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.

Authored by Ed Lin.

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