Happy new year! For all those of you who read this blog, may I send warm wishes that 2019 will be a happy and healthy year for you.
A new year is a time to look forward, and I'll be doing just that before long. But today's Friday, and it wouldn't be Friday without looking back at a Forgotten Book, would it? So I've picked a novel which has a title which seems appropriate. Not because murder in real life is fun - absolutely the contrary. But detective stories about the ultimate crime are hugely enjoyable, whether or not they also take a look at the more serious side of life.
I first came across Fredric Brown's crime fiction a long time ago, when Zomba Books, guided by the super-knowledgeable Maxim Jakubowski, published a terrific omnibus of four of his mysteries, including The Screaming Mimi. I was very impressed, and equally taken with a few short stories of his that I came across. Since then, it has been hard to find Brown's other books in the UK, but I chanced upon a copy of Murder Can Be Fun in Skoob Books in London, and snapped it up sharpish.
This novel was his third published book, and in fact it's an expansion of an earlier short story, which perhaps explains why the plot does not seem quite as taut as those in his very best books. Nevertheless, it's an appealing story with a splendid premise. Bill Tracy, a former journalist who has become a radio soap opera writer, comes up with an idea for a crime series called "Murder Can Be Fun". But the joke appears to be on him when life begins to imitate art, and someone starts committing murders which are evidently based on his plots.
This is a neat variation of a hook that has been used by a good many crime writers to produce novels of various types - examples include Roger East's Murder Rehearsal and John Franklin Bardin's The Last of Philip Banter, as well as the much more recent Disclaimer by Renee Knight. Of course, it's one thing to set up a baffling scenario, and quite another to resolve it satisfactorily. Brown does a pretty good, though not outstanding job of explaining how Tracy's plots came to be used.
Really, this is the work of a novelist who was still learning his trade, but several elements of the story are typically Brownian - the science fiction references, the heavy drinking (which can become a bit tedious), dreams, and Alice in Wonderland references. There's a "least likely person" solution which is passable rather than brilliant, but the lively prose often glints with humour. Not Brown's best book by a long chalk, but neatly crafted entertainment all the same.