THE WENCH IS DEAD (1955) by Fredric Brown

This unconventional mystery by cult author Fredric Brown has unfortunately become a little bit scarce, its absentee status probably not helped by the fact that the title, taken from Christopher Marlowe, has been used for several other novels too. The protagonist is Howard Perry, a sociology teacher from Chicago who has decided to research LA’s skid row the hard way: by becoming one of its drunken bums while working as a dishwasher for 75 cents an hour. His plan is to stick it out during the summer break then head home and write his thesis. With just a few weeks left his plans are shattered when a friendly neighbour is killed, with him in the frame as the prime suspect …

The following review is offered as part of Kerrie’s 2012 Alphabet of Crime community meme over at her Mysteries in Paradise blog, which this week has reached the letter W. I also offer it as part of the Friday’s Forgotten Books meme run by Patti Abbott over at her Pattinase blog. It is also eligible under the guidelines of Bev’s 2012 Mystery Readers Challenge, specifically the 8 books I have pledged to read with an educational background. You should over to all these excellent blogs and see the other reviews posted and linked-to there.

“With me, LA had been the end of the line.”

Like so many other Brown characters, our protagonist Howie drinks too much to the extent that he is starting to black out on occasion –  but also has a chivalrous side to him. He is interested in people, is basically a good guy, but deep down really wants to know what it feels like to be a bum, a drunken bum. he is 28 years old, which may explain why he thinks he can do this and then walk away from the experience and use the raw material for his doctoral thesis, which is not necessarily a mad idea but not very scientific either … So far he has succeeded in the first half of his plan, rarely eating and mainly subsisting on a diet of sweet wine, rarely washing or changing his clothes, slowly losing touch with the man he used to be. Right from the first chapter we sense a danger that he seems at the moment oblivious to, doubting his own unconvincing reassurance that he isn’t really a hopeless drunk. This is reinforced shortly afterwards when his girlfriend, prostitute and fellow lush Billie the Kid (real name Wilhelmina Kidder), talks about her drug addicted friend Mame. She tells him, with matter-of-fact certainty, that drunks and dope fiends may be able to give up for a while but in the end, in times of stress, they will always revert to their addictive patterns of behaviour. His reaction is very telling – he pours himself another drink.

“Is goodness more complicated than defeat?”

This is a seedy book in the sense that it talks about people living hand-to-mouth in squalor, though it is told with the author’s customary irony and wit. It has only a small cast of characters: along with Howie, Billie and her friend Mame, who works with her at a club and does a little hooking on the side, there are Howie’s kindly manager Burke and Ramon, the chef who despite a drug habit is also a pretty friendly chap. Then there is Ike, an ex-ad man who now refuses to even frequent places that feature advertising – and that’s pretty much it. By the time the book is over, three of these six characters will be dead, along with Jesus, one of Mame’s ‘clients’ who may have been involved in drug trafficking. The book has much in common with Brown’s later mystery One For the Road, which I reviewed here a few weeks ago. They both feature a protagonist who is out-of-place, stuck in a job and situation where he seemingly doesn’t belong, and with much of the action taking place inside bars. It also contrives a seemingly ‘happy’ ending, in which boy meets girl, finds a bundle of loot, and abandons his dead-end job and starts afresh with his gril. But much like the finale to Jim Thompson’s even bleaker The Getaway (1958), this is presented as a defeat of sorts, even retreat from normality. Like the earlier book, this presents a mystery that is ultimately solved with the murderer unmasked, but those looking for a plot-driven story are likely to be disappointed.

“But that was in another country, and besides, the wench is dead” - from The Jew of Malta by Christopher Marlowe

This is one of many works expanded from one of Brown’s shorter works (many of which, as a result, were only reprinted posthumously decades later) and it does show in terms of the small cast of characters and the fairly simple story. Mame is strangled shortly after Howie visits her, when she told him of a strange encounter with Jesus, a Mexican tourist, who bolted out of her fire escape not long after arriving when he heard a knock at her door. Jesus is also killed shortly afterwards and Howie surmises that there must be a drug angle linking the two – but he then becomes a suspect when he is identified as being the last person to see her before the murder. Billie helps him elude the police while he ultimately finds the killer in an almost cursory, utterly coincidental way. If this sounds like I’m getting ready to criticise the book I’m not, because what makes it stand out has little to do with the story. Instead what we are offered is a dark but fascinating depiction of the Los Angeles slums. Brown was a fine craftsman and this is well in evidence in the way that he leads the reader, slowly, surely and inexorably towards a bleak and very Noir conclusion, albeit one that is none the less presented effectively as a transcendent moment of self-knowledge. There are not too many mysteries you can say that about and this one as such, so as hard as it may be to track down nowadays, it really is well-worth the effort.

Jeff Pierce wrote a terrific piece on this book for his Killer Covers of the Week blog which you can read here.

