Millipede Press, 2006
Originally published 1950, by E.P. Dutton
And here comes a chopper to chop off your head"
The above couplet is taken from the rhyme called "Oranges and Lemons," and serves as a centerpiece of this awesome noir crime novel written in 1950. The main character of Here Comes a Candle is young Joe Bailey, who has a phobia of candles and axes based on an early childhood trauma associated with that rhyme.
Joe worked as a numbers runner in Milwaukee for a thug named Mitch until a police investigation put that racket on hold for a while, and now just kind of hangs out, supported by handouts from Mitch. He's kept on the payroll because Mitch might need him later, and everything moves along as normal until he meets Ellie, the niece of the owner of a local diner. Ellie is a nice girl, who has moved to the area to work for her uncle, and she and Joe hit it off. But there's another dame in the picture: Francine, Mitch's girlfriend. She's the kind of woman Joe can only aspire to, but it doesn't matter...he wants her, or at least someone like her, but it takes the kind of money that buys a robin's-egg blue convertible and Joe doesn't have it. But he may get his chance when Mitch comes up with a proposition for him that might put him up in the big time.
The story itself is good, but what makes this book unique (well, at least for the 50s anyway) are the various techniques used by Brown throughout the novel in telling Joe's backstory. Flashbacks and dreams that enter in Joe's psyche are experienced via different "media": a radio broadcast of "The Adventures of Joe Bailey" starts off these odd chapters, and from there we get a glimpse into Joe's earliest childhood traumas. Then there's "the screen," composed as a screenplay complete with fade ins, dissolve tos, cut tos, etc. A sportscasts of a game of cops and robbers is the next format, and a telecast of one of Joe's dreams is also presented. In between each one is straight narrative so that the story continues. It was probably very unusual for its time, but it works.
The book has a nice little twist at the end and is a bit on the pulpy side. The characters are rather stereotypical but it hardly matters. Brown also offers the reader a look at prevailing attitudes of the time (life in the shadow of the atomic bomb, for example) and his experimental cuts into Joe's psyche are incredibly well done. Here Comes a Candle is really a lot of fun as well as a good story. There are also (in my edition) two added entries: a short story entitled "The Joke," which reads like an episode from the old Twilight Zone series, and what Brown calls a "bitch piece," about the foibles of Christianity and religion.
I'm looking forward to more of Fredric Brown's work. If you like noir or like your crime fiction with a doosey of a twist at the end, you may enjoy this one.
After finishing this book very early this morning, I trotted on over to the website for Millipede Press, only to discover that they no longer are in business. According to the fans who keep the website going, Millipede is now Centipede. So off I went to the 100-legged site and discovered that they do reprints of "out of print classics of the horror, crime, and science fiction genres." I've already got my eye on Brown's The Far Cry as a possible splurge purchase in the near future.