Sunday, January 2, 2011

Fredric Brown: Night of the Psycho

by Jack Seabrook

In the decade that followed the 1949 publication of The Screaming Mimi, Fredric Brown published 15 mystery novels, two science fiction novels, a "straight" novel, and many short stories. The practice of serializing the novels continued, with varying results.

Night of the Jabberwock (1950) was expanded from two short stories—"The Gibbering Night" and "The Jabberwocky Murders." The Deep End was expanded from "Obit for Obie," a short story written in 1945 and published in the October 1946 Mystery Book Magazine, where "The Deadly Weekend" would appear three years later. The Wench is Dead was expanded from the brilliant novelette of the same title that had been written for Manhunt's July 1953 issue.
Compliments of a Fiend (1950) was never serialized, nor was the experimental Here Comes a Candle (1950). Death Has Many Doors (1951) failed to appear in magazine form; in fact, many of Brown's 1950s novels did not sell as serialized versions. The market was changing, as the pulps were replaced by digests. In addition to "The Wench is Dead," novels such as Martians, Go Home (Astounding Science Fiction September 1954) and One for the Road (The Saint Detective Magazine February 1958, as "The Amy Waggoner Murder Case") were published in the digests.

At the same time the digests were replacing the pulps, the market also saw the rise of men's magazines, both Playboy-style and men's adventure magazines. Fredric Brown's first appearance in a men's magazine was in the December 1958 issue of Swank, which featured "Who Was That Blonde I Saw You Kill Last Night?" the serialized version of the 1954 novel, His Name Was Death.

Short stories followed in 1959 in Playboy and Adam, before the June 1959 issue of High Adventure marked Brown's first appearance in a men's adventure magazine with "Night of the Psycho," the shortened version of that year's novel, Knock Three-One-Two. Although many Brown stories would appear over the next several years in men's magazines such as Dude and Gent, "Night of the Psycho" was the only time his fiction would appear in a magazine falling squarely in the men's adventure category.

High Adventure is one of the more scarce men's adventure magazines. Only three issues appear to have been published, in April, June, and October 1959. The June 1959 table of contents page says that it is a Friendly Publication, with Walter J. Fultz as editorial director. Bessie Little is listed as publisher.
This issue of High Adventure has long been a mystery for fans of Fredric Brown. I spent 20 years looking for it until a copy turned up on eBay on New Year's Day 2010. Fans long speculated that the magazine did not exist; several years ago, a scan of the cover began to circulate online, but actual copies of the magazine itself have been very hard to come by.

The cover is a very good painting by John Leone, a well-known artist whose career began in the adventure magazines. The painting portrays a lone G.I. battling three Japanese soldiers and is a scene from "Slaughter on Maggot Beach," one of the stories contained in this issue. A green box in the top right-hand corner trumpets: "EXCLUSIVE BOOKLENGTH Night of the Psycho," which is not a very accurate description of what is found inside. The magazine's title has the subtitle, "For Men Who Dare"; this is not part of the title, but it may come in handy when searching online to distinguish this magazine from the currently-published magazine, also titled High Adventure, which replaced Pulp Review in late 1995.
The June 1959 High Adventure is 100 pages long, measuring 8" x 10 ¾", with perfect binding. Its contents are a mix of fiction, including:
  • "Night of the Psycho" by Fredric Brown
  • "Slaughter on Maggot Beach" by George B. Walters
  • "Rice and Milk and High Heeled Shoes" by Leonard Bishop
  • "Take One Drunk Baboon" by John Stuyvesant
and non-fiction, including:
  • "City of 5000 Spies" by B.W. von Block
  • "Is the U.S. Expecting Invaders From Space?" by Ray Palmer
  • "This Grave for Rent" by James Collier
There are also features, such as "Girl of the Month," "On the Liquor Front," and "Sportsman's Vacation of the Month," as well as many jokes, cartoons, and wonderfully dated advertisements.

"Night of the Psycho" spans 16 pages in the middle of the magazine (44-59), hardly "BOOKLENGTH" as the cover promises. Reading it is a very different experience than is reading the novel, Knock Three-One-Two, and it is clear that the story was considerably cut for serialization using a hatchet rather than a scalpel.

