His Name Was Death
by Fredric Brown
Review by Ed
In the world of crime novels, it's only a matter of time before an average
Joe with an opportunity to make a few crooked bucks goes for it. After all, an engraver
with a print shop can only make so
many sales flyers ("SHEET BLANKETS. Assorted cotton plaid, deep napped. Pink, blue, green. Regularly
$1.49") before he turns to counterfeiting bills.
"You'd never in a thousand years have guessed that he was a murderer
and a criminal. You'd have thought him dull, plodding, honest," Brown writes.
Emboldened by getting away with the murder of his philandering wife the
year before, Darius Conn figures that printing up fake $10 bills will be a cakewalk,
in Frederic Brown's 1951 novel, His Name Was Death. And like every criminal,
he figured wrong. But how straight a life can someone named "Conn" live?
Despite Conn's careful planning, the fake bills end up in circulation
prematurely, setting off a chain of murders as he hunts down and kills the unfortunate
recipients of the bills.
The book, which jumps between Conn's and his victims' points of view,
shows Brown's mastery of internal dialog, which puts an individual face on the most
mundane of lives. A man, just scraping by, envisions his upcoming marriage changing
his drifting ways. A woman who gets stood up for a date is distressed that she went
too early to a double feature to kill the entire afternoon. But how the criminal thinks
is of prime importance, and Conn's cockiness as he contemplates the next step for the "Perfect
Criminal" is chilling.
Brown's flashes of dark humor work well. When Conn mulls over murdering
his assistant at the print shop, the thought of searching for someone as good a worker
gives him genuine pause for thought.
His Name Was Death may not be "hard" enough for some
hard-boiled fans, but its portrait of unflinching viciousness sheathed inside a mild-mannered
printer will disturb any jaded readers. You may never look at Kinko's the same way
after reading it.