The Fabulous Clipjoint by Frederic Brown (1947, Dutton)
In The Fabulous Clipjoint, we see why Frederic Brown was one of the greatest short story writers and novelists of the 20th century. Brown wrote hundreds of short stories, some of the best were collected in Honeymoon in Hell. He’s the author of Martians Go Home, one of the first science fiction novels to explore the loss of privacy in the modern world. He also appeared twice on Karl Edward Wagner’s famous “Best” lists in the early 80’s. Clipjoint is the first of seven novels to feature the investigative team of Ed and Am Hunter. It also won an Edgar Award by the Mystery writers of America when it published in 1947 (The novel was initially published as “Dead Man’s Indemnity” in 1946 by Mystery Book Magazine).
Ed Hunter is a young man who is busy learning the printing trade in Chicago. He lives with his father, a Linotype operator, his stepmother and stepsister in an apartment in the working class section of Chicago, Illinois. One night his father is killed on his way home in an apparent bungled robbery attempt. Ed’s life is thrown into a spiral as his mother will now have to begin working and his younger stepsister may not need the adult supervision she needs. Ed can only think of one thing to do. Since the police don’t want to spend too much time in the murder investigation, he must go see his uncle Ambrose Hunter who works just outside Chicago.
Ed’s Uncle Am turns out to be a carnie, or carnival operator, who works the circuit all over the United States. He’s had little to do with the family, but Ed feels he’s the only one who can find out who really killed his father and why. Along the way, he learns a lot about life and has a chance to view the world outside the city of Chicago, although most of the action takes place in the city. This is a tightly crafted piece of writing and premium example of Brown at the mastery of his game.
One of the things I enjoyed about this book is that it gives you a sense of what it was like to live in a working class household right after WW2. All the big economic expansions of the post war years had yet to take off and most people still lived in rental property. The big boom in home ownership, which characterized the 50’s, was yet to take place. Ed is just out of school and has no more ambition than to become a printer. So much has been digitalized that the entire printing industry is on its way to becoming a relic. For instance, his father’s profession: who the heck even remembers what a Linotype machine does?
Brown shines when he shows the difference in the world of cozy mysteries as opposed to the noir crime fiction, which became vogue in the next few years:
“I went in the living room and picked up a magazine. It was starting to rain outside, a slow steady drizzle.
It was a detective magazine. I started a story and it was about a rich man who was found dead in his hotel suite, with a noose of yellow silk rope around his neck, but he’d been poisoned. There were lots of suspects, all with motives. His secretary at whom he’d been making passes, a nephew who inherited, a racketeer who owed him money, the secretary’s fiancé. In the third chapter they’d just about pinned it on the racketeer and then he’s murdered. There’s a yellow silk cord around his neck and he’s been strangled, but not with the silk cord.
I put down the book. Nuts, I thought, murder isn’t like that.”
This is an excellent book and the plot makes me want to read more in this series.
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