HIS NAME WAS DEATH by Fredric Brown
After the big war American lives were in flux. Millions trekked to the suburbs to begin an entirely new way of life. And many of the prohibitions that had been common before the war were now relaxed.
Kurt Vonnegut once remarked that the novels of John D. MacDonald charted the Fifties and early Sixties so well that students of sociology would be able to read them decades later and get a true feel for the era.
I feel the same thing is true of several of Fredric Brown’s novels, including His Name Was Death, a novel so cunningly crafted that Anthony Boucher in the New York Times said on publication, “You’ll be compelled to read through in one sitting to one of the very few endings that have genuinely surprised me in a long time.”
In addition to the stunning story there’s also Brown’s take on mid-Fifties. His mid-Fifties. While suburban mysteries came into fashion Brown frequently wrote about life in small cities, in this case a Midwestern burg where a series of murders has baffled police and terrified the citizenry. The city resembles aspects of Brown’s Milwaukee. The characters likely resemble the people he knew in his earlier life.
Fredric William Brown was born into the working class, educated in public schools and night school as well as a year at college. Brown spent nearly twelve years working as an office worker during the Depression. From there he became a proofreader at the Milwuakee Journal. Given his penchant for drinking and his fondness for bars, Brown certainly encountered the types—if not the actual people—he uses in His Name Was Death.
The prototype for Darius Conn, small-time businessman, might well have been one of Brown’s drinking buddies. Successful but not as much as he lets on; likes his nights out with the boys because frankly his marriage has gone stale; and talks a lot about the same kind of dreams heavy drinkers always talk about.
That’s the façade Conn presents anyway. In truth he murdered his wife over a year ago. The police accepted it as an accident. And his plan for becoming an important businessman is being financed by his turning his printing business into a forgery operation.
But then one afternoon the fetching Joyce Dugan, his trusted Girl Friday, talks to a man who stops in to see Conn so he can pick up some money Conn owes him. Dugan calls around and finally locates Conn who tells her, yes, use the desk fund to pay him. And then have a nice weekend. Well, turns out the desk fund doesn’t have enough so she opens the safe and takes the extra money from there. Not knowing of course that it’s counterfeit.
Brown was clearly one of those writers who enjoyed amusing himself. This story could have been told in a straight-forward fashion but it wouldn’t have near the power it does. Brown tells his tale from nine different points of view. And with a dark chuckle up his sleeve, he shows how each one of them meets his or her fate because of Joyce Dugan giving the man (an old high school boy friend, as it turns out; and a far more preferable mate than the bullying gambler she married) just a few counterfeit bills. A remarkable narrative structure that Brown used at lest twice again.
In true page-turner fashion, Brown sets up his story in an intricate set of inter-locking cliff hangers. His depictions of raw fear, terror, rage, betrayl are played off against moments of black humor and even sweet romance.
This is one of Brown’s true crowd-pleasers and should have been one of his biggest sellers. But Brown, who was often referred to as a “writer’s writer,” was never a big seller. I once talked to the man who’d been the sales manager of Bantam Books during the Fifties. His favorite writer bar none was Fred Brown. He said he did everything he could to break him out but it never happened.
So I go back to my thesis at the top. Brown did the realistic every day of the working class so well it may have limited his appeal. The time was dominated by private detectives and the romance of the mean streets. Brown’s streets were mean all right but they were filled with many of life’s losers, the kind of in-laws most of us dread having. Philip Marlowe was handsome, brave and witty. Brown’s good guys were sixty dollar a week salesmen whose ambition was to move out of their sleeping rooms into real apartments. Getting laid in a sleeping room ain’t easy.
But time has been kind to the best of Fredric Brown’s novels and stories. He has yet to develop the cult he deserves but at least his name and discussions of his work are appearing with more and more frequency on websites of film and noir.
This is one of the finest crime novels of the Fifties, a decade rich with many true masterpieces.