***** (3.5 fedora tips out of 5)

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This entry was posted in 2012 Alphabet of Crime, 2012 Vintage Mystery Reading Challenge, Amnesia, Campus Crime, Crime Fiction Alphabet, Fredric Brown, Friday's Forgotten Book, Los Angeles, Scene of the crime. Bookmark the permalink.

37 Responses to THE WENCH IS DEAD (1955) by Fredric Brown

  1. neer says:

    Last week it was Veronica’s Room, this week another impressive one. Thanks for highlighting these little-known books. Now I want to read both Fredric Brown and Jim Thompson.

    • Thanks very much Neer, you are very kind. Both Brown and Thompson had something of a brief resurgence on the 80s and early 90s but seem to have drifted off the radar a little since then though the film adaptation of THE KILLER INSIDE ME presumbaly renewed interest in the amazing (if frequently horribly so) Thompson.

  2. Colin says:

    Sounds fascinating Sergio. Where do you dig up these little-known, to me at least, books?
    This appears to be pretty bleak stuff, shades of Woolrich perhaps?

    • Thanks Colin, glad it sounded interesting. Brown could be a very funny and clever writer, not really as obviously into the gloom and cosmic despair of Woolrich, though the two do have a lot in common. Some of Brown’s books, like His Name was Death and The Screaming Mimi (later unofficially filmed by Dario Argento as The Bird with the Crystal Plumage) have stunning twist endings and many of the short stories are very witty (especially if you like puns). This is one of the more obviously Noirish books, though most feature drunks, down-and-outs and characters who black out at inopportune times.

      • Colin says:

        Cheers. I have the 1958 version of The Screaming Mimi on DVD but I haven’t watched it yet.

        • The Oswals is a bit weird and also somewhat pedestrian despite the spicy pairing of Anita Ekberg and Gypsy Rose Lee. The Argento is, ironically, a looser but much better adaptation (albeit an official one – chunks of it also got used in Four Flies on Grey Velvet) – the book is wonderful though, one of my favourites in the genre. If you can get a copy, read it first.

  3. Sergio – I like Frederic Brown’s work in general but hadn’t read this one before, so thanks very much. You’re right about the title though; as soon as I saw the title of your post I was thinking of the Colin Dexter novel by the same name. Brown had a way with noir, didn’t he? And he was pretty skilled at evoking places, too. I must look out for this one.

    • Hi Margot, glad it was interesting. It’s not impossible to find, and the original novelette was recently reprinted in Miss Darkness: The Great Short Crime Fiction of Fredric Brown (There is a kindle version on Amazon too) though the novel definitely has more substance – certainly the expansion adds a lot of the sociological ruminations and detail that give its special flavour. Would love to know what you make of the novel, which is not all that easy to find unfortunately – apparently it never got past its original paperback re-printing circa 1957.

  4. Patrick says:

    For a second, I thought you were covering the Colin Dexter novel. Then I took another good look. I *really* need to get myself acquainted with Fredric Brown!!!

    • Hello mate – Brown is definitely worth reading (but then, I would say that) but the title’s multiple usages is potentially frustrating. Along with the Dexter there is also a 1965 bovel by by Ruth Fenisong, another by Roger Miles, another by Margaret Eerskine, a 1935 offering by Robert Ullin …
      The Wench is dead by Ruth Fenisong

  5. Fredric Brown is another one of those shape-shifting writers who could write brilliantly in several genres. I suspect Fredric Brown is better known in science fiction circles, but as you point out in this fine review, Brown could write mysteries and noir with aplomb, too.

    • Cheers – and ‘shape-shifting’ is a really great way to put it George. Amazing how much great stuff he produced over 20 odd years of production – inevitably I suppose a lot of the short stories are better known through anthologies and the like as well as that credit on the Star Trek episode, which is ironic because it wasn’t a straight adaptation but a case of the writer belatedly realising they had unconsciously ripped off Brown’s story ‘Arena’.

  6. Todd Mason says:

    And, of course, Brown was also an important horror and dark fantasy writer. Much rarer than WENCH is his one contemporary/mimetic novel, which has been reviewed as Not Bad, But…I’d still like to read it.

    It is indicative of my youthful reading, where Brown was all over the place in every mode, that I find it odd that so many here have barely or quite incompletely been acquainted with his work…

    • Jerry House says:

      Todd, if you are thinking of THE OFFICE, I found it to be an interesting read and wondered why it was not more readily available. Brown took a chance on writing a mainstream novel (based on his own experiences) because his finances wouldn’t take it if the book did not sell; his own mystery and SF books provided a steady income as long as he kept producing them. The book sold moderately well, so it wasn’t a failure, but Brown never went back to mainstream.

