A 1001 MIDNIGHTS Review by Bill Pronzini:


Duell, Sloan & Pearce, hardcover, 1943. Paperback reprint: Dell 127, 1947 [mapback edition].

   Herman Petersen was a prolific contributor to the aviation, adventure, and detective pulps of the Twenties and Thirties; one of his stories appears in the famous “Ku Klux Klan Number” of Black Mask (June 1, 1923). Between 1940 and 1943, he published four crime novels advertised by the publisher of three of them, Duell, Sloan & Pearce, as “quietly sinister mysteries with a rural background.”


   All four are set in an unnamed county in an unspecified part of the country (presumably upstate New York, Petersen’s home base). Three feature a team of more or less amateur sleuths: old Doc Miller, the county coroner; Paul Burns, the D.A.; and the narrator, Ben Wayne, a gentleman farmer. Miller does most of the sleuthing, Burns most of the worrying, and Wayne most of the leg work.

   Old Bones, the last and nominally best of the Doc Miller books, begins with the discovery — by Wayne’s wife, Marian — of a jumble of old bones wedged into the bottom of a standpipe at an abandoned gristmill.

   Before the authorities can remove them, someone else gets there first and tries unsuccessfully to hide them. Doc Miller’s eventual examination and investigation reveal that the bones are those of Nathaniel Wight, a black-sheep member of the district’s leading family; that he died of a crushed skull; and that he has evidently been dead for five years — ever since the night he was banished by old Aunt She, eldest and most imperious of the Wights, who believed he had seduced his cousin Amelia.


   It soon becomes apparent that someone in the Wight family, or someone close to it — perhaps more than one person — is willing to go to any lengths to keep the truth about Nate’s death from surfacing along with his bones.

   Much of the action takes place at or near the mill, and in the swamp that separates it from the Waynes’ farm, known as Dark House. In one harrowing episode, Wayne nearly drowns inside the standpipe; in another he is attacked in the mill loft and superficially stabbed.

   A second murder, the actions of a transient who has been bothering women in the area, a nightmarish stormy-night chase through the swamp on the trail of a kidnapped girl, and a tense and fiery conclusion are some of the other highlights.

   Old Bones drips atmosphere and understated menace. Its mystery is well constructed, with some legitimate detection on Doc Miller’s part; there is a nice sense of realism in the characters; and the touches of folksy humor are adroitly handled.


   The novel does have its flaws: We are told almost nothing about the backgrounds and private lives of the protagonists, people we want to know better; the solution to the mystery comes a little too easily and quickly; and more could have been done with the final confrontation. But the pluses here far outweigh the minuses. This and Petersen’s other servings of fictional Americana are well worth tracking down.

   Doc Miller, Paul Bums, and the Waynes are also featured in Murder in the Making (1940) and Murder R.F.D. (1942). The D.A ‘s Daughter (1943) also has a rural setting and emphasizes comedy along with murder and mischief.

   Petersen’s only other mystery novel, “The House in the Wilderness,” was published serially in 1957 and did not see book publication.

   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.