Having loved Night of the Jabberwock (1950), I have been meaning to try more of Brown’s work and it has only taken 16 months to actually get around to doing so – not bad! Today’s read started out in life as a short story called ‘The Santa Claus Murders’ and was published in October 1942 for Street & Smith’s Detective Story Magazine. Eventually in 1948 it was developed into the novel I am reviewing today, which also had the alternative title of A Plot for Murder. Isaac Anderson, reviewing for The New York Times, wrote about this work that ‘unless our memory is at fault, this is by far the best thing that Frederick [sic] Brown has done up to this time.’ Though to qualify this remark, this was only Brown’s third published novel, with his debut, The Fabulous Clipjoint (1947) having won the Edgar Award for best first novel. Personally, I feel I was at a disadvantage, having come to this novel after Night of the Jabberwock, this later title being the superior work. Nevertheless, I think Murder Can Be Fun shows signs of the type of complexities and plot structures Brown would later grapple with.
Despite the Christmassy décor of the book cover this book is set in august and starts in Broadway, Manhattan. We are informed that given the location a man in a mask wearing a Santa Claus suit, elicits no shock or surprise, with everyone presuming some sort of advertising game. But even the sleepiest of readers gets the hint that not all is as it seems. This Santa certainly isn’t flogging anything and instead heads to the office of Arthur D Dineen. Within minutes both Arthur and his Doberman are shot, (with only the dog surviving), with a silencer. Why? We do not know. When the crime reaches the newspapers it is known as the Santa Claus Murder, yet there is one reader more shocked than the others, Bill Tracy and he is shocked because the crime itself was one he planned, written in fact for a series he wants to present to the radio station he writes for. His proposal, conveniently entitled Murder Can Be Fun was to be a ‘series of 15-minute scripts dramatizing fictional crimes, complete with clues and solvable by the listener -’. Initially he hopes it is all coincidence, though the fact the victim was his boss certainly worries him. After all he had only written the script the night before the killing. Who could have possibly got in to his apartment to read it? Yet when the next day the janitor for Bill’s building is also killed in a manner matching one of the scripts, the hope it is coincidental sputters and dies.
In the earlier parts of the story we get a behind the scenes look at how radio shows are crafted and produced, and Brown also uses these slots to satirise and critique radio soap operas. Bill left his job as a reporter to write such scripts, yet he very much hates the work he does, only staying for the money:
‘To write a soap opera script, you lie awake nights trying to figure out what fate can do to your heroine next when she’s already suffered from earthquakes and unrequited love and blackmail, been captured by gangsters and spies and tried for murder, and had just about everything except ants in her pants, which is the one thing she really needs. But on the radio she can’t have them.’
This very much put me in mind of Agatha Christie’s The Man in the Brown Suit (1924), as Christie also uses her story to comment on the melodramas of her own day, in particular work such as Arthur B Reeves’ The Perils of Pauline (1914), which have their heroines forever in jeopardy. It is interesting however, that Bill’s main gripe with having to write shows such as Millie’s Millions, is the insistence on endless suffering by the show’s listeners, that the heroine perpetually has to be getting out of various kinds of trouble. For her there’s never a happily ever after. This seemed like quite a surprisingly sensitive comment coming from a male character, given the literary/social context. Although Brown goes even further with his comments, stretching them to the listeners of such shows. He’s not very flattering, suggesting that they are ‘a section of the population that had never read or listened to anything before because nothing lousy enough for them to listen to had ever been broadcast.’
Plot-wise Brown’s book is good. It is not as complex as the one he includes in Night of the Jabberwock, but all of the pieces dovetail nicely. Interestingly his protagonist Bill Tracy, who quips that he is not Dick Tracy, does not occupy a conventional amateur sleuth role, nor is he a thriller-like protagonist who is embroiled in a series of near-death experiences until the real killer is exposed. In an odd sort of way Bill is an outsider to events and the weakest part of the plot is the ending in which he reveals the culprit. Nevertheless, I still very much enjoyed this story and Brown has a wonderful turn of phrase, such as having Bill wonder if Sergeant Corey ‘might be a little cleverer than that, being Machiavellian in an Airedale sort of way.’ The mind definitely boggles at computing that image! However, for all male readers this insight may be of some use: ‘A man might wait for an assignation in pyjamas, but only a lout would wear a nightshirt.’ Though feel free to disagree if you want to…
I’m in two minds as to how to recommend this book. Should I suggest reading this one first, then Night of the Jabberwock, so there are no unhelpful comparisons? Or should NOTJ be the first title to be read, so you’re hooked by Brown and keen to read more? If others have read both titles it would be interesting to hear your thoughts on this matter.