One of my many « culture shocks » when I joined the English-speaking online community two decades ago was to find that one of my all-time favourite American crime writers was not as big a name in his own country as he was in my country. He had won an Edgar, had some prestigious fans and his books were either in print or easily available and yet he was not remotely as widely read and popular as he was here. I’d soon find out that his was not a solitary case but I’ll keep that for another article as this one bears exclusively on what has to be called The Fredric Brown Mystery.
Fredric Brown’s mad universe is filled with paradoxes, and the fact that he is a cult writer in a country where he never set foot is the least of them. His major works, either in the sci-fi or mystery fields, have never been out of print and are regarded as classics of their respective genres. His most famous mystery, the superlative Night of the Jabberwock, frequently appears on « Best ever » lists compiled by local critics, with his other masterpiece in the genre, The Far Cry, usually not very far behind. Some of his short stories are even taught in school – I’m not kidding. The list of his admirers would make many a « serious » writer envious.
Cut to the Anglosphere. The very feature that made him so popular with French readers, his willingness to ignore genre boundaries and restrictions, work against him there. Since in the eyes of some he couldn’t be both a master of crime and science-fiction, the former gave him up to the latter, with the result that many English-speaking readers see him as primarily a sci-fi writer who dabbled into crime fiction. This is not to mean that his mysteries have no fans, for they do, but their often unusual premises and execution mean that they leave many puzzled to the least. His critical reception reflects that. Julian Symons in all editions of Bloody Murder ignores him completely. Barzun & Taylor on the other hand give a lengthy but thoroughly hostile look at his oeuvre, sparing only The Deep End, one of his most straightforward and thus atypical works. Bill Pronzini while praising Brown for his wit and inventivity, nevertheless takes issues with his plots, many of which he deems « absurd » or « sordid ». Unconditional praise is rare, except maybe for his short stories – Don’t Look Behind You may be his most popular and certainly most influential work in the Anglosphere, followed by Arena in the science-fiction genre. A cult writer in France, Brown is a niche one at home.
He already was in his lifetime. The Edgar he won for his first novel turned out to be his only nomination even though his best work was still ahead. Boucher, never one to ignore an idiosyncratic talent, heaped praise upon him – but that was not enough to make him a major player, let alone a big seller. His literary afterlife was hardly more exciting, as he left no heir. There have been and still are many wannabe Chandlers or Christies or Hammetts, but very few tried to channel Fredric Brown, probably because the flavour was to exotic to replicate.
That his crime fiction was so « exotic », that is, hard to categorize was and probably remains the main reason why he is not a household name at home. Not only is it marked by a worldview and approach that are wholly unique in the genre but it never settled into a fixed shape. Whatever kind of « crime fiction » you like, Brown has something for you. If you’re into serial killers, be his guest. If you’re more into impossible crimes, just wait a minute. If that’s private eye stories you’re after, that’s not a problem. Wanna laugh? He’ll make you laugh out loud. Wanna cry? Here’s a box of handkerchiefs. Thematically speaking, Brown’s work is a mess of the first order – the only thing that unifies it is Brown himself with his odd mindset, wild imagination and oddball characters. Brown is more than an author, he is a genre.
Now some say he was uneven. Of course he was. He couldn’t be but, with so massive an output and so intense a dedication to follow his muse wherever she might lead. Sometimes a good idea is just that – a good idea – and the resolution won’t live up to the premise. Sometimes the muse is on vacation and it’s only the craftman doing his old tricks. These are the risks coming with not sticking to a convenient, comfortable formula. Had Brown written more Ed & Am novels, he might have become as popular as Rex Stout or Erle Stanley Gardner – but even his only series was, er, weird. He just wasn’t cut out for the NYT’s best-sellers list.
That he was and is too sui generis to become a mass phenomenon doesn’t mean he deserves to remain in the second rank. His indeniable originality should be enough to warrant him recognition in a time like ours that (sometimes mistakenly, but not in his case) equates it with genius. Also there’s the simple fact that his writing, at least when he was not in too dark a mood, is tremendously entertaining – and « crime fiction » being popular fiction is first and above all meant to entertain (Whoever has ears…)
This world would be a poorer place had Fredric Brown never been a part of it; it’s unfortunate that said world doesn’t know it.