Now considered a minor master piece of the so called, “Noir Fiction” genre, the story has more in common with the “Golden Age of Crime and Detection” as the protagonist, though not a detective, is a reporter trying to solve a murder, or actually a string of murders. The story also has some over tones of horror, though it probably would not be considered very horrific today, this was written before Hitchcock made horror a standard fare for mysteries. Even the title conveys this with it’s play on The Screaming Meemees-an extreme attack of nerves or ; hysteria – named after the WWI bomb which was launched straight up in the air and came down with a high pitched ‘scream’ before exploding over the target. The tale opens with a typical Noir subject. A hopeless drunk, seemingly beyond redemption. Then Brown does something daring stylistically –his stylistic elements would become a signature for him – the story is told by a omniscient narrator who addresses the reader directly as we’ll see in a moment. It also involves an apparent ‘serial killer’ then known as a ‘homicidal maniac’. Let’s get to the tale, which is really quite good.
“You can never tell what a drunken Irishman will do.You can make a flying guess; you can make a lot of flying guesses.
You can list them in order of probability. The likely ones are easy. He might go after another drink, start a fight, make a speech, take a train….You can work down the list of possibilities; he might buy some green paint, chop down a maple tree, do a fan dance, sing “God Save The King”, steal an oboe…You can work on down and down to things get less and less likely, and eventually you might hit the rock bottom of improbability: He might make a resolution and stick with it.
And that is the protagonist of Browns tale. Bill Sweeny. Sweeny is a drunk. He has been on a two week bender. His clothes are stinking rags, and his body isn’t much better. He hasn’t shaved in god knows when (actually God makes an appearance real soon) and he sleeps on a bench and is scheming where he can beg borrow or steal the next bottle. But there is more to Sweeny than meets the eye.
“His name really was Sweeney, but he was only five-eighths Irish and he was only three-quarters drunk.
But that’s about as near as truth ever approximates a pattern, and if you won’t settle for that, you’d better quit reading. If you don’t, maybe you’ll be sorry, for it isn’t a nice story. It’s got murder in it, and woman and liquor and gambling and even prevarication. There’s murder before the story proper starts, and murder after it ends; the actual story begins with a naked woman and ends with one, which is a good opening and a good ending, but everything between isn’t nice. Don’t say I didn’t warn you. But if you’re still with me, let’s get back to Sweeney.”
As you can see, this is an unusual narrative style, it’s like you are gathered around a four-top in a smoky little bar and the guy has you leaning over, smugly telling his tale in an all-knowing tone in the hopes you’ll buy the next round. And it works. Both the style, and the next round bit. Brown has this omniscient narrator not only to open the story and close it, but he pops in from time to time throughout. It really works.
Sweeney is sitting on a park bench one summer night next to God. Sweeny rather likes God, although not many people did. God was a tallish, scrawny old man with a nicotine stained beard. His full name is Godfrey and he is another hopeless alcoholic. As Brown goes on to describe him, “He’s a little cracked. But not much. No more than the other bums his age that live on the near north side of Chicago and hang out, when the weathers good, in Bughouse Square.
“Bughouse Square has another name, but the other name is less appropriate. It is between Clarke and Dearborn Street, just south of the Newberry Library; that’s it’s horizontal location. Vertically speaking it is quite a bit nearer hell than heaven. I mean it is bright with lights, but dark with the shadows of the defeated men who sit on the benches, all night long.”
