A 1001 MIDNIGHTS Review
by Bill Pronzini

H. C. BRANSON – The Pricking Thumb. John Bent #2. Simon & Schuster, hardcover, 1942. Bestseller Mystery B76, digest-sized paperback, 1946.

   During his Ann Arbor days, Ross Macdonald (Kenneth Millar) was a close friend of H.C. Branson and an admirer of his work. It is easy to see why. Branson wrote literate, meticulously plotted (but flawed) novels in which the emphasis is on deep-seated conflicts that have their roots in the dark past.

   Branson’s detective, John Bent, like Macdonald’s Lew Archer, is less a human being than a vehicle around which to build a narrative, a catalyst to mesh all the elements so that each novel’s final statement becomes clear.

   In The Pricking Thumb, Bent is hired by an acquaintance, Marina Holland, to investigate the disappearance of her stepson, Bob, and the odd behavior of her husband, Gouvion. But when Bent arrives in the small town of New Paget (in an unnamed state, probably Michigan; a sense of place is almost nonexistent), he finds Gouvion dead of an apparently self-inflicted gunshot wound.

   Also found dead this same night are Marina and Gouvion’s doctor, Brian Calvert, under circumstances that suggest the two might have been lovers. It appears to be a case of double homicide perpetrated by Gouvion, who then committed suicide. But there are too many inconsistencies, leading Bent to believe that it is instead a case of triple homicide. His search for the truth takes him along a tangled trail of relationships, old and new hatreds and jealousies, and not a little double-dealing.

   There is a good deal of passion among the characters; unfortunately, there is very little in John Bent or in the writing. Bent is a virtual cipher, about whom we know only that he once practiced medicine. “Someone was feeding one of my patients arsenic,” he says to Marina Holland in the first chapter. “The only way I could cure him was to find out who it was and make them stop, which was a little more difficult than it sounds. At any rate, I ended up with a new profession.” The writing, while well crafted, is so detached and emotionless that the reader tends to lose interest.

   Had Branson possessed more of Ross Macdonald’s talent, had he been able to make Bent more human and sympathetic, had he injected some passion and vividness into his work, he might have become an important figure in the mystery field. As it is, he is chiefly notable not for his work but for his relationship with Kenneth Millar.

   Among his other novels, all featuring John Bent, are I’ll Eat You Last (1941), Case of the Giant Killer (1944), and The Leaden Bubble (1949).

   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 complete John Bent series —

I’ll Eat You Last (n.) Simon & Schuster, 1941.
The Pricking Thumb (n.) Simon & Schuster, 1942.
Case of the Giant Killer (n.) Simon & Schuster, 1944.
The Fearful Passage (n.) Simon & Schuster, 1945.
Last Year’s Blood (n.) Simon & Schuster, 1947.
The Leaden Bubble (n.) Simon & Schuster, 1949.
Beggar’s Choice (n.) Simon & Schuster, 1953.