Monday, December 13, 2010

Fredric Brown: The Deadly Weekend

By Jack Seabrook

In the mid- to late-1940s, mystery and science fiction author Fredric Brown wrote and published his first six novels: The Fabulous Clipjoint, The Dead Ringer, Murder Can Be Fun, The Bloody Moonlight, What Mad Universe, and The Screaming Mimi. Each of these novels also had a short version that appeared in a pulp magazine. In my 1993 book, Martians and Misplaced Clues, I discussed the short versions of the first five books; a few years ago, I finally found a copy of the pulp containing "The Deadly Weekend," the short version of The Screaming Mimi, in a used bookstore on Long Island.

Comparing the short versions of the first five novels to the published books shows how Brown either mined old stories or simply sold the serial rights to his original novels. The Fabulous Clipjoint was written in 1944. A slightly edited version was published in Mystery Book Magazine's April 1946 issue, and the book was published in March 1947.

The Dead Ringer was written in 1946; the short version, which is virtually identical to the book, appeared in the spring 1948 Mystery Book Magazine. The book was published in March 1948. Murder Can Be Fun was expanded from a story called "The Santa Claus Murders" that was written in 1941 and published in the October 1942 issue of Detective Story Magazine. Brown expanded it to novel length in 1947 and the book was published in October 1948. Unlike the serialized versions of his first two books, Murder Can Be Fun is twice as long as "The Santa Claus Murders" and fleshes out the story by adding new details and characters.

The Bloody Moonlight was based on the story "Compliments of a Fiend," which was published in the May 1945 Thrilling Detective. The book came out in March 1949, making it the third year in a row that E.P. Dutton had published a novel in Brown's Ed and Am Hunter series. The original story does not feature the Hunters and is actually better than the novel; Brown changed the characters and the story to fit the Hunter format. To make matters even more confusing, a slightly edited version of the book was published in the November 1949 issue of Two Detective Mystery Novels magazine.

Brown's fifth novel was the classic science fiction satire, What Mad Universe. It was written in 1947 and first published in the September 1948 Startling Stories. The book came out in October 1949, expanded from the pulp version with added scenes.

"The Deadly Weekend" appeared in the fall 1949 issue of Mystery Book Magazine. This periodical had begun as a monthly digest whose first issue was dated July 1945. By 1949 it had grown in size but decreased in frequency, having become a quarterly pulp. Brown wrote The Screaming Mimi in 1948, while he was living in New York City. The novel was published in about November 1949, a few months after the serialized version appeared.

The fall 1949 issue of Mystery Book Magazine features a garish cover that is an inaccurate interpretation of the scene that sets the story in motion. The beautiful girl on the cover is fully clothed, showing that the artist missed a great opportunity to be more faithful to the story, in which a beautiful blonde stripper is attacked in the glassed-in vestibule of her Chicago apartment building. As a crowd gathers outside, her seemingly vicious dog pulls the zipper on the back of her dress, leaving her naked. The magazine cover is very subdued in comparison to the scene in the novel.

The magazine is volume nine, number one (though it had not been in existence for nine years), and cost twenty-five cents. Best Publications is listed as the publisher and there are no credits for artist or editor (though sources list the editor as Leo Margulies).

The cover promises "The Best in New Detective Fiction" and, in addition to "The Deadly Weekend," it features:
  • "The Dog Died First" by Bruno Fischer
  • "Swift Flows the River" by Brett Halliday
  • "Payoff" by Will Oursler
  • "Devil's Cherry" by O.B. Myers
  • "Blackmail in Three Acts" by Tom Parsons
  • "Buzzard's Wings" by Frank Richardson Pierce
  • "Date With the Warden" by Robert Thomas Allen
  • as well as a handful of "Features," such as "A Bargain in Crime" by Sam Sleuth.
"The Deadly Weekend" runs from page 9 to page 93 (of 162), taking up more than half the magazine. The book is 248 pages long and, while the two-column pages of the magazine contain more than a page worth of the book's type, the serialized version is considerably shorter than the book. I compared the two versions carefully, side by side, in order to determine whether "The Deadly Weekend" was written separately from The Screaming Mimi, or whether it was an edited version. In my opinion, The Screaming Mimi was written as an original novel, sold to Leo Margulies for magazine publication prior to book publication, and edited to fit the space in the magazine.

The editing done to produce "The Deadly Weekend" falls into three categories: technical, stylistic, and censorship.

The technical editing comes in the form of breaking long paragraphs into shorter ones, a practice made necessary by the narrow columns of the magazine's two-column pages. A 3 ½" wide paragraph of average length on a one-column wide book page appears longer and less pleasing to the eye when narrowed to a 2 ½" wide magazine column. It is also possible that the magazine editor preferred short, punchy paragraphs over longer, more-developed ones.

