FREDRIC BROWN – The Wench Is Dead. E. P. Dutton, hardcover, 1953. Bantam #1565, paperback, 1957.

   This finds Brown in David Goodis territory at his smooth, shattering best.

   Howard (“Howie”) Perry is a High School sociology teacher studying the denizens of Los Angeles’ skid row by living as one of them as he angles for a master’s degree and a better teaching position. As the story opens he’s staying in a flophouse, washing dishes for a living, and spending most nights on the street, drinking himself comatose among the other winos, all in the name of Research.

   He’s also carrying on a relationship of sorts with Billie, a good-natured B-Girl who likes him for his sensitive nature, and expresses her affection in a very physical way. There’s a murder early on, and the cops don’t know whodunit, but we’re not far into the book before we realize that this is not so much a mystery as it is an observation of Howard losing control and in danger of becoming one of the derelicts he’s supposed to be studying.

   Brown keeps his story light, moving the plot along with telling details about Howie and his chums as they instinctively duck the police, desperately try to make up the price of a bottle, and stake out a safe place to drink themselves unconscious. Like David Goodis, Brown never looks down on his bums and winos, nor does he seek to make them noble savages; they’re just guys getting along their own way, with their own norms and goals in life, and in Brown as well as Goodis, these are the heroes of pulp fiction.

   In fact, Howie does eventually solve the murder and see the killer brought to justice, but (again like Goodis) any sense of accomplishment is illusory. Howard Perry spends a whole murder mystery treading water, and if we see the ending coming a long way off, Fredric Brown still delivers it with a punch.