THE SCREAMING MIMI by Frederic Brown (2008, Black Mask, 2008)
“#4 The Screaming Mimi. Brown at his terrifying best, and again with a psychotic killer.This was filmed twice; once as The Screaming Mimi and more recently as The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (a/k/a The Phantom of Terror)”
– Karl Edward Wagner, “13 Best Non-Supernatural Horror Novels” (Twilight Zone Magazine, 1983)
One thing I’m starting to notice about Karl Wagner’s list: psychology pops up on a regular basis. Given Wagner’s training as a psychiatrist, this isn’t too surprising. I do have to wonder if these themes inspired him to go into the the psychiatric profession, or was he attracted to the books on this list after he’d made the decision to go into the mental field. The answer may never be known.
Substance abuse shows up a lot in this list, but I’ll talk about that at a later date.
Screaming Mimi was first published in 1949, at the height of Brown’s writing career. Although the pulp magazine publishing industry was winding down at this point, Brown still managed to knock out a lot of fiction for the market. Noir fiction was popular at the time; returning GI’s were discovering the bad guys didn’t necessarily wear domino masks. Hailing from the Midwest, Brown’s mean streets were located in Chicago for this book.
Mimi opens with a reporter named Sweeny recovering from a week-long drunk. What shakes him out of his alcoholic stupor is the sight of a beautiful women bleeding from a knife wound. The ripper, a psycho killer who preys on young blond women, is on the prowl and Yolanda Lang, a dancer at a cheap tavern, was almost the next victim. Yolanda survives the attack, but the ripper is still on the prowl.
Sweeny’s vision of Yolanda is enough to sober him up and get him back to his job at The Blade, a big city newspaper. He convinces the editor to put him on the ripper story, which allows him the chance to look into Yolanda’s background. He soon meets Yolanda’s manager, “Doc” Greene, who resents Sweeny’s interest in her, but understands their mutual need to keep Yolanda alive.
Ace reporter Sweeny quickly discovers one of the ripper’s previous victims worked only one day at a gift shop. She sold a small statue of a nude, screaming woman to an unknown customer. Since she was murdered within a few hours of the sale, Sweeny deduces the statue triggered something in the killer which would start the string of murders. He buys the only remaining copy of the statue from the same gift shop.
Sweeny manages to track down both the manufacturer and sculptor of the statue. What he discovers unlocks Yolanda’s past and the identity of the ripper. To tell more would be to give away the conclusion of the novel. Let me say, it’s a surprise ending which came from behind. Brown was in top form when he wrote the last chapter to Mimi.
If you’re interested in tight, witty crime novels, this is an excellent read. Brown gives a portrait of post-WW2 Chicago where rooming houses, cheap booze, and homeless people are the daily background.