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FREDRIC BROWN. The Screaming Mimi (1949).

21 Jan

ScreamingMimiCL.jpgPublished at mid-century, this slim yet action- and antic-packed thriller foreshadows a story type that would flourish in the latter half of the last century: the tale of psychopathic murder, usually of a “serial” variety. Blending the motifs of horror with those of straight detection, it’s a sub-genre that aims to agitate and titillate readers as much as it does to bamboozle and bedazzle them, and it favors the darker mysteries of sex and violence over the lighter fare that animates older forms of the mystery genre. All the same, this work casts a backward glance as well. Writing with the wisecracking insouciance and the madcap verve that characterized a major strain in popular entertainment during the 1930s and 1940s, Brown clearly wants his Mimi to scream not just in the spirit of blood-chilled fright, but also with the sound of high-spirited laughter. While he doesn’t wholly succeed in balancing the two sides of that equation, he does produce a minor classic of an oddly hybrid sort—Psycho by way of The Front Page .

The opening set piece typifies all that follows. Bill Sweeney, a reporter for the Chicago Blade, is coming off a two-week bender. As he stumbles through the Loop in the wee hours of the morning, he chances upon a sight such as dreams are made of, dreams of the kind that easily blur into nightmares: A woman of striking beauty lies prostrate in the foyer of an apartment building. There’s a gash across her abdomen, oozing blood onto the slinky dress that she’s almost wearing, and there’s a huge dog next to her, poised to attack. The dog leaps—not to attack the woman, but to bite and pull the zipper on her dress, which thereupon falls to the floor, revealing that she has naught on beneath it. Apart from a smear of red on her belly, she looms as a vision of alabaster perfection. Sweeney, mesmerized by the woman, vows to find a way into her heart, and he surmises that the best route available to him will involve catching the maniac who slashed her.

From this cockamamie start, Brown launches his boozing, breezy, brazen hero on a quest to nab a perpetrator whom headline writers have already dubbed “the Ripper.” For Sweeney’s beloved—Yolanda Lang, by name—isn’t the first gorgeous Chicagoland blonde to undergo a knife attack in recent weeks. This Ripper creature has previously taken a blade to three women who fit that description, and, unlike Yolanda, none of them survived the experience. Sweeney has just one substantive clue to follow: a black statuette of a naked woman, her face and form posed in what appears to be a state of abject terror. ScreamingMimi.jpg(That weird bauble is the “Screaming Mimi” of the title, and it’s depicted on the cover of the book’s original hardcover edition, shown above left.) Having linked the statuette to one of the Ripper’s victims, Sweeney pursues a hunch that it might lead him to Yolanda’s assailant. And it does so lead him, more or less, though not before sending him on a brief, rollicking tour through a far-from-wholesome side of the great American Midwest.

As a rule, the serial-murder form doesn’t mix well with the whodunit form. In the hunt for a killer who targets several victims with no obvious relation to one another, the key move is to figure out what actually does tie those unfortunate souls together. Once the hidden pattern becomes clear, it’s well-nigh impossible to keep the killer’s identity hidden; there just aren’t, in most plausible scenarios, more than one or two suspects who fit that pattern. To effect a surprise ending within such a constraint, a writer must essentially yank a very big rabbit out of a very small hat. The trick ending here probably won’t surprise many readers who have encountered myriad variations on the serial-murder theme over the past half-century. But the trick is clever enough and provocative enough, and Brown does pull it off.

[ADDENDUM: Googling this book turned up a couple of noteworthy tidbits. First, those who don’t want to pay for the book can find a free copy of it online. Second, those who don’t want to bother with reading it can hunt down a movie version, released in 1958 and starring Anita Ekberg in the Yolanda Lang role. Otherwise, given the wide range of work that Brown produced in both the mystery and science-fiction genres, it’s surprising that there appears to be relatively little commentary about him on the Web.]

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Posted by on January 21, 2011 in American, Noir, Novel

 

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