Search Results for 'Fredric Brown'

FREDRIC BROWN “Before She Kills.” Novelette. Ed & Am Hunter. First published in Ed McBain’s Mystery Book #3, 1961. Collected in Before She Kills (Dennis McMillan, 1984).
Reprinted in The Mammoth Book of Private Eye Stories, edited by Bill Pronzini and Martin H. Greenberg (Carrol & Graf, 1988).

   Ed and Am Hunter are a rather unique uncle-nephew private eye team based in Chicago. “Am” is short for Ambrose, who is the uncle. Ed is the one who tells their stories; at least he is for this one. According to the cover of the magazine where this one first appears, this is their first case that appeared in novelette form. There were six novels before this one, then followed by another novelette and one final novel.

   In “Before She Kills” they’re hired by a man who suspects that his wife plans to kill him. To that end Ed poses as the man’s semi-estranged half brother whom his wife has never met. The woman is a former strip-tease dancer who once married has decided that sex is something she never wants to do again. To that particular end, their client has found another woman to love and to love him. Secretly they have a young son together.

   There’s nothing here that’s terribly exciting. There’s certainly no mean streets to go down. What there are, though, are a lot of ways the story could go from here, and Fred Brown does with it what he always seems to do: find yet another way for the story to end – one that’s not quite expected but one that’s quietly quite pleasing all  around. As mentioned earlier, there’s nothing really outstanding about this particular tale, but it’s a good one.

FREDRIC BROWN. “Murder Set to Music.” Novella. First published in The Saint Detective Magazine, January 1957, as “Murder to Music.” Reprinted in The Saint Mystery Library #3, paperback original, 1959, edited by Leslie Charteris.

   Two jazz musicians have been friends and played in the same bands since it seems forever. Not even the fact that one married the girl that both were in love with has affected that friendship. Now that they’re partners in a car dealership, and their days on the road are behind them, they only occasionally think of those days.

   Not until the leader of one of the bands comes to town with his new group is either one of them tempted to take their instruments out of their cases. Ralph, the unmarried one, tells the story from there, pretty much starting when Danny, the married one, opens the door to his apartment and is slugged in the face by a short stocky man wearing a mask.

   There is a long stretch of the story in which nothing much seems to be happening. The story is lengthy, over 50 pages long in its paperback version, but Fred Brown was such a good writer, the reader is pulled along in the flow of the tale he tells. And you just know that a Fred Brown story is going to have a Fred Brown ending. Or does it? Is the lack of a Fred Brown ending the Fred Brown ending?? I’ll never tell.



FREDRIC BROWN – His Name Was Death. Dutton, hardcover, 1954. Bantam #1436, paperback, 1956. Black Lizard, paperback, 1987/1991.

   Fredric Brown at the very top of his form: tricky, entertaining, and compulsively readable.

   This is ostensibly the story of Darius Conn, successful wife-killer and novice counterfeiter, and his attempt to track down some bogus bills that have gone astray. Having already gotten away with the murder of his wife, Conn sees no problem with committing a few more perfect crimes to cover his latest felony, so he tracks each bogus bills to whoever’s holding it, and… and Death becomes a fast-moving and sardonic tale of multiple murders.

   But that’s only on the surface. The genius of His Name Was Death is that the reader thinks he’s reading one story, when Brown is actually telling a completely different tale. And when the hidden story surfaces, it rears its surprising head with all the fatalistic power of a Greek Tragedy.

   There’s a wonderful moment toward the end of the book when Conn’s crime spree seems to be heading irreversibly towards another murder: The reader can see and feel that there are only a few pages left, and the reader knows this story will end soon and that it shouldn’t end with the killer going free, but that it must.

   And Fredric Brown resolves the issue with the brilliance that was uniquely his. This is a top-notch tale and one I recommend highly.




FREDRIC BROWN – One for the Road.  Dutton, hardcover, 1958.  Bantam #1990, paperback, 1959. (Cover art by Barye Phillips.) A condensed version appeared earlier in The Saint Detective Magazine, February 1958, as “The Army Waggoner Murder.”

   Brown at his simple best, a short, evocative and well-paced mystery about murder in a small town and its effect on the local citizens.

   When I picked this off my shelf I didn’t remember reading it, but details of the background material (Very well evoked, by the way; Brown reconstructs the kind of crossroads-town that is no more, and makes it live again on the page.) struck a chord, so I assume I must have read it back when I was drunk, and only scraps and remnants adhered to the subconscious.

