Thursday, November 01, 2012

Forgotten Books: Bruno Fischer 2fer-House of Flesh & The Evil Days

One way you can tell you're getting old is when the good girl in the Gold Medal novel appeals to you more than the femme fatale.

Somebody wrote me about a review I'd written a few years ago of Bruno Fischer's House of Flesh. In my review I was agreeing with science fiction writer Dave Bischoff's contention that the book is a mystery that combines gothic elements with some really horrorific moments. It's one of Fischer's best novels, a very sleek, dark whodunit that lags only at the very end because he runs out of suspects. There is a particularly nasty scene wherein dogs set upon the remains of a dead horse, the carcass having rotted before they got to it. The word "flesh" has multiple meanings in the novel. And nasty is the operative word for long sections of the book. 

Before responding to the letter I decided to look through the book again. Held up very well. But as I read it I realized that Fischer had made the good girl so appealing--smart, funny, winsome, clean cut--that the protagonist seems sort of dotty to obsess over a rather odd woman whom he finds unattractive (but inexplicably sexy of course), aggravatingly mysterious and frequently irritable. 

I know, I know--this is noir land where gonadic response to fate is not only standard but mandatory, thanks to the Law of The Crotch as writ large and eternal by James M. Cain.

The only way I can explain this misjudgement is my age. But an evening with the sweet, amusing good girl promises so much more fun than a few hours in the clutches of The Dragon Lady...

By the time they plant me Ill probably be reading those old-fashioned Harlequin romances. The clean ones.


The Evil Days by Bruno Fischer

Bruno Fischer had one of those careers you can't have any more. There's no market for any of it. He started out as editor and writer for a Socialist newspaper, shifted to terror pulps when the newspaper started failing, became a successful and respected hardcover mystery novelist in the Forties and early Fifties, and finally turned to Gold Medal originals when the pb boom began. His GMs sold in the millions. His House of Flesh is for me in the top ten of all GMs.

Then for reasons only God and Gary Lovisi understand, Fischer gave up writing and became an editor for Colliers books. But he had one more book in him and it turned out to be the finest of his long career.

Fischer shared with Howard Fast (Fast when he was writing mysteries under his pen names) a grim interest in the way unfulfilling jobs grind us down, leave us soulless. Maybe this was a reflection of his years on the Socialist newspaper. The soullessness features prominently in The Evil Days because it is narrated by a suburban husband who trains to work each day to labor as an editor in a publishing company where he is considered expendable. Worse, his wife constantly reminds him (and not unfairly) that they don't have enough money to pay their bills or find any of the pleasures they knew in the early years of their marriage. Fischer makes you feel the husband's helplessness and the wife's anger and despair.

The A plot concerns the wife finding jewels and refusing to turn them in. A familiar trope, yes, but Fischer makes it work because of the anger and dismay the husband feels when he sees how his wife has turned into a thief. But ultimately he goes along with her. Just when you think you can scope out the rest of the story yourself, Fischer goes all Guy de Maupassant on us. Is the wife having an affair? Did she murder her lover? Is any of this connected to the jewels? What the hell is really going on here?

Sometimes we forget how well the traditional mystery can deal with the social problems of an era and the real lives of real people. The hopelessness and despair of these characters was right for their time of the inflation-dazed Seventies. But it's just as compelling now as it was then when you look at the unemployment numbers and the calm reassurances by those who claim to know that the worst is yet to come.

A wily little novel that rattled me the first time I read it and rattles me still on rereading.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

I'm always glad when someone brings attention to Fischer's work. He is, to me, one of the most underrated mystery writers ever. I wish someone would publish a collection of his short stories as they have for Gil Brewer and Day Keene.