Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Crimes of the Century 1949: The Screaming Mimi (Fredric Brown)

Psychiatry was all the rage in late 1940s popular culture, very au courant, as witness films such as Spellbound and The Snake Pit, or the three dazzling novels that John Franklin Bardin published between 1946 and 1948, The Deadly Percheron, The Last of Philip Banter, and Devil Take the Blue-Tail Fly. So when a character early in Fredric Brown's equally dazzling The Screaming Mimi makes a seemingly casual reference to having had psychiatric training, you may be sure it is a significant moment.

Fredric Brown (1906-1972) is one of the rare authors to distinguish himself in both crime fiction and science fiction, and he brought an offbeat sense of humor to both. The Screaming Mimi (1949) is a standalone hard-boiled mystery with a newspaper reporter rather than a detective as its protagonist. Bill Sweeney is an unmarried Irish-American scribe in his early 40s who claims not to be an alcoholic (right) but who goes on benders during which he winds up on park benches with other drunks - which is how the novel opens, as a matter of fact, and it gives nothing away to say that is how it ends, as well. Loop the loop!

Brown says on the opening page, "it isn't a nice story. It's got murder in it, and women and liquor and gambling and even prevarication" (love that "even," a neat specimen of Brown's puckishness). Sweeney will witness the aftermath of an attempted killing and become obsessed with the victim, who just happens to be a stripper who performs an act with a large and ferocious-looking dog. You can already see how this gets psychological.

The "Screaming Mimi" of the title is a semi-mass-produced "fine art" statuette of a terrified nude woman, which figures heavily in the narrative: "The mouth was wide open in a soundless scream. The arms were thrust out, palms forward, to hold off some approaching horror." Believe me that I know that the phrase "semi-mass-produced 'fine art' statuette" is rife with internal contradictions, which happen to be completely germane to the story. Sweeney is a high-culture snob who dotes on his semi-mass-produced classical music 78s and shudders when he hears Irving Berlin mentioned. (This is funny, since Berlin and his "Great American Songbook" colleagues are now considered classical composers, just about.)

It gets better. The statuette looks like it is made of ebony, but it's not. "It is made of a new plastic that can't be told from ebony, unless you pick it up. The dull gloss is the same as ebony's, to the eye." Things are not what they seem!, check. Repros and knock-offs.

Then when Sweeney's apartment is burgled, the thief fails to take "a stickpin with a zircon in it that [he] could not have been sure wasn't a diamond." Who can be sure of anything, those days or these days?

In case you're wondering, Walter Benjamin's seminal 1936 essay "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" would not be published in English translation until 1968, but in 1949 Brown is already channeling its spirit, big-time.

I don't want to go any further with the plot of The Screaming Mimi; you really need to read it. It is an absolute classic of its kind, easily as good as Raymond Chandler when he was cooking. It has a coterie reputation, but is not as well-known as it should be (although you know about it now, and that's all that really counts). No Brown title was included in the Library of America's big two-volume set of noir novels of the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s, and that was a criminal oversight.

The Screaming Mimi has been adapted for the movies twice, by Gerd Oswald as Screaming Mimi in 1958, and by Dario Argento as The Bird with the Crystal Plumage in 1970. I haven't seen either, but I feel confident that the Oswald film, at least, must have considerably altered Brown's overall thrust, because there is no way that a 1958 movie, even luridly put forward as "The strip-tease murder case!" and featuring Gypsy Rose Lee in a supporting role, could have encompassed some of the twists of the original.   

Yes, I have been mimicking Brown's Mimi style throughout this piece. Sharp of you to notice.

The Screaming Mimi


  1. A superb writeup -- many thanks. I have this novel on my reading horizons . . . and can't imagine why I haven't read it before. I'm a big fan of Brown's f/sf short stories.

  2. Thanks so much! You will not be disappointed in this book.