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Fredric Brown (1906-1972)

 

One of the most ingenious American crime and mystery writers, who published science fiction to overcome – as he said – the too real aspect of detective fiction. Fredric Brown also wrote television plays for Alfred Hitchcock series. His plots were inventive, he used often humour and paradoxes, and his sex scenes were gleefully provocative.

'Once I said to him I needed a model for an antagonist in one of my stories and was trying to think of someone I really hated. "Wrong," he [Fredric Brown] said. "Base your villain on someone you like. That'll give him some sympathetic traits and make him much more believable."' (from 'My Friend Fredric Brown' by Walt Sheldon in The Big Book of Noir, ed. by Ed Gorman et al., 1998)

Fredric William Brown was born in Cincinnati, Ohio, the only child of Karl Lewis Brown, a newspaperman, and Emma Amelia (Graham) Brown. His mother died when he was 14; this loss probably contributed to his becoming a lifelong atheist. In between school years, Brown worked at the Potter Shoe Company. After his father died in 1921, Brown's uncle acted as his guardian. In The Office (1958) Brown returned to his first years out of high school, when he worked in odd jobs, read much, and dreamed of becoming a writer.

Brown was educated at University of Cincinnati night school, and Hanover College, Indiana, where he studied one year English, history, and the Bible. From 1929 to 1947 Brown was married to Helen Ruth; they had two sons. The family moved to Milwaukee, where they remained throughout the 1930s. The marriage was not a happy one, and after divorce Brown married in 1948 Elizabeth Charlier, whom he had first met at a party.

Before being employed by the Milwaukee Journal as a proofreader in 1936, Brown worked as a stenographer, an insurance salesman, a bookkeeper, a stock clerk, a diswasher, a busboy, and a detective. Planning a career as a writer, he also joined Milwaukee's Fictioneers Club, along with Robert Bloch, who edited in 1977 a collection of his stories. Other members included William Cambell Gault and Larry Sterning. In 1936, he began writing regular columns for The American Printer, but he bulk of his stories appeared in the trade magazines. Brown's first published detective tales were 'The Moon for a Nickel' (in Detective Story, March 1938) and ' Monday's an Off Night' (in Detective Yarns', February 1939).

For some years, Brown lived in Albuquerque, in an attempt to help his son to recover from his allergies. During this peried he worked for the Santa Fe railroad, and sold a number of stories for the pulp magazines. Upon the outbreak of World War II, Brown tried to enlist, but he was rejected due to his health. At school he had been one of the smallest boys in his class. From early 1949 to early 1952, Brown lived in Taos, New Mexico. He usually spent afternoons in a local bar with his friends and wrote at night, producing some of his best works. "Fred was a genius of sorts, I suppose. He was a compulsive storyteller; and made up stories or bits of stories in his every waking moment. Wherever he went he would look at something or somebody - a bus driver, a woman with a baby carriage, a boy on a bicycle - and say to himself, "What if?" And the he'd be off on a fine fugue of ideas, chortling as each fell neatly into place." (Walt Sheldon in The Big Book of Noir, 1998)

In 1952, Brown moved to California, where his allergies and asthma got worse. Following the advice of his doctors, he went with his wife to Tucson, Arizona, known for its dry climate. By the early 1960s, his health had declined severely, he drank heavily Mexican brandy, and he was barely able to write. His last story, written in collaboration with Carl Onspaugh, was 'Eine Kleine Nachtmusik' (1965). He also worked on a screenplay for the French director Roger Vadim and Jane Fonda. Fredric Brown died on March 11, 1972. Beginning in the mid-1980s, publisher Dennis McMillan issued several volumes containing Brown's previously uncollected short stories. In 2002 Stewart Masters Publishing brought out two Ed and Am Huster novels. Brother Monster, an unfinished science fiction novel, appeared in a limited edition in 1986.

Like so many of his contemporaries, Brown started his literary career by producing stories for the pulps in the 1930s and '40s. Then he began to gain fame with science fiction and fantasy stories which appeared in Unknown and Weird Tales. The best of these early fantasies were collected in Angels and Spaceships (1954).

The more than 100 stories that Brown published in Detective Tales, Dime Mystery, and other periodicals, were stepping stones to the production of crime novels. After a long apprenticeship of some 300 stories, Brown published his first full-length mystery, The Fabulous Clipjoint (1947), which won an Edgar for the best first novel from the Mystery Writers of America. However, it was first turned down by some twelve publishers. While researching for the novel, Brown talked to the denizens of the slums in the near-north side of Chicago and spent two weeks with a carnival mentalist. This work launched Brown's only series detectives, Ed and Am Huster, an amateur team based in Chicago; they appeared then in half a dozen books. His other series characters included Munchdriller, created for a magazine called The Driller, William Z. Williams, who appeared in Excavating Engineer, Willie Skid (in Ford Dealer Service Bulletin), Colonel Kluck (in The Michigan Well Driller), and Ernie Scofield (in Freedstuffs).

