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by Alex Verstegen
A writer's writer. That's what critics and colleagues have called him many times and they still continue to do so. Established names as various as Robert Bloch, Philip José Farmer and Mickey Spillane were and are among his most avid fans. Why is this?
The reasons seem obvious for those who have read his work: Fredric Brown is one of the best story plotters in the business, his works contain some of the most innovative ideas of his generation, and there is always the sly wit, the word play, the romanticism, the paradox, the surprise ending... But most of all his books deserve to be read again and again because of that intangible quality you can't describe, but which is always there in between the lines, that special something which makes it stand out and instantly recognizable as Brown's work. Sure, his words were written for entertainment, and for bringing home the bacon, but there's more to it than just that. For even in his weaker works, Fredric Brown established himself as a writer who managed to write more than just stories, because in them the reader will find a universe of original thought, of a simple man finding unusual answers to the questions of life.
We don't know too much of the person behind the writer, and this is especially true about Brown's youth. He was a rather small, timid, and frail man who liked to read, drink, and play chess or poker and hated to publicize his private life. He had various hobbies, among which painting and playing his flute - he once described himself as being "the finest flute player in Taos, by virtue of being the only one". He "hated writing, but loved having written" according to his second wife, Elizabeth. Anecdotes like this one colour the memories of his friends and colleagues, but of course we do have a few sure biographical facts.
Fredric William Brown was born an only child on October 29, 1906 in Cincinnati, Ohio. He was the son of a newspaperman. His mother died after been taken ill when Fred was only 14 years old. During her illness, young Fred prayed a lot, but to no avail, and since then he can be considered a fervent atheist. His father died a year later, in 1921, leaving Brown alone. He finished highschool in 1922. He apparently wrote for the High School paper but that work has been lost. After graduation he got a steady job as an office boy, which formed the background for his autobiographical novel "The Office" (1958). Next Brown attends semesters at Hanover College and at the University of Cincinnati. In 1929 he marries Helen Ruth Brown, whom he only knew via correspondence. Their sons James and Linn were born in Milwaukee, in 1930 and 1932. Times were rough and Brown took whatever work he could get, mostly officework, but also as a dishwasher, a busboy and a detective. He once even got on a train to L.A. as a hobo and spent a week looking for work, after which he returned to his family, still penniless.
Fred joined the Milwaukee Allied Authors club and started writing for trade magazines, mostly humorous short stories, and mostly in his spare time as he held odd jobs. From that time he also contributed a monthly column called "The Proofreader's Page" in "The American Printer", which he continued to do for ten years. His grammatical as well as his plotting skills helped him as a writer: he only once rewrote a book, for the rest his first drafts hardly ever needed corrections. Other proofreaders were less gifted and found it necessary to mess up his name: Fredric Brown often became Frederic or even Frederick Brown(e)! In 1937 he became a proofreader for the Milwaukee "Journal", another job he would hold until in 1945.
As a proofreader he had to correct copy for the pulp magazines, which made him think to start writing for the pulps himself, because he thought he certainly couldn't do any worse. He was right, of course. In 1937 he sold his first detective story "Monday's an Off Night", but only in 1938 a story of his, "The Moon For a Nickel", was published, in "Street and Smith's Detective Story". From then on his career as a fiction writer gradually grew, selling hundreds of stories in the early forties to the booming markets of the detective and science fiction pulp magazines. He wasn't a typical pulpwriter, as the writing didn't come easy: he seldomly produced more than a few pages a day, and he would put off the moment of having to sit down behind his typewriter as long as he could.
By the end of the Second World War he had finished his first novel, "The Fabulous Clipjoint" which was published in 1947. The money of this sale and the next, plus the fame he gathered with his first books came in very handy. Brown quit his various jobs to become a full-time writer and amically divorced Helen, to marry Elizabeth. Brown concentrated on writing novels now, and his production of short stories dwindled. He decided only to write stories whenever he felt he had to write them. After living in New York for a short time, the Browns in 1949 decided to move south, mainly because of Fred's health problems. He had a weak constitution and suffered from many allergies and asthma. En route to Albequerque they stopped in Taos, New Mexico, an artist's colony they liked so much they decided to stay. Here they lived a quiet life for about three years, with Brown putting out a few novels and short stories every year, enjoying the quiet village life. In 1952 the Browns moved to the Los Angeles area, but in 1954 Brown took the advice of his doctors and moved to Tucson, Arizona, back to the dry desert air. He continued to write here, but at a slower pace.
