A whodunit that, as the title suggests, is more than a tad on the bibulous side, One For the Road is one of the less well-known mysteries by cult author Fredric Brown and one of his last. In the 40s and 50s he wrote some of the smartest and funniest mystery and science fiction stories around and is one of the few writers from that era who genuinely succeeded in both genres (his friend Robert Bloch for instance wrote plenty of weird fiction at the time but very little SF). Producing stories and novels at a prodigious rate over a period of twenty years (roughly at his peak from 1942 to 1956), the full extent of Brown’s wit and remarkable versatility only really became apparent long after his death when hundreds of his pulp stories were re-published by Dennis McMillan.
The following review is offered as part of Kerrie’s 2012 Alphabet of Crime community meme over at her Mysteries in Paradise blog, which has reached the letter O. I also offer it as part of the Friday’s Forgotten Books meme run by Patti Abbott over at her Pattinase blog.
She was beautiful and desirable – but she knew too much about the wrong men …
The narrator is Bob Spitzer, cub reporter on the Mayville (Arizona) Weekly Sun newspaper. And more than anything he wants to marry his girlfriend Doris, get a proper job, and also find out just who stabbed Amy Waggoner, the blonde lush living well beyond her means at a local motel. She had only been in town a few weeks and is already dead when the story begins; it is unclear just what she was doing in such a small and out-of-the-way town in the first place and why anyone would mean her any harm given that she was an apparent stranger to everyone. Apart from drinking through her weekly alimony cheque, she seems to do little else, returning alone to her motel room every night. She hadn’t made any particular friends or enemies, with the possible exception of local simpleton Herbie Pembrook, who was caught peeping through her bedroom once. This leads Spitzer, who for some reason seems to be disliked by Herbie, to conjecture that:
“Herbie was a moron, and morons can be sexual psychopaths.”
Such specious thinking dominates large chunks of the book as characters talk and talk about who could be responsible for the murder but without really getting anywhere. In fact there really is quite a lot of padding to keep the slender plot on the boil, filling up space with lengthy flashbacks and character sketches that are mostly extraneous to the plot, though they do contain some of Brown’s best writing. We learn that Spitzer is also out-of-place, like Amy, learning journalism the hard way. After a late career change, he was trapped there by a promise not to leave his low paying job for a minimum of two years after his unscrupulous editor got him all the way to Arizona from Kansas before springing the condition upon him. This is actually based on an element in Brown’s own life when he moved from Milwaukee to New York in the late 1940s on what he thought was the offer of an editing job at $7500 a year, only learning on his arrival that the salary was actually only $75 a week! Beyond using his own background in publishing and his own serious financial mishap in New York (unlike Spitzer, the author walked away from the job), the dry Arizona setting reflects Brown’s own move to Tucson for reasons of his precarious health. The other obviously autobiographical element comes through in the serious amount of drinking that all the characters seem to engage in and one can’t help but feel that this is a very edgy reflection of Brown’s own problems with alcohol. All this extra mural content helps bolster an otherwise by-the-numbers mystery, though other elements are bolted on with much less success. In particular Brown injects a rather tedious red herring in the form of a narcotics subplot to spice up the narrative, though this does lead to an (unintentionally) hilarious scene in which Spitzer tries marijuana for the first time – and immediately starts acting like an extra from Reefer Madness, with such choice moments as the following one:
“Like it, keed?” Willie asked … “The most, man. Crazy”. And wondered if reefers have a tendency to make people talk jive talk.”
Quite. Amusing, but nothing at all to do with the story. The author is just loading the narrative to make up for the lack of incident. Later on Brown makes rather heavy weather of the ‘daring’ use of such words as ‘sperm’, ‘lezzie’ and (horror or horrors), ‘douche bag’, underlining the use and even going so far as to laboriously explain exactly what these strange and exotic terms actually might mean … Brown was usually a much savvier author than this but he was close to the end of his tether as a writer by this stage (though at least Knock Three-One-Two, a genuine dark classic, still lay ahead). Ultimately we do find out why Amy was in the small town, Spitzer gets to free himself from his bondage and catches the killer, albeit in a replay of the climax from Brown’s far superior The Screaming Mimi, in which the hero is trapped with the murderer and has them talking and talking and talking in the hope of finding a way out … This would all have worked much better in a shorter work though according to Brown biographer Jack Seabrook, the short magazine version of this novel, ‘The Amy Waggoner Murder Case’, while freed of the padding, isn’t much better really. Oh well … Incidentally, those interested in Brown’s life and work should definitely check out Seabrook’s Martians and Misplaced Clues. This well researched book, which includes an exhaustive bibliography, provides an in-depth analysis of Brown’s major themes and obsessions both in his short fiction and novels.
One for the Road has its amusing moments and the slender plot is perfectly serviceable but can’t disguise what is clearly a minor work by a quirky writer of great accomplishment. Much better to read the Edgar-winning The Fabulous Clipjoint (1947), the aforementioned The Screaming Mimi (1949), Night of the Jabberwock (1950), His Name Was Death (1954) or The Lenient Beast (1956) or his many short story collections. Brown may be a little elusive these days, but his best work certainly deserves to be remembered.