Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Fredric Brown: The short Wench Is Dead

I mentioned in Sunday's post about Dan J. Marlowe that I tend to read paperback original crime stories from the mid-twentieth century as artifacts of their time.

I read another one of those artifacts this week, Fredric Brown's story The Wench Is Dead, which, I have just learned from the link in this paragraph, Brown later expanded into a 1955 novel of the same name.

I call this one an artifact because its man-in-the-wrong-place-at-the-wrong-time plot seemed evocative of a time when the idea of being trapped (by middle-class morality, suburban conformity, or what have you) was a cultural current. Indeed, the protagonist is a young man of respectable background with a bachelor's degree in sociology who has fled Chicago for a few weeks of bohemian squalor before returning to a job in his father's investment business. (In the novel, apparently, he has hit the road to research his dissertation in sociology and plans to return to a teaching job in that field.)

The story seems artifact-like in the telling because its characters' grubby lifestyle (the protagonist is a wino scraping by on dishwasher's wages barely sufficient to keep him in Muscatel) is a dirty story told in an oddly clean, decorous manner. There is none of of the gritty despair David Goodis brought to stories whose characters led similar lives.

One artifactish aspect of the story serves it well. Brown must have been one of the earlier writers to begin shucking off the era's bars to descriptions of sex (or maybe paperback originals in general were ahead of their time in that respect). In any case, our introduction to the protagonist's girlfriend Billie is beautifully matter of fact about how she earns her living:
"`Jeez, only ten? Oh well, I had seven hours. Guy came here when Mike closed at two but he didn't stay long.'" 
© Peter Rozovsky 2013

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18 Comments:

Blogger Bill Crider said...

I read the full novel before I read the shorter version. I read it so long ago that nothing in it seemed like an artifact, and it's one of my favorite books by Brown.

January 15, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I'm not sure the story as a whole is up to The Fabulous Clipjoint or Night of the Jabberwock, but I'd like to look for the full novel. That introduction of Billie is just superb.

January 15, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Bill, it must require a bot of clairvoyance to recognize what will one day be regarded as artifacts (or hallmarks of a time, if you prefer). I wonder that will one day be seen as such in crime writing of today.

January 15, 2013  
Blogger R.T. said...

You've really provoked and annoyed me with you posting. Damn! You see, I "remember" having read the Brown story, but do not "remember" anything about it. What do I mean? The title, author, and your short summary are fixed precariously in my Swiss-cheese memory, and I was certain that Brown is hiding somewhat on my bookshelves. But I cannot find anything by Brown on my shelves (except for a story in Penzler's giant collection, The Black Lizard Big Book of Pulps. As I have a habit of never throwing anything away--if it fits on a bookshelf, it stays there forever, much to the annoyance of my wife--and I have an increasingly bad tendency: I have now forgotten the vast majority of everything I have ever read. Hence, when you put it all together, you will understand the provocation and annoyance! Damn!

January 16, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

The solution may be happier than you think. "The Wench Is Dead" and variants thereof have been appropriated often by crime writers. (The original is from Christopher Marlowe, an attractive source for such writers.) Colin Dexter wrote a novel with the same title, for instance, so you could be remembering the right title but the wrong author.

January 16, 2013  
Blogger R.T. said...

Thank you! Colin Dexter and Christopher Marlowe, indeed! I should have made the connections. Now I feel even more inadequate (regarding my memory). Well done!

January 16, 2013  
Blogger R.T. said...

Marlowe's _The Jew of Malta_ and Dexter's _The Wench is Dead_ seem likely contenders for my memory error. Still, though, I do believe Brown's Wench and I have crossed paths before.

January 16, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

P.S. I have Penzler's giant collection of Black Mask stories to hand. I flipped through it last night before settling on a story by John D. MacDonald for today's reading. It occurred to me as I browsed, usually scanning the beginning of a story before turning to the next, that history (and the editors and compilers who make it) has assessed most of the authors accurately. Hammett really is better than the other early Black Writers by orders of magnitude. Frederick Nebel really is better than most of the rest, and so on.

January 16, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

You could have crossed paths with Brown's short wench or his long wench. The common title, the appearance of the tale both as a novel and a short story, and the television version of Colin Dexter's novel multiply the possibilities of confusion.

January 16, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

The world does have an annoying habit of failing to conform to one's memories of it, doesn't it? That has happened to me.

January 16, 2013  
Blogger R.T. said...

I spoke in error: there is no Brown story in the Penzler collection, but Brown's "Don't Look Behind You" is in _A Century of Noir_, edited by Mickey Spillane and Max Allan Collins, a much enjoyed book also resting on my shelf. I once taught a special topic literature course, focusing on crime fiction (which did not go over well in the department), and I used several books, including a book edited by Rex Burns and Mary Rose Sullivan, _Crime Classics: The Mystery Story from Poe to the Present_. Oddly enough, the editors of that book included a Faulkner story and a Flannery O'Connor story; she would have been somewhat chagrined to have been included in such an anthology.

January 16, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Brown does appear, in the other hand, in the Penzler Black Mask collection.

Hold up Joyce Carol Oates the next time your colleagues piss and moan about crime fiction. I fon;t think I know the collection you mentioned.

January 16, 2013  
Blogger R.T. said...

Auden was a fan of crime fiction. That endorsement usually shuts up some of the colleagues.

Joyce Carol Oates has written so much in the last twenty years or so that I very much doubt she has had time to anything else. She, I think, does not occupy a high-priestess position among the "intellectual" class of tenured professors in English departments.

January 16, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

John Updike said something similar about Joyce Carol Oates, then she lost critical favor because she dared to be prolific. I thought that a point in Updike's favor. How a dare a critically respected writer actually--write!

January 16, 2013  
Blogger R.T. said...

This is far afield from Brown, but you might find this JCO tidbit interesting:

http://www.oxonianreview.org/wp/an-interview-with-joyce-carol-oates/

January 16, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Thanks. The only Joyce Carol Oates I've read was a short story in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine. She was listed on the program for the Noircon convention here in Philadelphia this past November, but she did bot show up, presumably a victim of the dreadful weather that immediately preceded the convention.

January 16, 2013  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

I recall reading this Brown short story in some anthology or other; liked it partly for its references to Los Angeles places.

a dirty story told in an oddly clean, decorous manner

Ditto The Far Cry, (1951), which I just read. Oddly plotted. 4/5 of novel builds suspense slowly, using repetition to increase the anxiety, then last fifth tumbles to a toss-away close, an ending not unexpected but whose horror is diminished by a sense of gotta-finish-this on the author's part.

Next up is Brown's The Fabulous Clipjoint; love that title and I see that you and others recommend it highly.

Interesting robo-word: EmptServ

January 30, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

EmptServ is good.

And so is The Fabulous Clipjoint, a coming-of-age story with real heart and some interesting observations of daily life in, I think Chicago is the city, in the 1940s.

January 30, 2013  

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