The Browns stayed in Tucson for the rest of the fifties, and as his health deteriorated Fred's production was down to about a novel a year by the end of that decade. In 1961 Brown went back to California, apparently to write screenplays, and also scripts for "Alfred Hitchcock Presents", but little is known about his output in Hollywood before he decided to move back to Tucson in 1963. His last novel was published that year, but he could barely write now because of his illnesses. He started some new things, but never finished them. His last short story "Eine Kleine Nachtmusik", appeared in print in 1965. It cannot have been a happy time. Fred's health was declining fast, his novels were long out of print, most of his stories lay forgotten in the old pulps, and he drank heavily. His first wife died in 1970 after raising their two sons, both of whom are still alive today. Brown himself passed away in hospital in 1972 at the age of 65, after suffering terribly from the effects of emphysema. In his desk his family found a typical Fredric Brown note, simply saying: "No flowers, no funeral, no fuss".
In 1932 he published privately what must be considered his earliest surviving work of fiction, two selections of his own poems, "Fermented Ink" and "Shadow Suite". These books are not available for collectors, but most of the poems were reprinted in the "Fredric Brown in the Pulp Detectives" series. There are some real gems among them, and the first indications of the themes he developed as a writer are unmistakably present. With the stories he wrote in large quantities at the end of the thirties and in the beginning of the fourties, Fredric Brown made a name for himself, but it would take years before any of them would be put together in a collection.
The first commercial book which bore his name was not a short story collection however, but his first novel, "The Fabulous Clipjoint" (1947). In it young Ed Hunter joins forces with his carnival uncle, Am(brose), to solve his father's murder. It's a delightful and sensitive novel, full of real people, real dreams and real desillusions, and very different from everything published at that date. Maybe that's why Brown's agent had a lot of trouble selling the manuscript. It was turned down by twelve publishers before being accepted by Dutton. They were proved right. "The Fabulous Clipjoint" won the Mystery Writers of America's prestigious Edgar Allen Poe award for the best first novel of 1947. It has been reprinted many times, mostly in paperback, and is easy to find, but first editions are extremely scarce, in the US as well as in the UK, where Boardman published it as a paperback first edition.
Dutton surprised Brown by asking a sequel to "The Fabulous Clipjoint", a new adventure with Ed and Am Hunter, the only novel series characters he ever developed. In all, the Hunters can be found in seven of Brown's novels. The sequel was "The Dead Ringer" (1948) and it picks up where "The Fabulous Clipjoint" left off. It deals with Ed and Am solving a series of crimes at a carnival, one of Brown's favorite settings. This book also was put on the market as a Boardman paperback first UK edition. "Murder Can Be Fun" (1949) came next and was his first non series novel. It's a witty story based on a clever plot. Next came another Hunter novel, "The Bloody Moonlight" (1949), one of Brown's lesser efforts but still great fun to read. It follows young Ed as he is assigned to his first case and becomes the suspect of murder.
Fredric Brown was one of those rare writers who excelled in two different literary fields. In 1949 his first fantasy novel, "What Mad Universe", was published, to great acclaim. It has become a classic and has seen new printings until today, but a true first edition is hard to find. It is based on a novelet of the same name, published in Startling Stories in 1948. In it, Brown humorously parodies the pulp market and regular science fiction and he manages to package it into one of the highlights of science fiction literature. Brown published another classic that year, "The Screaming Mimi" (1949), which to this date possibly is his best known work, if only because it was made into a film with Anita Ekberg, Gypsy Rose Lee and Phil Carey; a film Brown himself hated and which he advised all his friends not to see. Brown never saw Dario Argento's "Bird with the Crystal Plumage" which was also based on it. The novel tells the tale of Bill Sweeney, a heavily drinking reporter who gets himself involved with a beautiful stripper and a "Ripper" who terrorizes Chicago, killing one gorgeous girl after another. It's a fast-paced novel which will leave you no time for a breather. The novel has been reprinted many times and is probably one of the easiest Brown books to get hold of, but the true first edition is one of the most expensive Brown collector's items.
Next in line are "Compliments of a Fiend" (1950), a Hunter adventure in which Ed has to solve his uncle's disappearance, and "Here Comes a Candle" ("to light you to bed, and here comes a chopper to chop off your head" (1950), a tour de force in 25 chapters involving alternating media: radio play, screenplay, sportcast, teleplay, stage play, and newspaper article. Dutton advertised this book as a novel, not as a mystery, which it actually is. What it lacks in Brown's usual originality of plot, it makes up for by originality in form. But only one hardcover and one paperback edition were published, both in the US and the UK, which makes the book hard to find. Following this experience, Brown wrote one of his most witty mystery novels, "The Night of the Jabberwock" (1950). In it he combines two earlier stories into a breathtaking adventure and it's a must for Brown lovers. Dell then published a Brown novelet called "The Case of the Dancing Sandwiches" (1951) in their new 10 cent paperback series, which today is one of the most desired books by collectors of Fredric Brown and paperback collectors in general. Fortunately there are two reprints available in anthologies.
