Jan 262015
A 1001 MIDNIGHTS Review
by Marcia Muller

OLIVER BANKS – The Rembrandt Panel. Little, Brown, hardcover, 1980. Pinnacle, paperback, 1982.

      Boston art dealer Sammy Weinstock and “runner” Harry Giardino seem to have little in common. Weinstock is reputable and knowledgeable, with a shop on Charles Street at the foot of Beacon Hill. Giardino is one of those characters who hang around on the fringes of the art world, buying up works here and there, peddling them to dealers, always waiting for a big score.

   However, when both are murdered in a particularly brutal and sadistic manner, Homicide men O’Rourke and Callahan sense a connection. Unable to find what it is, they accept the help of international art detective Amos Hatcher, who is taking time off from a seemingly dead-end case in Europe.

   Hatcher joins forces with the murdered dealer’s assistant, Sheila Woods, and in searching the shop they find an old and rare frame, minus its painting, with fingerprints on it that definitely link the two victims. With this discovery, the two (now lovers) start on a trail that takes them from Boston to Amsterdam to Zurich to Cape Cod — and eventually to a missing Rembrandt, a linking of Hatcher’s two cases, and a cold-blooded killer.

   This is an excellent novel, packed with information about art and the people who make their livings from it. The characterization is uniformly good, especially the established relationship between O’Rourke and Callahan (which is full of humorous camaraderie) and the growing one between Hatcher and Woods.

   This, plus the vivid depiction of the somewhat seedy side of Beacon Hill and the various foreign settings, does a great deal to make up for the fact that the plot moves slowly. We know all along who the killer is and what his motivations are, but nonetheless the story sustains our interest on the way to a satisfying conclusion.

   Banks’s second novel, The Caravaggio Obsession, which also has an art background, was published in 1984.

   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.

Bio-Bibliographic Notes: Amos Hatcher also appeared in Banks’s second novel, but these are the only two mysteries he wrote. For another review of The Rembrandt Panel, check out J. F. Norris’s blog here. Banks himself was an art consultant and critic in New York City. He died in 1991, only 50 years old.

 Posted by at 8:23 pm
Jan 172015
A 1001 MIDNIGHTS Review
by Max Allan Collins

FRANKLIN BANDY – Deceit and Deadly Lies. Charter, paperback original, 1978.

   Kevin Maclnnes is known as the “Lie King.” A specialist with the Psychological Stress Evaluator (lie detector), he makes a living by taking voice readings of people and assessing their truthfulness. For a handsome fee, he will aid any client — governmental or private — in a situation where getting at the truth is paramount; and the fee goes to support his elegant but enigmatic mistress, Vanessa.

   One of the subjects Maclnnes is asked to evaluate is brought to him by a New York assistant district attorney; the client is a cabby who claims to have overheard two men talking about an assassination plot, something “really big.” The man apparently is telling the truth, and Maclnnes, spurred by a combination of patriotism (he is a former army officer) and curiosity, aids the authorities by embarking on a search for one of the men described — a search that nearly costs him his lover and his life.

   Maclnnes is interesting, and so is his work. In the course of the novel, he aids a businessman in making a low bid on a tract of land (and suffers sleepless nights when the seller kills himself); rigs a voice test in such a way as to prove a battered wife accidentally killed her husband (he knows she is really guilty, and he loses sleep over that, too); helps a wealthy Mexican family find where the killer of their young son has hidden his body; and bugs a bedroom conversation between himself and his mistress to evaluate whether she really loves him.

   The uncertain relationship with Vanessa is a thread through the story, as are Maclnnes’s fears about misusing his skills.

   For all its merits, this novel could stand to be about 100 pages shorter. It is padded with Harold Robbins-like descriptions of expensive clothing, hotels, gourmet meals, and brand names of liquors and wines.