   The basic plot of a local hoyden murdered in a cheap motel, and subsequent investigation by the reporter on the weekly paper was all new to me, and it’s quite well handled: the local cops are portrayed as men of limited resources, not buffoons, the reporter is smart but not a Gifted Amateur, and the bit parts are all developed with Brown’s customary skill.

   I did, however, figure out who the killer was, and I don’t think it was because I remembered it from my previous life. Brown tips his hand late in the book, just a few pages from the end, in a scene where the reporter and another character are discussing the case, all alone, and suddenly the other character pulls a gun on him and tells him not to move.

   Now when you’ve read as many mysteries as I have, you just know a person like this will be revealed later on as the killer, and sure enough he was — in the very next paragraph. Can I pick’em or what?

   Despite this lapse though, Road offers the kind of top-notch, unforced, un-padded writing you don’t see much anymore, and reading it was a real pleasure.



FREDRIC BROWN – Murder Can Be Fun. Dutton, hardcover, 1948. Expanded from a short story, “The Santa Claus Murders” in Street & Smith’s Detective Story Magazine. Reprinted as A Plot for Murder (Bantam #735, paperback, 1949); and under its original title by Carroll & Graf, paperback, 1989.

   “Why, Baldy, are mysteries so popular?”

   “Because a lot of people read ’em?”

   Bill Tracy starts out the story as a Radio hack, grinding out scripts for a popular soaper called Millie’s Millions. But he has aspirations toward something higher; he’s working on a new series he hopes to call Murder Can Be Fun, where the radio audience will figure out the case from clues provided in the story, with the surprise solution given right after the last commercial break.

   Tracy has even worked out some clever ideas, kept in his desk at home till he can turn them into scripts: Murder done by a guy in a Santa suit; a janitor stabbed in the back and stuffed in a furnace; a man garroted with his own necktie….

   Then his boss is killed by a man in dressed as Santa.

   When the janitor in Tracy’s apartment building gets stabbed in the back and stuffed into a furnace, Tracy becomes genuinely alarmed. He gets even more alarmed when the cops find out about his stories, and finger him as Suspect #1. And when they begin closing the net around him, Bill Tracy reluctantly turns from writing detective stories to starring in one.

   Fredric Brown had the happy knack of writing as if the words flowed right from his head to the page. The prose never seems skimpy or overdone, the characters are fleshed out perfectly, with little touches that bring definition—and offer intriguing leads to secrets and dead ends. And in a well-judged bit of plotting, the events that bring about the solution also bring about a resolution in Tracy’s character that lifts him and this book well above the level of hack work.

FREDRIC BROWN – We All Killed Grandma. E. P. Dutton, hardcover, 1952. Bantam #1176, paperback, December 1953.

   It’s possible that the amnesia victim has become a worn-out cliche in the mystery field, but I think that in We All Killed Grandma, Fredric Brown did about as well as possible with the idea 25 years ago, and perhaps all that can be done.

   Rod Britton’s mind blanks out just as he reports to the police after finding his grandmother’s body. He’s the same person, but with a memory that’s only a few days old. Why doesn’t his subconscious want him to remember? Is he the killer?

   What this is is a well-done character study: it’s all about Rod investigating and rediscovering himself. It’s the motivation behind it all that’s a little less sure.

Rating: B

–Slightly revised from The MYSTERY FANcier, Vol. 1, No. 2, March 1977.
A 1001 MIDNIGHTS Review
by Marcia Muller

FREDRIC BROWN Night of the Jabberwock

FREDRIC BROWN – Night of the Jabberwock. E. P. Dutton, hardcover, 1950. Paperback editions include: Bantam #990, April 1952; Morrow-Quill, 1984. Based on two pulp stories: “The Gibbering Night” (Detective Tales, July 1944) and “The Jabberwock Murders” (Thrilling Mystery, Summer 1944).

   This entertaining novel, which takes place in one bizarre night, is a perfect example of Fredric Brown’s somewhat eccentric view of the world. Doc Stoeger, editor of the Carmel City, Indiana, Clarion, sometime philosopher and devotee of the works of Lewis Carroll, has just put the small-town paper to bed. He has a drink in his office, wanders over to Smiley’s Tavern for a couple more, and laments the fact that nothing ever happens in Carmel City.

