The Screaming Mimi: Fredric Brown (1949)

“There are strange things, and there are stranger ones.”

As a noir fan, I find myself increasingly reading novels of the genre, and this led me to The Screaming Mimi by Fredric Brown. Intrigued by the title, I bought a copy and loved it. So for any noir fans out there who haven’t read this yet, put it on your list. File this story under the ‘be careful what you wish for’ category.

When the novel begins, reporter Sweeney is drunk out of his mind, on one of the periodic binges he takes as some sort of vacation from his job at the Chicago newspaper, The Blade. Hanging out with a homeless man, and unable to sleep late one night, he wanders the streets in an inebriated state looking for another drink. He spies a crowd of people around the doorway of an apartment building, so he walks over to see what everyone is gawking at. He sees a gorgeous half-naked blonde woman who’s been stabbed sprawled on the floor of the building, guarded by a loyal, ferocious wolf-like dog.

The sight of the woman is enough to slap Sweeney into sobriety, and he manages to write an exclusive story on the blonde, a dancer named Yolanda Lang, who is–it appears–the latest stabbing victim of a vicious serial killer know as the Ripper. While Yolanda is fortunate to survive the attack, the Ripper has brutally murdered three other beautiful blondes within the last few months, and it’s certain that the killer will strike again.

Entranced by Yolanda, and intrigued by the case, Sweeney sobers himself up and begins to investigate. His search uncovers some peculiar characters–Doc Greene, a one-time psychiatrist who is Yolanda’s agent. His possessive obsession of Yolanda causes Doc Greene to see Sweeney as a rival in love. There’s also Raoul Reynarde, the eccentric, flamboyant owner of a gift shop, and Charlie Wilson, an artist who created a statue known as the Screaming Mimi. Sweeney acquires the Screaming Mimi, and he is convinced that the statue holds the key to the Ripper murders:

“On top of the radio-phone, on the half that didn’t lift up, stood a little ten-inch-high statuette. It was the figure of a naked girl, her arms thrust out to ward off a ripper, her mouth open in a silent, eternal scream. Her body, which would have been beautiful relaxed, was subtly distorted, rigid with terror. Only a sadist could have liked it. Sweeney wasn’t one; he shuddered a little and averted his eyes.”

While I love noir fiction, I have a soft spot for noir that’s tinged with the weird and the slightly bizarre–take the books of Charles Willeford, for example, so Fredric Brown’s The Screaming Mimi was right up my alley. Sweeney is a great narrator–jaded but with just enough hope for humanity left to get himself into trouble, and his laid-back style is matched perfectly by the author’s tone. Sweeney sets out to catch the Ripper for a variety of reasons–some of which are self-serving, and while he has no problem acknowledging that, Sweeney has his Achilles’ heel. It’s particularly enjoyable to read Sweeney’s determined self-sobering techniques while resisting the call to drink, coping with headaches and operating on a couple of hours sleep. This is a less-than-perfect hero who’s engaging, charming, and enjoyable company for the entire novel:

“He was out of it now, off the binge, sober. Until the next time, which might be months, might be a couple of years. However long until enough accumulated inside him that he’d have to soak it out; until then he could be normal and drink normally. Yes, I know, alcoholics can’t do that, but Sweeney wasn’t an alcoholic; he could and did drink regularly, and normally and only once in a while dive off the deep end into a protracted drunk. There’s that type of drinker, too, although of late the alcoholics have been getting most of the ink .”

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