Herbert Brean wrote a mere seven mystery novels, and these days he’s mostly remembered for his debut effort, Wilders Walk Away. While Wilders is an excellent read – mixing New England charm with multiple characters disappearing under impossible circumstances – I found his third novel, Hardly a Man is Now Alive, to be just as good if not better. Brean’s a unique story teller, peppering the books I’ve read with minor puzzles, quirky footnotes (including entire recipes), and plots that span centuries. I’ve been meaning to dig further into his limited catalogue; on one hand because he’s so damn good, but also because it just doesn’t seem to get explored that much.
The Darker the Night is Brean’s second novel, picking up where Wilders Walk Away left off and leading to the circumstances of Hardly a Man is Now Alive. Although there’s a bit of minor continuity, you could read these in any order that you want, although I’d recommend starting with Wilders since one potential suspect goes on to be a reoccurring character.
We find Brean’s series amateur sleuth, Reynold Frame, back at home in Manhattan following his first-book stint in the small town of Wilders Lane. Frame chances upon an old college friend whose uncle recently plunged to death from a high-rise apartment. It seems that the deceased had been poking his nose around others’ business, and Frame gets a suspicion that the police ruling of accident or suicide doesn’t match the facts. In investigating the case, Frame gets wrapped up in a fake-it-until-you-make-it Manhattan scene involving a group of motley types including a hypnotist, a professional baseball player, and a lounge singer.
Hypnotism is at the forefront of The Darker the Night, and that’s one of the elements that didn’t quite work for me. Hypnotism/amnesia plot lines are kind of a pet peeve of mine, as they feel over the top enough in a dated sense that it takes me out of the story a bit. John Dickson Carr pulled of hypnotism in Seeing is Believing because it didn’t really matter whether the assumed killer was hypnotized or not – the setup was clever enough regardless. With The Darker the Night, hypnotism is a cornerstone of the plot, and there’s this whole question of whether people are being programmed to kill or commit suicide.
Subtract the hypnotism and I still don’t think I would have been that wrapped up in the mystery. There’s an element that feels very similar to Kelley Roos’ Sailor Take Warning – a Manhattan-set mystery with a cast of odd type suspects that I didn’t particularly care about, and some who blended together. I’ll admit a bias to Golden Age NYC mysteries: if you’ve read one you’ve read them all – a minority opinion I’m sure, but as dazzling as the city is in real life, it’s just never caught a spark for me on the page (meanwhile I’ll gladly lap up countless London-set tales…).
It’s not just the setting and the characters though. The murders in The Darker the Night are of that open ended sort. There’s no real potential for clever alibi trick or some other misdirection; it’s simply that someone’s murdering people and we don’t know who it is. You could really tag anyone as the culprit with similar result, and indeed, come the solution, there’s no revelation or satisfaction; merely a name to associate with the crimes.
Which is all very unfortunate, because I got wrapped up in everything but the mystery. Herbert Brean’s an excellent story teller and Reynold Frame is as engaging of a point of view character as you get. This was an absolute page turner, as we follow Brean through a series of capers: dealing with hired thugs, drinking a potential killer under the table, and a harrowing escape from the police. As with the other two Brean novels I’ve read, the author litters the story with interesting footnotes, this time dealing with defenestration, a history of murder in NYC, and a recipe for spiedino romana. I can easily imagine rereading this book ten years from now and it being a walk down memory lane.
Overall, we have a really good Golden Age read, with the massive caveat that the actual mystery isn’t that interesting (although it still serves as a natural driving force). If you’ve enjoyed other novels by Brean, I have to think The Darker the Night will give you most of what you’re looking for, although it lacks the cozy small town atmosphere and the history elements that took Wilders Walk Away and Hardly a Man is Now Alive to another level. So, this isn’t the book that you lend out to someone, but worth a stop on your Herbert Brean journey. Speaking of which, I still have a few more of Brean’s books to track down. Next up will likely be The Clock Strikes 13; a novel that’s been recommended several times by other readers.
My 1950 Pocket Books edition is probably the only edition you’ll find for a reasonable price. The only other English edition I’ve seen is the first edition hardcover, which has some yawn-worthy artwork for a book of this era. Although, now that I think about it, aren’t most first edition covers from the Golden Age pretty mediocre? I can’t think of any time where I’ve looked at an original cover and thought that it was better than the Avon/Pocket/Dell reprint. The recent Collins Crime Club coffee table book The Hooded Gunman makes for some great flipping, showcasing each first edition cover they published, but I still have to think each of them were mostly surpassed by a later edition. Oh, what I’d give for a Pocket/Dell/Avon equivalent of The Hooded Gunman.
The best cover for The Darker the Night actually appears to be a German paperback, which you can see here.