Wednesday, 12 December 2018

The Wench is Dead - Fredric Brown

Fredric Brown (1906-72) was a prolific author of pulp mystery and sci fi stories. The Wench is Dead (from 1953) is more of a novella, albeit a very short one. I read it as an e-book which didn't have numbered pages; I'm guessing it was somewhere around the 40 pages mark. And yet it is more novel than short story, encompassing the entirety of the convoluted action and a good measure of backstory.

Thus we learn that Howie is a scion of a Chicago business family who has won himself a Bachelor of Sociology degree but nevertheless finds himself washing dishes in a rundown Los Angeles chow house. He has a friends-with-benefits arrangement with B-girl prostitute Billie the Kid. His grand amour, however, is for nasty sweet wine. Drink, as so often, has been his undoing. Billie sends him to her neighbour Mame to borrow wine. Mame is a hype not a drunk but one of her customers the previous evening left her a bottle of the sweet stuff and she is more than willing to oblige Howie.

The next thing Howie knows, Billie is shaking him awake with the news that someone has killed Mame. Worse, the milkman saw Howie enter her apartment. His description is in the paper. Obviously Howie needs to scram - Billie will lend him the money. Howie feels obligated and offers to marry her. But Billie is a B-girl and knows she will never be acceptable in Chicagoan business circles.

She's a diamond in the rough. Howie is a poor sap in a jam. The Wench is Dead is pure noir. The publisher of the e-book even contrives to have him played on the cover by Elisha Cook Jnr, dead before the titles roll in countless noir classics of the Forties and Fifties. And Brown distils it like fine Scotch on the rocks rather than the nasty pints of cut-price muscatel favoured by his anti-hero. Great fun.

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