Man, there is a lot to unpack here. Firstly my love of Herbert Brean — an author brought to my attention by TomCat, and about whose books Ben at The Green Capsule and I frequently try to outdo each other in our enthusiasm. Secondly the need for a mystery to sell you on its central premise — here, hypnotism, about which a neat little treatise halfway through. And thirdly the purpose of a mystery novel — does a compelling plot obviate the need for a good mystery, and does a disappointing mystery necessarily detract from a great plot? All this and more we shall confront today with Brean’s second novel The Darker the Night (1949).
Hypnotism is a polarising conceit in Golden Age detective fiction — full of potential if handled well, but too often pulled out of a narrative hat to explain away incomprehensible actions by characters whose authors were over-keen on the puzzle and less hot on, y’know, logic. One classic of the genre is, to me, rendered infuriating by the last-minute reveal of someone being hypnotised to perform an obfuscating action — yup, that’s the one — and, possibly on account of its vagaries, I approach a book more cautiously (and perhaps judge it more harshly) when the H-word gets bandied about in its presence.
Brean, however, is a wonderful storyteller, and puts hypnotism front and centre from about the earliest possible moment: consoling an old school friend whose father has recently died in unusual circumstances, photo-journalist Reynold Frame is button-holed by an acquaintance who wishes him to do a spread on Gary Price, a hypnotist friend. Ushered up to a gathering for the purposes of displaying Price’s talents, Frame is interested in the scope of the hypnotist’s powers:
“I can turn honest men into thieves, and virtuous women into wantons. I can, by suggestion, make a man kill himself or another man, or write a play, or, several weeks after I have hypnotised him, go to a strange city, or stand on his head in the street or–“
It is a short hop from here to the realisation that Lee Ballantyne’s father’s death might not be quite the accident it appeared, and when someone else in the hypnotist’s circle turns up dead in almost identical circumstances, well, Frame’s sense of justice is aroused. It’s in the realisation of the investigation that Frame undertakes that the book is perhaps at its strongest — not just because the threads follow naturally from each other and weave an ever-clearer picture of the people and stakes involved, but also because Brean writes magnificently in communicating the unease of a bedarkened, wintertime New York:
It was like stepping into a jungle, he thought, where at the first strange footfall the insect hum stops and every live thing pauses and waits in alert silence.
It helps, too, that for all the familiar trappings of New York mysteries of this era, Brean has a keen eye for some odd characters who grow naturally out of their environment — eight year-old Bobbie Varian being the most notable example, but see also the Veblen-reading chauffeur with his own economic philosophy, or the fading ex-mobster Benny the Bump, or press agent Al Journey’s stacking of the deck in favour of the voluptuous Glance Keenly. These are stock character with actual life breathed into them, and — just in case you didn’t spot that — there’s a wonderful exchange wherein Price asks Frame to apply his deductive skills to the mysterious Bix Ramsay and Frame strips away the trappings of the average New Yorker to gorgeous effect.
There’s also fun to be had with some of the era-appropriate argot that creeps in — “to plumber a job” is apparently to make a mess of something, and the wealthy Margaret O’Hara being “a paper hat” betokens her as a soft touch, I think — and the clever discussion around semantics and hypnotism when asking someone to act out of character. There’s mention, too, of the case that may well have inspired Seeing is Believing, a.k.a. Cross of Murder (1941) by Carter Dickson, and Brean again gets drawn into all manner of excitable — and utterly, utterly charming — long footnotes about real life cases of hypnotism, cocktail recipes, famous New York murders, and more besides. And throughout it all he captures the contrary nature of big city life with genuine aplomb: “There was an old saying: New York is a place where if you sneeze on the street a dozen people turn around to say ‘God Bless You,’ but if you fall dead they walk around you and hurry on without a glance”.
The book, then, is a winner, but the mystery and the people involved in it never quite catch fire. The crowd of suspects is as interesting as it is soulless — nothing is done with baseball player Eddie Nolan, he’s pure decoration for the milieu — even if Brean does describe them in delightful terms (likening one character to a Helen Hokinson drawing, say). Come the denouement, with Detective Kilroy impatiently waiting for Frame to demonstrate why he himself should not be arrested, the revelation of the Who and the Why lands with decidedly more “Yeah, okay” than anything more excitable. Only really one clue — the stain on the wall — marks this out for the puzzle fiend, and the air of suspense is well-marshalled but only really compelling because Brean’s prose is so damn tasty. In lesser hands, this would fall decidedly flatter, and if Brean doesn’t charm you like he does me then you might be left wondering what I see in this.
There’s a certain idiopathic je ne sais quoi about Brean’s writing that I’ve come to really appreciate over the four books I’ve read — he’s not the doyen of the puzzle mystery, he’s not brilliant at tight-knit plots, and he doesn’t clue or deduce as openly as he might, and I should find him more frustrating than I do. Honestly, I think he might be one of the most overlooked American mystery writers of his era — Hardly a Man is Now Alive (1950), the sequel to this, is a masterpiece — and I wish he could’ve landed this one with a little more impact so that I could rhapsodise about it all the way through. However, if you think you’ve seen all the genre has to offer, the Reynold Frame books come highly recommended for their freshness, their vigour, their unconventional problems, and the delight a grown man clearly felt at being able to make up stories for the entertainment of others.
Bev @ My Reader’s Block: If you’re looking for a twisty, Golden Age brainteaser, then this isn’t it. But if you want a fast-paced mystery that is lots of fun, easy on the brain…then this may be what you’re looking for. And Brean…use[s] hypnotism without making it too cheesy and unbelievable. The hypnotism actually works into the plot without solving all of the problems for our hero. The crime itself isn’t quite as mystifying as Wilders Walk Away, but still a nice satisfying read.
Ben @ The Green Capsule: The murders in The Darker the Night are of that open ended sort. There’s no real potential for clever alibi trick or some other misdirection; it’s simply that someone’s murdering people and we don’t know who it is. You could really tag anyone as the culprit with similar result, and indeed, come the solution, there’s no revelation or satisfaction; merely a name to associate with the crimes. Which is all very unfortunate, because I got wrapped up in everything but the mystery…
The Reynold Frame series by Herbert Brean:
Wilders Walk Away (1948)
The Darker the Night (1949)
Hardly a Man is Now Alive, a.k.a. Murder Now and Then (1950)
The Clock Strikes 13 (1952)