Herbert Brean is an author whose work is really rather difficult to pigeonhole, and this multi-titled obscurity — I’ll call it Dead Sure (1956), as per my Dell paperback edition — highlights why. From the gentle Americana puzzling of his debut Wilders Walk Away (1948), to the gloomy suspense of The Darker the Night (1949) and the intricate historical imbrications of his masterpiece Hardly a Man is Now Alive (1950), we find ourselves now in a sort of Woolrichian nightmare of an honest cop framing an innocent man and attempting to dig himself out before it’s too late…both legally and morally. And yet, even then, there’s more going on here.
When sixty-three-year-old Thelma Connors, followed home from the bank where she withdrew $100, is attacked, robbed, and shot dead in her apartment, witnesses are able to identify petty thug and “three-time loser” Henry Derby as her assailant, and the police spring into action to track the man down. Derby is spotted by a pair of detectives — 28 year veteran Edmund Jablonski and four week rookie O’Neill Ryan — and tailed back to a rooming house, where the pair decide to collar the man alone rather than placing a call for reinforcements which might see credit for the arrest dissipated somewhat.
Ryan nodded. “Let’s go,” he said. This was the finale. Suddenly he felt good, not nervous or anxious or tight in the chest, but clear, sure, quick. It was the feeling of being in danger and knowing you could handle it. It was wonderful.
Finding evidence that Derby is indeed their man, an oversight results in that evidence being lost and so the two men generate some extra evidence of their own, which in time will see the certainty of Derby’s guilt achieved at trial. And then, via the sort of coincidence that drives many of Woolrich’s plots, Ryan stumbles upon contradictory evidence that seems to suggest, very strongly indeed, that Derby wasn’t their man at all. And his date with the electric chair is creeping ever-closer…
Brean writes all sides of this superbly, from the ease of the decision to fix the crime on Derby and the work done by the institution of the police (“It had to be cleaned up fast, and whether it was depended on themselves — on their pooled skills and brains, courage and tenacity, on the clues they found and how assiduously they ran them down…”), to the rising profile of Ryan and Jablonski within the department and beyond, and the realisation of what our central pair stand to lose if their misdeeds come out. Brean isn’t here to hold up a mirror or expose the folly of so-called justice, but to simply relay the experiences of human beings placed in high pressure situations and look at the infelicities that can fall out as a result. Late on, Ryan makes a speech along the lines of ‘before you criticise the police, walk a mile in their shoes’ and it’s hard to deny his point.
Equally, when the frame starts to crack and the “dreadful logic” of the small details come back to haunt Ryan, Brean watches it fall apart dispassionately rather than gloatingly. Jablonski’s older, more jaundiced view that a career criminal had this sort of thing coming to him anyway, and that by putting him away they’re saving some future victims the horror of his attentions, contrasts sharply with Ryan’s arguably more idealistic perspective: “If Harry Derby were executed, Ryan knew he could never tolerate himself again, nor pleasurably accept praise or kindness from others… Then what must he do?”. It’s a typically Woolrichian conceit, explored from all sides so that it becomes even clearer how completely trapped Ryan is…a situation only heightened by his growing attraction to two women on either side of the fence — one viewing him as a hero, the other as a heel and a barrier to her own happiness.
What it lacks is Woolrich’s sense of urgency. My Dell copy is 218 pages long, and Ryan only begins to investigate other suspects for the crime with about a quarter of the book remaining. Things progress with a casualness that can at times puzzle the will, with a great deal of care given to make the various people on the various sides of this situation actually feel like people, but oftentimes several chapters passing without anything really being achieved. Sure, the history of Ryan’s father makes him more sympathetic, but it would be fair to assume a certain base morality on the part of the average reader and trust that the situation has been drawn well enough — and it has — for any extra sympathy to simply be belt, braces, another belt, and maybe some superglue for good measure. Ryan’s agonies, spiritual and otherwise, have the makings of melodrama, but the small matter of the man about to pay with his life for a crime he might not have committed should really be the focus here.
Brean displays some wonderful class in small moments — Ryan fighting for his career when on the stand at the trial, realising that the prosecuting counsel is wearing a matching socks-and-tie ensemble, say — and shows the toughness of these men and the job they do with some linguistic choices it’s difficult to condone nearly 70 years later. But these little moments are let down by his too casual pacing and the smattering of either blindingly obvious or too-subtle clues (one subtle one is brilliant, but its usefulness was dismissed a hundred ages earlier) that don’t really add up to the conclusion he’s ambling towards. And the one moral aspect of the whole thing, the sort of situation that it would be possible to justify the entire edifice taking its sweet time to reach, never materialises, as events off the page rob us of the most interesting possibility and a final page played oddly for ambiguity’s sake removes any chance that any of this will have anything approaching consequences.
Dead Sure, then, reads like an experiment — Brean perhaps seeing his genteel style of puzzle going out of vogue and trying to catch up with the harder-edged fiction that came in on the tails of the Golden Age. And it’s perhaps 60% successful, which only goes to highlight how difficult this sort of thing is to write well. He would follow this up with The Traces of Brillhart (1960), which would hark back to his earlier writing, and its sequel The Traces of Merrilee (1960) which I’m yet to track down but am willing to bet follows suit. It would seem, then, that Brean realised this wasn’t quite his metier, but it would be unkind to criticise him for trying so earnestly to find a new form of expression; chalk this down as an interesting failure, and look elsewhere in his very interesting career before condemning him on this evidence.