RARA-AVIS: 1950s: His Name Was Death

From: William Denton ( buff@pobox.com)
Date: 15 Jan 2003

I had a much easier time finding a book from the fifties to read than I did finding one from an earlier decade. With pulps dying and paperbacks exploding, there's a lot more work from that time that's easy to find in new and used bookstores.

Frederic Brown's HIS NAME WAS DEATH (1951 or 1954?) was one of the early Vintage/Black Lizard reprints, done in 1991, which is the edition I've got. (The cover's got a great photo, of a tough-looking hombre in a fedora, almost all his face hidden in shadow, climbing some stairs.)

The title comes from Revelations 6:8, which in the King James Version says, "And I looked, and behold a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death, and Hell followed with him." (Other books and Eastwood's PALE RIDER (1985) have drawn from the same verse.)

The gimmick to the book is that each of the six or seven sections starts with "His name was" or "Her name was." The book begins, "Her name was Joyce Dugan, and at four o'clock on this February afternoon she had no remote thought that within the hour before closing time she was about to commit an act that would instigate a chain of murders." The last section, just a couple of pages long, begins, "His name was Death, and he waited for ____."

The book starts off with Joyce Dugan, and then the focus moves around a few other people, mostly on her boss, Darius Conn, who runs a print shop. The year before he'd killed his wife and gotten away with it, and now he's feeling bold and very confident. He's got a plan, and no-one's going to get in his way. Brown spends a fair bit of time in people's heads, and I wasn't particularly in the mood to read page after page of a man wondering if marriage was right and whether he'd settle down or his fiancee wondering if she'd wake up in time to get to the early shift at the cafe. There are some tortured conversations where the killer tries to worm information out of people, but Brown's a fine writer and the book moves quickly. I wouldn't rank it as top-notch, though.


William Denton : Toronto, Canada : http://www.miskatonic.org/ : Caveat lector.

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