FREDRIC BROWN Night of the Jabberwock

   What wouldn’t he give, Doc says, for just one important story? Then, just as he is about to go home, things start to happen. At first they are mundane: Tuesday’s rummage sale is canceled and there is now a nine-inch hole in the front page; a messy divorce story needs to be rewritten because the charges against the husband were not true. But these are nothing like the surprise that visits Doc later at home.

   The surprise is a man with the unlikely name of Yehudi Smith, who claims to be a member of a group of Lewis Carroll enthusiasts called the Vorpal Blades (a name taken from Through the Looking Glass). Smith invites Doc to a midnight meeting in a haunted house, and Doc is fascinated enough to accept. However, other events intervene: Doc’s best friend is injured in an accident and no one can find out what happened; the bank is robbed in a strange way; an escaped lunatic is run to earth; and big-time criminals are on the loose.

   By the time Doc keeps his appointment with Yehudi Smith and the Vorpal Blades, he has covered and, for various reasons, had to suppress more major stories than most editors do in a year. And when he and Smith go to the haunted house, Doc is embroiled in an Alice-like adventure that leads him not down a rabbit hole or through a looking glass, but to the sheriff’s office.

    Night of the Jabberwock is definitely not a novel for reformed alcoholics or those with strong principles against the consumption of alcohol. Doc partakes of enough drink so that, in reality, he would have passed out by chapter 3. In spite of that — and the fact that there are enough holes in the plot to drive a liquor truck through — no reader will ever forget this one astonishing night in Carmel City, Indiana.

   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.

Three 1001 MIDNIGHTS Reviews
by Bill Pronzini

FREDRIC BROWN – The Fabulous Clipjoint. E. P. Dutton, hardcover, 1947. Bantam #1134, paperback, 1953. David R. Godine, trade paperback, 1986.

   Fredric Brown’s vision of the world was paradoxical and slightly cockeyed. Things, in his eye, are not always what you might think they are; elements of the bizarre spice the commonplace, and, conversely, elements of the commonplace leaven the bizarre. Madness and sanity are intertwined, so that it is often difficult to tell which is which.

   The same is true of malevolence and benignity, of tragedy and comedy. Brown seems to have felt that the forces, cosmic or otherwise, that control our lives are at best mischievous and at worst malign, that man has little to say about his own destiny, and that free will is a fallacy. The joke is on us, he seems to be saying on numerous occasions. And it is a joke that all too frequently turns nasty.

   Brown employed a deceptively simple, offhand style that allows his fiction to be enjoyed by those interested only in entertainment and also pondered by those interested in the complex themes at its heart. The Fabulous Clipjoint, his first novel and the recipient of an Edgar from the Mystery Writers of America, is a good example.

   On the one hand, it is a straightforward detective story that introduced the Chicago-based team of private eyes Ed and Am Hunter. Ed, the narrator, is young and idealistic; Ambrose, his uncle and a retired circus performer, is much more pragmatic and somewhat jaded- the voice of experience.

   When Ed’s father, Wally, is shot down in a dark alley, Ed enlists his uncle’s help and sets out to find the murderer. Their quest leads them into the seamy underbelly of 1940s society, the world of second-rate criminals, cheap bars, sleazy carnival folk; from a sideshow spieler named Hoagy to a beautiful tramp named Claire Raymond to assorted thugs and tough cops, and finally to a killer.

   On the other hand, there are deeper meanings to the narrative — underlying themes of obsession, a young man’s bitter and tragic coming of age, and the manipulation of those dark cosmic forces that Brown believed are in control of our fives. The handling of these themes is what makes the novel so grimly powerful. Not Brown’s best book, and not for every taste, but unquestionably much more than just another hard-boiled detective tale.

   Brown wrote six other Ed and Am Hunter books, none of which, unfortunately,approaches The Fabulous Clipjoint in quality. Among them are The Dead Ringer (1948); The Bloody Moonlight (1949, which has a werewolf theme); Compliments of a Fiend (1951); and Mrs. Murphy’s Underpants (1963).

FREDRIC BROWN – Knock Three-One-Two. Dutton, 1959. Bantam A2135, paperback, 1960. TV adaptation: “Knock Three-One-Two.” Thriller, 13 December 1960 (Season 1, Episode 13). Film: The Red Ibis (France, 1975; original title: L’Ibis rouge).

   Knock Three-One-Two has one of the most compelling (and chilling) opening lines in all of crime fiction: “He had a name, but it doesn’t matter: call him the psycho.” It is the best of Brown’s later novels, and one of his two or three best overall. It is also — in theme, mood, and final message — his most frightening work.

