Monday, December 15, 2008
DEATH HAS MANY DOORS
Reviewed by Evan C. Price
Ed Hunter was just a teenager when he tracked his father’s killer through Chicago, aided by ex-carny Uncle Ambrose in the Edgar Award-winning Fabulous Clipjoint (1947). Fredric Brown’s Ed and Am Hunter series follows Ed’s development as a professional detective and his transition to adulthood. In The Dead Ringer (1948) uncle and nephew are employed in a traveling carnival and investigate a bizarre series of murders; the heart of the story, however, is Ed’s failed relationship with a young dancer. In The Bloody Moonlight (1949) Ed and Am find work as operatives, and Ed is sent to a small town in southern Illinois to solve his first case without Am’s help. In Compliments of a Fiend (1950) the uncle disappears and Ed is on his own again, searching for Am and trying to determine if he was kidnapped.
Death Has Many Doors (1951) is the fifth novel and the first in which Ed and Am are in business for themselves, as co-owners of Hunter & Hunter Detective Agency. The two are spending a lot of time reading and playing cards when they’re not finding numskulls who skip town in cars that haven't been paid for. Then beautiful young Sally Doerr arrives with a humdinger: she claims Martians are plotting to kill her.
Thinking he's been put on by an associate, Am declines and advises the young woman to see a shrink. Ed, however, is attracted to Sally and after conversation over drinks concludes she’s pretty stable outside of delusions involving little green men. Ed agrees to spend an evening in the woman's apartment for her protection. Following a troubled night on the couch, Ed awakens to find the woman dead - victim of a weak heart. The detective suspects Sally’s heart attack and her fear of being stalked by Martians are connected. Someone (probably human) scared her to death. Then Sally’s sister, Dorothy, shows up at Hunter & Hunter looking for help, claiming she’s had a premonition she will die that evening....
In earlier novels Ed was flawed in interesting ways. Any long-time mystery reader will guess the identity of Am’s kidnapper in Compliments of a Fiend, but it is fun seeing the young operative make mistakes and work under pressure to put it all together. His behavior seemed reasonable considering age and experience.
Why, then, does Ed become a total moron in this book? Haunted by Sally’s death, guilt-ridden even as Am assures him it was beyond his control, Ed allows Dorothy to place both of them in danger after taking so many precautions over the long evening to protect her. When Dorothy finally (predictably) perishes during a midnight swim, I had trouble getting behind a detective so sloppy and stupid.
Brown once told an interviewer that he penned mysteries only to pay the bills, preferring to write science fiction. Though Brown’s whodunits are usually excellent -- including some of the Ed and Am titles -- Death Has Many Doors seems like it was written in a state of boredom. The author’s distinctive conflict of fantasy versus logic has nothing compelling to offer. An extraterrestrial angle isn’t developed beyond creepy phone calls and Ed’s surprise by someone in a Halloween mask. The addition of a hypnotist is a cheat. Even worse, Ed’s theories as to how Sally might have been frightened are smarter and more believable than the actual solution! Small wonder there wouldn't be another Ed and Am novel for eight years.
In 2002 Stewart Masters Publishers issued an anthology collecting the first four books. A second volume never surfaced, and remaining titles -- Death Has Many Doors, The Late Lamented (1959), and Mrs. Murphy’s Underpants (1963) -- are still out of print.