"Death Has Many Doors" (1951) is another Ed and Am Hunter novel, but this time with a fantasy angle (Martians!) which turns out to be not so fantastic at all. It precedes "The Far Cry" (1951), perhaps Brown's greatest achievement in plotting, and many a reader's favorite Brown book. Main character George Weaver suffers a nervous breakdown and decides to take a rest in a cabin in Taos, New Mexico, where he becomes obsessed with solving a murder which took place there. The surprise ending - one of his trademarks - is one of his best and will leave the reader flabbergasted. The book has recently been reprinted two times and is currently in print. In the same year his first fantasy short story collection, "Space on my Hands" (1951), was published by Shasta, a small Chicago based publisher, and it contains his best known story, "Knock" ("The last man on Earth sat alone in a room. There was a knock at the door..."). The stories in this and in other collections of his shorter science fiction are today probably most familiar to his readers all over the world. Like most of his fantasy collections, the book isn't very hard to find, but a first edition...
"We All Killed Grandma" (1952) is a weaker mystery, mostly because it lacks in originality. Maybe Brown realised this, as with the next novel "The Deep End" (1952) he gives his readers a special treat as to make up for it. It's a brilliantly constructed psychological crime novel which many critics regard as his best work. There were several recent reprints and it isn't too difficult to obtain. It was followed by "The Lights in the Sky Are Stars" (1953), a serious and sensitive science fiction novel, and the wild paperback original crime tale "Madball" (1953) in which Brown once more describes the carnival atmosphere he knew so well. This book is very hard to find these days as a first edition, but luckily the Gold Medal US and UK editions are fairly easy to come by. Brown decided to publish this book with Dell as he had a conflict with Dutton over his rates. They soon wisely reconsidered.
"Mostly Murder" (1953) is his first crime story collection and contains some of the best of his detective pulp stories, including the classic "Don't Look Behind You". In it the writer convinces the reader that the book he is reading is the only one containing this story, and that as soon as the reader finishes reading it, the writer is going to kill him. Another original thought. It is one of the most difficult Brown books to get a hold of, certainly in the UK, but there is a less rarer paperback edition by Pennant. "Angels and Spaceships" (1954) is another fantastic fantasy story collection containing vintage Brown.
In "His Name Was Death" (1954), an intensive thriller about a money forgerer who has to kill to keep from getting caught, Brown again experiments with form. It is written from nine points of view which makes for good characterisation. The next thing Brown published was the hilarious "Martians, Go Home" (1955). Brown takes a cliché from "straight" science fiction, little green men from Mars, and takes it apart with satire. The green creatures are not the warloving monsters contemporary writers led their readers to believe, but enormous pains in the ... instead. The novel ends with a double twist which is completely in keeping with the story it follows. The book was recently filmed. "The Wench is Dead" (1955) follows a high-school teacher who finds himself on skid row during his vacation in L.A. He gets involved in all sorts of trouble and in the end finds he cannot escape the gutter anymore. It's a very underrated work which has seen only one hardcover and one paperback printing; in the UK Boardman, for mysterious reasons, decided to skip this one. "The Lenient Beast" (1956), like "His Name Was Death" was a story about a merciful killer, written from various points of character perspective, but this time narrated in the first person rather than the third. It's another one of Brown's narrative experiments, and of course Fred pulls it off. Brown then went on to write the novel "Rogue in Space" (1957). According to his wife, Brown did not like the book very much himself while working on it, and maybe this explains why it comes accross as uninspired. Shortly afterwards, another collection of fantasy stories was published by Bantam as a paperback original, entitled "Honeymoon in Hell" (1958). It contains some exquisite reading material, among which the famous "Arena" story, on which one of the early and most famous Star Trek episodes was based. For some obscure reason, this highly successful title was not published in the UK.
"The Office" (1958), is a novel Brown had been working on for many years. It's his magnum opus and the culmination of all of his abilities as a writer, but it was overlooked by the general public. It's a highly autobiographical "straight" novel and tells about the time young Fred spent working as an office boy in Cincinnati in 1922-1923. It's dull material, and only a very good writer would be able to form it into a compelling, caring story. Fredric Brown was a good writer. It's the only book Brown ever rewrote, and it's a splendid mixture of reality versus dreams, of naturalism and romanticism. It's also one of the most difficult Brown books to find: there was only one printing of the original hardcover edition and that's it. Only recently (1989) was the original first draft published in a limited edition by Dennis McMillan.