The cover date of June 1959 suggests that this second adventure of High Adventure hit the newsstands in early spring of that year; the novel was published in hardcover by Dutton in August 1959. Only two illustrations accompany the story—a two-page spread on pp. 44-45 and a small one on p. 47. They are credited to Barney Etengoff and can charitably be described as "modern" or "expressionistic," as seen here. The second illustration depicts Benny Knox strangling Ray Fleck in their jail cell near the end of the story. After the first four pages, the last twelve are unbroken columns of type, three columns to a page. The editors of High Adventure spent little time or money laying out this story, much as they expended little effort into making sure that it read well in its shortened version.
Knock Three-One-Two is not a long novel by any means, but an enormous amount had to be cut to make it fit onto 16 magazine pages. For example, in the chapter headed "5:20 p.m.," the magazine's editors deleted the first two and a half pages from the book, including: "George Mikos surveyed his domain, his restaurant, and found it good" (314), a wry biblical allusion. The long first section of George's letter to his college friend Perry has been removed, deleting his background as a student of psychology and his continuing interest in the subject. The serialized version adds a new paragraph on page 48, where George writes that he had hired a private detective to investigate Ray Fleck and Dolly Mason. This paragraph allows much of the exposition about Ray and Dolly to be cut; the style of the paragraph is in keeping with Fredric Brown's voice, suggesting that he may have had a hand in preparing the condensed version of his novel.

The chapter headed "7:25 p.m." also suffers from considerable cutting and condensing. Descriptive passages are removed, Ruth's interaction with a customer and the cook is gone, and most of her conversation with George is nowhere to be found.

The most troubling deletions in the magazine version have to do with the backgrounds of the various characters. This is not done at random—virtually every time the book goes into detail about a character's history, it is taken out of the magazine. In addition to the cuts regarding George Mikos in "5:20 p.m.," the story of Dolly Mason's younger years is cut (342) depriving the reader of her entertaining past as a nymphomaniac. Worst of all is the loss of Brown's psychological study of Benny Knox, the mentally challenged newsstand owner whose childhood was warped by the teachings of his fire-and-brimstone preacher/father. Benny's confusion between his "Heavenly Father" and his "father in Heaven," as well as his confused belief in a literal Heaven and Hell, lead him to murder Ray Fleck at the conclusion of the novel. Without the details of Benny's psychological profile, his actions carry much less weight and are less easy to understand.
Other characters whose backgrounds are deleted are Mack Irby, the sleazy private investigator and boyfriend of Dolly Mason (373-79), and Ray Fleck, the novel's main character (366-68). The cutting of virtually all of the book's psychological insights harms the story, making it a much more "bare bones," plot-driven, and sketchy affair.

The chapter headed "9:32 P.M." is entirely cut, as is the wonderful "11:16 P.M." chapter, which begins:

This is the transcript of a conversation that might possibly have happened. If you believe in such things you'll come to see that it could have happened. If you do not believe, it doesn't matter. (400)

The rest of this one-page chapter consists of a dialogue between the devil and one of his minions as they discuss Ray Fleck's preparation for murder: "he has committed every other sin . . ." This fantasy sequence broadens the scope of the novel, making Ray's plight more universal and soul-damaging than the simple crime story that is the shortened version.

One odd section of the book involves a conversation between Ray Fleck and Sam, a black waiter (324-27). While the book was published in 1959, years after the Civil Rights movement had begun, Fredric Brown's dialect choices seem stuck in a prior decade. One example of Sam's speech is enough:
"Yes, suh, Mist' Fleck. Medjum rare, like allus. An' Ah'll tell th' chef to pick out a nice big one." (324)
Even Will Eisner, whose character Ebony in The Spirit spoke like this throughout the 1940s, had abandoned such dialect for the most part by the time the strip's run had ended in the early 1950s.
Last to be eliminated are the repeated references to a Guy de Maupassant short story where a man's mistress sells her jewels to aid her lover. Ray Fleck recalls the story with hope, imagining that Dolly will do the same for him. Apparently, this reference to a well-known tale from France was considered too highbrow for the readers of High Adventure and was excised.

