The mid-century mystery and science-fiction master Fredric Brown deserves much greater recognition, and his works should be brought back into print.
A story in the Chicago Tribune brings some well-deserved and in fact overdue attention to the mystery and sci-fi writer Fredric Brown.
Brown, a Chicago native who lived in Milwaukee much of his life, lived the classic story of a newspaperman "graduating" to the writing of novels and short stories, producing a couple-dozen novels and numerous highly regarded short stories.
His writings are not nearly as well known as those of contemporaries such as Dashiell Hammett and Robert Heinlein, but they compare favorably to the very best in both genres. Brown was imaginative, inventive, funny, and restless. His plots skillfully walked the line between plausibility and zaniness (beautifully exemplified by his Night of the Jabberwock), and his characterizations were topnotch.
His best-known characters were Ed and Am Hunter, an unlikely pair of private detectives in the Chicago of the 1940s and ’50s. Brown smartly and accurately characterized the city as The Fabulous Clipjoint, the title of the first Ed and Am mystery, published in 1947 and winner of a well-deserved Edgar Award for Best First Novel.
The first four Ed and Am mysteries were recently reprinted in a one-volume set, Hunter and Hunted, which I highly recommend.
The Screaming Mimi is a personal favorite of mine, with its masterful blend of suspense, mystery, and humor. The book opens with a crowd gathered before a glass apartment door at which a beautiful blond woman has her clothes stripped off while guarded by an angry attack dog—and it gets more bizarre and surreal from there, as alcohol-abusing but likeable and brilliant reporter Bill Sweeney goes on the track of a serial killer known as the Ripper, pursues the stripper as a love interest, gets put in an insane asylum, and meets a homeless man named God.
The book exemplifies all that’s best about Brown, in particular his ability to invent the most improbable situations and then give them all a rational explanation at the end. In this regard and in the similar intellectual playfulness of his science fiction Brown was a master of the surrealism that some of the best American mystery writers incorporated into their work in the decade and a half after World War II—notably Ellery Queen and Anthony Boucher, both of whose mysteries I recommend quite highly.
These writers (and others working in the same vein) recognized the disturbed and disorienting nature of much of American society in the second half of the twentieth century, and they depicted it vividly in their works. But they never gave into despair. Instead, they offered an alternative to the personality-driven political and social cults of the time: rationality, common sense, and a scientific willingness to follow the evidence wherever it might lead. We can still learn much from them today.
This movement of popular surrealism brought advanced art and intellectual acuteness to a commercially successful genre of fiction, exemplifying the impressive things popular art can do. Brown was one of the most accomplished masters of the form.
Mystery and science fiction of Fredric Brown: Highly recommended.