Saturday, October 27, 2012

*His Name was Death, by Fredric Brown

Vintage Crime/Black Lizard, 1991
originally published 1954
141 pp

"You'd never in a thousand years have guessed that he was a murderer and a criminal. You'd have thought him dull, plodding, honest. And up to the time when, a year ago almost to the day, he had killed his wife you'd have been completely correct."

This is the city. Los Angeles, California. I kill here. I carry a gun.

With apologies to Jack Webb, aka Sgt. Joe Friday, for some reason after I finished this book, this redo of the old Dragnet opening monologue  was the first thing that popped into my head and I had to use it.

If you haven't read Fredric Brown's work, you are missing something truly exquisite. Considering that the guy absolutely hated to write, what's come out of his brain is genius. His Name was Death makes two by Brown that I've read; between this one and Here Comes a Candle, the second one was far more intense and had me heebie-jeebied all the way through, but both are super books. Now waiting in the bullpen is Homicide Sanitarium -- oh god, what a great name! -- which I'm dying to crack open soon. That should give you an inkling of how much I like this author. Better known for his SF stories, Fredric Brown is a top-notch crime writer as well.

1940s Los Angeles is the setting for this very small book, with an opening line that whets your appetite right from the start:
"Her name was Joyce Dugan, and at four o'clock on this February afternoon she had no remote thought that within the hour before closing time she was about to commit an act that would instigate a chain of murders."
It isn't long until we find out who Joyce Dugan is and what she's done to "instigate a chain of murders," albeit unwittingly. Acting out of friendship, she starts a series of events that ends up in a gut-punching shocker of a finish. At the printing shop where she works one day, in walks Claude Atkins, one of Joyce's old boyfriends from high school. He's not there to see Joyce, but to pick up a check from Joyce's boss, Darius Conn, with whom he'd recently swapped cars with a little extra coming from Darius to make up for the difference. Joyce decides to give him money out of the petty cash box but there's not enough, so after a call to her boss, she writes out a check. But Atkins needs cash for the weekend. Just then Joyce remembers the envelope full of money in the office safe; she has Atkins endorse the check and pulls out $90 in brand new ten dollar bills, leaving the signed-over check in the envelope. Now everyone's happy. But wait.

When Darius gets back to the office he discovers what Joyce has done and it's a big problem. The money Joyce gave Claude just happened to be counterfeit, part of a batch Darius was planning to parlay into a net profit of about $2500. The printing office is a front for his operation, and Joyce has just given nine of his newly-printed test bills to someone who, if he was caught with the fake money, would know just where it came from. Darius can't take that chance:
"He had to get that money back from Claude Atkins. Somehow. No matter what the risk of doing that, it couldn't be any greater than the risk of doing nothing or the risk of running.
Get it without killing if possible, but kill if that turned out to be the only way.
He'd got away with murder once, hadn't he?"
His plan: to improvise, to take the opportunity when it knocks -- even if it means he has to kill. Darius is still proud of himself -- the reader discovers early on that he's gotten away with murdering his wife just a year earlier -- so he figures if saving himself prison time for the counterfeit money means he has to kill again, well, it's what he has to do. He still gloats inwardly about having fooled the cops and acting the grieving husband; he even become friends with the detective handling his wife's murder case. The rest of the novel follows Darius as he tries to retrieve his fake funds -- but well, even quick-thinking Darius can't predict the hitches along the way.

Los Angeles, 1940s

Considering the edge of darkness that you ride as you read through the novel, Brown is very economic in terms of story telling -- the novel is sleek, with absolutely nothing unnecessary weighing down the plot, a lesson many modern crime novelists really need to learn. The dimly-lit, seedy bars along with the city streets and back alleys of Los Angeles give an honest feel for place and time which enhances the story. He manages to hold you in suspense all along the way without resorting to the burdensome backstory to make his characterizations work, there is no unnecessary exposition, and there's even a good measure of black, sardonic humor thrown into this book. And then the classic Fredric Brown ending -- well, it's truly what you would least expect.  Highly, highly recommended.

*another installment of my overall focus on American authors for October and November


  1. Nancy - Oh I like Brown's work a lot. I couldn't agree more that his writing is excellent, and I'm very glad that you profiled one of his books. He has real skill with noir, too...

    1. Hi Margot! I've been doing a super cleanout of my crime shelves for the last month and I'm finding all kinds of stuff I never even knew I had! His Name was Death and Homicide Sanitarium were two of the books I found buried in a box under a ton of old Agatha Christie mass market paperbacks along with some other old Vintage Black Lizard crime novels. I really like Brown's work; I've never read his SF but I may try to some day.

  2. I wish someone would kindleize these books. I assume they are all in the public domain. Nice review.

    1. Thanks! I am really gaining a fondness for these old books -- the more I read the more I realize a) how well the writers tell a story and b) how overwritten much of today's crime novels are.


I don't care what you write, but do be nice about it