(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Fredric Brown’s early writing for the pulps was formative for his style, which was never very polished. Accustomed to tailoring his stories to the standard pulp stereotypes, he was able to distinguish himself mainly by devising unusual plot twists or endings. His story titles also show an inventive air: “A Little White Lye,” “Murder While You Wait,” “The Dancing Sandwiches.” Once, in need of a clever title, he bought one from a fellow writer for ten dollars: “I Love You Cruelly.” Although his prose was never outstanding, Brown did attract a large following who appreciated the tough-guy type of story and the realism of Brown’s settings (often in Chicago).

The Fabulous Clipjoint

Many of his early stories are forgettable, but with The Fabulous Clipjoint Brown managed to create a fascinatingly complex plot, amid the background of a sleazy carnival. His detective team, Ed and Am Hunter, is different and appealing. Oddly enough, though, the best of Brown’s crime novels do not belong to this series: The Screaming Mimi and The Far Cry (1951). Both novels have unusual characters and focus on a rather seamy milieu. The milieu is well drawn, but modern readers who are not accustomed to the clichés of pulp style may find the one-dimensional nature of many of the characters unappealing. The tough talk is there, but the soul is missing.

Brown himself did not engage in discussions of the theoretical basis of his work or of the detective novel in general; he was a professional author and considered writing a job one did for money. Nevertheless, he did follow the standard pulp guidelines: a catchy opener, unusual characters, a new twist in the plot, and above all, a smash finish. This conventionality probably crippled his development as a stylist—but it did make him attractive to editors. Brown’s ingenious twists of plot were just what editors sought to enliven the routine nature of much pulp fiction.

The Screaming Mimi

In The Screaming Mimi, one of Brown’s best-known crime novels, all of his assets and his debits are visible. It was the only Brown novel to be made into a film (with the same title, in 1958, starring Anita Ekberg and Philip Carey). The setting of the novel is Chicago of the 1940’s. The hero is a newspaper reporter who is inclined to go on occasional binges, and the novel opens as the reporter, Sweeney, is just coming out of his latest bender. “Sweeney sat on a park bench, that summer night, next to God. Sweeney rather liked God, although not many people did.” Here is a characteristic Brown touch—the clever play with words. “God” happens to...

(The entire section is 1098 words.)