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Wednesday, August 04, 2010

The Fabulous Clipjoint

The Fabulous Clipjoint is one of those books I would have missed out on if not for the relative ease with which copyright-expired (and, usually, out-of-print) books can be downloaded from the internet these days. Frankly, prior to discovering this title on the net, I knew nothing about Fredric Brown’s writing career or about The Fabulous Clipjoint, his first novel. What caught my eye was the cover art of the book’s original 1947 edition – one glance, and I knew I had to read this one.

From the cover, I expected a hardboiled piece of American noir style detective fiction, the kind of stuff that is still so popular with readers today. And I got that, plus a big surprise. The Fabulous Clipjoint is also a fine coming-of-age novel about Ed Hunter, an 18-year-old boy whose father is murdered late one night in one of Chicago’s back alleys. The elder Hunter, apparently on his way home from an evening of local bar-hopping, never made it. Ed was not particularly happy about his home life even before his father’s murder but, now that he is stuck at home with just his alcoholic stepmother and his randy 15-year-old stepsister, life at home is trickier than ever.

Things get interesting when Ed’s Uncle Am (Ambrose) shows up to help the family through its grieving process. Am runs a game of chance in a traveling carnival that just happens to be passing through Chicago at the time of his brother’s murder. Am is determined to identify the killer and, since Ed’s boss has given him a few days off from the printing shop he works at, he decides to help his uncle nose around Chicago’s north side.

Am knows that his amateur investigation will bring him and Ed into contact with the thugs and lowlifes that thrive in Chicago’s criminal underbelly. If they are to achieve their goal – and survive the process – the Hunters are going to have to be as tough and fearless as those they want to intimidate into telling them the truth about what happened to Ed’s father in that dark alley. Am, world-wise and rough enough around the edges to pull off a tough guy image, begins a makeover of young Ed that is half the fun of the book. Before long, Ed, dressed in his new tough-guy-suit, finds himself bluffing his way through confrontations with thugs and their women in a way he could not have imagined himself doing even a few days earlier.

This one is fun on several different levels, among them: its hardboiled look at big city life just after WWII; the nurturing relationship that develops between Ed and Am; the ease with which Ed grows into playing “gangster;” and the feeling of nostalgia that reading something from this period always generates.

The Fabulous Clipjoint won an Edgar for “Best First Novel” in 1948 and, as it turns outs, was the beginning of a series of seven “Ed and Am Hunter” novels written between 1947 and 1963. In addition to the Ed and Am series, Brown wrote at least twenty other novels in the fifties and early sixties, most of them science fiction. He is also the author of numerous short stories. I look forward to experiencing more of his work – in both genres.

Rated at: 4.0
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