Sadly, there are also some unintentional errors in the magazine version. The novel eschews chapter titles in favor of times; the first chapter is titled "5:00 P.M.," and subsequent chapters trace the events of one evening, ending at "2:45 A.M." Keeping track of these times seems to have been difficult for the magazine's editors, however, and the magazine version shows some changes. "6:15 P.M." in the book is split into two sections in the magazine, with "6:40 p.m." added as the heading of the second part. "8:03 P.M." disappears, but its events are folded into "8:17 p.m." Things get really confusing as "8:17 P.M." becomes "8:24 p.m.," and is followed by "8:03 p.m.," which corresponds to the book's "8:24 P.M." "9:32 P.M." is cut entirely, and "9:59 P.M." becomes "9:56 p.m." "11:16 P.M." is cut as well. There is no good reason for these changes, and the mixing up of the times makes a very clear story a bit more confusing.

Worst of all is the layout problem on pp. 54 and 55 of the magazine. About three column inches switch places, making the beginning and end of this chapter rather hard to follow.

Location, which had been such a central part of Brown's earlier novels, is not specified in either the long or the short version of Knock Three-One-Two. The story takes place in a city, a suburb, or both, and the various street names used are generic. There is a reference to Aqueduct Racetrack (325), when Ray gives a tip on the next day's race to Sam, the waiter. This reference places the story somewhere in or near New York City. Fredric Brown had been living in Tucson, Arizona, for many years at the time he wrote this book, so presumably he was unaware that Aqueduct had been closed for renovations since 1956 and would not reopen until mid-September 1959, after both "Night of the Psycho" and Knock Three-One-Two had been published!

Based on its June 1959 issue, High Adventure was a relatively tame men's magazine. There is a three-page pictorial featuring "Girl-of-the-Month" Lynn Wittmann, "the jauntiest gunslinger New York's Greenwich Village has seen since Prohibition gurgled down the drain" (41). Other than loosening the top button of her white shirt, she remains staunchly clothed. Her upbringing in Munich, Germany, surely led to the tone of her quotations: "'You hokay, hey honey?'" and "'American drinker, he crazy but nice. Says he haff one fast beer, then sit down and haff eleven or twelve. Crazy. But I like—American man good fun.'" These coquettish remarks were surely like catnip to the male reader of 1959.
In a similar vein, "racy" scenes were revised for magazine publication. Most involved Dolly Mason and descriptions of her body; apparently, the loosening censorship in novels did not extend to this publication.

Most fun of all are the advertisements in High Adventure. Tired husbands could write away for Vitasafe, so their wives would not complain that "He Didn't Even Kiss Me Goodnight" (2). Auto repair, crime detection, and operating heavy equipment were all within the reader's grasp as valuable careers. While some of the ads recall those that might have been in a comic book, overall they are aimed at adult male readers.
One interesting aspect of Knock Three-One-Two is its use of a psychotic serial strangler of women and Brown's efforts to investigate the psychological background not only of this man, but also of Benny Knox, who becomes a killer himself at the end of the novel. In some ways, the situation echoes that found in Fritz Lang's 1956 film, While the City Sleeps, where John Drew Barrymore plays a psychiatric serial strangler who reads comic books and still lives with his mother. The film is well worth tracking down, especially for the scene where the killer sits watching TV and clutching a comic book, dropping it in horror when the newscaster announces that the unknown killer undoubtedly reads those vile periodicals! (I hope my memory of this scene is accurate.)
Knock Three-One-Two was adapted twice—once for the small screen and once for the big. The December 13, 1960 episode of Thriller featured a pretty faithful adaptation, starring Joe Maross as Ray Kinton (not Fleck) and Beverly Garland as Ruth. The general plot points have been retained from the novel, and the film has a nice, cheap noir look to it. The book was also adapted as the French film L'Ibis Rouge, released in 1975. I have not seen it, but descriptions I've read make it sound like a satirical black comedy.
"Night of the Psycho" is a sloppy, heavily edited, condensed version of Knock Three-One-Two. The June 1959 High Adventure is a very rare magazine, and I can say that the years I spent searching for it were more fun than the time I spent reading it.

