Friday, July 5, 2013

And How! Murder Can Be Fun (1948), Fredric Brown

"Why, Baldy, are detective stories so popular?"
"Because people read 'em?"
"And people read them because they like them.  Because murder can be fun--if it's fictional and not factual murder."

Murder Can Be Fun (1948) is the third mystery novel by the great American mid-century crime and science fiction writer Fredric Brown (1906-1972).

The novel, which is an expansion of Brown's 1942 short story "The Santa Claus Murders," has the qualities of classic Fredric Brown: an intriguing plot, a strong setting, touches of surrealism and an astonishing amount of drinking.

If the characters in Fredric Brown novels don't quite make those in the books of Craig Rice look like amateurs at the fine art of alcohol consumption, it's not for want of trying.  Many a Fredric Brown tale, including this one, might also be tiled Murder Makes You Thirsty.

The surrealistic quality in Brown's work comes to fore immediately in Murder Can Be Fun when on a sweltering August day a Manhattan man is shot to death by a person incongruously clad in a Santa suit. Another murder follows, although this time there are no witnesses to say whether Santa was the one who dun it.

one of many distilled beverages
quaffed in Murder Can Be Fun
Both murders are linked to radio scripts that former-journalist-now-radio-hack Bill Tracy wrote for his proposed radio mystery series, Murder Can Be Fun. Are Bill's scripted murders coming real?!

This surrealistic element is something that Brown would develop more powerfully in the novel some people regard as his masterpiece, Night of the Jabberwock (1950).*

*(in Murder Can Be Fun, incidentally, Brown actually makes a couple references to Alice's Adventures in Wonderland/Through the Looking Glass and to animated chess pieces)

Bill's current job is writing scripts for the popular radio soap opera, Millie's Millions.  Fredric Brown's portrait of a forties radio show is for me the most appealing part of this appealing book (and probably will be to as you as well if you love old-time radio).

The author of Murder Can Be Fun doesn't think too much of radio soap opera:

In moments of fairness, [Bill] would admit that the formula the soap operas used was the basic formula of all great literature.  The only difference, really, between Millie's Millions and, say, the Odyssey of Homer was that Ulysses suffered for a limited time only, whereas Millie went on forever, because her public demanded that they should. She couldn't get married happily and settle down, nor yet could she die and get her troubles over with.  That, of course, is the real reason why the radio serial must become a bane to the discriminating ear; instead of being a story with a beginning and an end, it goes on and on until it becomes a palpable and palpitating absurdity.

"[A] ghastly travesty of life," Brown terms radio soap opera (even more horribly, today we have "reality" television, which actually claims to be real life).

Of course in Murder Can Be Fun there's a mystery to be solved and there's a nice fair play puzzle embedded in the text.  There's also a winsome little romantic subplot, involving Bill with two fetching ladies, next door neighbor Millie (a hosiery model, not the Millie of Millie's Millions) and the lovely and ambitious blonde stenographer, Dotty. In fact Murder Can Be Fun could almost be called a cozy of sorts (a cocktail cozy, if you will)--though I wasn't altogether sure that that last line bode all that well for Bill!  Read it and see for yourself.  It's a swell mystery tale.


  1. Though I've read most of Brown's SF and some of his mystery, this has slipped past me. I'll have to search out a copy.

    1. Hi Richard, it's been reprinted by Black Curtain Press under the title A Plot for Murder. Don't know the quality of the reprint, There's also a nice Carroll and Graf edition from 25 years ago you can get on the used market.

    2. PLOT FOR MURDER is the old Bantam paperback retitled edition. Hmmm... Scanning from old books maybe? Black Curtain Press dared to reprint NET OF COBWEBS by Elisabeth Sanxay Holding. I know that her only living relative gave permission only to Stark House to reprint her books. The Black Curtain Press edition of NET OF COBWEBS has a plot blurb on the rear cover that is lifted verbatim from the Stark House reissue. That right there tells me that this is not a legitimate operation. If you go to the Black Curtain Press website you can't find anything about their reprint line. Not a word. Only the few books they have published by Roger Zelazny's son Trent and one other writer. The whole thing stinks to me. I won't give them a penny even if they have made several Miles Burton books easily available for $8.99 a piece. And besides -- the books are incredibly ugly.

    3. Yeah, I didn't have a good feeling about them. The funny thing is, John Street's literary agency has refused to cooperate with good publishers who have wanted to reprint his books, so it's left to operations like this one, who don't even bother to ask permission and apparently do slap-up jobs.

  2. It would be interesting to make a list of mystery or detective novels in which the plot is concerned with fiction becoming reality be it radio script, play, novel or short story. MURDER REHEARSAL by Roger East is one from the 1930s and is DEEP LAKE MYSTERY by Carolyn Wells (1928) an even earlier treatment. I wonder who was the writer who first thought it up?

    I once said Fredric Brown's crime novels are alcohol soaked and several people thought the term was an exaggeration. Which only proved to me that many people, if they like the story, tend to read with blinders on overlooking rather obvious distractions like Brown's obsession with drinking.

  3. One for your list of fiction-becoming-reality is WITH A BARE BODKIN by Cyril Hare (1946), where a group of bored civil servants begin to collaborate on a mystery novel that sparks a murder. But isn't this the same theme as GREENMASK! by Elizabeth Linington, that you've mentioned recently? Another one that comes to mind is ... well, I will merely say it's one of the Drury Lane novels by Ellery Queen for fear of spoiling someone's enjoyment, but experienced readers will remember this story.

    By the way, your readers may have encountered MURDER CAN BE FUN in an old Bantam paperback with an alternate title of A PLOT FOR MURDER.

  4. It's a nice plot idea, not surprised people keep coming back to it!

    I don't see how people could miss all the drinking in this novel. The main character spends most of his time inebriated or thinking about becoming inebriated. I'm not as interested in alcohol as the author--though I was happy enough to learn about slivovitz--but there's still enough other things going on in the book for me to enjoy it.

    1. I've had slivovitz. It was served as a complimentary post-prandial drink at a Chicago Serbian restaurant Joe and I went to many years ago. It was served as a shot and the waitress lit it with a match when she set it on the table. Fruity tasting and very potent -- along the lines of Southern Comfort.

    2. I guess it's not a real drink unless it's been set on fire first!

  5. Haffner Press has the rights to all of Brown's mystery novels and short stories and the first two volumes of collected stories are now available for preorder at the Haffner Press website. The plan is to reprint everything in more or less chronological order in limited edition hardcovers.

    1. I see. That's good now to know, although I wish they were more than limited edition hardcovers, as these will be out of reach for casual buyers.