book: The Case of the Dancing Sandwiches (1951) by Fredric Brown

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A splendid mystery novella by yet another writer whose sf/fantasy work I’ve read fairly widely but whose mystery fiction I know far less well. One of my current resolutions is to redress that balance in the case of both Brown and fellow-skiffer Henry Kuttner.

Accountant Carl Dixon goes out on a drunken night with his newly acquired friend Vic Tremaine and Vic’s red hot and blatantly amenable sister Dorothy. They end up at the bar in New Jersey that Vic has just purchased with his friend Ancin. The next thing Carl knows is that he’s waking up at dawn in a rented car on a quiet road, with both a blinding hangover and, slumped beside him, Ancin’s dead body, shot through the heart. He staggers to a nearby farmhouse and calls the cops.

No good act goes unpunished. The cops suspect Carl of the murder and root out enough circumstantial evidence to convict him; he’s lucky to get off with a life sentence. One major hole in his story, no matter how determinedly he clings to it, is that there’s no such bar as Ancin and Vic’s, even though Carl can clearly remember seeing the neon sign outside it . . .

Carl’s lucky enough that his fiancee, Susan Bailey (not Sue, as it says in the blurb), convinced of his innocence, isn’t prepared just to let him rot in jail for the rest of his life. She enlists Peter Cole, an NYPD detective who happens to be a friend of her neighbors; and despite himself Peter becomes obsessed by the quest to prove Carl’s innocence and run to earth the real killer . . .

This isn’t another Night of the Jabberwock or Screaming Mimi, but within its smaller compass it’s a very effective little detective story, one that’s confident enough to put its pivotal clue right there in front of you, in plain view, purloined-letter style. The trope of the loyal girlfriend enlisting aid to prove the innocence of a wrongly convicted boyfriend is of course by no means original — just for starters, see a whole bunch of films noirs and various stories by Cornell Woolrich — but Brown manages to make it seem both fresh and welcomingly familiar at the same time.

The Case of the Dancing Sandwiches was originally published in book form in 1951 by Dell as a slim, 10c volume reprinting a 1950 magazine version; it’s the Dell book that I read. Brown apparently intended to expand the novella as a novel, but never finished; there’s a 1985 edition that contains the novella and the novel fragment, plus an intro by the redoubtable Lawrence Block.

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8 thoughts on “book: The Case of the Dancing Sandwiches (1951) by Fredric Brown

  1. Brown certainly knows how to come up with unusual and attention grabbing and question asking titles. Glad it was another good entry by Brown and shall have to keep my eyes peeled for this one.

    • I didn’t know there’d been a “huge resurgence” in the 1980s! Of course, I was up to my eyes in sf/fantasy and then the sf encyclopedia at the time, so wouldn’t have noticed anything going on in crime fiction.

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