   There is also a gratuitous side trip into Maclnnes’s attempt to cure a temporary bout of impotence with a call girl, which causes us to lose track of the main focus of the narrative — finding out who is to be assassinated and stopping the killers. But on the whole, it’s a good rainy day book for those who like their settings luxurious and their characters sophisticated, if a trifle stereotypical.

   This novel won the MWA Edgar for Best Paperback Original of 1978. In addition, Franklin Bandy has written The Blackstock Affair (1980) and The Farewell Party (1980).

   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.

Bibliographic Notes:   The Blackstock Affair was the second and final recorded adventure of Kevin MacInnes. Bandy, who died in 1987, also wrote a book called The Shannonese Hustle (1978) and as Eugene Franklin (his first and middle names), three books in a series of cases solved by Berkeley Barnes and Larry Howe, about whom I know nothing.

 Posted by at 12:54 am
Jan 092015
A 1001 MIDNIGHTS Review
by Max Allan Collins

HORACE McCOY – Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye. Random House, hardcover, 1948. Paperback reprints include: Signet 754, 1949; Avon, 1965. Film: Warner Bros., 1950 (with James Cagney, Barbara Payton & Helena Carter).

   Although a veteran of Black Mask, Horace McCoy resented his “hardboiled” classification, considering himself mainstream, and wrote only one genuine crime novel. Set in the Thirties during the Dillinger days, Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye is one of the finest gangster novels ever written.

   Young hoodlum Ralph Cotter (an alias) escapes from a prison farm, killing one of his own confederates in thee process, a characteristically misanthropic move for this self-described possessor of a “psychopathic superego.” Helping in the jailbreak is the murdered confederate’s sister, Holiday, with whom Cotter immediately shacks up.

   Now in a medium-size, nameless city, Cotter pulls a petty robbery, again killing a man in the process. He and his aptly named associate, Jinx, are thereafter shaken down by local corrupt police. This is an opportunity the shrewd, college-educated Cotter seizes upon, launching a scheme to blackmail the police into aiding and abetting his future crimes.

   His rocky relationship with Holiday — a jealous girl who nonetheless sleeps around indiscriminately on Cotter — alternates with an even stranger relationship with a spoiled society girl who has suicidal tendencies and an interest in the occult. Cotter links up with Cherokee Mandon, a slick shyster with underworld connections, and soon Cotter and his various cronies (including Mandon and the corrupt cops) are planning a reckless robbery that will require taking four lives.

   The fascination of Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye is its stream-of-consciousness first-person narration, and its exceptionally well-realized psychotic narrator. Unlike the simplified Cotter of the James Cagney screen version (1950), McCoy’s protagonist is a complex, not exactly sympathetic character, but certainly an engaging one. (Cotter prefigures similarly psychotic — and posturing — narrators in the work of Jim Thompson.)

   A violent deed in his past, tied to his adolescent sexual awakening, has sent Cotter into a world of crime where he feels at home. Nonetheless, it is contact with the respectable world, not the criminal one, that leads to his downfall, This is the central irony of a book that McCoy clearly intended to be his masterpiece.

   Critics have seldom agreed with McCoy’s estimation of Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye, but the critics have underestimated this work. Cotter is a deeply flawed, pretentious narrator — which has led to the writer being dismissed as deeply flawed and pretentious. Taking Cotter at face value, at his word, is dangerous; critics have tended to assume that McCoy agrees with Cotter, who says archly, “Use me not as a preachment in your literature or movies. This I have wrought, I and I alone.”

   McCoy, of course, does not believe that Cotter is a man in control of his destiny: Cotter is a pitiful, guilt-ridden soul misshapen by childhood trauma. Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye is a long book, but it is fast moving, deftly plotted and vividly written.

   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.

Editorial Comment: Following my review of Never Say No to a Killer, by Jonathan Gant (Clifton Adams), Dan Stumpf left a comment pointing out some similarity between that book and this one, which came earlier. I’d have to agree that Gant’s book may easily have bee inspired by this one — no more than that — but you may go back and read that review, then come back and read this one, and decide for yourself.

