A 1001 MIDNIGHTS Review
by Thomas Baird


LILLIAN de la TORRE – The Detections of Dr. Sam Johnson. Doubleday Crime Club, hardcover, 1960. Dolphin Books, paperback, 1962. Intl Polygonics Ltd, paperback, 1984.

   At first glance, the great eighteenth-century English lexicographer Dr. Samuel Johnson seems an unlikely detective. On closer consideration, however, the idea of the man who, after years of sleuthing, published the first English dictionary (1755), and who had the original Boswell close at hand to chronicle his literary detections and adventures, seems just right. The combination of the grumpy sage Johnson and his Scottish biographer, James Boswell of Auchinleck, forms the model for the classic detective-story Holmes-Watson relationship.

   The eight stories in this book are pastiches, written in Boswell’s style with the fancy of the author woven into the fabric of history. The detections take place around the 1770s, mostly in London ( “When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life.” -S.J.), and in Bath and Stratford-onAvon. Johnson, or “Cham,” as he is sometimes called, investigates crime and chicanery, fraud and felony.

   His unique position enables him to mix with all classes of society and get involved in various events-from the soldiers’ court-martial on the greensward of Hyde Park, to the robbery of Gothic enthusiast Horace Walpole, to the espionage exploits of the female American patriot against Gentleman Johnny Burgoyne. In “The Tontine Curse,” he hears of dying children and blesses a Roman parent. The “harmless drudge” probes the pitfalls of antiquarianism and exposes forgery in “The Missing Shakespeare Manuscript.” “The Triple-Lock’ d Room” is a case of murder and theft at Boswell’s lodgings with its weird inhabitants.

   The Dr. Sam tales are scholarly and quaint and quite the best of their kind. An earlier collection is Dr. Sam: Johnson, Detector (1946), and there are more to come. Most of the stories originally appeared in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine.


  • The Black Stone of Dr. Dee · ss Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine Feb 1948
  • The Frantick Rebel · nv Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine Dec 1948
  • The Missing Shakespeare Manuscript · nv Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine Jul 1947
  • Saint-Germain the Deathless · ss Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine Jan 1958
  • The Stroke of Thirteen · ss Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine Oct 1953
  • The Tontine Curse · ss Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine Jun 1948
  • The Triple-Lock’d Room · nv Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine Jan 1952
  • The Viotti Stradivarius · ss Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine Aug 1950

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.