A 1001 MIDNIGHTS Review
by Marcia Muller


WILLIAM FAULKNER – Knight’s Gambit. Random House, hardcover, 1949. Story collection. Reprinted many times since, including Signet #825, paperback, 1950.

   Nobel Prize-winner William Faulkner wrote six criminous short stories featuring Southern lawyer Gavin Stevens and narrated by Stevens’s nephew and youthful Watson, Chick Mallison. Set in legendary Yoknapatawpha County, Mississippi, these tales are in classic Faulkner style and are peopled with characters reminiscent of his other work:

   Southerners who are not stereotypical but representative of Mississippi at the middle of the twentieth century. Stevens, a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Harvard, is a quiet, contemplative man whose methods of detection are often highly unorthodox. But in spite of his erudition, he is no outsider in his native territory; he is equally at home within the confines of his study or out in the hills where moonshine is made. Chick, the nephew, is properly admiring for a Watson, but his more naive questions stem from his youth, rather than from the thick-headedness found in many a narrator of this type, thus making him all the more likable.

   The stories are as slow-moving and gentle on the surface as the country in which they take place; but as in much of Faulkner’s work, there is an undercurrent of raw emotion and violence held in check. In the title (and longest) story, Stevens deals with murderous jealousy within one of the county’s great plantation families (whose fortune was founded on bootleg liquor); “Monk” is the story of a retarded man who commits what at first seems an inexplicable crime. And “Smoke” is about one of those feuds between family members for which the South is famous; when the murder of a judge results from his validation of a will, Stevens uses a simple but artful device to literally smoke out the killer.

   In these and the three other stories–‘Hand upon the Waters,” “Tomorrow,” and “An Error in Chemistry”–  lawyer Stevens exhibits not only great deductive powers and resourcefulness but also great humanity. As he himself states, “I am more interested in justice and human beings than truth.” This concern, coupled with Faulkner’s deft characterization of the people he knew so well, make these stories first-rate tales of crime and detection.

   Although many critics have dismissed the Gavin Stevens stories as inferior to Faulkner’s other works, they are as inventive and finely crafted as the author’s mainstream fiction, and in no way should be considered a departure from his high literary standards. As Ellery Queen aptly puts it in Queen’s Quorum, “That a writer of Faulkner’s now international stature should unashamedly write detective stories proves once again – -if such proof is still needed by literary snobs — that the detective story has long since come of age.”

   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.