Soon Sweeney must go for a walk before he can either sleep or find a way to get another drink. It is a drunken stupor of a walk and soon finds Sweeney as witness to a bizarre crime, or the tail end of one. He sees through a lobby window a stunningly gorgeous woman with a knife wound on her belly. there is a rather large, wolf like dog and the police are about to shoot it when it rears up, seemingly to attack the woman. Only it doesn’t attack her it gently grabs the zipper on the back of her dress and lowers it, leaving her stark naked and Sweeney smitten. It is then that Sweeney makes the resolution. He will sober up, he will get his life back in order, because he must have this woman. It is then that we find out that Sweeney is actually a reporter for the Chicago Blade. He went AWOL and fully expects to have lost his job, his apartment and all his possessions, which he figures he probably hocked or sold for booze. But, his land lady wouldn’t let him pedal his belongings and has kept his room even though he is behind on his rent. And his boss conveniently kept his job and listed him as “on vacation”. during his bender. He finds this out when he takes an eye witness account of this event, which turns out to be the latest attack of “The Ripper” and tries to sell it to his paper so as to stake himself on the road to recovery. Sweeney has the weekend, 72 hours to investigate the Ripper Killings, of which there has been three. Sweeney soon discovers, as he tries to get his system clear of alcohol and struggles to drink lightly –a functioning alcoholic is our Sweeney – that the first victim, an ex-chorine living with a con man had sold a statuette to the Ripper, shortly before she was victim number one. The statuette is The Screaming Mimi, so called by the art company that cast it. He finds out that there were only two of the Mimi’s sold in Chicago and quickly acquires the only other, a hauntingly strange work that could only appeal to a mad man. But, it appeals to Sweeney.
He then meets Doc Greene, a one time psychiatrist, and now a booking agent for night club talent. He is the agent for the beautiful and alluring Yolanda, the victim that survived, only because The Ripper was scared off by the dog. Greene is obsessively protective of ‘Yo’ and soon gloms onto Sweeney’s intentions, which aren’t altogether honorable. Sweeney suspects that Greene is the Ripper, even though the only evidence is his personal hatred of the man. Greene soon suspect Sweeney, since he was in a drunken haze at the crime scene. And the local cop, Bline soon investigate Sweeney as well. The dialog is swift, clever, and full of snappy, funny conversations as Greene and Sweeney swipe and snipe. And Brown fleshes out the characters rather well. We find that Sweeney is a connoisseur of classical music and that Greene is rather smart and a not all together bad business man. We are left to wonder about Sweeney’s motives. Does he really mean to capture and expose the Ripper, or is that only the path to the alluring Yolanda?
Sweeney’s investigation leads him to Wisconsin, where the original artist that sculpted the Mimi lives in his own drunken stupor, having modeled the statue of a real life event where an escaped mental patient attempted to slash his own sister, who got the “screaming meemees” from the event and ended up dying in a mental hospital from the shock. This seemingly dead end comes near the end of Sweeney’s 72 hours, when he’ll have to go back to work at the newspaper. Sweeney fills the hunt with twists, turns, dead ends and plenty of suspects and though all the clues are there, the ‘reveal’ will astound you.
Brown put together a classic, yet original hardboiled detective whodunit mixed successfully with a serial killer plot in this story. As a rule serial killers don’t work in a whodunit, but Brown was a master. Written in 1949, it was in the second year of Brown’s writing full time. Unfortunately, he was well into his 40’s and would only write full time for another 13 years. Brown never garnered the respect of the critics, or even the publishers during his life as he switched back and forth from crime stories to Sci-Fi, where he wrote classics that so impressed Phillip K. Dick that he praised some of his work as seminal to the genre. Brown was, however very popular with the readers and respected by more successful authors that were his peers. The book was turned into two movies, 1958’s vehicle starring Anita Ekberg and Gypsy Rose Lee. Titled, Screaming Mimi.
It was also the model for the classic Italian giallo film(or yellow, from the color of the cheap paperbacks the genre was named for in the crime fiction/mystery mode with horror and eroticism as main ingredients-similar to French Noir) ,the Bird with the Crystal Plumage from 1970, directed by Dario Argento and winning the 1971 Edgar Allan Poe award . Brown was unaccredited. for the film.
During the 30’s Brown became the King of the Short Short, short stories often published in the pulps and being between 1 and 3 pages long. Browns first novel, 1947’s The Fabulous Clip Joint won the Edgar that year for best first novel and introduced his series characters, Ed and Ambrose Hunter. he is truly one of the forgotten masters of the paperback era of crime fiction. By the way, this novel is available for free from Munsey’s, here.
The Dirty Lowdown