 Posted by at 7:26 pm
Jan 082015
A 1001 MIDNIGHTS Review
by Bill Pronzini

BILL S. BALLINGER – Portrait in Smoke. Harper, hardcover, 1950. Signet #897, paperback reprint, September 1951. Film: Columbia Pictures, 1956, as Wicked As They Come (with Arlene Dahl, Phil Carey & Herbert Marshall).

   Ballinger pioneered a new novelistic approach in the mystery field, one that he utilized in several novels: first-person narration told from the point of view of a professional or amateur detective, alternating with third-person narration involving one or more of the other characters in the story. This enabled him to tell two different yet parallel stories that intersect at or near the end, thereby heightening suspense throughout.

   Portrait in Smoke is the first of his split-narration novels, and the book that firmly established his name in the mystery field. The first-person narrator is Danny April, the new owner of a small-time collection agency in Chicago, who finds in the agency files an old photograph of one Krassy Almauniski, a local beauty queen, and falls so in love with her image that he is compelled to track her down.

   Interwoven with the details of his increasingly puzzling and sinister search, which leads him from the stockyard slums to a modeling school and the Chicago opera, is the third-person chronicle of Krassy’s life after winning the Stockyard Weekly News beauty contest — an account that is anything but a Cinderella story.

   The dust jacket blurb says that Portrait in Smoke has “depth and power, unusual suspense, brilliant irony, hard-boiled wit, one of the most fascinating heroines in current fiction, and a whiplash ending.” It isn’t that good, but it is a first-rate crime novel that deserves attention from the contemporary reader.

   Whether it is Ballinger’s best split-narration novel is debatable; some aficionados of his work prefer The Wife of the Red-Haired Man (1957), which has a more complex plot and a more dazzling surprise at the end. Also good are The Tooth and the Nail (1955) and The Longest Second (1957); the latter title has one of the most frightening first chapters in all of suspense fiction.

   In addition to the many novels under his own name, Ballinger also wrote two under pseudonyms: The Black, Black Hearse (1955), as by Frederic Freyer; and The Doom-Maker (1959), as by B. X. Sanborn.

   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.

 Posted by at 7:05 pm
Jan 012015
A 1001 MIDNIGHTS Review
by Bill Pronzini

BILL S. BALLINGER – The Chinese Mask. Signet D2715, paperback original; 1st printing, June 1965.

   Bill S. Ballinger wrote some thirty mystery, suspense, and espionage novels (as well as two films and over 150 teleplays) during his thirty-year career, many with unusual plots and construction. His first two novels feature private eye Barr Breed; his only other series character, hero of five paperback originals published during 1965 and 1966, is CIA agent Joaquin Hawks — multilingual, half Spanish and half Nez Perce Indian, and virile as they come.

   All five of the Hawks novels are set in the exotic Far East, in such locales as Communist China, Bangkok, Saigon, Angkor Wat, Laos, and Indonesia. They are as much spirited adventure stories as espionage novels, with graphically depicted backgrounds and plenty of harrowing jungle chases and narrow escapes.

   In The Chinese Mask, the first of the series, Hawks is assigned to rescue three Western scientists, all of whom have been working on a “psycho-gas that can paralyze the will and nerve of entire armies” and all of whom have been kidnapped from Berlin by the Red Chinese. Hawks crosses the Bamboo Curtain disguised as a member of a traveling Russian circus troop, infiltrates the headquarters of the Red Chinese Army in Peking, and eventually plucks the scientists out of an ” impenetrable” prison fortress and leads them to safety — all in clever and exciting fashion.

   This and the other four Hawks novels — The Spy in Bangkok (1965), The Spy in the Jungle (1965), The Spy at Angkor Wat (1966), and The Spy in the Java Sea (1966) are enjoyable escapist reading and, in the bargain, offer accurate political, sociologic, and geographic portraits of their various locales in the mid-1960s.

