Showing posts with label Fredric Brown. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Fredric Brown. Show all posts

Friday, February 3, 2023

The Far Cry

Fredric Brown (1906-1972) authored crime-fiction, fantasy, and science-fiction from 1938 through 1965. He won an Edgar award for his first novel, The Fabulous Clipjoint (1947), and his novel Screaming Mimi was adapted into a 1958 film. Anthony Boucher of The New York Times Book Review described Brown as the successor to Cornell Woolrich. Interesting enough, Brown is also credited as writing one the shortest short stories of all-time, a unique work with only two sentences: “The last man on Earth sat alone in a room. There was a knock at the door.” We've covered his two novels Madball (1953) and The Wench is Dead (1955) and decided to try another, The Far Cry. It was originally published by E.P. Dutton in 1951 and then in paperback by Bantam (#1133) in 1952. It now exists in audio and digital by Bruin Books. 

Family man and real estate agent George Weaver went a little crazy a few months ago. Recently released from the hospital, Weaver is advised by his doctors to take it easy. He has orders to temporarily disengage from his business to allow himself time to settle back into his normal lifestyle. To do this, Weaver leaves his home in Kansas City and heads to a small New Mexico town called Taos. It's here that he finds a vacation home, a dreary, rural house where he can rest, paint a little, and drink. Weaver gets a great deal on the place because a woman was attacked in the house and stabbed several yards away. The real estate agent can't seem to find a buyer due to the home's nefarious history. So, Weaver agrees to spend the summer there for free in exchange for fixing up the place. 

Through a journalist friend, Weaver learns about the woman's murder eight years ago and is offered a little side hustle. Weaver can take photos of the area and his friend can write up a sensational article about the murder for a tabloid. However, Weaver begins to become invested in the mystery. The police could not locate anything regarding the woman's past – where did she come from? Equally puzzling was that the police weren't able to learn much about the house's owner and supposed murderer. Where did he come from? Where did he escape to? Weaver submerges himself into the case and finds himself emotionally connected to the crime in troubling ways. 

In reading The Far Cry, I notice that Stephen King possibly borrowed the idea from this novel to create his classic horror bestseller The Shining. There are a number of striking similarities between the two works, notably an alcoholic protagonist writing while taking care of a rural empty dwelling that has a murderous history. If one were to get extremely specific, both books feature a boy who sees the victim and both of these works feature a similar ending. It might be a stretch, but at the very least they are certainly similar. Additionally, King has cited Fredric Brown as an influence.

Brown uses the old crime-noir formula of introducing an amateur sleuth into the investigation. He carefully intertwines this small town murder with a unique character study of Weaver, the dejected suburbanite faced with complacency in a lousy marriage. There are a number of motivations for Weaver to find the answers to the murder, but its murkiness becomes nearly trance-like for the main character. Weaver's alcoholism, mental instability, anonymity in town, and sheer boredom of unemployment all weigh in on the narrative's strong plot building and slow unraveling of every juicy detail of the murder. The mystery is a hypnotic one for Weaver, pushing him into some dark places.

If you enjoy suspenseful, edgy murder mysteries presented in a unique and clever way, then look no farther than The Far Cry. Highly recommended.

Monday, June 24, 2019


In a just world, Fredric Brown (1906-1972) would be a household name, and his body of work would be available in perpetuity. During his career, Brown conquered the world of crime and science fiction with novels and stories of consistently high quality, yet he is largely unremembered today by the general public. Stark House’s Black Gat imprint is doing its part to keep Brown’s memory alive by reprinting his 1953 carny heist novel, “Madball” for 21st century paperback consumption.

As the novel opens, veteran carnival worker Mack Irby is very pleased with himself. He’s walking around the midway watching the marks throw balls at milk bottles to win a kewpie doll as a line forms to see the alligator boy in a darkened canvas tent. Mack is pleased because he just successfully robbed a bank and has stashed $42,000 of the take until the season ends and the heat dies down. He’s hoping his newfound luck will extend to getting laid by one of the hotties from the hoochie-cootchie tent.

Meanwhile, there is a murderer among the carnies (preferred weapon: tent stake) whose secret is being kept by a female entertainer with a lot to lose. The carnival’s fortune teller (a “Madball” is carny lingo for his crystal ball) suspects that there may be a connection between the murder and the recent bank robbery. He uses his inside knowledge of the traveling staff with his practiced skills of intuition to learn the truth before the police get to the bottom of the mysteries.

The carnival setting of “Madball” is such a joy to read as the author peppers the narrative with inside-industry stuff as well as tons of carny lingo - marks, grinds, talkers, tops, doniker, etc. It’s a fun world for 198 pages, and the colorful characters make for some great company. As a mystery novel, “Madball” is imperfect - too many characters, too many POV shifts - but the main attraction here is the rich setting and era. If you have an interest in the 1950s traveling carnival subculture, there’s a lot to enjoy in this reissue.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

The Wench is Dead

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.

Buy a copy of this book HERE