Saturday, March 1, 2008
The Fabulous Fredric Brown
For those of you who don't read the Chicago Tribune's Book Section, now packaged in the Saturday paper, here's a piece I did last week which you might find interesting.
Sixty years ago, a Chicago newspaper writer named Fredric Brown, a Gary, Indiana teenager who'd gotten a job on a Milwaukee paper as a proofreader and never looked back, won an Edgar Award for Best First Crime Novel from the Mystery Writers of America. His book was called THE FABULOUS CLIPJOINT, and it's still considered one of the best crime novels about Chicago ever written. Master crime writer and anthologist Bill Pronzini referred to it, in his 1001 Midnights, as "unquestionably more than just another hard-boiled detective tale."
CLIPJOINT does for the North End of the 1930s and 40s what Jim Thompson died for the scruffy towns of Texas and California, and what Dashiell Hammett did for San Francisco – preserve forever, like bugs in amber, the seedy pleasures of our shared pasts. "We walked north two blocks on the east side of Michigan Boulevard to the Allerton Hotel... The top floor was a very swanky cocktail bar. The windows were open and it was cool there. Up as high as that, the breeze was a cool breeze and not something out of a blast furnace. We took a table by a window on the south side, looking out toward the Loop...'Beautiful as hell,' I said. 'But it's a clipjoint...' "
Pick up THE FABULOUS CLIPJOINT and you won't be able to put it down until you've turned the last page. (Luckily, it's a short paperback.) In between moments of street poetry, it tells the story of Ed Hunter, an 18-year-old apprentice in the job printing house where his father, Wally, has worked as a master printer for many years. Wally likes to drink (as did Brown), mostly beer, but he never missed a day's work and followed a set route home.
One morning, though, Wally doesn't come home. A couple of cops arrive to tell the Hunters that his body has been found in an alley, along with a few broken beer bottles. He had been beaten to death – probably in a robbery or a drunken fight. Nobody saw or heard anything, and they seem to be saying they won't be spending much time on the case.
Ed is filled with sadness and rage. "I thought about Pop, and I wished I'd known him better. Oh, we'd got along all right, we'd got along swell, but it came to me now that it was too late how little I really knew him." Ed knows he has to find out what happened, but also that he can't do it by himself. So he goes to the old C&NW Madison Street Station and heads for Janesville, Wisconsin, where the J.C. Hobart Carnival is doing its business. At the carny, Ed looks up his Uncle Ambrose Hunter, a barker and roustabout who is the smartest man Ed has ever met. They head back to Chicago, and working as a team they pick up Wally's trail, bribe a friendly detective, act like tough guys (not easy for the boyish Ed or the short and tubby Am), meet a swell dame who loves Ed and lies to him, and actually solve the murder.
Brown wrote six more books about Ed and Am Hunter, now private detectives working in Chicago. The first four were collected in a handsome hardcover called HUNTER AND HUNTED, published in 2002 by Stewart Masters, a dedicated Brown enthusiast in Hermitage, PA. Volume 2, Masters promised, would finish the series. I've never been able to find Vol. 2 on the Internet, and Masters' website seems to have disappeared. In 1984, Dennis McMillan began to publish the ambitious 10-volume Fredric Brown Pulp Detective Series, collecting all the best of his previously-unreprinted work, mostly, but not exclusively, in the crime field. They don't seem to be in McMillan's current catalogue, but copies occasionally show up on rare book sites like ABE and Alibris.
"There are no rules. You can write a story, if you wish, with no conflict, no suspense, no beginning, middle or end. Of course, you have to be regarded as a genius to get away with it, and that's the hardest part -- convincing everybody you're a genius," Frederic Brown once said. He wrote hundreds of mysteries stories for all the famous pulp magazines; turned out even more classic science fiction tales, collected in such anthologies as Angels and Spaceships and Space on My Hands; wrote for the first year of Star Trek and other TV ventures; and had his novels turned into films in America (1958's Screaming Mimi) France (1972's L'Ibis Rouge, based on Brown's Knock Three One Two), Italy , Germany and Japan.
Why then has Fredric Brown avoided the iconic status of a Hammett or a Jim Thompson? Actually, as many critics have pointed out, Brown is far less a classic noir writer than Thompson; his stories are not nearly as dark and perverse, and his style is far more polished. "Brown was a craftsman plying his hard-boiled trade, whereas Thompson was an open wound bleeding on the page," one reviewer said.
Did he write too much? It was only 14 years before his death in 1972, age 65, that he could finally afford to give up the daily grind of newspaper work and nickel-a-word pulp fiction.
And part of the problem was Brown himself, a man who often told his wife he hated writing. Brown liked booze as much as he disliked the act of writing, and given his choice he'd prefer to sit in a bar or at home, drinking, playing his flute, and indulging in one of the dozens of other hobbies he enjoyed: chess, poker, and the works of Lewis Carroll.
Whatever the reason, enough good people put Brown on their must-read lists and then become evangelists to keep his name alive on the same high shelf as Hammett, Thompson, Ross Macdonald and other crime icons. Somewhere up in Literary Heaven, I hope he's looking down, sipping a beer, playing his flute, and smiling.