   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.

 Posted by at 7:34 pm
Dec 282014
A 1001 MIDNIGHTS Review
by Bill Crider

W. T. BALLARD – Murder Las Vegas Style. Tower, paperback original, 1967. Belmont, paperback, 1970.

   After the demise of the pulps in the early 19508, W. T. Ballard found a career as a prolific creator of paperback original novels, both mysteries and westerns. His mysteries appeared under his own name, as well as the names Neil MacNeil and P. D. Ballard, and he even wrote at least one novel in the Nick Carter series. Many of Ballard’s novels were set in Las Vegas, including three in a series featuring Detective Lieutenant Max Hunter.

   Murder Las Vegas Style is a private eye novel featuring Mark Foran, who finds himself involved in what at first appears to be a murder/suicide. The question of an inheritance is involved, depending on which of the victims died first, and as Foran digs into the case, though he seems to be making little progress, there are three serious attempts on his life, along with two more murders.

   The characters include hoods, beautiful women, millionaires, and cops,all of whom are convincingly sketched. The plotting is as convoluted as one could wish, although matters appear simple on the surface. Surprisingly, Ballard avoids the casinos for the most part and instead does an admirable job of giving a fine picture of the “other side” of Las Vegas, the desert.

   For more of Ballard’s LasVegas, see his “straight” novel, Chance Elson (1958), and the books in the Hunter series, including Pretty Miss Murder (1961).

   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.

NOTE:   Previously reviewed on this blog was Ballard’s Say Yes to Murder.

 Posted by at 1:29 am
Dec 252014
A 1001 MIDNIGHTS Review
by James L. Traylor

W. T. BALLARD – Say Yes to Murder. G. P. Putnam’s Sons, hardcover, 1942. Penguin #566, paperback, 1945. Also reprinted as The Demise of a Louse, as by John Shepherd, Belmont, paperback, 1962.

   W. T. Ballard was one of Joe Shaw’s second wave of Black Mask boys. His first Black Mask story, “A Little Different,” appeared in September 1933. It featured Bill Lennox, troubleshooter for the fictitious General Consolidated Studios. (Ballard himself had worked for First National Studios in the early 1930s.)

   Lennox was one of the most popular series characters in Black Mask, and appeared in twenty-seven stories between 1933 and 1942. He’s not a PI exactly, but he has that same hard-boiled ethos; his exploits have an appealing under-stated sense of immediacy.

   After writing short stories for about ten years, Ballard published Say Yes to Murder, the first of four Bill Lennox novels, and set the standard for the Hollywood murder mystery. Ballard’s gift for this type of story is his careful depiction of scene and his emphasis on character in a subgenre that usually does not rely on such realism.

   Ballard invented a cast of characters that later became almost cliches of the movie industry. Sol Spurck, the crusty head of General Consolidated Studios; Nancy Hobbs, Lennox’s long-suffering girlfriend; and cops named Spellman and Stobert who are not quite as condescending toward Lennox as the typical cops of the hard-boiled detective novel.

   In Say Yes to Murder, Lennox investigates the murder of Leon Heyworth, a drunken actor whom Lennox finds stabbed and lying under the bed of actress Jean Jeffries, granddaughter of Lennox’s old friend Mary Morris. Faithful to Spurck and the studio, Lennox, with the help of Jake Hertz, a studio minion, and an empty piano box, moves the body from Jean’s apartment, attempting to keep Mary Morris’s name out of the papers.

   Along with a superior sense of timing and scene, Ballard’s novel shows great intricacy in plotting. Here the vital clue to the solution of the mystery is identity. An the characters are in show business, with consequent multiple personas. Lennox’s primary task is wading through the maze of personalities. Ballard presents the murder as a problem of separating illusion from reality, a method quite effective in focusing Hollywood’s artificiality.

