"There are no rules. You can write a story, if you wish, with no conflict, no suspense, no beginning, middle or end. Of course, you have to be regarded as a genius to get away with it, and that's the hardest part -- convincing everybody you're a genius."
According to his wife, Fredric William Brown hated to write. So he did everything he could to avoid it -- he'd play his flute, challenge a friend to a game of chess, or tease Ming Tah, his Siamese cat. Plotting was a stickler, too. If Brown had trouble working out a certain story, he would hop on a long bus trip to nowhere and just sit and think and plot for days on end.
But when Brown finally did return home and plant himself in front of the typewriter, Jesus! the man did it all! Hardboiled mystery, paradoxical sf, short fantasy, black comedy-and sometimes, all of the above. That's what makes Brown's work so damned fun. He crossed genres like a demon, plotted like a madman, and continually stretched the boundaries of any given genre into his own strange, private geography.
His career began in the mid-1930s, while working as a proofreader for the Milwaukee Journal. Brown started churning out short mystery stories for pulps such as Street & Smith Detective Story, Thrilling Detective, and Detective Fiction Weekly, and after nearly a decade, wrote The Fabulous Clipjoint, the first of seven hard-boiled novels featuring the nephew/uncle detective team of Ed and Am Hunter. The Edgar Award-winning novel was about young Ed's quest to solve his drunken father's murder; the further adventures have the familial duo investigating less personal-yet just as deadly-matters.
However, Brown's mystery work isn't limited to the exploits of the Hunters. There's also The Far Cry, a chilling tale of a loveless marriage, spiritual malaise and an eight-year-old murder. And The Lenient Beast, about a kindly vigilante on a moral murder-spree. And The Screaming Mimi, about an alcoholic reporter's quest to find a Jack the Ripper-like killer roaming the streets of Chicago. And Madball, and His Name Was Death, and many, many others. (That's not even mentioning the science fiction Brown wrote, which many people remember him for today.) For a man who loathed the act of sitting his ass in front of a typewriter, he certainly manage to crank out an impressive number of volumes (see list below).
No matter what Brown book you pick up, you can count on two things:
- An O. Henry-style twist ending from hell.
- Outrageous wordplay. Brown's shock endings still shock, even forty or fifty years after their creation. (I challenge anybody to out-guess a Brown story before its end. You simply can't do it, even after years of Hollywood cheapo-shock 'em fare fine-tuning your expectations.) Amazingly, the same goes for his novels -- The Far Cry, for instance, packs a 10-alarm firecracker of an ending at the end of a 60,000 word novel. You try that sometime.
As for the second charge, a cursory glance at any Brown story collection will give you a taste of his pun-ishment of the English language. ("Nothing Sirius," "Pi in the Sky," and "A Little White Lye" among the best groaners.)
Brown spent a lot of effort and money on his titles, too. Writes Robert Bloch in his introduction to The Best of Fredric Brown: "I recall [Fred] once paying ten dollars for the right to use one suggested by a friend for a mystery yarn; the resultant story was called 'I Love You Cruelly.'" According to longtime friend Walt Sheldon, Brown would construct an entire story from a single, lurid title. "[One] title was 'I'll Cut Your Throat Again, Kathleen.' I had a story to fit this title and he sold me the title for five bucks. When my story was published the editor of the magazine had changed the title to 'Blood on My Hands.' Fred gleefully refused to return my five bucks."
In other words, Fredric Brown was a man who hated to write, but absolutely loved putting words together. It's a paradox he would have probably enjoyed.
Brown's work can be difficult to find, but it's certainly worth the effort. (Someday, some brave, genius publisher-hint, hint!-is going to reissue all of his works in handsome paperback editions à la Jim Thompson.) I've collected nearly 2/3 of the Brown oeuvre; and actually, I hope I don't find the rest all at once. I like to parcel out my Fredric Brown and savor a little bit at a time, like a fine Merlot. And like the best wines, vintage Brown doesn't lose its flavor. In many ways, Brown was very much a writer of the 1990s, stuck in the thin, professorial body of a writer from the 1950s.
(Actually, in 1984, Dennis McMillan began to publish the ambitious 10-volume Fredric Brown Pulp Detective Series, collecting all the best of his previously-unreprinted work, mostly, but not exclusively, in the crime field. - editor)
By the way, even if you're a hardboiled-type who doesn't give a rat's ass for science fiction, you'd probably still like Brown's weird take on the genre. His sf tales are full of the same mind-blowing paradoxes, clever word plays, and jaw-dropping plot twists that make his mysteries so enjoyable. A great place to start is with What Mad Universe, a wild send-up of every science fiction cliché of the 1940s and 50s. Or, try Nightmares and Geezenstacks (if you can find it), a short but brilliantly-packed collection of Brown's trademark short-shorts: mind-blowing, paradoxical pulp tales, told in 500 words or less.
