FURTHER RUMINATIONS ON A DOG’S TALE
by Steven Steinbock
As I begin writing this week’s installment of Bandersnatches, I doubt I’ll be discussing dogs. If you feel that the title of today’s column misled you, I humbly apologize.
Midway through last week’s column I shared some thoughts on Fredric Brown. Midway is actually a good place for him, since carnival life (see next paragraph) played a role in several of Brown’s stories, and in his novels The Dead Ringer (1948) and Madball (1953).
(The term “dead ringer” doesn’t have any direct connection with carnivals. The expression originally referred to a horse with identical markings to another horse. Nor did the expression have anything to do with the urban legend of bells in graveyards. A “midway,” for the uninitiated, is the central path through a carnival or fair, often the main path to a circus tent. The midway is traditionally lined with games and concessions. In an earlier era you would have found burlesque shows, freak shows, and other sideshows as well as various and sordid scam-artists. An excellent website for carnival slang is the Dictionary of Carny, Circus, Sideshow & Vaudeville Lingo).
Last week, Brown came up in the context of “Shaggy Dog stories.” A word or two about Brown. He was born two days before Halloween, 1906. He worked as a shoemaker, proofreader, stenographer, an insurance salesman, a bookkeeper, a stock clerk, a dishwasher, a busboy, and a detective. He had a ten year career writing short stories, mostly for the detective pulps (Detective Story Magazine, Dime Mystery, Detective Tales, etc.) as well as a few science fiction pulps (Astounding, Thrilling Wonder Stories, etc) before seeing his first novel The Fabulous Clipjoint published in 1947. That book featured the amateur (and later professional) detective team of Ed Hunter and his Uncle Am (short for Ambrose). Ed and Am featured in seven novels.
Brown’s writing is fun, clever, and frequently cynical. Much of it is full of whimsy. Just as often, his writing can take a darker turn. Murder Can Be Fun (also published as A Plot for Murder) is a favorite of mine, about a writer for a radio crime series whose fictional crimes – including a murder rampage by a man in a Santa suit – suddenly start occurring in real life before anyone has seen the scripts except him. Or so it seems.
His science fiction, likewise, runs the gamut from whimsy to disturbed. What Mad Universe (1949) and Martians, Go Home (1955) are on the whimsical side, while Rogue in Space (1957) and The Mind Thing (1961) are more serious and thoughtful. His short science fiction has a strong dose of the ironic. I don’t know if any of his stories were adapted for “Twilight Zone” or “Outer Limits” but they easily could have. (Several of his mystery short stories were adapted for “Alfred Hitchcock Presents,” and as I mentioned last week, his science fiction story “Arena” became a “Star Trek” episode with Captain Kirk as the human combatant).
The short story “To Slay a Man About a Dog!” (also published as “The Shaggy Dog Murders”) contains Brown’s trademark humor. It’s about a private detective trying to solve the mystery of a stray dog with a bizarre poem on his collar. The man who brings the dog to Peter Kidd’s office is a strange little man named Aloysius Smith. This intrigued me because the little man who visited Doc Bagden in “The Jabberwocky Murders” (Thrilling Mystery, Summer 1935), telling tales of a secret society of “Vorpal Blades” was named Yehudi Smith. (That story, as I mentioned last week, was the primary basis for Brown’s 1950 novel Night of the Jabberwock. In the novel, the hero’s name was changed to “Doc Stoeger,” but his bizarre visitor remained “Yehudi Smith”). Aloysius Smith and Yehudi Smith have more in common than just surnames. But I can’t go into that. As Doc Stoeger would say, “Read the damn stories yourself.”
It was the novel Night of the Jabberwock that inspired me to publish 49 issues of a mystery fanzine called “The Vorpal Blade.” (That’s another long story, deserving of a separate column, but mystery fans who’ve heard of a secret society called DAPA-EM will have a hint of what that’s about). Likewise, when James Lincoln Warren invited me to do a weekly column on Criminal Brief it was natural to call it “Bandersnatches.” (In case you’re baffled, all those nonsense words – Jabberwock, Vorpal, and Bandersnatch – come from a poem in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass).
Anyway, enough of my words. Go find yourself a Fredric Brown short story and enjoy.