   Noted critic James Sandoe praised Lennox because “he doesn’t have to flex his biceps to prove that he’s strong.” Say Yes to Murder is a consistently rewarding hard-boiled novel.

   The other three Bill Lennox novels are also excellent Murder Can’t Stop (1946), Dealing Out Death (1948), and the paperback original Lights, Camera, Murder (1960, as by John Shepherd). Ballard was a close friend of fellow pulp writer Norbert Davis and coauthored one novel with him, Murder Picks the Jury (1947), under the joint pseudonym Harrison Hunt.

   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.

NOTE: Previously reviewed on this blog are:

      Murder Can’t Stop.
      Lights, Camera, Murder.
      Hollywood Troubleshooter (a collection of Bill Lennox short stories)

 Posted by at 11:51 pm
Dec 212014
A 1001 MIDNIGHTS Review
by Marcia Muller

JOHN BALL – In the Heat of the Night. Harper & Row, hardcover, 1965. Paperback reprints include: Bantam, 1967; Perennial Library, 1985; Carroll & Graf, 1992.

   John Ball is best known for his series of novels about Virgil Tibbs, black homicide specialist with the Pasadena, California, Police Department. While Tibbs was preceded by Ed Lacy’s Toussaint Moore in Room to Swing, he is the first fully realized black series character. This first Tibbs novel is a strong start, in which the author explores racial conflict far from his hero’s usual beat, in the Deep South.

   Wells is a sleepy little Carolina town where nothing much happens; so sleepy, in fact, that some prominent citizens have planned a music festival in hopes of attracting badly needed tourist dollars. Then, on a steamy August night, the conductor hired for the festival is found murdered, and Police Chief Bill Gillespie and Officer Sam Wood have more of a case than they can handle. Help comes unexpectedly when Wood detains a black man passing through town, and the man turns out to be Virgil Tibbs.

   Wells is a typical small town with typical southern racial prejudice, and its lawmen are no exception. Grudgingly they accept Tibbs’s aid, prompted by the urgings of the man who had planned the music festival. And as Tibbs quietly and methodically pursues his investigation, working against the handicap of his racial background, the lawmen each come, in their way, to respect him and acknowledge his exceptional ability.

   In the final confrontation with the killer. Tibbs turns his race to an advantage- proving that what one man considers a handicap can be another’s blessing. This is an engrossing novel with a powerful premise, but it leaves us wishing we had really gotten inside Virgil Tibbs’s mind and viewed the case through the eyes of the book’s most interesting character.

   In the Heat of the Night was made into a 1967 film starring Sidney Pottier and Rod Steiger. Other novels featuring Tibbs are The Cool Cottontail (1966), Johnny Get Your Gun (1969), Five Pieces of Jade (1972), The Eyes of Buddha (1976), and Then Came Violence (1980).

   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.

 Posted by at 7:46 pm
Dec 172014
A 1001 MIDNIGHTS Review
by George Kelley & Marcia Muller

DESMOND BAGLEY – Flyaway. Doubleday, hardcover, 1979. First published in the UK: Collins, hardcover, 1978. Detective Book Club, hardcover 3-in-1 edition [no date]. Fawcett, paperback, 1980. Also: HarperCollins, paperback, 2009, paired with Windfall, also by Bagley.

   Picking the best Desmond Bagley high-adventure novel is difficult because they are of uniformly high quality; most critics agree that in the past ten years, Bagley has surpassed the old masters such as Hammond Innes and Alistair MacLean with such expert novels as The Vivero Letter (1968), set in the remote Mexican jungle; The Snow Tiger (1974), a tale of an avalanche in the mountains of New Zealand’s South Island; and The Enemy (1978), which deals with computer technology. Bagley’s novels mix carefully researched background detail with a great deal of action and momentum, involving his reader thoroughly in his adventurous plots.