- The Fabulous Clipjoint (1947; Ed and Am Hunter)
- The Dead Ringer (1948; Ed and Am Hunter)
- Murder Can Be Fun (1948; aka "A Plot for Murder")
- The Bloody Moonlight (1949; Ed and Am Hunter)
- What Mad Universe (sf, 1949)
- The Screaming Mimi (mystery,1949)
- Compliments of a Fiend (1950; Ed and Am Hunter)
- Here Comes a Candle (1950)
- Night of the Jabberwock (1950)
- The Case of the Dancing Sandwiches (1951)
- Death Has Many Doors (1951; Ed and Am Hunter)
- The Far Cry (1951)
- We All Killed Grandma 1952)
- The Deep End (1952)
- Madball (1953)
- The Lights in the Sky are Stars (1953; sf )
- His Name Was Death 1954; sf)
- Martians, Go Home (1955; sf)
- The Wench is Dead (1955)
- The Lenient Beast (1956)
- Rogue in Space (1957; sf)
- The Office (1958; mainstream)
- One for the Road (1958)
- The Late Lamented (1959; Ed and Am Hunter)
- Knock Three-One-Two (1959)
- The Mind Thing (1961; sf)
- The Murderers (1961)
- The Five Day Nightmare (1962)
- Mrs. Murphy's Underpants (1963; Ed and Am Hunter)
- Brother Monster (incomplete sf novel, published in 1987)
- "The Moon for a Nickel" (March 1938, Street & Smith's Detective Story Magazine)
- "Homicide Sanitarium" (May 1941, Thrilling Detective; Eddie Anderson)
- "Listen to the Mocking Bird" (November 1941, G-Man Detective)
- "Suite for Flute and Tommy-Gun" (June 1942, Street & Smith's Detective Story Magazine)
- "The Santa Cl.aus Murders" (October 1942, Detective Story; short version of "Murder Can Be Fun")
- "The Spherical Ghoul" (January 1943, Thrilling Mystery)
- "The Gibbering Murders" (July 1944, Detective Tales)
- "The Jabberwocky Murders" (Summer 1944, Thrilling Mystery)
- "Compliments of a Fiend" (July 1945, Thrilling Detective)
- "Obit for Obie" (October 1946, Mystery Book)
- "Cry Silence" (November 1948, Black Mask)
- "Red-Hot and Hunted" (November 1948, Detective Tales)
- "The Cat from Siam" (September 1949, Popular Detective)
- "The Little Lamb" (August 1953, Manhunt)
- "The Wench is Dead" (1953, Manhunt)
- "Before She Kills" (1961; Ed and Am Hunter)
- "I Love You Cruelly"
- "Blood on My Hands"
- "Nothing Sirius"
- "Pi in the Sky"
- "A Little White Lye"
- Space on My Hands (1951; sf)
- Mostly Murder (1953; mystery)
- Angels and Spaceships 1954; sf)
- Honeymoon in Hell (1958; sf)
- Nightmares and Geezenstacks (1961; sf short-shorts)
- The Shaggy Dog and Other Murders (1963; mystery)
- Daymares (1968; sf)
- Paradox Lost (1973; sf)
- The Best of Fredric Brown (1976; introduction by Robert Bloch)
- Homicide Sanitarium (1984; intro by Bill Pronzini)
- Before She Kills
- Madman's Holiday
- The Case of the Dancing Sandwiches
- The Freak Show Murders
- Pardon My Ghoulish Laughter
- Red is the Hue of Hell
- Brother Monster
- Sex Life on the Planet Mars
- Hunter and Hunted: The Ed and Am Hunter Novels, Part One (2002; Ed and Am Hunter)...Buy this book
An handsome omnibus edition published by Stewart Masters, comprising the first four novels in the acclaimed series: The Fabulous Clip Joint, The Dead Ringer, The Bloody Moonlight, and Compliments of a Fiend. A second volume was planned, containing the remaining Ed and Am Hunter novels and stories.
- Miss Darkness: The Great Short Crime Fiction of Fredric Brown (2013) . Buy this book
Collection of over thirty hard-to-find gems. A real treat.
93 minutes, black & white
Tagline: Could I KILL ... and not remember?
Based on the story "Madman's Holiday" by Fredric Brown
Screenplay by John Paxton, Ben Bengal and Ray Spencer
Directed by Irving Reis
Produced by Jack J. Gross
Starring Pat O'Brien, Claire Trevor, Herbert Marshall, Ray Collins, Wallace Ford, Dean Harens, Damian O'Flynn, Erskine Sanford, Mary Ware
Art curator survives a train wreck that never happened.
- SCREAMING MIMI
Tagline: Suspense around every curve!
Based on the novel "The Screaming Mimi" by Fredric Brown
Directed by Gerd Oswald
Produced by Harry Joe Brown and Robert Fellows
Starring Anita Ekberg, Philip Carey, Gypsy Rose Lee, Harry Townes, Linda Cherney, Romney Brent, Alan Gifford, Oliver McGowan , Red Norvo, Stephen Ellsworth, Vaughn Taylor, Frank J. Scannell
A stripper gets tossed in the loony bin.
