by Toni L.P. Kelner / Leigh Perry
I confess. I'd nearly forgotten it was my day to post something here at the Femmes. My nephew Sean is visiting, we're doing some preparation for a vacation trip at the end of the month, my daughter has two weeks of camp that she has to pack for, I'm trying to finish a short story. And I downloaded Pokemon Go a couple of days ago. To make up for this, I thought I'd pull out an essay I wrote for the Readercon program book a couple of years ago. (Readercon is a lovely local science fiction convention, and I'm sorry to have missed it this year because of all the aforementioned reasons.) One of the honorees that year was mystery and science fiction author Fredric Brown. He's not a household name these days, not even among mystery and SF readers, but I do adore his writing. And htis is why.
My affection for Fredric Brown dates back to a trip I took to New York City right after I graduated from college. My vacation included a visit to the legendary mystery bookstore Murder Ink. I wasn’t that big a mystery fan at that time, but my father was, so I made a point of tracking down the store so I could find him a souvenir. Now I don’t even remember what I ended up buying for him, but I do remember what I took home for myself: a Black Box trade paperback edition of 4 Novels by Fredric Brown.
The omnibus included the mind-twisting Lewis Carroll homage Night of the Jabberwock; early serial killer novel The Screaming Mimi; thriller Knock Three-One-Two; and the Edgar-award winning The Fabulous Clipjoint, which was Brown’s first novel and the beginning of his Ed and Am Hunter series.
After reading those four novels, I was hooked. In fact, I spent years tracking down every one of his books I could find. That wasn’t easy in those pre-internet days, and many of the books I found were far out of my price range. But each book I managed to get my hands on, whether another novel or collection of his short stories, was a delight.
Along the way I’d discovered that Brown was just as wonderful when he wrote science fiction, but I still prefer his mysteries. His crime plots were tricky, and the characters vivid, but I think he excelled at settings. When he set a story in summer, I wanted to turn up my air conditioning; when he set a revenge thriller in a big city, I wanted to lock my doors to keep the lowlifes out; and when his characters hunted a killer at a carnival, I wanted to take a ride on the Ferris wheel.
It wasn’t just the places that were vivid--the time in which the stories were set was just as engrossing. Though Brown wrote contemporary fiction, by the time I found his work, those times were history to me, and the backgrounds were so detailed and true that they were like snapshots of the past.
Now Brown didn’t write about brilliant detectives like Sherlock Holmes, sweet little old ladies like Miss Marple, or aristocrats like Peter Wimsey. Okay, he wrote so many stories that some of his characters were like that, but mostly he wrote on the darker, grittier side of detective fiction. There were some private eyes, but mostly when I think of Brown’s work, I think of working people, people just barely making it from paycheck to paycheck. And I think of drinking--those people drank whiskey, rye, bourbon.
So with all that, why am I thanking Fredric Brown for a teapot, of all things? It’s because Brown inspired me to write something I never would have written without reading his stuff.
Earlier I mentioned stories set in a carnival. Ed and Am of that series were carnies for several of their adventures, and others of Brown’s stories were also set in that milieu. Honestly, I have no idea if Brown ever worked in on a midway himself, but those mysteries certainly had the ring of authenticity. Or maybe the calliope of authenticity. They were definitely compelling enough to send me off to a carnival or two. A year. More if I was lucky.
Plus I started looking for nonfiction books about carnivals and carnie life. It was after reading Eyeing the Flash by Peter Fenton, a memoir of a man who because a carnival game agent, that I got an idea for my own carnival mystery story. It was totally unlike anything I’d ever written before, and enormous fun to work on. “Sleeping With the Plush” was published in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine in May 2006, and in 2007 I won the Agatha Award for best short story.
I’d dreamt of winning an Agatha ever since I started writing mysteries, and getting one was a high point in my career. And whether or not he would appreciate the honor, I give Fredric Brown credit for my Agatha teapot.
Thank you Fredric Brown!