The Lenient Beast, by Fredric Brown (Bantam, 1958).
Illustration by Mitchell Hooks.
Ohio-born newspaperman-turned-pulp author Fredric Brown produced a wealth of both crime fiction and science fiction, and demonstrated a particular talent for composing first lines. His novels featuring Chicago private eyes Ed and Am Hunter (The Fabulous Clipjoint, 1947) still claim a healthy following, and many people include his unconventional The Wench Is Dead (1955) and his despair-ridden The Far Cry (1951) among their favorite Brown works, but it’s 1949’s The Screaming Mimi that’s been deemed a noir classic (you can read that entire book online here).
The Lenient Beast is a standalone tale of betrayal and obsession. A chunk of the story, titled “Line of Duty,” appeared in Manhunt magazine in April 1956, and Dutton published a hardcover edition of The Lenient Beast later that same year. British author Martin Edwards (The Golden Age of Murder) sums up its premise this way:
The first chapter gets the book off to an excellent start. John Medley, apparently a respectable bachelor with a taste for classical music, discovers a man’s body in his backyard one morning and call[s] the police. The dead man has been shot and a murder hunt is launched.He adds that “The Lenient Beast certainly lived up to my expectations, high as they were.” As one who has probably not read nearly enough of Brown’s abundant output, I should move this 1958 paperback--with its dark and threatening Mitchell Hooks cover illustration--closer to the top of my most-wanted list.
The story is short, crisp and fascinating and a clever feature is the way Brown uses multiple viewpoints, so that we see the same events from different perspectives. The characterization, especially of a cop of Mexican origin, is excellent and the setting in Tucson, Arizona, is vividly conveyed. I also thought that the depiction of racial prejudice was very well done. What is more, the murder motive is memorable--my only quibble is that I had a rather similar idea some time ago and am dismayed to discover that it is not as unique as I thought!