- UCCELLO DALLE PIUME DI CRISTALLO
(1969, CCC Filmkunst GmbH/Glazier/Seda Spettacoli/Germany/Italy)
English title: The Bird With the Crystal Plumage
Based on the novel "The Screaming Mimi" by Fredric Brown
Screenplay by Dario Argento
Directed by Dario Argento
Original Music by Ennio Morricone
Produced by Salvatore Argento
Executive producer: Artur Brauner
Starring Tony Musante, Suzy Kendall, Enrico Maria Salerno, Eva Renzi, Umberto Raho, Renato Romano, Giuseppe Castellano, Mario Adorf, Pino Patti
Horrormeister Dario Agento's debut, very loosely adapted 9and uncredited) from Brown's novel. The film was a smash in Argento's homeland.
- L'IBIS ROUGE
(1975, Les Films de l'Epée/M. Films/France)
English title: The Red Ibis
Based on the novel "Knock Three One Two" by Fredric Brown
Screenplay by Jean-Pierre Mocky and André Ruellan
Directed by Jean-Pierre Mocky
Produced by Jean-Pierre Mocky and Jean-Claude Roblin
Starring Michel Serrault, Michel Simon, Michel Galabru, Jean Le Poulain, Evelyne Buyle, Michel Francini, Dominique Zardi, François Bouchex, Karen Nielsen, François Guillaume, Maurice Vallier, Jean-Claude Rémoleux, Philibert Suédois, Jacques Mayar, Georges Lucas, Barbara Val, Jacques Fortunas
- MARTIANS GO HOME...Buy this video
(1990, Image Entertainment)
Based on the novel by Fredric Brown
Screenplay by Charles S. Haas
Directed by David Odell
Associate producers: Elon Dershowitz, Michael Flynn
Produced by Michael D. Pariser
Starring Randy Quaid, Margaret Colin, Anita Morris, John Philbin, Ronny Cox, Timothy Stack, Bruce French, Gerrit Graham, Dean Devlin, Roy Brocksmith, Nicky Katt, Troy Evans, Steve Blacknell, Allan Katz, Cynthia Ettinger, Brent Hinkley
Comedy about song writer who causes an Martian invasion..
- VIELLE CANAILLE
(1992, France 3/J,M./Centre Européen Cinématographique)
English title: Old Rascal
Based on the novel "His Name Was Death" by Fredric Brown
Screenplay by Gérard Jourd'hui and Dominique Roulet
Directed by Gérard Jourd'hui
Produced by Gérard Jourd'hui
Starring Michel Serrault, Anna Galiena, Pierre Richard, Jean-Pierre Bouvier, Catherine Frot, Laurent Gamelon, Maaike Jansen, Jean-Claude Leguay, Marion Loran, Nathalie Schmidt, Béatrice Audry
- ÇA NE SE REFUSE PAS
Based on a novel by Fredric Brown
Screenplay by Alain Adijes, Eric Woreth
Directed by Eric Woreth
Produced by Caroline Adrian, Marie Masmonteil
Starring Isabelle Renauld, Jean-Marc Barr, Stéphane Rideau, Julie Gayet, Frédéric Pierrot, Daniel Duval, Didier Flamand, Jean-Marie Winling, Cécile Garcia-Fogel
- LA BÊTE DE MISÉRCODE
Based on the novel "The Lenient Beast" by Fredric Brown
Screenplay by Jean-Pierre Mocky and André Ruellan
Directed by Jean-Pierre Mocky
Produced by Jean-Pierre Mocky
Starring Bernard Menez, Jackie Berroyer, Patricia Barzyk, Jean-Pierre Mocky, Catherine Van Hecke, Diane D'Assigny, Dominique Zardi, Jean Abeillé, Rodolphe Pauly, Ludovic Berthillot, Roger Knobelspiess
- STAR TREK
American sci-fi series
Created by Gene Rodenberry
Starring William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, DeForest Kelley, James Doohan, George Takei, Nichelle Nichols et al.
- "Arena" (January 19, 1967)
Episode based on a story by Fredric Brown
Teleplay by Gene L. Coon
Directed by Joseph Pevney
American TV anthology, à la Twilight Zone, hosted by James Coburn, that only lasted 16 or so episodes. At least one story was based on a story by Fredric Brown. Other stories were based on work by or contributed by Robert Bloch, Peter S. Fischer, Richard Levinson, William Link, Robert R. McCammon, William F. Nolan and Cornell Woolrich.
- ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS
Revival of popular anthology. At least one story was based on a story by Fredric Brown.
- Seabrook, Jack,
Martians and Misplaced Clues: The Life and Work of Fredric Brown
For biographical background.
A spare, but interesting homage to Brown.
- The Fredric Brown List URL
I'm pretty excited about this, seeing that it's likely Linn Brown (Fred's only living relative) is going to be taking part in the discussions.
Contributed by Duane Swierczynski. And thanks to Damien for pointing out why everyone needs an editor.
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