“He sat and thought and drank. He looked at his watch and it was a few minutes after eleven. And after a long while he looked at his watch again . . . and it was still the same time. So he’d forgotten to wind his watch that morning, and now he didn’t know what time it was. And he didn’t care.”
The Far Cry (1951) is small and vast, mean and sad, terse and terrifying. It is a tragedy wrapped in a crime story – or maybe it works the other way around. In short, it is a novel that ranks with the best noir fiction of James M. Cain, Cornell Woolrich, and Patricia Highsmith.
I’ve read very little Cain, Woolrich or Highsmith, and I’ve never read the work of Fredric Brown, author of The Far Cry. But mystery writer Christine Poulson recommended this one on the GAD Facebook page with a delightful tease:
“I’ve read so many crime novels that I’m rarely surprised by plot twists or startling solutions. I was pretty sure that I knew where things were heading when I recently read Fredric Brown’s The Far Cry– but he had totally pulled the wool over my eyes. What an ending!”
I’m a total sucker for an ending that leaves you gobsmacked! In a mystery, we expect the surprise to revolve around the identity of the killer. I fell out of my chair reading both Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express and Queen’s The Greek Coffin Mystery. I was a kid, then, so I guess my reactions are slower, but more recently, I felt a similar thrill at the reveal in Carter Dickson’s She Died a Lady.
Sometimes, though, the shocker in a mystery is like that of any great novel: something happens that reveals the depths (and occasional heights) of human nature that moves you so profoundly that you stare at the final page for minutes, loath to close the cover and end a profound reading experience.
I spotted the killer almost immediately in Carr’s He Who Whispers, but the final page is so gasp-inducing I didn’t care. There’s a moment at the climax of Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle– and let me tell you, it is one of the most frightening and gripping climaxes you will ever read – where all that has come before is turned around with a simple question and answer. The fate of the title character in Miss Pym Disposes is so – well, I won’t give it away, but it makes it impossible for a reader to have middling feelings about Josephine Tey’s novel; you either hate it (sorry, Kate) or you love it . . . and I do.
I could not find a copy of The Far Cry, so I rented the audio book on my Hoopla app. It was recorded by Stefan Rudnicki for Blackstone Audio. He was born in Krakow in 1945, so as of this writing, he is 73 years old. He works as an audiobook narrator, director and actor, and his voice is satisfyingly deep and rich and perfect for the sense of quiet menace that seeps into Brown’s narrative, takes root there and grows.
George Weaver is a real estate agent from Kansas City, MO, who at the start of the novel has moved to Taos, New Mexico. Outside his hotel, he runs into an old friend, a true crime writer named Luke Ashley, who is doing research into an old Lonelyhearts murder case for an article or book he plans to write. It’s the brutal death of a pretty girl named Jenny Ames at the hands of the man she met through the 1940’s version of Tinder, an artist loner named Charles Nelson who killed and buried her and then disappeared.
For the past eight years, Nelson’s cottage has sat abandoned on the outskirts of town. Ashley arranges for Weaver to live there rent-free. All he has to do to satisfy the realtor is fix the place up and live there through the summer to prove to the residents that the house isn’t haunted and make it more sellable. All Weaver has to do for Ashley is poke around and see if he can uncover new information on the Jenny Ames case: where was she from? Why did nobody step forward after her death? Why did Nelson kill her, and where did he
We’ve seen similar set-ups in a variety of genres. Stephen King comes to mind, and his stories of men caught up in past ghost stories never end well for anybody. Then there are films like The Portrait of Jennie, which combine the supernatural with the romantic.
Even before he starts looking into the fate of Jenny Ames, we can tell that George Weaver has his own problems. Without giving away too much of the plot, he is in Taos to try and reclaim a life that has run away from him: his marriage, his work, his very sanity are all in a fragile state. And as he spends his first few nights in the secluded cottage where a girl once fled a madman, listens to the howling of the coyotes in the surrounding hills and drinks incessantly, you know that this can’t possibly end well.
Weaver seeks out the locals who knew both Jenny and Charles Nelson and taps their memories for information about the events that happened eight years ago. By the time his wife Vi joins him, having placed their two girls in a camp for the summer, Weaver has become obsessed with Jenny. Her innocence and beauty contrast sharply with the woman Weaver’s wife has become: blowsy, stupid, and fretful
This is not a traditional whodunit by any means, although there are clues to the true nature of things, if you can even fathom what shape the truth should take here. If anything, Brown reverses the classic GAD idea that a search for answers can bring about a restoration of order. In Vera Caspary’s Laura, the detective nearly drowns in his obsessive love for a dead girl. In the film, at least, that sense of near obliteration is relieved by a few choice twists in the plot. In The Far Cry, Brown twists events like a rusty knife, revealing further and further the depths of mediocrity, depravity and outright cruelty people can sink to. As Weaver closes in on the answer, we start to wonder if he – or anyone – will find relief upon casting light upon the past.
And then Brown lays it on you, piling revelation upon revelation through the final section. And just when you thought it was all laid out, he lays you out flat. At least, he knocked me for a loop, and I got up staggering. I timed it well, finishing the book at the end of a strenuous walk, so that I could immediately head into a hot, cleansing shower.
Brown’s prose is deceptively simple and thrillingly vivid. A sample description, this of a woman Weaver meets on his journey: “She was tall and thin and pale and gray. She had lips like rubber bands and eyes like buttons too small for their buttonholes.” Over the course of the novel, we get as frank a depiction of alcoholism as I have ever read. Brown also deals heavily with the topic of homosexuality. Considering that it was 1951, I guess his depiction is relatively measured and non-hysterical. Ellery Queen should be ashamed of himself in comparison.
I have to take my noir in carefully measured doses, or it sends my mood plummeting. But I offer a high recommendation for The Far Cry. Read it on a sunny day, outside in a park. Or just say, “Screw it!,” pour yourself a stiff scotch, and get to it. You won’t be sorry.
*I took the title of this post from a poem by Kevin Young, whose writing is like noir in verse. The poem is called “I am Trying to Break Your Heart”:
- I am hoping
- to hang your head
- on my wall
- in shame—
- the slightest taxidermy
- thrills me. Fish
- forever leaping
- on the living-room wall—
- paperweights made
- from skulls
- of small animals.
- I want to wear
- your smile on my sleeve
- & break
- your heart like a horse
- or its leg. Weeks of being
- bucked off, then
- all at once, you’re mine—
- Put me down.
- I want to call you thine
- to tattoo mercy
- along my knuckles. I assassin
- down the avenue
- I hope
- to have you forgotten
- by noon. To know you
- by your knees
- palsied by prayer.
- Loneliness is a science—
- consider the taxidermist’s
- tender hands
- trying to keep from losing
- skin, the bobcat grin
- of the living.