   Flyaway may be Bagley’s finest work, a slight cut above the others. When Paul Billson disappears into the Sahara Desert,aircraft-industry security chief Max Stafford departs London for Africa to track Billson down. Max learns that Billson, whose father was a legendary there some decades ago, intends to clear the Billson name; the public still believes Billson’s father deliberately vanished over the Sahara so his wife could collect a fortune in insurance benefits. Max catches up with Billson — after much difficulty — but then both men find themselves hunted by forces intent on protecting the secret of Billson Sr.’s disappearance.

   This novel is superior high adventure; Bagley’s attention to technical detail and his evocation of the desert milieu are impeccable. Bagley drew upon personal experience in the aircraft industry for this novel, which gives it added substance and credibility.

   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.

 Posted by at 10:10 pm
Nov 162014
A 1001 MIDNIGHTS Review
by Francis M. Nevins

PHILIP ATLEE – The Green Wound. Gold Medal k1321, paperback original, 1963. Later reprinted as The Green Wound Contract, Gold Medal, paperback, 1967.

   Joseph Liam Gall’s first appearance in print was as a free-lance soldier of fortune embroiled in a Burmese civil war in Pagoda (1951), a hardcover adventure novel published under James Atlee Phillips’s full name. A dozen years later, writing as Philip Atlee, the author revived Gall, made him a disillusioned contract killer for the CIA, and put him through more than twenty paperback spy thrillers, of which the first and best was The Green Wound.

   The crime writer with whom Phillips seems to have the most in common is Raymond Chandler. Both men use a cinematically vivid first-person style (although Phillips avoids the profusions of metaphor and simile that make Chandler so easy to parody) and eschew careful plotting in favor of strong individual scenes and memorable moments.

   Almost all the Joe Gall novels suffer from near-chaotic structure, but Phillips’s finest scenes are so fresh and alive that, as Chandler said of Dashiell Hammett’s, they seem never to have been written before.

   Phillips’s treatment of his main character is a brilliant study in schizophrenia. On one level Gall is the stoic code hero of the Hemingway tradition, and on another he stems from Ian Fleming’s James Bond, the professional killer for his government, the larger-than-life secret agent forever besting villains of the mythological-monster sort.

   In the conventional patriotic thriller of this type, we are never allowed to doubt that whatever our side does is right because we are by definition the good guys. Phillips at his best subverts this nonsense and approaches the insight of John Le Carre that perhaps at bottom We and They are mirror images of each other.

   Witness,for instance, the story line of The Green Wound. Gall is paid a huge sum by his former bosses at the CIA to come out of idyllic semi-retirement in an Ozark castle, infiltrate a quiet Texas community, and frustrate a plot to ruin the politically connected millionaire who runs the city. From his vantage point as manager of the local country club, Gall dispassionately observes the viciousness of the ruling class and the institutionalized racism that keeps the blacks in a shantytown on the wrong side of the railroad tracks.

   In due course Gall learns that the blacks have secretly organized, with the help of federal civil-rights enforcers, to register to vote at the last possible minute and then oust the white politicians at the polls. On Election Day a bloody race war erupts, leaving the city in flames. Later Gall pursues the instigator of the revolt, a horribly disfigured black veteran who was used by army doctors as an experimental animal and is aching for revenge on the entire power structure.

   The action swings from Mexico to Texas to New Orleans to the Caribbean and back again, but Phillips never resolves the tension between Gall the good soldier and Gall the man who knows he’s on the wrong side. This tension, rather than its considerable virtues as an action thriller, is what makes The Green Wound one of the finest spy novels ever written by an American.

   In most of the later Galls, Phillips downplays or eliminates the structural schizophrenia, and the lesser exploits overstress local color and exotic settings — Sweden, Tahiti, Thailand, Haiti, British Columbia, Korea, and elsewhere — at the expense of story and action. But even the weaker Phillips novels are usually redeemed by several powerful individual scenes that stick in the memory long after the book as a whole is forgotten.

   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.

 Posted by at 4:29 am