nearby village where he’d met Japp through “a case of arsenical poisoning,” interrupts them over an English breakfast at the local inn.

   He summons them to “rambling, dilapidated” Leigh House, rented eight years ago by the virtual recluse Walter Protheroe, shot through the head; the locked door, bolted windows, and pistol in his hand suggest suicide, but per Dr. Giles, the bullet entered behind his left ear — yet the gun was in his right hand, the fingers not closed over it. There is no obvious motive, with the only apparent suspects his devoted housekeeper of 14 years, Miss Clegg, and his recently arrived guests from London, Mr. and Mrs. Parker. Examining the scene, Poirot focuses on two aspects: the smell — or lack thereof, inconsistent with Protheroe’s being a heavy smoker — and the handkerchief he had carried in his right-hand coat sleeve.

   The former suggests that the window had been open all night, and the latter indicates that he was left-handed; a broken cuff-link found by the body is identified as Parker’s by Miss Clegg, who says they were neither expected nor welcome. A tramp who often slept in an unlocked shed reports overhearing Parker attempting to blackmail Protheroe, revealed as an alias for Wendover, a Naval lieutenant who “had been concerned in the blowing up of the first-class cruiser Merrythought, in 1910.” Put on trial, Parker is cleared by Poirot, who gets Miss Clegg to admit that having found Protheroe a suicide, she blamed Parker, implicating him by repositioning the gun, bolting the window, and planting the cuff-link.

   Almost six times as long as the original, “Murder in the Mews” was adapted in 1989 with David Suchet on Britain’s ITV in Agatha Christie’s Poirot, which unsurprisingly omitted “Market Basing.” The third-person novella features Japp (now a Chief Inspector) but not Hastings, while Pollard and Giles have been supplanted by Divisional Inspector Jameson and Dr. Brett, respectively. This marks Jameson’s only literary appearance; played, as he was in “Mews,” by John Cording, he was interpolated into their 1990 adaptation of “The Lost Mine” (The Sketch, November 21, 1923; The Blue Book Magazine, April 1925) from the collections Poirot Investigates (1925) — here in the States — and Poirot’s Early Cases.

   Taking a shortcut through Bardsley Gardens Mews to Poirot’s flat on Guy Fawkes Night, he and Japp remark that it would be perfect for a murder, since the fireworks marking the plot to blow up Parliament would hide the sound of a shot. The next morning, Japp asks Poirot to accompany him back there when summoned by Jameson to the scene of what at first seemed a suicide; he and Brett, who forced open the door, show them the body.

   The set-up, with the misaligned wound and gun, is the same, but Christie rings her changes on the victim — young widow Barbara Allen, who lives with her friend Jane Plenderleith and is engaged to Charles Laverton-West, “M.P. for someplace in Hampshire” — and suspects.

   Charles, with no apparent motive yet a flimsy alibi, resents being questioned, due less to guilt than to being, says Japp, a “[b]it of a stuffed fish. And a boiled owl!”; housekeeper Mrs. Pierce merely provides a torrent of chatter. Blackmailer Major Eustace met Barbara years ago in India and knew that “having borne an illegitimate child who died at three” she invented a fictitious late husband, a revelation she feared would damage Charles’s career.

   Carried over are the clues of the smokeless room (Poirot invokes Conan Doyle’s “curious incident of the dog in the nighttime,” which did nothing) and cuff link, with a wristwatch replacing the handkerchief, supported by a writing table that has the pen tray on the left.

   Eustace admits visiting Barbara, ostensibly to offer investment advice, but the neighbors report his saying goodbye to her at 10:20; his subsequent movements are accounted for, yet when it is realized that nobody actually saw or heard her half of the conversation from inside the doorway, he is arrested. Confronted with the truth, Jane reluctantly agrees that she cannot let Eustace — already facing a long prison sentence for an unrelated swindle — take the blame for Barbara’s death. Jane admits finding her body and suicide note, which she burned, and restaging the scene to frame Eustace, so despite its title, the case remains, as Japp puts it, “Not murder disguised as suicide, but suicide made to look like murder!”

   Among her clever recombining and expanding of elements, Christie adds one that nicely shows the ingenuity of Jane, who professes first perplexity at the possibility and method of Barbara’s suicide, and then outrage at the notion of murder. Visibly discomfited when asked to unlock a cupboard full of umbrellas, golf clubs, and tennis racquets, she displays anxiety over an attache case containing old magazines and other trivia. She is later seen throwing it into the lake by the golf course, whence it is retrieved, now empty, but this is a superb piece of misdirection: she had diverted their attention to the case when her real concern was Barbara’s left-handed clubs, tossed into the undergrowth along the course.

         — Copyright © 2023 by Matthew R. Bradley.

Up next: “Dead Man’s Mirror.”

Edition cited —

      “The Market Basing Mystery” and “Murder in the Mews” in Hercule Poirot: The Complete Short Stories: William Morrow (2013)

   Even though Kevin Burton Smith says that I assisted him in putting this list of one-and-done PI novels together, it must have been done a while ago, since I don’t remember doing so. I just came across it again this afternoon while scouting around for something else, as one does while wasting Googling away an hour or so online.

   As far as I know for sure, I’ve read only seven of these. What about you? Everyone reading this has read the first three, right? Of the others, which ones have you read that you can recommend? Have any suggestions as to good ones Kevin may have missed?

   Here’s the link:  Do take a look. Lots of cover images to go with it.

Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett (1930)*
Ben Jardinn in Death in a Bowl by Raoul Whitfield (1931)
Karl Craven in Solomon’s Vineyard by Jonathan Latimer (1941)
John J. Shannon in The Private Eye by Cleve F. Adams (1942)
Walter James in Deadly Weapon by Wade Miller (1946)
Steve Lawson in Hard and Fast by U.S. Andersen (1956)
Murray Kirk in The Eighth Circle by Stanley Ellin (1958)
Max Raven in Cain’s Woman by O.G. Benson (1960)
Neal Fargo in Interface by Joe Gores (1974)
The Eye in The Eye by Marc Behm (1980)
Cody in Texas Wind by James Reasoner (1980)
Ralph Poteet in Peeper by Loren Estleman (1989)
Bernardo Thomas in Tropical Murder by Louis Williams
Fritz Brown in Brown’s Requiem by James Ellroy (1981)
“Peekaboo” Frankie Fagan in Bohemian Heart by James Dalessandro (1993)
Ernest DeWalt in An Ocasional Hell by Randall Silvis (1993)
Reno Sloan in The Asylum by John Edward Ames (1994)
George Webb in The Light of Day by Graham Swift (2003)

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