Friday, May 5, 2017

Forgotten Books: THE DEEP END by Fredric Brown (1952)

After posting the announced publication of two huge volumes of Fredric Brown stories by Haffner Press (HERE), I happened to be digging around in my storage unit searching for Executioner books (sadly, I found only a few) when I came across a stash of fourteen Brown books. I knew I had a bunch, including The Fabulous Clipjoint and The Screaming Mimi and The Lights in the Sky are Stars, acquired thirty or more years ago. I remember being impressed with his rep back then, but can’t remember if I ever got around to reading him.

So I decided to pick out one of the less famous titles at random and give it a go. This is it.

Right from the start, I liked his style. The first-person narration is smooth and conversational, sometimes sharp and occasionally funny. The narrator, reporter Sam Evans, is assigned a sob piece on a high school football hero who was just run over by a roller coaster car. Then it turns out the body belongs instead to a teenage pickpocket with the football hero’s wallet in his pants. That happens on page 13 of the old Bantam edition pictured here.

Okay, that was an interesting enough beginning, and I kept reading, expecting it to get more interesting. It finally did on page 125, when Sam notices a car following him, and the last forty pages of the book told a pretty tight story. It’s that stuff in between that bothered me—a hundred and twelve pages of nicely written, nearly plot-free narration.

Stuff happens, of course. Sam goes a fishing vacation with the guys, which he cuts short because he starts obsessing on the roller coaster thing. While his wife’s out of town, he has a fling with his high school sweetheart. He putters around at the amusement park and in newspaper morgues investigating all the players in the roller coaster incident, and works up a variety of wild notions of what might have happened then and in the ten years leading up to it. He eats, tries to sleep, takes baths, and has many overlong conversations focusing on his obsession, including one with his own subconscious (complete with quotation marks) that lasts a full two pages.

According to Jack Seabrook in Martians and Misplaced Clues: The Life and Work of Fredric Brown, many of Brown’s novels were expanded versions of shorter works from the pulps. In this case, it was a 20,000 word Mystery Book Magazine novelette called “Obit for Obie.” Somehow, Brown had to find an extra hundred pages of words to fill the book, and he did it with a lot of nicely written but repetitive and often pointless talking and investigating. And, most of all, obsessing. I was hard-pressed not to pull out a red pen and edit it back into a novelette. Jack Seabrook and some of the critics he cites, including Anthony Boucher, enthused about it, and some guy named Newton Baird is quoted as calling it “Brown’s masterpiece of psychological detection, as well as his best novel . . .”

God, I hope not.

Part of the problem, I suppose, is that I’ve been reading Day Keene and Lionel White and others from Brown’s era lately, and have come to expect a thriller to grab me by the throat and drag me all the way to the end. That didn’t happen here. At any time before page 125 Sam could have walked away with no consequences, and so could I. Several times I nearly did, because I just didn’t care what happened. What kept me reading was the author’s reputation. I wanted to see if he somehow managed to pull this tale out of the doldrums and make it worth my time.

Did he? Not so much. But that last forty pages wasn’t bad, and I hate to let all those other books go to waste, so I’ll probably try another. Probably The Fabulous Clipjoint. And then we’ll see. Stay tuned.


Rick Robinson said...

I haven't read this one, and probably won't. I suspect you'll like Clipjoint or Screaming Mimi better.

J F Norris said...

I read this one long time ago and it may have been the very first Brown novel I read. I liked the carny background and that's about all I remember. Isn't there something with an escaped gorilla? Of the Ed Hunter and Uncle Am books I've enjoyed THE BLOODY MOONLIGHT the most. Still have away to go with Brown.

Evan Lewis said...

No gorilla here. It would have helped. I think Brown used the carnival background a lot.

Cap'n Bob said...

I love Fabulous Clipjoint but the one I read after that didn't move me as much. Maybe Screaming Mimi. Coincidentally, I ran across a trove of his books while clearing a shelf last night and hope to read them Real Soon Now.

Unknown said...

If you want to see a tighter version of this story, watch the episode of the "Wire Service" tv show based on "The Deep End" that's available on youtube