If mystery fiction has its own equivalent of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, this might be it. It’s not a wholly accurate description, and I’m sure there are a lot of folks who’d take me to task for it, but The Fabulous Clipjoint may be the closest thing in spirit—though without the comedy—to Mark Twain’s masterwork that the genre has.

At eighteen, Ed Hunter is older than Huck and a good deal more worldly. When his father is beaten to death, the apparent victim of a random mugging, he wants answers but knows he‘s out of his depth when it comes to getting them. He therefore enlists the help of his father’s brother Ambrose, a carnival barker savvy in the ways of the mean streets. In teaming up with Uncle Am to solve what they eventually determine is a deliberate murder rather than an impersonal mugging, Ed undertakes his own Huck-like voyages of discovery through the streets of Chicago and thus performs his rite of passage.

The characters, with perhaps one or two exceptions, are neither all good nor all bad. Most exhibit morally gray behaviors and attitudes. The story itself is as “naturalistic” as any I’ve ever read in the genre, a superb example of the kind Raymond Chandler alluded to when he wrote about Dashiell Hammett (and by extension other pulp writers) giving “murder back to the kind of people that commit it for reasons, not just to provide a corpse.” Anthony Boucher called it “a singularly effective job of portraying people as they are and murder as it is—a solidly compelling story.” But while it contains its share of dark moments and situations, and has a strong sense of place, Brown’s style—though eminently readable—is relatively pedestrian, lacks the brooding lyricism that infuses, for instance, a David Goodis novel.

The Fabulous Clipjoint has been marginalized as a minor classic for many years. Recently, an article by Dick Adler argued for the elevation of its stature. Read it for yourself to decide if Fredric Brown merits being ranked with Dashiell Hammett, Ross Macdonald, and Jim Thompson.

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