The Fabulous Clipjoint (1947) may have been his debut novel, but Fredric Brown had already published hundreds of pulp stories over the previous two decades; he had long since established himself as a stylish hand at both mystery and science fiction. It was no real surprise then when The Fabulous Clipjoint was awarded the 1948 Edgar (in honour of Edgar Allan Poe Award,) in the category of Best First Novel. Sure, it was his first novel, but Brown was also a major pulp figure, already in his 40s, and The Fabulous Clipjoint wasn’t even really new: it had been published the year before, as a pulp. All that had happened was that Brown had signed a new book deal with Bantam, as the publishing industry shifted its audience away from monthly detective magazines (the pulps) to paperback. So, it wasn’t much of a surprise when the novel, which also marks the introduction of Brown’s only serial heroes (the nephew/uncle team of Ed & Am (Ambrose) Hunter), won. Everyone already knew it was good.
What does seem somewhat surprising is that Brown was never again nominated for an Edgar in any category. He churned out books for another two decades and a half, and none of them reached the heights of his quasi-debut. He probably deserved a second nomination for his next novel, the screaming mimi (1949). Anita Ekberg stars in the 1958 cinematic adaptation. Both book and film were hits. If you’re looking for second-hand Fredric Brown, you’ll come across the screaming mimi first, and repeatedly, and with good cause: the story is as tight now as it was when it was written. The title was chosen a joke; Brown just wanted to see if he could write a novel around the phrase.
As with many of his pulp peers, Brown was a famous drinker, a proud drinker, a reckless drinker, and, since he always was either drunk or hungover, he figured he may as well try and use that to his advantage. Which he did. But almost never after the screaming mimi. Joke title aside, Brown suffered the screaming mimis close to every single day of his life. In most of all of his other novels (few of which remain in print) Brown’s drinking shows up on the page as though by explaining to the reader why incessant and heavy drinking is natural and holy and causes nothing but creative stimulation and intellectual enhancement for the betterment of all humanity, he can justify it to himself. Even though, it is clear, that the number one thing wrong with Fredric Brown’s later work is that he can’t stop thinking about drinking, he can’t stop writing about drinking, Fred can’t stop drinking period. Almost all of his post-screaming mimi work is marred by the distinct sensation that Brown was more interested in where his next drink was coming from, than he was in figuring out where the story was going.
From One for the Road (Bantam, 1957/8, p. 53):
“I took her to the Thunderbird Lodge. Not only because it’s the best restaurant in town, although it is, but because it’s the only place in Mayville that combines a restaurant and a liquor license and I thought I might as well find out right away whether she’d have a cocktail with me before dinner. After all, my total knowledge of her up to then was that she was beautiful, was a telephone operator, and was a Presbyterian. The third of those things worried me. Some Presbyterians are teetotalers, and while I have no prejudice against teetotalers I certainly wouldn’t want to let myself get emotionally involved with one. Emotional involvement can lead to marriage and a man who thinks moderate drinking is one of the pleasures of life could never be happy with a temperance crusader.”
Solid dating advice for us all.
If you're looking for a first edition Madball (as pictured above), make sure you have between US$50 and 125 (depending on condition) to spend because this is rare and collectible and, most importantly, quite good. Despite all of (or, alternatively, because of) Brown's drinking, it's still got period lingo and style to spare. Which is why, I expect, Stark House Press reprinted it in June, 2019. That is definitely the more affordable option.
From Night of the Jabberwock (Bantam, 1950, p. 148):
“I took a bottle of the best bonded Bourbon Smiley had from the back bar and because it looked as though there were still at least a fair chance that this might be the last drink I ever had, I took a bottle of seltzer from the case under the bar [.…]
I left the two bottles on the table and went back for a glass, a swizzle stick, and some ice cubes from the refrigerator. This drink I’d waited a long time for, and it was going to be a good one [….]
I went back to the table and made myself a drink a good one. I lighted up a cigar, too. […] I took a good long swig of the drink and then a deep drag from the cigar, and I felt pretty good.”
Wow! Fredric really knows to build the tension. I cannot wait to see what our hero drinks next.