Fredric Brown was an interesting figure in the world of pulp fiction because he had equivalent success in both the mystery science fiction genres. As a teenager, I was a huge fan of his SF work. As I grew into classic crime fiction, I was pleased to rediscover one of my favorite authors as a hardboiled noir master.
“The Wench is Dead” began its life as a short story and was later expanded into a full novel for a 1955 Bantam Books paperback release. The extreme skid row setting seems to be influenced by the work of Brown’s contemporary, David Goodis, who made a living writing gritty crime novels set among the drunks, junkies, and whores within America’s urban poor.
In “The Wench is Dead,” Brown’s narrator, Howard Perry, was a Man of Letters with a wealthy father, a good education, and a promising future in Chicago. But all that was before he discovered the allure of booze. Now, Howard is a stewbum living in a Los Angeles flop house, getting drunk as much as possible, and intermittently working as a dishwasher.
Howard has a girlfriend of sorts (more of an f-buddy) named Wilhelmina Kidder (“Billie the Kid”) who supplies him with alcohol, casual sex, and loaned money. Howard is smart enough to recognize that he treats Billie poorly and that she deserves better, but he’s the kind of wino who listens to the booze more than he listens to his own conscience. I found the evolving relationship between Howard and Billie to be the most compelling aspect of this paperback.
One day, Howard goes to see Billie hoping to score a drink and maybe get lucky. Billie sends Howard to grab a bottle of booze from a heroin-addicted mutual friend named Mame who is found murdered shortly after Howard leaves her apartment. This makes Howard the only likely suspect in the killing. Rather than enduring a torturous police interrogation, Howard - with Billie’s help - decides to remain free from police long enough to solve the murder himself.
The final solution to the crime wasn’t particularly satisfying, but the short book was an enjoyable read nevertheless. Like Goodis, Brown did a nice job of capturing the despair and hopelessness of extreme poverty and addiction while humanizing the winos and junkies generally ignored by polite society. Mostly, Fredric Brown is just a pleasure to read, and fans of his work should enjoy this story just fine. Recommended.