COMES A CANDLE
By FREDRIC BROWN (Bantam; 1950)
The crime novels of the late Fredric Brown often edged into horror territory. See THE FAR CRY, HIS NAME WAS DEATH and this novel, which spins a twisted story redolent of the fiction of Brown’s contemporaries Jim Thompson and Charles Williams, but with a dark, horrific edge. As he often did, Brown adds many eccentric and unexpected elements, including a warped sense of humor and a pointed political angle, as well as quite a few experimental touches that place HERE COMES A CANDLE in a category of its own.
It’s the story of 19 year old Joe Bailey, who we’re told early on will commit a murder. The identity of the victim, and the circumstances leading up to the killing, are revealed in the following pages.
Joe is in the employ of a Milwaukee based gangster named Mitch. Joe appears to be heading along the same path as his father, who was killed years earlier in a botched hold-up; it seems that as a kid Joe alerted police to his father’s involvement in the crime, a fact that has haunted him ever since. There was also a traumatic incident involving an axe and a candle that occurred even earlier in Joe’s childhood, and has left him with a lifelong phobia of axes and candles. Further complicating matters are two very different women currently vying for Joe’s affections: the sweet and wholesome waitress Ellie and the amoral seductress Francine--who just happens to be Mitch’s girlfriend.
Joe’s psychological state is conveyed via a series of interludes that dramatize his fears and anxieties in unprecedented-for-the-time multimedia fashion, each stylized in a different way: as a radio drama, a film script, a sports broadcast, etc. The prose also has a tendency to lapse into the second person, forcibly conveying just how disassociated Joe is becoming.
That Brown is able to maintain his focus amid all the stylistic bravura is the book’s most impressive feat. Audacious and experimental it may be, but HERE COMES A CANDLE is ultimately most memorable as a streamlined narrative of crime and psychosis with a real gut-punch of an ending.