With "The Office" finally out of his system, Fred had to go about business as usual to make a living. He then wrote the amusing "One for the Road" (1958), in which a newspaper reporter unravels a murder mystery in a small town. Next came "The Late Lamented" (1959), a satisfying Hunter novel but not outstanding. "Knock Three-One-Two" (1959), however, was another first class work. Biographer Newton Baird called it "one of Brown's most ingenious, ambitious, and atmospheric creations" and his colleague Jack Seabrook wrote it was "brilliant, one of his finest and most terrifying tales of suspense". It served as a basis for the French noir film "L'ibis Rouge". "The Mind Thing" (1961) was Brown's last finished fantasy novel and was published as a paperback original by Bantam, but was never published in the UK. It's a fast-paced tale filled of terror, but not one of Brown's best. "Nightmares and Geezenstacks" (1961), another paperback first edition by Bantam, is a great collection of fantasy, containing some of Brown's best short-shorts. Today it's one of the easiest ways to get to know Brown's fantasy stories, because due to the many reprints this title is still commonly available. "The Murderers" (1961) is a black novel about amoral beatniks; it is lots of fun to read and not too difficult to find.
Brown was very ill by this time, and his output declined; he wrote less and less, the novels became shorter and even lost their originality. This is reflected in "The Five-Day Nightmare" (1962), which has a weak plot and story. It is almost as if Brown were too tired to write it. There was a rare paperback edition of this novel published by Tower Books (1965), and no UK editions were printed. "Mrs. Murphy's Underpants" (1963), Brown's last novel, is also not one of Brown's better works, but Ed and Am Hunter make up for a weak plot with funny word games and nice dialogues. It's a difficult title to get, because no pocketbook editions were published. The same thing goes for the last collection of Brown's mystery stories published during his lifetime, "The Shaggy Dog and Other Murders" (1963). It's a great collection of the master at his best. After this, Brown worked on another science fiction novel, "Brother Monster", but he was never able to finish it due to his bad health. A science fiction story collection, "Daymares" (1968) was published by Lancer but it contained no new material. His story "The Star Mouse" was adapted by Ann Sperber as a children's story and published as "Mitkey Astromouse" (1971) after being published in Germany first (1970). It's hard to find: even Brown didn't keep a copy in his own files. He only wrote a few more short stories, most of them short-shorts for the slicks, and he worked on a last collection of science fiction stories, "Paradox Lost" (1973), which was published shortly after his death.
Only a few Brown books were reprinted during the seventies, as well as two "Best of" books, the American one with an introduction by Robert Bloch. In 1983 Zomba Books tried to revive interest in Brown's works by issueing a collection of four of his novels, but Brown's wild talents were only rediscovered after Dennis "ne'er-do-well" McMillan's in the eighties started his wonderful effort to anthologize most of Brown's until then "lost" pulp stories and novelets into a brilliant limited edition series. These books also contain poetry, trade magazine stories, private letters and other interesting material for the Brown aficionado, and they have now become collector's items themselves. Following this success, two deluxe hardcover editions were issued by different publishers; one of mystery stories, called "Carnival of Crime" and one of science fiction stories, entitled "And The Gods Laughed", both outstanding collections containing some hard to get Fredric Brown prose as well as better known material. In recent years some new paperback editions of Brown's novels were issued by Quill, Black Lizard, Vintage, Grafton and Ballantine.
Collecting Fredric Brown books can present an ocean of problems, because he has become one of the most collectible authors of the pulp era. His books have become very scarce and expensive, both in hardcover and in paperback. The reasons for this are many: the rediscovery of his work, the unavailability of new editions, the steady growing interest in paperback collecting, and, not in the least, the lovely artwork on the bookcovers and dustjackets. The latter is especially true for UK editions, which have Denis McLouglin's lovely and collectible artwork on them. The books most sought after are his two crime paperback originals, "The Case of the Dancing Sandwiches" and "Madball", and hardcover first US editions of his early works, most of all "The Fabulous Clipjoint" and "The Screaming Mimi". The rarest UK editions are the two first Boardman titles which were published as paperback firsts, as well as the two short mystery story collections. As Brown hated to do signing sessions and kept himself far away from crowds, bookfairs, and the like, signed Brown books are a rarity, and thus very costly, if available at all.
All of this, expensive pocket books, critical studies, biographies and this article, would have given Fred quite a chuckle. He never received much critical attention and never made much money during his lifetime. And the last thing he would have done, would have been to take himself seriously. So maybe the thing is just to read and enjoy his many novels and countless stories, and let his original mind guide us through the amazing wonderlands of his legacy of precious words. Let his soul fill your imagination with his brilliant wit and his deadly terror, with his sheer happiness and utter despair. Maybe then you'll understand what I surely haven't been able to write down in this article, not even in between the lines. I'm no Fredric Brown.