This was the last Fredric Brown story that I had never read, in a pleasurable journey that began in the 1970s when I bought the paperback, The Best of Fredric Brown. Or was it the last? Stay tuned!

"Aqueduct Racetrack." Wikipedia. Web. 29 Dec. 2010.
Brown, Fredric. Knock Three-One-Two. Black Box Thrillers: 4 Novels By Fredric Brown. London: Zomba, 1983. 303-427.
Brown, Fredric. "Night of the Psycho." High Adventure June 1959. 44-59.
Eisner, Will. "Back to School." Comic strip. The Spirit Apr. 1985: 35-41.
Galactic Central. Web. 31 Dec. 2010. .
Gunning, Tom. The Films of Fritz Lang. London: British Film Institute, 2000.
The Internet Movie Database (IMDb). Web. 30 Dec. 2010. .
"Knock Three-One-Two." Thriller. 13 Dec. 1960. Television.
"Merry Christmas--Men's Adventure Magazine Style." 21 Dec. 2010. Web. 31 Dec. 2010.
Seabrook, Jack. Martians and Misplaced Clues: The Life & Work of Fredric Brown. Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1993.


Walker Martin said...

Excellent coverage of one of the lesser known men's adventure magazines. I've made a feeble attempt to collect some of the titles and the reason I use the word feeble is because the attempt has made me exactly that. Most of these magazines had great artwork illustrating stories titled "Nazis Party With Nude Girls as GI Guns Them Down!". The fiction and articles were usually of such low quality that they were almost unreadable.

Jack points out one of the reasons that the stories were so hopeless. To take a novel and edit it down to 16 pages is very close to a criminal act. The short stories and articles were usually not much better in these magazines, often reading like outlines or summaries of a proposed plot.

For those readers brave enough, I can recommend two books about the men's adventure magazines. The first one is a Taschen big art book, MEN'S ADVENTURE MAGAZINES, showing 500 pages of artwork from the Rich Oberg collection. I know Rich and have even sold him some men's art, including a crazy cover showing Nazis turning girls into gold ingots. No wonder they lost the war...

The second book is IT'S A MAN'S WORLD by Adam Parfrey and it also is full of sick and disgusting art showing beautiful and sexy girls in very distessful situations. I love it...

However, if you feel these books are beneath your dignity and perhaps catering to our lowest instincts, there is a third more literary book, ALL MAN! by David M. Earle, a university professor. His book is subtitled "Hemingway, 1950s Men's Magazines, and the Masculine Persona". I've met David a couple times at pulp conventions and the book is better than it sounds. All are available on

Most of these magazines were on a very low, bare bones, budget(no pun intended), and I can only shudder at the low word rate that Fredric Brown must have been paid for the hatchet job done on his novel.

John Scoleri said...

Thanks for the tip on men's adventure mag books, Walker! I've got Men's Adventure Magazines and It's a Mans World, but had not heard of All Man! before. Looks like I'll have to pick that up, too. I've got a few stacks of original magazines, which I love to flip through just to read the sensational article titles and enjoy the incredible, outlandish illustrations.

Jack Seabrook said...

The Taschen book shows up pretty regularly on the sale racks at Barnes & Noble, at least around here.

Jocko said...

Nice article Jack. I've been kicking around the idea of buying "Knock 3-1-2," since it is one of my favorite Thriller episodes. Your descriptions of the opening chapters and how Brown used starting clock times has sold me. Of course, the books are always better then the movies or t.v. shows.

Todd Mason said...

Never assume, UTW...albeit the incidences of the film adaptation being better, such as with DR. STRANGELOVE and the first TAKING OF PELHAM ONE TWO THREE, are indeed rare.

Most amusing that Ray Palmer was flogging saucer articles around, if he indeed didn't have a hand in the magazine's publishing.

I think the Taschen book might've been republished by B&N's instant remainder arm, but also maybe not. I picked one up...the text is unreadably small, so perhaps someone decided that wasn't going to be the draw.