Brown's best known works is perhaps The Screaming Mimi (1949). This revision of the beauty and beast allegory was adapted into screen in 1958, and directed by Gerd Oswald. The story follows a reporter's search for a 'ripper' killer. A statue of a screaming woman, revealed as a storekeepers mnemonic for catalogue item SM1, links the murders of several women and a doctor at an insane asylum.

Other non-series thrillers include Knock Three-One-Two (1959). The protagonist is a liquor salesman with a gambling habit. He happens to observe a killer who terrorizes an entire city, and the reader is kept guessing as to his identity. The Lenient Beast (1956) has five first person points-of-view. Through the narration of a tormented man, who has a secret, we learn that he is the target of a police investigation and the killer. Night of the Jabberwock  (1950), Brown's excursion into the world of Lewis Carrol, blended realism with mystery. The protagonist is Doc Stoeger, the editor of a small local newspaper who plays chess, drinks whisky, and can recite all the poems from Alice's Adventures from memory. He gets first involved with gangsters and then he becomes a victim in a series of strange events, straight from the looking-class world.

Brown's science fiction is noted for its humour and polished slickness. Several of his works played with the theme of mind and reality - what is real and what is production of our imagination. 'Arena' (1944), which was selected by the Science Fiction Writers of America for inclusion in Science Fiction Hall of Fame, tells of the settling of an interstellar war through single combat between a human and an alien. Space on My Hands (1953), a collection of Brown's short stories and vignettes, includes his famous very very short story: "The last man on earth sat alone in a room. There was a knock on the door ..."

The novel What Mad Universe (1946), his first full-length science fiction novel, uses the alternate worlds theme, but in a highly original way: now the various science fiction conventions turn out to be true history. Martians, Go Home (1955) describes the situation on Earth, when irritating little green men appear everywhere and drive people nearly crazy - they like to peep from windows and are very interested in sex. Finally the writer who has created them by his imagination, imagines them gone again - or is he only a fragment of a larger consciousness? In The Mind Thing (1961) a stranded alien attempts to get back home using its ability to enter human minds, but the experience is fatal for those possessed.

For further reading: A Key to Fredric Brown's Wonderland by Newton Baird (1981); Twentieth Century Mystery and Crime Writers, ed. by James M. Reilly (1985); Martians and Misplaced Clues: The Life and Work of Fredric Brown by Jack Searbrook (1992); Encyclopedia Mysteriosa by William L. De Andrea (1997); The Big Book of Noir, ed. by Lee Server, Ed Gorman, and Martin H. Greenberg (1998) - Note: The Italian film Bird with the Chrystal Plumage (1969), dir. by Dario Argento, was loosely based on Brown's storyline.

Selected bibliography:

