#245: Death Has Many Doors (1951) by Fredric Brown

Death Has Many Doors 1stYou know the score: a tough-guy PI in a business slump, sitting in his office typing out a letter using one finger (real men don’t type), when in walks a knockout redhead with “everything that should go with red hair”.  She needs his help, he’s her last chance.  Well of course, sweets, what seems to be the problem?  She’s being hunted, y’see, someone wants to kill her.  Calm down, baby doll what’s his name?  Well, that’s the problem; she’s being hunted by…Martians.  It’s a lovely little moment of confounded expectations early on in Brown’s pulpy tale and sets the tone for the number of conventions he refuses to conform to as things progress.  And, since he’s far from smug about it, it works very well indeed.

We’re in a sort of post-Hardboiled milieu here, not unlike that encountered in The Blushing Monkey (1953) by Roman McDougald and the similarly-themed The Case of the Little Green Men (1951) by Mack Reynolds, and given that both Brown and Reynolds are better known for their SF writing it’s perhaps not that surprising that they don’t tick off the tropes in quite the expected way.  Business may be slow, but that’s because they’re a new outfit in town; and far from some inebriated firebrand loner, Ed Hunter is in this with his uncle Ambrose, and the two men collaborate — remember that? — on the way to solving a classic locked room death.

Sure, the room itself may not be locked, but it’s watched from one side by an unimpeachable witness, has only a small inaccessible window with an archetypal dusty ledge on the other, and contains a victim with nary a mark on their body.  Brown doesn’t belabour the impossibility, which is a nice little wrinkle in this subgenre, and we’re quickly given the opportunity to remove some easy solutions from the panoply available to us.  So…howdunnit?

It’s actually something of a shame to report that this and the later impossibility we’re presented with are tied up in a thoroughly unsatisfying way, and with nothing even close to clues or detection to enable the reader to concatenate the appropriate moments and reach the solution.  In fact, the locked room murder is only resolved by the late introduction of a character who just happens — in complete ignorance — to demonstrate the staggeringly precise thing that explains it.  And as for the other inexplicable occurrence…well, there’s crap and there’s crap, but here it doesn’t really make any difference which one you opt for.

But it is a shame because Brown writes some wonderful post-Hardboiled prose, such as:

“You don’t have to see what the gal looks like.  You’re hiring a temporary stenographer, not a pony for a chorus line.  What do you care if she’s got bowlegs and buck teeth?  It’s better if she does; it’ll keep your mind on your dictating.”

Or, of the eleven year-old half-brother of their client:

I stared at him, wondering how one person could become so objectionable in only eleven years.

Ed and Am Hunter are good company, and deserving of a better plot.  Sure, this is very dialogue heavy, with a lot of information being reiterated several times almost, I can’t help but feel, to get it up to novel length.  But the prose is great, it’s a surprisingly linear and easy read, and I had high hopes that the ending would make some subtle iterations clear where the precise nature of the information differed in some tiny but critical way…not to be.  It’s a crushing disappointment, and the fact that at least seven of the nine experts consulted in 2007 deemed this a necessary inclusion in a library of impossible crime fiction is even more baffling than the mysteries herein, frankly!

Brown wrote more than one Ed and Am Hunter book, though, and I have a copy of earlier case The Dead Ringer (1948) which I intend to read in the hope his plot matches his prose at some point.  This and the above-mentioned, equally-disappointing The Case of the Little Green Men (1951), however, show that such men are probably best kept out of this genre…

star filledstar filledstarsstarsstars

See also:

Evan C. Price @ Temple of Schlock: Brown once told an interviewer that he penned mysteries only to pay the bills, preferring to write science fiction. Though Brown’s whodunits are usually excellent — including some of the Ed and Am titles — Death Has Many Doors seems like it was written in a state of boredom. The author’s distinctive conflict of fantasy versus logic has nothing compelling to offer. An extraterrestrial angle isn’t developed beyond creepy phone calls and Ed’s surprise by someone in a Halloween mask.

