Re-Discovering Fredric Brown’s The Office

Oh, for the Love of an Enduring Author

If you recognize Fredric Brown’s name, the odds are you love his writing. If you don’t recognize his name, you’re in the company of most readers, even avid fans of the genres in which he carved his name—science fiction and mystery. If you’re in the latter camp, you’re certain to recognize the writers he influenced. Mickey Spillane identified him as his favorite writer. Stephen King listed one of Brown’s anthologies as a significant influence. Neil Gaiman incorporated his 1950 work of experimental fiction, Here Comes a Candle, into the universally acclaimed Sandman series.

 

While his bibliography might seem obscure to modern readers, his popularity has enjoyed an ebb and flow since his death in 1972. The ease with which obscure works can be reprinted and distributed in the physical medium, ironic in the digital age, now accounts for not quite a deluge, but certainly a steady stream of his bibliography, including books which could never before quite find an audience. That this is occurring at all is testament to his skills as a storyteller able to transcend time and place. His opportunity to grace The New York Times bestseller list might have passed long ago, but he has not been lost, and he is not going anywhere. The best writing requires a bit of effort to procure.

 

The Office is one of the few Brown novels printed only once. In it, Brown narrates the story of his first job, that of the gopher-like office boy for the company of Conger & Way, but it is only tangentially autobiographical. Brown’s life shows up frequently in his fiction, and the while parallels are always tenuous, the themes of religious oppression, unavoidable death, financial hardships, and alcoholism are very reflective of Brown’s difficult life. They have a lasting effect on the reader long after finishing one of his books.

 

So where is the lasting effect with this novel, Brown’s only work of “straight” fiction?  Reviews for The Office were positive, and while Robert Bloch suggested Brown never again attempted to write another straight fiction novel because of the middling nature of this story, the real reason is simple. By 1950, Brown had established himself as a strong author of genre fiction, and he’d already written enough to drown out the release of the novel he cherished the most. A reprint would not have been profitable. After Brown’s death, this would become the fate of even some of his most popular books.

 

While this novel might not provide much in the way of true biographical details, it is most likely the book which the prolific author valued the most. Brown authored twenty-nine novels and hundreds of short stories, mostly between 1940 and 1960. The Office represents Brown’s longest work of fiction, and it is one that he actually enjoyed writing, unlike most of his novels, which he slogged through for a paycheck. Also unlike the rest of his bibliography, this is the only work he extensively edited; indeed, a comparison to the first draft, released in a limited edition by Dennis McMillan in the late 1980s, reveals that while the final product contains the same characters and major plot points, it was entirely re-written. The result is that of a polished, mature author of serious fiction, and his love of this story shines through the tragic realities of the cast of characters.

 

Inspiration for the Reprint 

Despite both the critical acclaim during Brown’s lifetime (his first novel won the Edgar Allan Poe Award for Best First Mystery Novel) and the sheer volume of his bibliography, biographical details are scant. Jack Seabrook’s excellent Martians and Misplaced Clues: The Life and Work of Fredric Brown is exhaustively researched and an excellent purchase for Brown fans, but the direct focus on Brown’s life is limited, and this is due to Brown’s reticence.

 

One of the primary documents for Brown’s biography is his second wife’s memoir Oh, for the Life of an Author’s Wife, half of which had previously been released in one of the limited-edition books in the Dennis McMillan’s Fredric Brown in the Detective Pulps series. It seemed unlikely the remaining half would ever find an audience, yet Chad Calkins obtained a copy of the manuscript and released it earlier this year, providing a rare first-person account of a large period of Brown’s life. The efforts of editors like Calkins and Phil Stephensen-Payne (The Proofreader’s Page and other Uncollected Items) to make selections of Brown esoterica easily obtainable sparked the inspiration to resurrect The Office.

 

For decades, The Office has been tough to come by. A decent copy will run a collector hundreds of dollars and tattered copies still carry a hefty price tag, so when a readable—though not pretty, and certainly not pleasantly scented—discarded library copy popped up on my watch list, I promptly ordered it and then devoured the novel in a few sittings.

 

Like much of his oeuvre, The Office contains plots and characters who, like Brown himself, are riddled with dichotomy. They are simple and complex, good and evil, cynical and hopeful. Brown’s work endures because no matter how outlandish it can get, it realistically portrays human nature as the multi-faceted experience it truly is, unlike many of the black-and-white tropes of popular fiction of his and today’s time. While it is a book written in the 1950s and set in the 1920s, it never wallows in nostalgia. Instead, a refreshing honesty shines through, despite the lack of strong parallels between fact and fiction.

 

Thanks to Chad Calkin’s willingness to share his experience with publishing Oh, for the Life of an Author’s Wife, Jack Seabrook’s encouragement to get the ball rolling, and Barry N. Malzberg’s generosity and willingness to allow independent publishers to reprint Brown’s work, The Office: 60th Anniversary Edition will be available in October. Makeshift Press will offer paperback and ebook copies via Amazon, both versions of which contain an introduction, newly illustrated cover, list of Brown works currently in print, and an afterword by Brown biographer Jack Seabrook.

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