Late one night, journalist William Deacon is surprised in his office by an old school friend with an unusual request. Seemingly everywhere Archie Sinclair goes, people are talking about the singer-songwriter Brill Brillhart — the places they met with him, the dinners they’ve had with him, the appearances he’ll be making later that week — which wouldn’t be so weird if Sinclair didn’t have it on such good authority that Brillhart has been dead for the last two months. So, would Deacon be willing to look into it? And Deacon, with misgivings aplenty, agrees, and soon finds that Brillhart is indeed both dead and seemingly everywhere. How can this be possible?
I really don’t know quite what to make of this book. The mystery of Brillhart’s resurrection isn’t exactly baffling, and is in fact cleared up by the halfway stage, and a lot of what unfolds from there feels rather rote for all the surprise it apparently engenders in the characters. When a murder is eventually uncovered in the final stretch, and a guilty party tracked down with some moderate peril and a lucky guess or two along the way, it’s hardly a surprise to find that person guilty, and yet there’s a pleasing inevitability about it even as it underwhelms (and the ‘critical moment’ that — shall we say — leads to the murder is complete horseshit). Where Brean’s Wilders Walk Away (1948) had a sense of structure behind its scheme, this one seems to flail at a series of predictable ideas in the hope they’ll make a plot, and it feels decidedly thin for all that results.
And yet…I didn’t not enjoy it, not least because Brean is a very talented author with a gloriously light and readable style. Take the New York socialite Kim Winter, who…
…had taken the Central Park South apartment when she had decided she wanted to be a popular singer instead of a poetess, which she has tried while still in finishing school of a ceramist, which she had tried after the poetry, or a zither player, which she had tried after the ceramics. Everything considered, she was a rather intelligent girl and pleasant, lacking only one thing to be good at something — the economic or social necessity for working hard at it.
And while the dialogue may be rife with hip-cat 60s snap and posturing — “Cutie, rock ‘n’ roll is, a guy takes off with a couple of shouts and records them on an assie. A publisher likes it, he’s in business. That’s music?” — and Tom and Betsy Dolan are nowhere near as delightful company as Brean seems to think, the pacing of revelations is, for the less jaded (or possibly less experienced) reader, rather delightful. There’s an exquisite placement of events throughout, which is not to say that everything careens breakneck, but that Brean really does have a tight hold on the deliberate and intelligent way he plays his story out (the line ‘It was good coffee’ is the most beautifully-placed mundane observation I’ve encountered in many a year). If this book underwhelmed, I am at least thankful that Herbert Brean was the one to write it.
In many ways, this is a good example of the puzzle plot having to adapt in order to get under the radar in an epoch that would prove unsympathetic towards it, and yet it’s also a puzzle plot that more rigorous times would have treated unsympathetically. There is at one point a body — a staggeringly convenient body — whose provenance and staggering convenience in the many ways it contributes to the plot is never even hinted at, let alone acknowledged. No-one, when everything else is cleared up, goes back and says “Hey, what about that body they found…?” and it’s clearly just hoped that the reader won’t notice or care about it. John Rhode would be furious. With Patricia Moyes’ debut Dead Men Don’t Ski (1959), and indeed her subsequent career, showing that an appetite for the puzzle plot existed still, it’s clearly not simply a case of “Bah, anything’ll do these days” and so such an oversight feels rather significant.
But, if nothing else, Deacon and his possibly-maybe-perhaps girlfriend Twit-Twit make an engaging central couple, with the broadmindedness of the age extending to the lack of definition of their relationship as much as the general sexual liberation hinted at throughout. In this way the book captures societal change as much as it does genre transition, but it never feels the need to hammer you over the head with how much of a social document its being. For all his using quotes from Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories as epigraphs for the parts of this one — and affectation carried over from Wilders Walk Away, and about as nonsensical here as there — I’d love to read a Brean-penned Holmes pastiche, because he captures people and little moments of history very cleanly. Did he write any short fiction? I’d be very interested in it if he did.
So, well, it’s a mixed bag. It’s not quite the memento of the passing of GAD that one might hanker after, and anyone with a itch for rigour in their plots might be unable to ignore the susurrous discontent that will creep up the back of their skull as they read. As an indicator of a changing age, and as a piece of entertainment, however, it’s a perfectly fun time, and those with an interest in ‘lighter’ puzzle plots — not yet ready to go Full Rhode, Semi-Crofts, Partial Wade, Extra Penny — will probably find much to enjoy. Brean remains a fascinating author, form rather than function being his area of expertise, and I don’t regret paying what I did for Hardly a Man is Now Alive (1950) in order to continue reading him. My edition is the OOP Collier cover that heads this review, but this title is currently available from Wildside Press for pretty reasonable money, and as a distraction between serious work it’s difficult not to recommend.