Three books into the seven-strong output of Herbert Brean, I’m going to suggest that he’s one of the most unjustly-neglected writers of the latter-GAD era — that “latter” prefix being key. Brean’s plots are dense enough for the puzzle fiends of the 1930s, and his social milieu more than matches the requirements of the post-GAD 1950s hankering after domestic suspense, but each school will be disappointed by how much of its rival is present. Thus, puzzle fans lazily insisting he’s in the same bracket as John Dickson Carr and realism fans keen to play up his HIBK credentials each sell him as writing sorts of books he never wrote, and everyone ends up disappointed.
Hardly a Man is Now Alive (1950) is a superb genre hybrid, effortlessly bridging these streams. The dual-timeline narratives of the American Revolutionary War of 1775 and the multitudinous mysteries of the 1950s provide plenty of naturalistic detection and intrigue and deduction, alongside which a picture of smalltown American life builds easily, reinforced by a keen sense of the history that pervades everything. If you want to stretch a point, the arrival of photographer Reynold Frame and Constance Wilder in Concord, Massachusetts ahead of their imminent marriage hints at the burgeoning new school of crime fiction Brean is courting, but the old-timers who prove so key to unravelling events keep them and the narrative firmly entrenched in the importance of what came before.
In the modern day, the problems that present themselves count among themselves the sudden, unexplained vanishing of an academic from the local guest-house — not impossible, y’understand, despite it being ascertained that he’d’ve been overheard leaving — and the possibly unrelated discovery of a body in a well. It’s in Frame’s deductions about the presence of said body that we come the closest to pure detection, with some superbly rigorous reasoning explaining effortlessly many of the aspects that seem confounding; and the way he reveals the discovery of the body has about it the twinkle of John Dickson Carr’s irrepressible Henry Merrivale goading a suspect in full view of the innocents (hey, they’re not in the same bracket, but they wear the same carpet slippers).
The other modern mysteries — a vanishing and appearing lamp that supposedly implies the presence of a Revolutionary War solider who died in the room it appears, and the sound soldiers marching to a beating drum — pull our focus into the past, and bifurcate the focus still further into something approaching a biblio-historical mystery: if Percy Nightingale fled from the British troops to die in that room, why did he do so? The sense of history pushing through is neatly managed, with the location of being as deliberately chosen as the characters we meet early on: the 104 year-old John Annadale who is due to lead the marriage ceremony and who “had long, long since outlived his span of years. Yet here we was still, a fragile shell in black sackcloth and string tie, mind and eyes still burningly alive”, and guest-house proprietor Tom Satterthwaite who greets Frame by shaking a “thin hand that was like a bundle of wires”.
Reynold Frame is a fascinating protagonist, an everyman with no delusions of involvement who, simply paying close attention, is able to cut to the heart of most of the mysteries with prodigious intelligence. His affinity with the older folk tales surrounding Percy Nightingale could well be established in how he and Annadale quickly establish themselves as “two men who understood each other across a great gulf of years”…yet, equally, Frame is the first to suggest that there’s nothing special about his knowledge or insight, he just has the advantage of coming at these stories with fresh eyes. I’m in agreement with TomCat’s review, linked below, in feeling that a Challenge to the Reader (which, by 1950, was doubtless seen as an affectation too far) would have been wonderful to drive home just how easily Brean sirs in the various clues and suggestions, and would really make Frame’s accomplishments stand out.
Brean also gives us a good mix of types that would have been put to various uses by other authors, so clearly can we see them: Tom’s sultry daughter Retty would have orchestrated the killing of more than a few men in the hands of James M. Cain or Jim Thompson, and the shrill, emotional Maria Carswell is a showy frock away from being the object of Christianna Brand’s sympathies (or Ngaio Marsh’s skewering). Retty’s fiancé, the boorish dreamer Phipps Daniel IV is the preppy non-entity right out of Ross Macdonald, and, hell, the HIBK Suspense tradition holds strong in Frame’s night-time examination of the house’s loft space (accessed through the bedroom of another guest…), and we even get some Craig Rice-ian quick comedy in the shape of W.M., a dog with psychosomatic heart trouble. There’s almost too much happening genre-wise, and it would be possible to overlook how brilliantly Brean pulls it all together while throwing footnotes with history, recipes, and callbacks to Frame’s previous cases at you.
The whole thing is majestic and exhausting and wonderful, and I’d only really fault it for the epigrams that begin each chapter and feel like a sort of snooty literary pretension that the skill on show does not require. I learned such tidbits as the brother of a grandparent is called — in Mass., at least — your Grand-Uncle (in the UK, it’s Great-Uncle), got a treatise on how to make a martini, and will happily patronise any diner that will serve me a “peanut butter and bacon sandwich”. This is a great picture of the genre at a time of huge change, and commends itself for that reason alone, but more importantly it’s swift, intelligent, surprising, huge fun, and written with brio, charm, and undeniable skill. Good luck finding a copy, but grab one when you do.
