Tuesday, June 7, 2011

First Lines: Fredric Brown

All it takes is one sentence to transport you into the world of Fredric Brown.

His voice is as distinctive as his plots and his characters. In many ways, even when he is using a third-person narrator, it seems as though his voice is, in fact, a character in the story. Brown is omnipresent throughout his works, from first sentence to last. But, in this post, it is only the first sentences I am concerned with.

Below are the first sentences to each of his novels that were published during his lifetime. Both mystery and sci-fi are included, as is his novella, The Case of the Dancing Sandwiches. I include that only because it was published individually by Dell, the way a novel would have been. Plus, it is a great title, and the opening line is pretty spectacular.

Reading through these, there are a few recognizable traits that are characteristically Brown. First is his pacing. His books begin the way someone would tell a story orally, as though it was being told around a campfire, or as creepy bedtime story, and other times it reminds of a crazy adventure recounted at the local pub. Sometimes it feels like all three of these at the same time. His Name Was Death is a perfect examples of this.

Another trait that should come as no surprise is Brown's humor. Look at his last published novel, Mrs. Murphy's Underpants -- would anyone else juxtapose a "broken rib" and a "broken trombone" right off the bat? Only Brown. Or how about the playful repetition at the start of The Wench is Dead: "A fuzz is a fuzz is a fuzz..."

And then there are the dark portents and sinister undercurrents that are never entirely absent from Brown's writing, even when he is cracking wise. The Dead Ringer, Compliments of a Fiend, and especially The Far Cry, are perfect examples of this.

Brown, at his best, is unpredictable. He'll take a story where no one else would dare to -- or even have a wild enough imagination to think of. The Screaming Mimi's opener, "You can never tell what a drunken Irishman will do," succinctly conveys this sense of limitless possibilities.

His first lines could be leisurely, such as the twisted Dickensian start to Here Comes a Candle, or they could be fast, hard and punchy, like The Lenient Beast ("Late this morning I found a dead man in my backyard") or Knock Three-One-Two ("He had a name, but it doesn't matter; call him the psycho").

As these opening lines suggest, there are many facets to Brown's style, but they all share one thing in common: they are all unmistakably the work of Fredric Brown.

Below are the lines, pasted first with high-quality scans from my own collection, and second with just the text.

First Lines: Fredric Brown (with cover scans)

"In my dream I was reaching right through the window of a hockshop."
-The Fabulous Clipjoint, 1947

"It didn't seem in the least like a prelude to murder."
-The Dead Ringer, 1948

"There are few streets in America down which a man wearing a mask can walk without attracting undue attention."
-Murder Can Be Fun (A Plot for Murder), 1948

"It was almost quitting time when my Uncle Am came into the back room of the Starlock Agency, where we both worked."
-The Bloody Moonlight, 1949

"You can never tell what a drunken Irishman will do."
-The Screaming Mimi, 1949

"The first attempt to send a rocket to the moon, in 1954, was a failure."
-What Mad Universe, 1949

"Uncle Am didn't get home that night."
-Compliments of a Fiend, 1950

"His name was Joe Bailey and the start of what happened to him was on a midsummer right in 1929 in a flat on Dearborn Street in Chicago, when he was pushed and pulled, head first, from a snug, warm, moist place where he had been quite content."
-Here Comes a Candle, 1950

"In my dream I was standing in the middle of Oak Street and it was dark night."
-Night of the Jabberwock, 1950

"It was hotter and muggier than most August days in Chicago."
-Death Has Many Doors, 1951

"Sudden terror in her eyes, Jenny backed away from the knife, her hand groping behind her for the knob of the kitchen door."
-The Far Cry, 1951

"It was an evening like any other evening--up to midnight, when the drinks began to sneak up on him."
-The Case of the Dancing Sandwiches, 1951

"The telephone directory had given me the address; it was an apartment building like any fairly new, medium-priced apartment building midway between downtown and the suburbs."
-We All Killed Grandma, 1952

"The Herald city room was hot enough to bake a cake, although it was only half past ten by the big electric clock on the wall."
-The Deep End, 1953

"Mack Irby stoke leaning on a heavy cane listening to grind of the talker for the unborn show."
-Madball, 1953

"I'd been intending to stay a few more days but, that afternoon, something changed my mind."
-The Lights in the Sky Are Stars, 1953

"Her name was Joyce Dugan, and at four o'clock on this February afternoon she had no remote thought that within the hour before closing time she was about to commit an act that wold instigate a chain of murders."
-His Name Was Death, 1954

"A fuzz is a fuzz is a fuzz when you waken from a wino jag."
-The Wench is Dead, 1955

"If the peoples of Earth were not prepared for the coming of the Martians, it was their own fault."
-Martians, Go Home, 1955

"Late this morning I found a dead man in my backyard."
-The Lenient Beast, 1956

"Call him by no name, for he had no name."
-Rogue in Space, 1957

"It was the first murder case I'd ever had a chance to work on, and I could easily have missed that chance if we'd know that it was a murder case when the call came in."
-One for the Road, 1958

"The office of Conger & Way was on the second floor of a building that once stood on Commerce Street in Cincinnati, not far from the then-famous Suspension Bridge that leads across the wide, muddy Ohio River to Covington, Kentucky."
-The Office, 1958

"He had a name, but it doesn't matter; call him the psycho."
-Knock Three-One-Two, 1959

"My uncle said, 'Gin, Ed,' and put down his cards."
-The Late Lamented, 1959

"I woke to darkness, with the shreds of a ridiculous dream keeping me from knowing what had awakened me or even who I was."
-The Murderers, 1961

