Review of Miss Darkness: The Great Short Crime Fiction of Fredric Brown

In high school I worked at the local public library where I much too often found myself distractedly roaming the stacks I was supposed to be shelving, mesmerized by the book spines. The well-used spines of the popular books helped me find what I really wanted: books no one checked out. Books worn only by time spent sitting stagnant on our shelves, not in patrons’ hands. The Best of Fredric Brown (1976) was the most memorable of these books.

Its first appeal was its unintentionally ironic charm. It was a “Greatest Hits” collection of the works of an unknown author. Not just unknown to me, but to everyone I’ve ever spoken to about Brown.

Its second appeal was the stamp of authority, as Robert Bloch edited and introduced this volume. Years later I’d see Brown’s stylistically trailblazing Here Comes a Candle (1950) name-dropped (sans its author) in Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman series. The air of secrecy here was intriguing. Brown was an author a bibliophile should know, but shouldn’t talk about. The first rule of Fred Brown is not to talk about Fred Brown, at least, according to Gaiman, not explicitly.

Its third appeal was that the volume had never been checked out since the library converted its catalogue to digital. Based on the book’s appearance, it hadn’t been checked out before the digital conversion either.

The Best of Fredric Brown was my introduction to O. Henry before I ever read any O. Henry. Nearly every story featured at least one last-minute twist. The anthology was also my introduction to flash fiction, as Brown was a purveyor of the “short short.” Included was this gem from 1961:

The End

Professor Jones had been working on time theory for many years.

     “And I have found the key equation,” he told his daughter one day. “Time is a field.  This machine I have made can manipulate, even reverse, that field.”

Pushing a button as he spoke, he said, “This should make time run backward backward run time make should this,” said he, spoke he as button a pushing.

“Field that, reverse even, manipulate can made have I machine this.  Field is a time.” Day one daughter his told he, “Equation key the found have I and.”

“Years many for theory time on working been had Jones Professor.”

Kitschy, yes. But this was the shortest story I’d ever read, which was fascinating. I quickly showed it to as many people as I could, typically eliciting a chuckle and a quick segue to another topic. Thus is Fred Brown.

The volume also contained a story of the space exploration and subsequent humanization of a talking mouse (dubbed “Mitkey” by his German owner), an epic battlefield scene (revealed to be a game of chess at the very end), and the tale of a human and ovoid space creature placed in an arena for a fight-to-the-death battle with their respective species’ existence on the line (later adapted for an iconic Star Trek episode in the 1960’s). Brown’s science fiction wasn’t anything that would shake the foundation of the genre, or even make much of a ripple in its lake, but it was equal parts imaginative and playful. I could feel Brown’s enjoyment of the writing.

His crime fiction is another story. Brown is better known for this, winning the Edgar for his first novel, The Fabulous Clipjoint (1947), and penning 23 more crime fiction novels. This was his bread-and-butter. He stayed out of office work through his writing, supported his family, and fueled his overzealous consumption of spirits. While science fiction was his toy-box, crime fiction was his tool-box.

According to the Jonathan Eeds, editor of Miss Darkness: The Short Crime Fiction of Fredric Brown (2015), Brown is not as well known as he should be because he wrote so much (iv). While he only wrote for a couple decades, his output was constant, starting strong with  The Fabulous Clipjoint, and getting even stronger as he continued his career. Certainly there were duds, indicative of Brown phoning it in for a paycheck (see “Murder Set to Music” [1957] in this collection), but all competently-crafted.

According to his second wife, Brown hated writing, and his output was infinitesimally slow (Paradox Lost [1973], 6). While her assessment is clearly hyperbolic, Brown did have a tendency to revisit his well and expand his lengthier short fiction into short novels. This is the value of Miss Darkness, as it contains quite a few works in their original format as published in various pulp magazines throughout the forties and fifties. Included is “The Jabberwocky Murders” (expanded to Night of the Jabberwock in 1950), “The Case of the Dancing Sandwiches” (expanded to a novel of the same name in 1951),” “Obit for Obie” (expanded to The Deep End in 1952),”The Pickled Punks” (expanded to Madball in 1953), and “The Wench is Dead” (expanded to a novel of the same name in 1955).

