Monday, March 23, 2009

"Don't Look Behind You" by Fredric Brown

Fredric Brown is a writer I have heard much about, but a writer whose work I have only sampled. I have read a few short stories, and no more. I recently read his short story “Don’t Look Behind You” and was impressed by not only its entertainment value, but also its style, reach and sheer cleverness.

Justin and Harley operate a small printing shop on Amsterdam Ave in New York City. The two only take enough business to keep the facade of legitimacy in place, but their real business is the printing of counterfeit five- and ten-dollar bills. A business that is doing quite well until Harley is murdered in an Albany hotel and Justin is called in and held by the police. They, the cops, seemingly care less about Harley’s murder and more about the counterfeit shop the two men operate.

When the police finally release Justin he discovers that they are not the only ones interested in the Amsterdam printing shop—Harley had some partners who want to know where the printing plates are, and they don’t treat Justin any better than the upstate cops did. In fact, they don’t seem to care much what happens to Justin so long as they get the plates.

“Don’t Look Behind You” is a cleverly plotted story that takes you in one direction only to quickly and smoothly swerve into another, and then another. It opens with a raw slash of narrative:

“Just sit back and relax, now. Try to enjoy this; it’s going to be the last story you ever read, or nearly the last. After you finish it you can sit there and stall awhile, you can find excuses to hang around your house, or your room, or your office, wherever you’re reading this; but sooner or later you’re going to have to get up and go out. That’s where I’m waiting for you: outside. Or maybe closer than that. Maybe in this room.”

It is told in first person with a twist—the narrator isn’t necessarily who you think it is and the story doesn’t necessarily lead you where you think it is going to lead you. The prose is spot on; re-read the passage above and if you don’t want to read more you’re crazy. But the best part of the story is its plot and the affect it has on the reader. The narrator speaks directly to the reader—not as an audience member, but as a principle character—and it has a chilling effect that made me shudder with bliss in the closing paragraphs.

“Don’t Look Behind You” is a story that you should find and read. Maybe twice. I know that it was good enough that I need to find more of Mr Brown’s work and read it. Hell, maybe hoard it.

“Don’t Look Behind You” was originally published in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine in May 1947. I read it in the fine anthology A Century of Noir edited by Mickey Spillane and Max Allan Collins.


JZID said...

I was able to find this story on the web for anyone interested:

Solveig Hergeirsson said...

I read this in an old short story book from the library when I was a kid. It terrified me for weeks.