Author Scott Adlerberg takes a closer look at Frederic Brown’s debut novel The Fabulous Clipjoint.
On Wikipedia, if you look up “Young Adult Fiction”, you find this:
“The modern classification of young-adult fiction originated during the 1960s, after the publication of SE Hinton’s The Outsiders (1967). The novel features a truer, darker side of adolescent life that was not often represented in works of fiction of the time…The Outsiders also lacked the nostalgic tone common in books about adolescents written by adults.”
Published in 1947, Frederic Brown’s debut novel The Fabulous Clipjoint couldn’t be marketed for a niche that did not exist at the time, but if a book with its exact plot and point of view – the narrator is a teenager – was published today, there’s a chance it would be promoted as a YA novel and sold in the YA sections of bookstores. It’s a mystery story that doubles as a coming-of-age story, and in its portrayal of working-class post World War II Chicago, it’s a that does not gloss over novel or sentimentalize the hardscrapble reality its young protagonist, Ed Hunter, has to face on a daily basis.
Brown had been writing for years before he wrote The Fabulous Clipjoint, publishing stories in the pulp magazines, and never one to limit himself to a single genre, he excelled at not only crime fiction, but also at science fiction, horror, black comedy, and fantasy. Some of his stories were in the one-to-three-page range, with O’Henry or Saki-like twists at the end. His attitude toward fiction might best be summed up by the paragraph where he writes, “There are no rules. You can write a story, if you wish, with no conflict, no suspense, no beginning, middle or end.
Brown had been writing for years before he wrote The Fabulous Clipjointpublishing stories in the pulp magazines, and never one to limit himself to a single genre…
Of course, you have to be regarded as a genius to get away with it, and that’s the hardest part — convincing everybody you’re a genius.” As these words suggest (and as his work confirms), Brown was not averse to narrative experimentation and genre-blending, and one assumes that it was this urge to write something fresh, not typically done at the time, that prompted him to write The Fabulous Clipjointcombining as it does a 1940s’ hardboiled sensibility with a teenager’s viewpoint.
There are two mysteries in The Fabulous Clipjoint. The murder of Ed’s father creates one, and the other revolves around what kind of person Ed’s father was. Ed’s father, named Wallace, is found dead in an alley one night, the apparent victim of a fatal mugging. An employee at a local printing shop, he had gone out drinking on his payday night and was attacked while walking home.
It seems like a run of the mill case, what you might call a banal murder, if any murder can be labeled as banal. In all likelihood, the police will put minimal effort into investigating his death, and to make everything worse, young Ed Hunter realizes now, with his father gone, just how distant he was from the man. He had got along well enough with his father but without understanding him at all. About Wallace’s drinking, for instance, Ed says, “I didn’t know why he drank, but there must have been a reason…And he was a quiet drinker and a quiet man.
I’d seen him angry only a few times, and every one of those times he’d been sober.” Ed senses that beneath his father’s placid surface, there must have been depths at least somewhat complicated, but he can do nothing more than bemoan that his father “was a stranger to me. And now he was dead and I’d never really know him at all.”
His father’s death would leave Ed living in their small apartment with his stepmother and stepsister. He has a lukewarm relationship with his stepmother, who herself drinks too much, and his stepsister is fourteen and often sexually teasing toward him. Ed belongs to what today we’d describe as a dysfunctional family, and the thought of remaining at home after his father’s murder becomes too much for him to bear. With nobody else in the world to turn to (his real mother is dead), he flees Chicago by train to go visit his father’s brother. He will, one, tell his Uncle Ambrose the horrible news, and perhaps as well he’ll be able to find in his uncle a person who can give him comfort and support.
Ambrose is no softie. He works at a Midwest traveling carnival, part of a world much like the one depicted in William Lindsay Gresham’s Nightmare Alley. The brief glimpse we get of this world is interesting, Wallace becoming reacquainted with his uncle, who he hasn’t seen in years, in the man’s rough-hewn element, and after Ambrose arranges his affairs at his job, he and Wallace head back to Chicago to themselves investigate Wallace’s father’s killing. It’s starting here, prompted by his uncle’s comments and suspicions, that Wallace begins to wonder if there was more to his father and his father’s life than he ever previously thought.
In terms of its style, The Fabulous Clipjoint is economical and straightforward, befitting its narrator’s voice. The hardboiled colloquialisms he uses are of their time but probably how an eighteen-year-old then, in the book’s milieu, would sound. What makes it all still somewhat fresh is that the perceptions do come from a young person, with little experience of the world, sexual or otherwise, and not from the sort of world-weary cynic typical of the hardboiled school.
As Lawrence Block says in his introduction to the new American Mystery Classics edition, it’s difficult to know [why] he chose to do a series…
There’s a sincerity in Wallace’s viewpoint that makes him likeable, and you care about him as he wrestles with what he learns, appealing and ugly, about his father. Through everything, he has Ambrose near or beside him, not a surrogate father exactly but a guiding and protective presence. He’s a man who’s tough and hard enough without being what we’d now dub “toxic”. He is also, at bottom, a friend. Ambrose has an empathetic side, at least as far as his nephew is concerned, and he’s able to recognize that Ed has a lot of emotions to process. He doesn’t frown at Ed or discourage him when Ed, on occasion, lets those feelings show.
Frederic Brown went on to write six more Ed and Am mysteries. As Lawrence Block says in his introduction to the new American Mystery Classics edition, it’s difficult to know whether he chose to do a series because he “liked the narrative voice and the way the two men played off each other” or whether Brown’s publisher at Dutton , with money for incentive, suggested he continue writing about them. Whatever the reason, The Fabulous Clipjoint makes for an excellent start to a series – though it would have been just as effective as a standalone – and I can see myself returning to these characters someday to see where their adventures take them.
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