Thursday, March 05, 2015

"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 its style, reach and 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. 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 the police are not alone in their interest in the Amsterdam printing shop—Harley had partners who want the printing plates, and they treat Justin as poorly as the upstate cops did. In fact, they don’t seem to care much what happens to Justin if it leads them to 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 will. 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” 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.

I have been slowly cleaning up some of my older reviews—blogger tends to mess-up the formatting from time to time—and I decided this one should have new life at the top of the blog. It is truly a wonderful story.

4 comments:

JZID said...

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

http://arthurwendover.com/arthurs/brown-f/donlook10.html

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.

Prashant C. Trikannad said...

Ben, I have not read Fredric Brown but I have read many reviews of his stories. I have also been tempted to buy this anthology but I'm resisting because I have far too much to read already.

Anonymous said...

I read this when I was a kid in high school in an alfred Hitchcock anthology. I was so impressed I had my friends read it. One read it out loud in creative writing class in the 10th grade. It was a hit.
I was actually scared after I read it, late at night in my room.