You know the score: a tough-guy PI in a business slump, sitting in his office typing out a letter using one finger (real men don’t type), when in walks a knockout redhead with “everything that should go with red hair”. She needs his help, he’s her last chance. Well of course, sweets, what seems to be the problem? She’s being hunted, y’see, someone wants to kill her. Calm down, baby doll what’s his name? Well, that’s the problem; she’s being hunted by…Martians. It’s a lovely little moment of confounded expectations early on in Brown’s pulpy tale and sets the tone for the number of conventions he refuses to conform to as things progress. And, since he’s far from smug about it, it works very well indeed.
We’re in a sort of post-Hardboiled milieu here, not unlike that encountered in The Blushing Monkey (1953) by Roman McDougald and the similarly-themed The Case of the Little Green Men (1951) by Mack Reynolds, and given that both Brown and Reynolds are better known for their SF writing it’s perhaps not that surprising that they don’t tick off the tropes in quite the expected way. Business may be slow, but that’s because they’re a new outfit in town; and far from some inebriated firebrand loner, Ed Hunter is in this with his uncle Ambrose, and the two men collaborate — remember that? — on the way to solving a classic locked room death.
Sure, the room itself may not be locked, but it’s watched from one side by an unimpeachable witness, has only a small inaccessible window with an archetypal dusty ledge on the other, and contains a victim with nary a mark on their body. Brown doesn’t belabour the impossibility, which is a nice little wrinkle in this subgenre, and we’re quickly given the opportunity to remove some easy solutions from the panoply available to us. So…howdunnit?
It’s actually something of a shame to report that this and the later impossibility we’re presented with are tied up in a thoroughly unsatisfying way, and with nothing even close to clues or detection to enable the reader to concatenate the appropriate moments and reach the solution. In fact, the locked room murder is only resolved by the late introduction of a character who just happens — in complete ignorance — to demonstrate the staggeringly precise thing that explains it. And as for the other inexplicable occurrence…well, there’s crap and there’s crap, but here it doesn’t really make any difference which one you opt for.
But it is a shame because Brown writes some wonderful post-Hardboiled prose, such as:
“You don’t have to see what the gal looks like. You’re hiring a temporary stenographer, not a pony for a chorus line. What do you care if she’s got bowlegs and buck teeth? It’s better if she does; it’ll keep your mind on your dictating.”
Or, of the eleven year-old half-brother of their client:
I stared at him, wondering how one person could become so objectionable in only eleven years.
Ed and Am Hunter are good company, and deserving of a better plot. Sure, this is very dialogue heavy, with a lot of information being reiterated several times almost, I can’t help but feel, to get it up to novel length. But the prose is great, it’s a surprisingly linear and easy read, and I had high hopes that the ending would make some subtle iterations clear where the precise nature of the information differed in some tiny but critical way…not to be. It’s a crushing disappointment, and the fact that at least seven of the nine experts consulted in 2007 deemed this a necessary inclusion in a library of impossible crime fiction is even more baffling than the mysteries herein, frankly!
Brown wrote more than one Ed and Am Hunter book, though, and I have a copy of earlier case The Dead Ringer (1948) which I intend to read in the hope his plot matches his prose at some point. This and the above-mentioned, equally-disappointing The Case of the Little Green Men (1951), however, show that such men are probably best kept out of this genre…