Man in the Dark by Howard Browne from Best American Noir of the Century – review

best american noir of the centuryreviewed by Naomi Johnson

Howard Browne may be the best kept secret in crime fiction. Sure, die hard fans of classic crime fic will swear that can’t possibly be true because the guy did this and that and wrote that and this for the pulps and for television and film and Browne’s resume just goes on and on. Well, I bet I’m not the only one who’d not heard the name before this. Not by a long shot. Browne edited several pulp mags, including Amazing Stories and Fantastic Adventures. He wrote plenty of short stories for the rags as well, plus a successful (though short-lived) PI series under the pseudonym John Evans. (A lollipop to the first one who can tell me from whence Browne lifted that name.) He left the pulps behind and started writing for Hollywood, just about every TV show from the ’60s and ’70s that I liked, it seems: 77 Sunset Strip, Sugarfoot, Maverick, The Fugitive, Cheyenne, Columbo, Ben Casey, Mannix, Mission Impossible, Simon and Simon, Banacek, The Rockford Files, Alias Smith and Jones, Run For Your Life, and on and on.

But I was clueless. Never heard of him, though I must have seen his name on my TV screen hundreds of times. So all innocent-like, I dived into this “Man in the Dark” story and, and — and it’s heady stuff indeed. That feeling the first time you got your hands on an old Gold Medal or Dell paperback from before you were born, one of those with the strikingly lurid covers, and a book that when you’d finished reading it, left you with a permanent, insatiable hunger for more of those kinds of stories — okay, then. Here’s one of them.

Clay Kane is hard at work late one afternoon when he takes a phone call from his wife. After a brief discussion, Clay gets back to work. The phone rings again, the cops tell him his wife was killed in a fiery car crash around 2:30. They’ve identified her car. Clay is certain the burned-beyond-recognition corpse cannot be his wife – he’d just spoken to her. But then, she’s not at the apartment. She’s not anywhere. If the dead woman is Donna Kane — and the cops believe that — then who had Clay talked to on the phone after the time of the crash? If the dead woman is not Donna Kane, who is she and what was she doing in Donna’s car? And where is Donna? This is a noir tale though, so whatever the answers, they won’t be good news for Clay.

What’s striking about this story is that not only is Clay Kane the ‘man in the dark,’ but so is the reader, because although Clay purports to be a reliable first-person narrator, the physical evidence and Clay’s initial reaction to the accident initially keep the reader in some doubt about Clay’s version of events. Raymond Chandler’s influence can be seen in this story but the plotting is a bit tighter here and the characters less cool and sophisticated than those found in a Marlowe tale. “Man in the Dark” is an entertaining old-school noir that’s as good as anything that has come along since.

***

Naomi Johnson is a book enthusiast and reviews over at The Drowning Machine.

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