I have not read any of the novel expansions, but in trying to locate them, I have read several reviews. Most contain similar complaints. While the plots can be ambitious, they are stretched and forgettable. Additionally, the characters are flat and lackluster. The originals lack these qualms, for the most part. These are the stories in the purest form of their originality. While Brown might have hated writing, his wife adds that he loved having written and liked plotting (Paradox Lost [1973], 6). Perhaps this explains the brevity of most of his novels, and if this is the case, you’re getting the plots as they should be, not as they were re-written for additional sales.

You’re also getting stories with fairly unlikable protagonists, which is always of interest to me. This type of characterization is subversive and, since it was written for a pulp-fiction industry filled with copycat writing, is refreshing. “The Pickled Punks” doesn’t even have a protagonist, unless you count the intellectually disabled Sammy, whose actions are still lecherous and murderous, though to be fair he follows the examples of others quite frequently. Here is a cast of characters desperate for sex and cash set against the backdrop of a traveling circus’ freakshow. There is no one to root for here, but the plot is expertly woven. The twists don’t seem forced. The characters get what is coming to them. No one but the reader wins.

“The Wench is Dead” represents the story with the most interesting protagonist, one who voices the story. Howard Perry is a wealthy college-graduate who has run away to LA’s skid row to live as a drunken drifter with a hooker girlfriend. The novel expansion turns him into a sociology professor immersing himself in the streets for research purposes, which is boring. I prefer the derelict who rejects privilege for the underbelly. Perry knows what his girlfriend Billie does, yet he doesn’t care. He loves her and cares only to exist and drink. Unlike many of the first-person narrators of Brown’s fiction, Perry sounds like an actual person, probably channeling the cynical, alcoholic author who penned him. Through Perry, we learn more about Brown, a man who wrote so much fiction, but very little about himself. Sure, this novella includes forced lines to demonstrate edginess (from Perry: “Whoa, Billie. I didn’t kill Mame. I didn’t even rape her.”), but the writing only occasionally veers into imperfect. The voice is realistic, the twists aren’t gimmicky, and the characters are multi-faceted.

Locating Brown’s books can be a exercise in frustration, especially if you want a physical copy. The Case of the Dancing Sandwiches runs for a minimum of $50 in mass market paperback form at major online retailers as it has been out of print for decades. Locating the original versions of these stories prior to the publication of Miss Darkness would have required a dip into your savings account. Miss Darkness is everything a casual reader and an obsessive one would want from this short selection of crime works—some short shorts (“Nightmare in Yellow” and “The Joke” are of note), some novellas, and an introduction with scant, but interesting biographical information. Also included is a beautiful back and front cover, the back of which includes a full-color reprint of the summer 1944 issue of Thrilling Mystery, which features an illustration of “The Jabberwocky Murders.” It’s a jarring blend of a typical pulp-noir cover and John Tenniel’s horrific Jabberwocky from Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass (1865). Above this reprint is a photo of Brown’s profile, his head opened up and a scroll reading “Extraordinary Crime Fiction from the eminent Mr. Brown” escaping. The tome is clearly the loving work of a fan.

That being said, the editorial typos get out of hand, particularly in the second half of the book. With a transfer from the original pulps, typos are bound to occur; however, many of them frequently break the narrative. Commas abound where they shouldn’t, as do periods and capital letters. In one particularly large oversight, almost an entire paragraph is repeated. A second edition would nicely fix these, but with Brown, second editions, even of his posthumous collections, are rare. The first four Ed and Am Hunter (Uncle and Nephew protagonists of The Fabulous Clipjoint) novels were anthologized in 2002 with a second volume promised, but the publisher of the small press that released the anthology died. No reprint, and certainly no follow-up, are going to happen.

While I’ve seen Brown’s books in non-specialty bookstores since discovering him in my public library, they nearly always represent his science fiction. Miss Darkness was produced by Bruin Crimeworks, a  small family-owned publisher in Delaware. You’re not likely to find it while casually browsing. Yes, you’ll have to go out of your way (though not far out of your way as it is on Amazon) and you’ll have to drop some change, but you’ll support a publisher resurrecting long out-of-print crime stories for both collectors and new fans. Additionally, Fred Brown’s charm might hook you, and if it does, you’ve found an author with a bibliography you’re never going to get through in its entirety.

What more could you ask for?

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