Sentences are also cut from the novel in order to shorten paragraphs for the magazine. For example, on page 20 of the book, "He leaned his head back, looking up into the dark green leaves of the trees" is cut from the corresponding section on page 16 of the magazine for no better reason than to save space.

The cumulative effect of all of this cutting is to weaken the novel. The experience of reading "The Deadly Weekend" is much less rewarding than that of reading
The Screaming Mimi, mostly due to what is omitted. I like to think that it is the fault of the magazine's editor, Leo Margulies, or of some unnamed copy desk worker at Best Publications, though it is possible that Brown himself, or even his agent, Harry Altshuler, did the cutting. However, since many evocative passages in the book are absent from the magazine, I doubt it was Fredric Brown's doing.
Brown actually moved to New York to take a job as a proofreader, working for Margulies, in 1948, so he was surely capable of doing the editing job himself. A misunderstanding over salary led Brown to quit the job and try his hand at full-time fiction writing.

Stylistic cuts are the second difference between the two versions and, I think, the most responsible for diluting the novel's effect. I will give three examples to illustrate my point.

In chapter two, page 29 of the book, the following passage appears:
Why did anyone in his right mind live in Chicago in a summer heat wave? Why did anyone live in Chicago at all? Why, for that matter, did anyone live?
A victim of the editor's pencil, this is but one of many thoughtful passages that enrich the novel without adding to its plot. On page 34 of the book, four paragraphs about Mozart's Symphony number 40 are cut from the magazine version, and it hurts—as the narrator tells us,
If you know the Mozart 40, the dark restlessness of it, the macabre drive behind its graceful counterpoint, then you know Sweeney. And if the Mozart 40 sounds to you like a gay but slightly boring minuet, background for a conversation, then to you Sweeney is just another damn reporter who happens, too, to be a periodic drunk.
By cutting passages such as this, the editor takes out a good bit of what makes The Screaming Mimi so great—character development, wordplay, and discussions of topics that don't advance the story but rather deepen the reader's experience.

Last example, from page 80 of the book, where Sweeney has just taken a bath and drained the tub:
As he finished, he watched the last of the water gurgle out of the tub, and he wondered—had he just committed a murder? Isn't a tub of water, once drawn, an entity? A thing-in-itself that has existence, if not life? But then life, in a human body, may be analogous to water in a tub; through the sewerage of veins and arteries may it not flow back into some Lake Michigan, eventually into some ocean, when the plug is pulled? Yet even so, it is murder; that particular tub of water will never exist again, though the water itself will.
He removed the evidence of the crime by rinsing out the tub . . .
The other stylistic cuts from "The Deadly Weekend" have to do with the amount of drinking Sweeney does, and how he feels as he recovers from a long, drunken period. As the novel opens, he is essentially a drunken bum, sitting on a park bench in Chicago's Bughouse Square. It is the sight of beautiful stripper Yolanda Lang in the nude that encourages him to sober up and get back to work as a reporter for the newspaper, The Blade. Although he drinks a remarkable amount of alcohol in the course of the novel (as do so many of Fredric Brown's protagonists), the first part of the book tracks the effects on his body and mind as he recovers from his state of perpetual drunkenness.

Much of this is cut from "The Deadly Weekend," either because the editor thought Brown was overdoing it or just to save space. Whatever the case, it serves to lessen the reader's experience of how Sweeney fights his way back from a state of oblivion in order to reach his goal—spending a night with the voluptuous Yolanda Lang.

The last type of cutting in "The Deadly Weekend" has to do with censorship, demonstrating that even the lurid detective pulps of the late 1940s had to be careful with certain words and phrases that were acceptable in book form. A careful comparison of both versions reveals that "bastard" becomes "so and so," "Damn it," "hell," and "Jesus" disappear, and "God damn it" and "bitch" are removed. Sexual situations and double entendres are also toned down. When discussing Dorothy Lee, one of the girls murdered by The Ripper, Sweeney is told that she was "'a private secretary.'" He responds punningly: "'How private? Kind that has to watch her periods as well as her commas?'" (44). In chapter five, a discussion between Sweeney and gay shop owner Raoul Reynarde is cut from the magazine version; they talk about how a woman may be a virgin in her body but not in her thoughts.

Even a seemingly innocent passage about Stella Gaylord, another murdered girl, is cut when Sweeney is told that Stella might have met a man "'at the restaurant instead of at his hotel room or whatever'" (95).