   On the surface, Knock is a straightforward mystery that interweaves the lives of a maniacal rapist/strangler who preys on women alone at night in their apartments; a liquor salesman named Ray Fleck who is addicted to gambling; a Greek restaurateur, George Mikos, who is in love with Fleck’s wife, Ruth; a mentally retarded news vendor named Benny; Dolly Mason, a promiscuous and mercenary beauty operator; and several other characters.

   But as the opening lines intimate, this is not a whodunit: The identity of the psycho is irrelevant to the plot; rather, he is a catalyst, an almost biblical symbol of evil. The suspense Brown creates and sustains here is of the dark and powerful sort perfected
by Cornell Woolrich, yet uniquely Brown’s own in style and handling. It all builds beautifully, inexorably, to a shocking and ironic climax- Brown at his most controlled, dealing with material at its most chaotic.

   Equally good are Brown’s two other major suspense novels, The Screaming Mimi (1949) and The Far Cry (1951). Mimi is the story of an alcoholic Chicago reporter named Sweeney and his search for both a beautiful woman and a Ripper-style killer; it is also an allegorical retelling of “Beauty and the Beast.” The Far Cry, set in New Mexico, has been called Brown’s tour de force — a fair judgment, for the treatment of its theme of a love/hate obsession is uncommon and its denouement is both horrific and surprisingly bleak for its time.

FREDRIC BROWN – Mostly Murder. E. P. Dutton, hardcover, 1953. Pennant P-59, paperback, 1954.

   Brown wrote excellent short fiction, including dozens of mordant short-shorts — a demanding form at which he proved himself a master. It can be argued, in fact, that except in a half-dozen or so cases, he was a better short-story writer than he was a novelist.

    Mostly Murder, his first collection, contains eighteen of his best early stories., from Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine and such pulps as Black Mask and Dime Mystery.

   Among them are his masterpiece of psychological horror “Don’t Look Behind You,” a tour de force in which the reader is the intended murder victim; an unusually dark and powerful treatment of the “impossible crime” theme, “The Laughing Butcher”; an ironic little chiller, “Little Apple Hard to Peel”; a Woolrichian tale of terror and suspense, “I’ll Cut Your Throat Again, Kathleen”; the wryly humorous “Greatest Poem Ever Written”; and two of his best short-shorts. “Town Wanted” and “Cry Silence.” An outstanding collection.

   A second gathering of Brown’s criminous stories, The Shaggy Dog and Other Murders (1963), is likewise first-rate. Also well worth reading are several recent collections: Homicide Sanitarium (1984), Before She Kills (1984), Madman’s Holiday (1985), and The Case of the Dancing Sandwiches (1985), all limited editions of obscure but entertaining pulp stories; and Carnival of Crime (1985), which contains some but not all of his short mysteries, including several from Mostly Murder, and a complete checklist of Brown’s published works.

   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.


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.

by Marv Lachman

  FREDRIC BROWN – The Screaming Mimi. E. P. Dutton, hardcover, 1949. Paperback reprints include: Bantam #831, 1950; Carroll & Graf, 1989. Film: Columbia, 1958 (Anita Ekberg, Philip Carey).

          – The Lenient Beast. E. P. Dutton, hardcover, 1956. Paperback reprints include: Bantam #1712, 1958; Carroll & Graf, 1988.

   One of the best mystery writers ever is well represented in current reprints. Fredric Brown was equally gifted in both the mystery and science fiction, and Carroll & Graf has published two of this best books in the former genre. The Screaming Mimi is one of the earliest, and best, books about a Jack-the-Ripper type series killer.

   Brown’s “fabulous clipjoint,” Chicago, is the well-realized setting, and the detective hero is, as in many Brown books, fascinating, albeit unlikely. Sweeney is a down-and-out alcoholic reporter: “… he was only five-eighths Irish and he was only three-quarters drunk.”

   Brown does a superb job of taking the reader into his confidence, and we read compulsively as Sweeney tries to stay sober long enough to find who is killing nightclub beauties.

   Among the similarities of Brown’s The Lenient Beast are a series killing and an alcoholic character, the wife of Tucson detective Frank Ramos. Otherwise, the books are very different except for their excellence.

   Re-reading Beast thirty years later, I was surprised how well it stood up. A bonus is Brown’s integration of the macabre lyrics of Tom Lehrer into this book.

— Reprinted from The MYSTERY FANcier, Vol. 11, No. 3, Summer 1989.