    • I know what you mean Todd, i thought all us discerning fans of SF and mystery were fans of Brown. I well remember the surge of interest in the 80s when the Dennis McMillan limited edition collections came out – unlike Jim Thompson, the comparative lack of interest from film & TV companies probably has had an impact on mantaining an appreciation of his work. I’ve not read The Office however though Jack Seabrook says fascinating things about it.
      The Office by Fredric Brown

  7. Peggy@Peggy Ann's Post says:

    Sounds really good! I have a whole set of Woolrich sitting on my shelves I picked up at a book sale. Didn’t know he was gloomy. Oh well, will see if I like them soon as I have to read one for Bev’s vintage challenge.

    • Hi Peggy Ann – Woolrich is very much a Noir writer, in the owrds of biographer and literary executor Francis M. Nevins “the Poe of the 20th century and the poet of its shadows”, though there are sensational plots in there too – realism is certainly not high on his agenda. Julian Symons couldn’t abide Woolrich but my shelves are stacked with the man’s work. Jolly they are not, but hypnotic and thrilling they definitely are (and occasionally very silly too). Brown’s work is much more overtly humorous and lighter in approach (most of thetime). Brown would have killed to have anything like Woolrich’s commercial success … Neither of them seems to have led particularly happy lives, though Woolrich was apparently a truly tormented individual …

  8. TracyK says:

    Not familiar at all with this author (other than some reading in mystery reference books). I should definitely try some books by him, and getting vintage copies with great covers would be a bonus.

    And now that I look at some of those, I do remember reading about him as a sci fi writer also. Very interesting.

    • Hi TracyK – he was a very prolific writer of short stories and some (including ‘Answer’, ‘Arena’ and ‘Don’t Look Behind You’ have been endlessly anthologised). His novels are less well known though – of his SF, his bet are probably Martians, Go Home, What Mad Universe and the unjustly neglected The Lights in the Sky are Stars. Of his mystery novels, I would especially recommend The Screaming Mimi, The Fabulous Clipjoint, The Lenient Beast, Night of the Jabberwork, His Name Was Death and the fabulous short story collection, Nightmares and Geezenstacks.

      • TracyK says:

        Thanks for the suggestions. I will look for some of these.

      • Todd Ackerman says:

        Isn’t Nightmares and Geezenstacks sci-fi/horror? Also, interesting that you don’t especially recommend The Far Cry and Knock Three-One Two, arguably his two most acclaimed novels. I find The Far Cry a little overrated, but I love Knock Three-One Two.

        • Hi Todd, they are certainly very fine books, especially Knock Three-One Two, easily one of my favourites. I do need to re-read The Far Cry and The Lenient Beast as its been probably 15 to 20 years since my last encounter! Nightmares and Geezenstacks is certainly a real gallimaufry of elements, with plenty of ironic joke short short stories and thriller reversals as well as some fantasy too.

  9. Don’t have you email. re: your comment that the links seemed to point to months’ old posts, I am not finding it when I click them. Is it possible your link to me is an old one? Which ones are giving you trouble. Today’s post beings with UNCLE PAUL by Celia Fremlin.

    • What a fool I am – my sincere apologies Patti – I had the wrong link on my site and didn’t realise it! Sorry again – I have updated it now. Thanks for setting me straight – now I can go and read all of today’s posts!

  10. Hi Sergio, yes, I recollect reading your earlier review of ONE FOR THE ROAD that introduced me to Fredric Brown and later to some of his sf short stories including ARENA, HAPPY ENDING, HALL OF MIRRORS and EARTHMEN BEARING GIFTS which rest on my hard disk. I read two of these sf stories and found Brown to be a clean writer with no complications in his narrative. I hope to tackle some of his noir fiction soon. Thanks for the heads-up.

  11. John says:

    I wonder why I don’t know this one. I have so many of Brown’s books and I tend to think of him as a dark crime writer first and foremost and not SF as George mentioned. I thought the bulk of his genre writing was crime and dark fantasy with only a smattering of SF. Huh. Maybe I’m wrong.

    That sure is a lot of dead wenches out there! The trouble with titles is they can’t be copyrighted. Crime writers more than any other fiction writers I think, like to pull their titles from classic literature. Shakespeare is always a popular choice. It seems as if every line in Macbeth at one time or another has been lifted and used as the title of some story or novel. I nearly made added a list here, but it was so long (I typed nearly 30 titles off the top of my head) I had to delete it.

    • Sorry you deleted the list mate but you are as always dead right. The majority of Brown’s output was in the crime genre, no question, but some of his most popular, like Martians, Go Home, Knock, Answer and Arena were SF, so … I do really rate Wench, even if it is a bleak one.

  12. Yvette says:

    I’m with Neer. Thanks, Sergio, for highlighting these relatively unknown authors and books. An author can only live forever if his books are still being read long after he’s dead. You are bringing these writers back to life and I’m sure wherever they are, they’re whooping it up, thanks to you. :)

    Maybe I won’t read some of these books, but at least I now know more than I used to about Frederic Brown which as of yesterday, was zilch. :)

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