  • 'Madman's Holiday', 1943 (in Street & Smith's Detective Story Magazine)
    - Film: Crack-Up, 1946, prod. RKO Radio Pictures, dir. Irving Reiss, script John Paxton, Ben Bengal and Ray Spencer, starring Pat O'Brien, Claire Trevor and Herbert Marshall
  • 'The Motive Goes Round and Round', 1943 (in Thrilling Detective)
    - TV film 1953, in The Pepsi-Cola Playhouse, dir. Robert G. Walker, with Arlene Dahl, Ludwig Donath and Joseph Forte, teleplay Lawrence Kimble
  • 'Arena', 1944 (in Astounding)
    - TV film 1967, in Star Trek, dir. Joseph Pevney, with William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy and DeForest Kelley
  • 'The Dangerous People', 1945 (in Dime Mystery)
    - TV film 1957, in Alfred Hitchcock Presents, dir. Robert Stevens, with Albert Salmi and Robert H. Harris
  • 'Miss Darkness', 1947 (in Avon Detective Mysteries)
    - TV film 1954, in The Pepsi-Cola Playhouse, dir. Leslie H. Martinson, with Arlene Dahl, Dee Carroll and Peter Graves
  • The Fabulous Clipjoint, 1947
  • 'Knock', 1948 (in Thrilling Wonder Stories)
    - TV film: The Last Man on Earth, 1951, in Tales of Tomorrow, prod. George F. Foley Productions, teleplay Reginald Lawrence
  • The Dead Ringer, 1948
  • 'Cry Silence', 1948 (in Black Mask)
    - TV film 1958, in ITV Television Playhouse, dir. Silvio Narizzano, with Alexander Archdale, Mark Baker and Carl Conway
  • Murder Can be Fun, 1948 (as A Plot for Murder in 1949)
  • What Mad Universe, 1949
  • The Bloody Moonlight, 1949 (as Murder by Moonlight in 1950)
  • The Screaming Mimi, 1949
    - Äänetön huuto (suom. Tapani Bagge, 1999)
    - Films: L'uccello dalle piume di cristallo / The Bird with the Chrystal Plumage, 1969, dir. by Dario Argento, script Dario Argento (Fredric Brown uncredited), starring Tony Musante, Eva Renzi, Suzy Kendall, Enrico Maria Salerno, Maria Adorf; The Screaming Mimi, 1958, prod. Sage Productions, dir. by Gerd Oswald, starring Anita Ekberg, Philip Carey, and Gypsy Rose Lee
  • Night of the Jabberwock, 1950
    - Syntipukin yö (suom. Matti Rosvall, 1999)
  • Here Comes a Candie, 1950
  • Compliments of a Friend, 1950
  • The Case of Dancing Sandwiches, 1951
  • Death Has Many Doors, 1951
  • The Far Cry, 1951
    - Täältä ikuisuuteen (suom. Tapani Bagge, 1995)
  • We All Killed Grandma, 1952
  • The Deep End, 1952
    - Umpikujassa (suom. Jari Niittylä, 2001)
  • Mostly Murder, 1953
  • The House Nobody Wanted, 1953 (teleplay)
    - TV film 1953, in The Pepsi-Cola Playhouse, with Fredric Brown, Marilyn Erskine and Craig Stevens
  • Madball, 1953
    - Rahaa ja tivolityttöjä (suom. Sirkka Carlson, 1956)
  • Science-Fiction Carnival, 1953 (ed. with Mack Reynolds)
  • Space on My Hands, 1953
  • The Lights in the Sky Are Stars, 1953 (as Project Jupiter in 1954)
  • His Name Was Death, 1954
    - Hänen nimensä oli kuolema (suom. Risto Kalliomaa, 1956)
    - Film: Vieille canaille / His Name Was Death, 1992, prod. Centre Européen Cinématographique Rhône-Alpes, France 3 Cinéma, J.M. Productions, dir. by Gérard Jourd'hui, starring Michel Serrault, Anna Galiena, Pierre Richard
  • Angels and Spaceships, 1954 (includes 'Solipsis', as Star Shine in 1956)
    - Short film 2005 (7 min.), dir. Luca Di Gioacchino, script Luca Di Gioacchino, with Michael Rigby
  • The Wench is Dead, 1955
  • Martians, Go Home, 1955
    - Marsilaiset, menkää kotiin! (suom. Pekka Markkula, 1980)
    - Film 1990, dir. by David Odell, starring Randy Quaid, Margaret Colin, Anita Morris
  • The Lenient Beast, 1956
    - Miksi murhaan (suom. Risto Kalliomaa, 1958)
    - Film: La Bête de miséricorde, 2001, dir. by Jean-Pierre Mocky, starring Bernard Menez, Jackie Berroyer, Patricia Barzyk
  • 'Where Do You Get Your Plot?', 1956 (in The Mystery Writers' Handbook, ed. by Herbert Brean)
  • Rogue is Space, 1957
  • One for the Road, 1958
  • Honeymoon in Hell, 1958
  • The Office, 1958
  • The Late Lamented, 1959
  • The Human Interest Story, 1959 (teleplay)
    - TV film 1959, in Alfred Hitchcock Presents, dir. Norman Lloyd, with Anne Anderson and William Challee; TV film 1985, in Alfred Hitchcock Presents, dir. Larry Gross, with John Shea and Barbara Williams, teleplay Karen Harris,
  • Knock Three-One-Two, 1959
    - Kohtalokas koputus (suom. Tapio Hiisivaara, 1974)
    - Films: Ça ne se refuse pas, 1998, prod. Elzévir Films, M6 Films, Saga Film, dir. by Eric Woreth, starring Isabelle Renauld, Jean-Marc Barr, Stéphane Rideau; L'Ibis rouge, 1975, dir. by Jean-Pierre Mocky, starring Michel Simon, Michel Serrault, Michel Galabru; 1960, TV movie in Thriller, prod. Hubbell Robinson Productions, National Broadcasting Company, dir. Herman Hoffman, with Boris Karloff, Joe Maross and Beverly Garland
  • The Murderers, 1961
  • The Mind Thing, 1961
  • Nightmares and Geezenstacks: 47 Stories, 1961
    - TV film: The Geezenstacks, 1987, in Tales from the Darkside, dir. Bill Travis, with Craig Wasson, Tandy Cronyn and Larry Pine
  • Five-Day Nightmare, 1962
  • The Shaggy Dog and Other Murders, 1963
  • Mrs. Murphy's Underpants, 1963
  • Daymares, 1968
  • Mitkey Astromouse, 1971
  • Paradox Lost and Twelve Other Great Science Fiction Stories, 1973
  • The Best of Fredrick Brown, 1977 (ed. by Robert Bloch)
  • The Best Short Stories of Fredrick Brown, 1982
  • Homicide Sanitarium, 1984
  • Before She Kills, 1984
  • Madman's Holiday, 1984
  • The Freak Show Murders, 1985
  • Thirty Corpses Every Thursday, 1986
  • Pardon My Ghoulish Laughter, 1986
  • Red is the Hue of Hell, 1986
  • Sex Life on the Planet Mars, 1986
  • Brother Monster, 1986 (unfinished novel)
  • Nightmare in Darkness, 1987
  • Three Corpse Parley, 1988
  • Who Was the Blonde I Saw You Kill Last Night?, 1988
  • Selling Death Short, 1988
  • Whispering Death, 1989
  • Happy Ending, 1990
  • The Water Walker, 1990
  • The Gibbering Night, 1991
  • The Pickled Punks, 1991
  • Hunter and Hunted: The Ed and Am Hunter Novels, Part One, 2002


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