I don’t normally talk about the editions of the books I read, because I can rarely find anything to say, but, on top of being a great book, I learned a lot from my copy of this. I have not the Dell edition pictured above — I wish — but instead a jacketless Heineman hardback edition with red boards. What’s interesting is that it comes from the Boots Booklovers Library…which I’d never heard of, and which turns out to be sort of fascinating.
Boots, for non-UK readers, is a high street chemist apparently not unlike CVS or Walgreens in the US, and to find that they had their own library arm for years is a revelation to my young soul. The cover of mine is stamped with the shield shown right, the “Boots” of which is the exact font still used on storefronts across the country…that being what caught my attention in the first place. You can read about it online, but my favourite detail is that at the top of the spine there is a hole with a reinforced metal eyelet, the sort of thing a treasury tag could be passed through. Why do that? Because the memberships cards were themselves on treasury tags so that you could fix your card through the spine of the book and use it as a bookmark! Inspired!
They say we live in more civilised times these days, but I’m not so sure…
Ben @ The Green Capsule: There are enough mysteries to keep the book moving, and Brean dishes out solutions along the way. Plus there’s a seance, a vanishing centenarian, and a plot line involving a lost manuscript by Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. It makes for an engaging read, and similar to Wilders Walk Away, Brean dabbles the story with footnotes and sidebars.You’ll learn all of the considerations that go into making the perfect martini, dust off your grade school history, and even walk away with a full recipe for pudding.It’s fun stuff and there are interesting tidbits tucked throughout the pages.
TomCat @ Beneath the Stains of Time: On the surface, Hardly a Man is Now Alive appears to be an incomprehensibly complex, maze-like detective novel with numerous, interconnecting plot-threads stretching across two centuries, but Brean untangled them with ease and the result is very satisfying – showing how childishly simple everything looked beneath all those layers of obfuscation. Nearly every plot-thread, except for the second historical mystery, were adequately clued or hinted at and the chapters are littered with opening quotes and informative footnotes. Really, the only things missing were one or two floor plans and a challenge to the reader.
12 thoughts on “#629: Hardly a Man is Now Alive, a.k.a. Murder Now and Then (1950) by Herbert Brean”
You make a solid point in your opening! It’s exactly the reason why so many readers were disappointed when they finally got to read Wilders Walks Away, which used to be known as an equal to the more famous impossible crime novels by Carr and Talbot. Thankfully, this misconception has been somewhat corrected over the past ten years and glad to see you agree with me on this one with your five-star rating!
Hardly a Man is Now Alive clearly showed Brean had learned from the mistakes in Wilders Walks Away and wrote a small masterpiece. It should be the book he’s remembered for today.
You still have the excellent The Clock Strikes Thirteen to look forward to! Another well-done genre hybrid with a murder on an isolated island with a biological weapon running rampant.
The UK secondhand market is not as diverse as the US one — I have a feeling Ben already owns The Darker the Night and CLock Strieks 13…but I remain on the look out and ever-hopeful. Brean really does feel like someone who deserves more credit for how brilliantly he wrote…and he did it all while bridging two streams in the changing culture of the puzzle novel; no mean feat!
Book three of seven, surely?
Which has made me realise that I might not have book five by Brean, A Matter of Fact (US) / Collar for the Killer (UK). Dammit, that’s one more book I need to find.
Matter of Fact/Collar for the Killer is more easily obtained under the title “Dead Sure”.
And there I was thinking I’d found a rare, hard-to-get edition…
Oh, yes, thank-you; I just looked at my shelves, counted four Brean novels, and forgot that I hadn’t actually rad one of them. Shall correct that in due course.
After I read this book, I immediately started planning a vacation to Concord, MA. Setting was that good.
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Ha! I know what you mean — if I’m ever in the state again, I’ll make a point of checking it out, because it sounds magnificent.
I thought Brean did a nice job setting up potential suspects. There are several characters where the reader could develop fairly deep theories. I swear I had this one nailed early on, but nope!
How are we not all raving about the resolution to the Revolutionary War story line? Yeah, if you come at it from an impossible angle it disappoints, but man, the whole reason for every detail in the old story was just sublime.
Grand Uncle must be a regional thing, similar to crawfish/crayfish/crawdad. I go for Great Uncle myself.
What I especially like about the Revolutionary War storyline is how Frame just gloms onto the salient points right away, purely from not having heard it before. Brean does an amazing job of making the story interesting without overburdening the important points, and you get to the end and Frame’s like “Yeah, I know what happened…” and you just have to go “HOW?!? WHAT DID I MISS?!?”; it’s superlative writing and clewing, masterfully done.
I did guess the culprit in the modern plot at their first appearance, just because…well, reasons. But it was a guess, albeit one which took on more form as thing progressed. But, hot damn, there’s so much else here to love, I didn’t mind one bit.
Definitely an author I need to try once I’ve got my TBR pile under the control. Just need to not forget…
I have a number of books like yours which are from the Boots Book Lover Library. Delano Ames and Conyth Little seem to be authors they consistently stocked.
I’d never heard of it, and I think it’s amazing — the innovation with the design of cards to use as bookmarks is especially beautiful. Man, you just cannot beat physical books, can you? No-one’s going to get that sense of history and design insight off a Kindle, alas.