"The Mind Thing used his preceptor sense to test this strange and alien environment in which he found himself."
-The Mind Thing, 1961

"Sitting there stunned, reading and rereading the kidnapper's ransom note in my own typewriter, all I could think of was, Oh God, oh God, why did this have to happen now, now when Ellen and I were in the midst of the worst quarrel we'd had in five years of marriage, now when, if I never saw her alive again I'd never be able to apologize for the horrible things I'd said to her at breakfast."
-Five-Day Nightmare, 1962

"I was lying on my bed that evening with a broken rib and a broken trombone."
-Mrs. Murphy's Underpants, 1963

First Lines: Fredric Brown (text only)

"In my dream I was reaching right through the window of a hockshop."
-The Fabulous Clipjoint, 1947

"It didn't seem in the least like a prelude to murder."
-The Dead Ringer, 1948

"There are few streets in America down which a man wearing a mask can walk without attracting undue attention."
-Murder Can Be Fun (A Plot for Murder), 1948

"It was almost quitting time when my Uncle Am came into the back room of the Starlock Agency, where we both worked."
-The Bloody Moonlight, 1949

"You can never tell what a drunken Irishman will do."
-The Screaming Mimi, 1949

"The first attempt to send a rocket to the moon, in 1954, was a failure."
-What Mad Universe, 1949

"Uncle Am didn't get home that night."
-Compliments of a Fiend, 1950

"His name was Joe Bailey and the start of what happened to him was on a midsummer right in 1929 in a flat on Dearborn Street in Chicago, when he was pushed and pulled, head first, from a snug, warm, moist place where he had been quite content."
-Here Comes a Candle, 1950

"In my dream I was standing in the middle of Oak Street and it was dark night."
-Night of the Jabberwock, 1950

"It was hotter and muggier than most August days in Chicago."
-Death Has Many Doors, 1951

"Sudden terror in her eyes, Jenny backed away from the knife, her hand groping behind her for the knob of the kitchen door."
-The Far Cry, 1951

"It was an evening like any other evening--up to midnight, when the drinks began to sneak up on him."
-The Case of the Dancing Sandwiches, 1951

"The telephone directory had given me the address; it was an apartment building like any fairly new, medium-priced apartment building midway between downtown and the suburbs."
-We All Killed Grandma, 1952

"The Herald city room was hot enough to bake a cake, although it was only half past ten by the big electric clock on the wall."
-The Deep End, 1953

"Mack Irby stoke leaning on a heavy cane listening to grind of the talker for the unborn show."
-Madball, 1953

"I'd been intending to stay a few more days but, that afternoon, something changed my mind."
-The Lights in the Sky Are Stars, 1953

"Her name was Joyce Dugan, and at four o'clock on this February afternoon she had no remote thought that within the hour before closing time she was about to commit an act that wold instigate a chain of murders."
-His Name Was Death, 1954

"A fuzz is a fuzz is a fuzz when you waken from a wino jag."
-The Wench is Dead, 1955

"If the peoples of Earth were not prepared for the coming of the Martians, it was their own fault."
-Martians, Go Home, 1955

"Late this morning I found a dead man in my backyard."
-The Lenient Beast, 1956

"Call him by no name, for he had no name."
-Rogue in Space, 1957

"It was the first murder case I'd ever had a chance to work on, and I could easily have missed that chance if we'd know that it was a murder case when the call came in."
-One for the Road, 1958

"The office of Conger & Way was on the second floor of a building that once stood on Commerce Street in Cincinnati, not far from the then-famous Suspension Bridge that leads across the wide, muddy Ohio River to Covington, Kentucky."
-The Office, 1958

"He had a name, but it doesn't matter; call him the psycho."
-Knock Three-One-Two, 1959

"My uncle said, 'Gin, Ed,' and put down his cards."
-The Late Lamented, 1959

"I woke to darkness, with the shreds of a ridiculous dream keeping me from knowing what had awakened me or even who I was."
-The Murderers, 1961

"The Mind Thing used his preceptor sense to test this strange and alien environment in which he found himself."
-The Mind Thing, 1961

"Sitting there stunned, reading and rereading the kidnapper's ransom note in my own typewriter, all I could think of was, Oh God, oh God, why did this have to happen now, now when Ellen and I were in the midst of the worst quarrel we'd had in five years of marriage, now when, if I never saw her alive again I'd never be able to apologize for the horrible things I'd said to her at breakfast."
-Five-Day Nightmare, 1962

"I was lying on my bed that evening with a broken rib and a broken trombone."
-Mrs. Murphy's Underpants, 1963

3 comments:

  1. I get a kick out of first lines, too. These make a great collection, and the progression of covers is a lesson on commercial graphic design itself. Nice job. Thanks.

    ReplyDelete
  2. What a great post, Cullen! Thanks for assembling it, covers and all. Brown was a master, no doubt about it.

    I have a collection of his short stories called PARDON MY GHOULISH LAUGHTER, published in 1986. As you might imagine, there are some killer openers. Here's one from DEATH OF A VAMPIRE:

    "All in all, it was a hell of a night, from the time I asked Dracula to step outside with me and he beat me to the punch with a dagger in his own back, up to the time I found myself fighting a papier mache octopus in the dark."

    You have to hand it to him.

    ReplyDelete
  3. That's a brilliant one, Mike! I have that collection and really like it, one of the first things of Brown's that I read and it got me hooked on him. He has so many stories, but I might do a follow-up post with my favorite short story openers.

    ReplyDelete

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