A 1001 MIDNIGHTS Review
by Bill Pronzini


THOMAS B. DEWEY – A Sad Song Singing. Mac #10. Simon & Schuster, hardcover, 1963. Pocket, paperback, 1965. Carroll & Graf, paperback, 1984.

   A Sad Song Singing is Mac’s finest case and Dewey’s masterwork. This reviewer considers it one of the ten best private-eye novels ever written — not because of its plot, which is relatively simple and straightforward, but because of its emotional depth and impact and its superb depiction of what it was like to grow up in the early 1960s.

   It is the only mystery novel to employ as its background the short-lived hootenanny craze of that period (hootenannies being, for those of you who might have forgotten or are too young to remember, large gatherings at which folk singers entertained with audience participation).

   In fact, one can’t imagine any kind of novel more vividly or poignantly evoking that type of festival or the life-styles of its young performers.

   Crescentia Fanio, twenty years old and a budding singer, hires Mac to find her missing boyfriend, Richie Darden, himself an itinerant but already well-established singer of folk songs. But it isn’t just a simple case of boy losing interest in girl and leaving her behind; Cress is convinced that not only is Richie’s life in danger, but so is her own.

   If Mac has any doubts that her fears are genuine, he quickly loses them with the appearance of two toughs who are unmistakably hunting Darden — and a mysterious suitcase he had with him when he vanished. A combination of flight, chase, and personal odyssey leads Mac and Cress from Chicago into rural Illinois and Indiana, from the world of coffeehouses and hootenannies to an isolated farm near the small agricultural community of Fairmont, Indiana — and finally to tragedy and, for Cress, rebirth.

   There is plenty of action and suspense, but as in most of Dewey’s novels — and even more so here — the emphasis is on mood and characterization. The father-daughter relationship between Mac and Cress is what gives the novel its emotional power: The last page is the kind of stuff that could put a tear in the eye of Mike Hammer. In all respects, A Sad Song Singing is a virtuoso performance.

   Mac appears in a total of sixteen novels, beginning with Draw the Curtain Close (1947). The others are likewise first-rate, the most notable among them being The Mean Streets (1954), the novel in which Mac — and Dewey — realized his full potential (thus making the title, a phrase from Chandler’s essay “The Simple Art of Murder,” doubly appropriate); The Brave, Bad Girls (1956), The Case of the Chased and the Unchaste (1959), Don’t Cry for Long (1964), Portrait of a Dead Heiress (1965), and The King Killers ( 1968).

   Dewey also wrote four minor mysteries featuring a small-town hotel owner named Singer Batts, the best of which are probably As Good as Dead (1946) and Handle with Fear ( 1951 ). Of his non-series suspense novels, two arc first-rate:

   How Hard to Kill (1961), a chiller about an ex-cop’s hunt for the murderer of his wife; and the paperback original A Season for Violence (1966), which is concerned with corruption, murder, and rape in a small California town.

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.