TomCat @ Beneath the Stains of Time: The idea of the first locked room trick was not bad, but it’s not terrific, either, as you can easily guess the raw method of the solution (have seem them too many times) and the finer details require a bit of technical knowledge. Death Has Many Doors comes up a bit short as a detective story, but I would lie if I said I did not enjoy the ride in spite of its imperfections.

~

I submit this book for the Vintage Cover Scavenger Hunt 2017 at My Reader’s Block under the category Dead Body.

For the Follow the Clues Mystery Challenge, this links to last week’s The Ginza Ghost because it falls under a ‘Murder by Monster/Alien’ subheading.  That’s a thing, right?

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16 thoughts on “#245: Death Has Many Doors (1951) by Fredric Brown

  1. Right off the bat (sic), sorry this isn’t better (not read it) as Brown was a terrific author most of the time, clever and witty, especially of short stories, of which he wrote hundreds. I am always surprised that he is thought of by many as primarily a SF writer as he wrote much more crime fiction (literally by a factor of about 6 to 1). THE SCREAMING MIMI and THE FABULOUS CLIPJOINT (the first Ed and Am book) are two of the best, as are THE FAR CRY, THE LENIENT BEAST, KNOCK THREE-ONE-TWO, HIS NAME WAS DEATH and others, none of the latter from the series of 7 Ed and Am mysteries, which is probably significant. His much anthologised short story “Don’t Look Behind You” is a one-of-a-kind masterpiece. Honest!

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    • Interesting, I thought Brown was very much a dabbler in crime fiction — thanks for clearing that up. He has a great way of writing, so I’m pleased to learn there’s stuff in his catalogue that matches function to form, and I’ll definitely return to him at some point. The real shame here is the sheer absence of detection — when you’re this far into a series and make the two main characters detectives, well, you’d like to think that at least some sort of detectin’ might go on…but, nope. Hell, even Mike Hammer looked things up from time to time…

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      • Psychological suspense is much more his thing. He was a very good friend of Robert Bloch’s, and his output is probably the most most obvious comparison I can make for the purposes of clarity. Brown’s prose was often really something special.

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        • Yeah, makes sense, even if it wasn’t what I was expecting. Taken as a psychological suspense book it makes a little more sense, but he’s still not exactly Margaret Millar on this evidence — it falls between a few too many stools to really be effective, perhaps.

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  2. SPOILER ALERT

    “In fact, the locked room murder is only resolved by the late introduction of a character who just happens — in complete ignorance — to demonstrate the staggeringly precise thing that explains it. ”
    Also, it is based on specialised knowledge from Physics.
    “And as for the other inexplicable occurrence…well, there’s crap and there’s crap, but here it doesn’t really make any difference which one you opt for.”
    Well, after all the author was a science fiction writer !

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    • Yeah, but that second explanation is given with the cold assurance of it having any basis either in fact or in what has come before. For comparison, take Peter F. Hamilton’s A Quantum Murder, which uses a similar(ish) explanation but at least establishes it in-universe so that it’s not just pulled down off the nearest shelf to fill a gap.

      Asimov was an SF writer, too, don’t forget, and he managed to establish the necessary facts in his mysteries!

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  3. I feel sadistic in commenting how much fun you are to read when you’re disappointed in something, and I’m sure gonna rush to read a book where you have to know physics to get the answer! And your tweet about buying books in June? Hilarious!! (I bought a Jonathan Stagge and my first John Rhode yesterday. Well, it WAS May 31! Perhaps we could form a support group for June . . .)

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  4. Hard-boiled, poorly resolved impossibilities, AND only 2 stars… *makes quick exit*

    Hope Berrow proves more satisfying. 🙂

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  5. I’m surprised nobody has recommended Night of the Jabberwock yet! Sure, it’s criminal flight of fancy, rather than pure detection, but Brown succeeded where Joel Townsley Rogers’ overrated The Red Right Hand failed.

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