These cuts regarding language and sex are surprising, and I think they demonstrate that, at least for the editor of Mystery Book Magazine, certain words and sexual situations were not appropriate reading material.

Even more interesting are some things that the magazine's editors chose not to cut, even though they might strike today's readers as awkward or offensive. Among these are passages, themes, or remarks that suggest stereotypes (at best) or racist attitudes (at worst). Bill Sweeney, the novel's protagonist, is a drunken Irishman, and the book and magazine open with an entertaining bit of musing on the many things "a drunken Irishman will do." The most unlikely: "He might make a resolution and stick to it" (7). Sweeney is a classic Irish name and his prodigious capacity for imbibing alcohol goes along with the classic stereotype of men from the Emerald Isle.

Most jarring to today's sensibilities is a throwaway passage in the first chapter, as Sweeney recalls:
In his days as a legman, he'd seen enough blood to last him. Like the time he was right after the cops going into the pool hall on Townsend Street where the four reefered-up jigs had had the razor party— (12-13)
In 1949, the editor of Mystery Book Magazine found "damn" and "hell" offensive enough to cut, yet a reference to "reefered-up jigs" having a "razor party" did not present a problem.

I must admit that increased sensitivity in recent decades has affected me as well. While I was struck by the reference to "jigs" when I wrote my book on Fredric Brown nearly twenty years ago, I do not think that I blinked at the extensive homophobic remarks in the book. True to form, the anti-gay passages made the cut and appear intact in "The Deadly Weekend."

The first such passage occurs in chapter one, as Sweeney walks through Chicago's near north side and thinks about how to get some money quickly:
Someone was coming toward him on the sidewalk. A pretty boy in a bright checked sport jacket. Sweeney's fists clenched. What would be his chances if he slugged the fairy, grabbed his wallet and ran into the alley? (11)
Sweeney does not attack and rob the man because he feels weak and tired, not because his conscience pricks him.

Much more flamboyant and obvious is the character of Raoul Reynarde, the gay shop owner who sells Sweeney the statuette nicknamed "The Screaming Mimi." Although Reynarde's character is rather cultured and intelligent, and Sweeney gets along well with him, the first thing we learn is that "'This Raoul is a faggot'" (62). He is referred to as "'the pansy'" (63), and when Sweeney first sees him he thinks, "No one would ever have to wonder" if Raoul is gay (66). After Sweeney visits Raoul's apartment and leaves with the statuette, he sees "a plump, beautiful young man" (74) ascending the stairs to the apartment he just left.

All of these terms and passages are included in "The Deadly Weekend," suggesting that anti-gay slurs and a flamboyantly gay character were not thought to be worth editing out. I don't mean to judge Fredric Brown or his editors for writing this; it was commonplace in popular fiction of the time (for other examples, read some of Mickey Spillane's late 1940s Mike Hammer novels).
One of the features I find fascinating in The Screaming Mimi is its detailed use of the city of Chicago to ground the story in a particular place and time. The story begins with Sweeney, a 43 year old newspaperman, sitting on a park bench in the middle of the night. He is on a drunk, and the park where he sits is called Bughouse Square. "The soapbox speakers were gone . . ." (8) the narrator tells us. Bughouse Square was the unofficial name of Washington Square Park, a normal public park in front of Chicago's Newberry Library.

The park is still there, park benches intact, and people still sleep on the grass in the middle of the day (I can't say what goes on in the middle of the night).

Sweeney spends a lot of time walking the streets of the city's near north side, and he even ventures down across the Chicago River and through the Loop. It is easy to follow his progress on a map, and Yolanda Lang's apartment building—where key scenes at the beginning and end of the novel take place—can be pinpointed (though Google Street View shows that the space is now occupied by a parking lot!).

Although Fredric Brown had moved to New York City by the time he wrote The Screaming Mimi, he certainly knew the city of Chicago well, and that knowledge is evident in the novel. His second wife, Beth, wrote that he spent time on Chicago's near north side researching The Fabulous Clipjoint; that part of town also serves as a key location in The Screaming Mimi.

Virtually all of the locations in The Screaming Mimi can be found easily on a map. The only exception comes late in the novel, when Sweeney travels out of the city to look for a misplaced clue. In chapter 14, Sweeney takes a train on the old Chicago and Northwestern line that takes him thorough Milwaukee and Rhinelander, Wisconsin, to the fictional town of Brampton, Wisconsin (180). This train line did exist, though it doesn't any more, and it did run through Milwaukee and Rhinelander, making Brampton's location somewhere in northern Wisconsin, near the Canadian border. The only Brampton I can find on a map is across the border in Canada, on the other side of northern Michigan. Brown's knowledge of Wisconsin was first-hand, since he had moved his family to Milwaukee in 1930, living there for the better part of the next 15 years.

