“I’m not afraid of going to hell. I begrudge the money the ticket is gonna cost.“
I’d like to begin by saying that I liked The Fabulous Clipjoint. The best artists have one thing to say and then proceed to say that one thing in as many different ways as possible. Brown is a fatalist and that’s why I love his work. This particular expression of his fatalism has a fantastic sense of place, a sure sense of character, and a meh plot.
For a plothead like me, this is a problem. I can’t help it. I love when one event changes another event and neither one of the events look anything like the truth. This is not one of those stories. This is a story wherein the characters investigate a little at a time until the picture becomes clear. No deduction, no theory, and no troubling questions popping up as soon as the previous questions were answered.
The problem: We’re in Chicago in the 1940s. Ed Hunter lives with his father, stepmother, and step-sister. He’s an apprentice at a printing press without much in the way of ambition or experience. One morning he knocks on his parents’ door and discovers dad never made it home that night. Soon, he discovers he’ll never make it home again. The father is found dead in an alley, apparently rolled for the meager dough in his pocket.
Ed quickly realizes this case will go nowhere, so he pays a visit to his carny Uncle Ambrose. (Here I must mention this is not a study of carny life a la Madball though we do get a quick taste of the lingo. My favorite — “off the nut” meaning “in the black”) Ambrose is resourceful and points the duo toward finding a solution. He basically bribes their way to the top.
The investigation: This is procedural stuff. I don’t mind it. There are a few interesting moments as they go from alley to alley and bar to bar. But none of it has to do with the thrill of detection. The setting, however, was great fun for me. I imagine when Brits read about real places in all those old detective novels, they must experience a bit of that thrill. “My goodness, I know that street.” That’s how I felt this entire novel. I’ve been to these places and despite the years separating the book from my life, I can picture them quite easily. (My favorite was learning that the Club Quarters Hotel used to be called The Whacker.)
There’s a great scene of lust near the end. It would have had more impact if we had known the existence of a character before it arrived, but I found it strangely beautiful all the same. There’s also a trip out to Gary, Indiana (still a shithole back in ’47!) where we get one of the more ineffectual red herrings I’ve come across.
The solution: It’s limp, badly clued, and it has no impact. 3 things I have not previously encountered in the Fredric Brown I’ve read. There is a certain character trait of the victim that gets called back at the end. It doesn’t ring true, poetically or logically. It felt like it was added after the story was written.
I go back to my opening line–yes, I liked it. It was fine–serviceable might be a good word for it. I know that isn’t a strong endorsement, but if you’re in the mood for a slow-burn novel filled with comings and goings from place to place and accumulating details, you could certainly do worse.
As it stands, this is fair Brown, certainly not the place I’d recommend beginning his work.