I encountered the work of Fredric Brown for the first time in 2018, with Night of the Jabberwock (1950) and I followed this up in 2019 with Murder Can Be Fun (1947). I enjoyed both, but I felt Night of the Jabberwock was the best of the two. So I was pleased to see that American Mystery Classics were reprinting The Fabulous Clipjoint, the first of seven in the Ed and Am Hunter series, and it won an Edgar award for best first novel.
This new edition is accompanied by an introduction written by Lawrence Block, and he sets out by recounting the period in his life when he read Fredric Brown’s books for the first time, as well as some of his authorly compatriots. He even recalls an occasion when he tried to match the characters, in one book, drink for drink. You can imagine how that ended… The introduction is written in a conversational style, which I enjoyed. However, I felt it lacked sufficient content about Fredric Brown’s book and I came away feeling like the introduction said more about the Block instead. One interesting idea in the introduction is that The Fabulous Clipjoint ‘has echoes of Hamlet’ and having now read the book I would agree, although in terms of plot events, I don’t think the ending steers hard into the literary allusion.
‘In the rough edges of 1940s Chicago, the discovery of a corpse in an alleyway isn’t always enough to cause a big stir – especially when the victim is killed in the midst of a night-long bender, caught between barrooms in what appears to be a mugging gone awry. Which is why the police don’t take a huge interest in finding the murderer of Wallace Hunter, a linotype operator who turns up dead after a solitary drinking adventure that led through many of the Loop’s less reputable establishments. But for his teenage son, Ed, and his carny brother, Am, something about Wallace’s death feels fishy, a fact that grows increasingly bothersome when it becomes clear that some of the witnesses aren’t telling the whole story. In order to get to the heart of the matter, they’ll need all the skills Am picked up in the circus life – skills that young Ed will have to pick up on fast. And in the process of discovering the killer, they make another discovery as well: Wallace was a much different man than the father Ed thought he knew.’
The story opens with 18-year-old Ed discovering early one morning that his father has not come home and he puts two and two together when a pair of cops show up at his family residence. Yet he avoids interaction, instead reacting quite passively and apathetically to the situation. There is an element of denial in his behaviour. The one directive action he takes, is to board the train to the go to his Uncle Ambrose who works in a travelling circus.
Ed is an interesting choice of narrative perspective, as he is not a very mature filter for analysing people’s motives. In some ways I think this mystery can be regarded as a coming-of-age story, as we see Ed change during the time he spends with his uncle. Of the two I would say we can tell early on that Ed is shaping up to be a Watson to his Uncle Ambrose who is more worldly, savvy and has more street smarts. It is Ambrose who is the determined driving force behind the plan to uncover the killer and there was one passage I particularly liked concerning this:
‘The twinkle was back in his eyes. But back of it was something – something deadly. In spite of that twinkle, he didn’t look like a funny little fat man with a big black moustache anymore. He looked like someone you wanted on your side when there was trouble.’
Ambrose has the ability to inspire, but what caught my eye especially with this section, is the mention of the twinkle, as perhaps rather appositely it put me in mind of Miss Marple. She too is said to possess a certain twinkle and more than one character sees her deadly edge. Yet before you imagine this book leaps into a village mystery, Brown’s book is decidedly a hardboiled Chicago-set mystery, which we can see in the characters’ approach to sleuthing. You would never see Miss Marple bribe a policeman! Nevertheless, I think the hardboiled style of the piece is softened through the adolescent filter of Ed. He provides a sense of vulnerability to the piece, and I found it interesting that the author links plot events into Ed’s dreams, which is quite a Gothic literature trope. Another gritty but touching moment is when Ed and his stepsister (who seems quite keen to entrap him) have three hours to sober up their stepmother/mother before the funeral. I felt this picture of grief, following a murder, is not one you normally see in vintage crime fiction.
Ambrose might be wiser to how the world works, yet I found it interesting that he endeavours to sidestep judging other people. At one point in the story, he tells Ed:
“Look, kid, don’t try to label things. Words fool you. You call a guy a printer or a lush […] and you think you’ve pasted a label on him. People are complicated; you can’t label ‘em with a word.”
To return to Agatha Christie’s sleuth, this perspective seemed quite counter to Miss Marple, who intuitively categorises others. She might not use a word, but her village parallels are another form of labelling. Both Miss Marple and Uncle Ambrose know a lot about human nature, but it was engaging to see how their different life experiences impact their sleuthing styles. One such character which typifies Ambrose’s point about not labelling people, is Ed’s stepmother Madge. She might be expected to fill the “evil” role of fairy tales, and in fact she and her stepson do not get on well at the start of the book, but as the narrative unfolds Brown presents a more complex picture, which I liked. This complexity is increased when Madge and her daughter top the police’s prime suspect list. True to hardboiled fiction, Ed and Ambrose have an unconventional and not entirely harmonious relationship with the police. Initially, Ambrose uses the investigating officer’s corruption to their advantage, but as the book progresses their “working” relationship is called into question. The solution is unusual from a psychological angle, although I would say perhaps there could have been a smidge more cluing. Nevertheless, I hope American Mystery Classics reprint further titles from this series, as I am keen to find out what the pair get up to next.
Source: Review Copy (American Mystery Classics)