I’m sorry to have neglected this page recently; other editorial responsibilities were demanding my more immediate attention. However, I don’t want to wave out November without mentioning at least one more dynamite front cover, this one from Bantam Books’ 1957 paperback reissue of Frederic Brown’s The Wench Is Dead.
The novel actually started out as a short story. As Jack Seabrook recalls in his biography, Martians and Misplaced Clues: The Life and Work of Fredric Brown (1993), the hard-boiled crime-fiction digest Manhunt magazine offered Brown $1,000 in 1953 to compose an original, 10,000-word tale. The author was then living in Venice, California, still chasing after fame (though he’d won an Edgar Award for his debut novel, The Fabulous Clipjoint), and he needed the dough. So he batted out “The Wench Is Dead”--which, Seabrook says, “the magazine’s editors loved and published in the July 1953 issue.”
Brown presumably took his title from a line in playwright Christopher Marlowe’s 1589 stage drama The Jew of Malta, but the story--about a young man of good family from Chicago, who finds a new life among the bums, crooks, and prostitutes of Los Angeles’ poorer quarter, only to become involved in the stabbing death of his girlfriend’s upstairs neighbor--is all Brown’s. Remarking on the set-up of that yarn, Seabrook notes that “in ‘The Wench Is Dead,’ the hero is an alcoholic and the killer a drug addict--quite a picture of life in the sordid world of the Los Angeles underclass.”
By the time Manhunt readers finally had a chance to enjoy “The Wench Is Dead” in print, Brown had already moved on to writing other short stories as well as the science-fiction novel called His Name Was Death (which would be published in 1954). But he returned to “The Wench Is Dead” in January 1954, intending to beef it up to novel length--a task he finished by September of that same year. The book The Wench Is Dead, which Seabrook says differs “strikingly ... from the novelette in a number of important ways,” was published in hardcover by Dutton in May 1955, and was reviewed widely. Critic and mystery writer Anthony Boucher offered his opinion of Brown’s book in the May 8, 1955, edition of The New York Times:
Despite appearances, don’t look for a regular whodunit here; as such [The Wench Is Dead] has marked weaknesses. The surprise lies, not in the murder plot, but in the development of the character of the detective--a high school teacher from Chicago, candidate for an M.A. in sociology, who spends the summer on Los Angeles’ Skid Row learning the life of a wino in order to do social research from the inside. The setting is so sharply observed that one almost believes Brown must have done the same; and the gratifyingly unconventional story is told with conciseness and bite.While the Dutton hardcover front for this novel (right) was pretty damn lackluster, Bantam’s paperback version (top) was nothing less than outstanding. This is a tribute primarily to the artist, Mitchell Hooks, who I’ve talked about before on this page in relation to Mike Avallone’s The Voodoo Murders. Hooks’ painting captures not only the squalor that backdrops Brown’s L.A. tale, but offers immediate suggestions of sex, fear, and violence--all of which helped produce favorable paperback sales during America’s post-World War II era. And still make this cover a winner, even more than half a century later.
READ MORE: “The Wench Is Dead (1955), by Fredric Brown,”
by Sergio Angelini (Tipping My Fedora); “The Wench Is Dead (Reading California Fiction).