One of the features of "The Deadly Weekend" that Fredric Brown had nothing to do with was the illustrations. The book version of the story features a dust jacket with a clever illustration. The statuette of The Screaming Mimi appears at the bottom left, casting a much larger shadow to its right. Yet the right hand of the shadow figure is clutching a knife, a subtle hint to the novel's conclusion, in which Yolanda Lang—victim of an attack years before by an escaped lunatic—is revealed to be The Ripper that Sweeney and the Chicago police have been seeking.

The fall 1949 issue of Mystery Book Magazine features a color illustration on the cover; the scene shown never actually occurs in the story, though the characters think it did. Inside the magazine, the story is accompanied by black and white illustrations. The first page features a nice drawing of men in Bughouse Square with a head and shoulders illustration of Sweeney. The third page has a montage of images from the story—Yolanda's face, a knife, the statuette, Doc Greene's glasses (and eyes!), and a bottle of booze. Several pages later is a drawing of Sweeney looking at the statuette in Raoul Reynarde's apartment; the drawing of Raoul does not comport with his flamboyantly gay description in the story.

Finally, in chapter two, there is a drawing of Sweeney and the policemen at their table in El Madhouse, watching Yolanda and her dog, Devil, perform. The last seventy pages or so are essentially uninterrupted text, with the exception of normal, "spot" illustrations that mark the start of each chapter. These normal illustrations are generic and I don't think that they were drawn specifically for this story, especially since the pictures don't always have much (or anything) to do with the story.

Unfortunately, none of the illustrations are credited, so I have no idea who drew the cover or the inside work. The cover looks like a painting and seems to demonstrate more skill than the interior pictures.

The Screaming Mimi is a classic mystery novel, but "The Deadly Weekend" does not do it justice. The heavy editing, done for reasons of space, style, and censorship, removes much of what makes the book so unique and entertaining, leaving the shell of the story but removing much of its spirit. It appeared in Mystery Book Magazine, an undistinguished pulp of the late 1940s, whose current scarcity does not—in this instance—equal high quality.

Brown, Fredric. The Screaming Mimi. New York: E.P. Dutton & Co., 1949. Book Club Edition.
Brown, Fredric. "The Deadly Weekend." Mystery Book Magazine (Fall 1949).
Encyclopedia. Web. 27 Nov. 2010.
“Google Maps.” Google Maps. Web. 27 Nov. 2010. .
Mystery Book Magazine/Giant Detective.” Galactic Central. Web. 27 Nov. 2010.
Seabrook, Jack. Martians and Misplaced Clues: The Life and Work of Fredric Brown. Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1993.
Washington Square Park (Chicago).Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. Web. 27
Nov. 2010.


Walker Martin said...

Thanks for this interesting article on THE DEADLY WEEKEND. It's a shame about the cuts and censorship which were a widespread policy with magazines, both slick and pulp. I remember a few years ago reading several western serials in THE SATURDAY EVENING POST by Luke Short and others, and the cuts and deletions were so frequent that the serial versions really suffered in comparison to the hardcover uncut versions.

By the way, R.E. Briney published an appreciation and index to MYSTERY BOOK MAGAZINE in THE ARMCHAIR DETECTIVE, Aug 1975(Vol 8, number 4). The index lists 10 Fredric Brown stories including "Obit for Obie" which later appeared as the novel, THE DEEP END.

I have a complete set of MYSTERY BOOK MAGAZINE, all 34 issues. The first 19 were digest and the rest pulp size with a name change to GIANT DETECTIVE for the last two issues(Fall 50 and Wint 51). Briney several times refers to the high quality of the magazine, " is struck by the evidence of consistently intelligent editorship...and the sheer quality of top-level stories." He also refers to the "great contribution which this magazine made to the mystery field, and how much poorer we have all been since its demise". Looking through my set of the magazine, I would have to agree that this is one of the more interesting short run mystery magazines. Too bad they edited some of the longer novels.

Briney quotes a letter from Leo Margulies dated Feb 20, 1975 which states "Mystery Book Magazine was one of my very favorite magazines." He mentions there was no one single editor who bought exclusively for any one title. Will Cuppy did the book reviews in the digests and was considered a big name at the time.

Jack Seabrook said...

Thanks, Walker! I'll have to look for that Armchair Detective article. What interests me is when the serialized version is clearly written at another time from the novel version and how they are different. Some of them ("The Body Snatchers" springs to mind) are quite different in the two versions.