Fredric Brown was an American pulp writer who "crossed genres like a demon, plotted like a madman" and "continually stretched the boundaries of any given genre," such as in the phantasmagorical Night of the Jobberwock (1951) and the tongue-in-cheek Martians, Go Home (1955), which are mostly standalone works. However, Brown also created a popular pair of private-detectives, Ed and Am Hunter, who are an uncle-and-nephew team appearing in seven novels and two short stories.
Ambrose "Am" Hunter is a former carnival barker turned private-eye, working for the Starlock Detective Agency, who became a mentor to his young, inexperienced nephew, Ed Hunter, when his father was murdered on his way home from work – which is a story Brown told in the often praised The Fabulous Clipjoint (1947). So that's quite an origin story for a detective-character!
I've only read two Am and Ed Hunter novels, The Dead Ringer (1948) and Death Has Many Doors (1951), but they were good enough to keep the remaining titles on the big pile. Not to the mention the delightfully bizarre short impossible crime story "The Spherical Ghoul" (collected in Death Locked In: An Anthology of Locked Room Stories, 1987).
The Bloody Moonlight (1949) is their third outing and John Norris, of Pretty Sinister Books, recommended it as "an innovative blending of science-fiction, horror and detective novel plot devices" with a "subtle twist." I agree!
The story begins when a wealthy client of Ben Starlock, Justine Haberman, engages his agency to figure out whether or not "a new gadget" is worth a five-thousand dollar investment and he puts the Hunters on the case – telling them to keep expenses at a tidy twenty-five bucks. But this assignment has a peculiar angle from the start that rapidly begin to multiply involving "strange signals" and werewolves!
Stephen Amory is Justine Haberman's half uncle and an inventor with a steady income from things he has invented and patented. Lately, he has been tinkering with a new device that can receive signals, which has been picking inexplicable clicks. A repeated series of four clicks. So could these signals be coming from the fourth planet, Mars? Amory has said the signals probably aren't coming from one of our neighboring planets, but then why has he been trying to buy a star globe and borrowing books from the library on astronomy?
I know of two mystery writers who used a radio to make their characters believe they were listening to voices from beyond the grave (i.e. EVP). John Rhode's The House on Tollard Ridge (1929) and Agatha Christie's short story "Wireless" (collected in The Hound of Death and Other Stories, 1933), but an "interplanetary radio" receiving possible signals from Mars is a new one to me, which is why I loved it when they come down from the stars to visit the detective story – because they often bring something unusual or innovative to the table. Isaac Asimov's The Caves of Steel (1954) is a classic example of this.
Anyway, Am and Ed Hunter travel down to the small town of Tremont, where Amory lives, but Am immediately recedes into the background of the story as Ed takes the lead. You can say that The Bloody Moonlight is a hardboiled coming-of-age, or a baptism by fire, for the twenty-one year old detective who has been on the job for less than three days. And, before too long, he's finds himself neck deep in a murder case.
On his way to Amory's home, Ed is stopped dead in his tracks by the growl of an animal, "a bestial, vicious, murderous sound," which came from the edge of a thick underbush to his right and caught a glimpse of a white, oval face – standing man-high and growling like an animal. Something that "straight out of a horror program on the radio."
So he hightailed it out of there, but when he got to a bend in the road he saw a man lying in a ditch between the road and an orchard. His throat had been torn out. But this is still only the beginning of his troubles in Tremont.
Sheriff Jack Kingman hates Chicago hoodlums and the only thing he hates even more is "a Chicago private dick."
So he's not exactly enamored with Ed Hunter when he reported the murder only to discover that the body has disappeared without a trace. Not even a drop of blood is found in the ditch! Sheriff Kingman is not amused and works over the rookie detective in the privacy of his own office, which results in cracked ribs and Ed left the police station a changed man. To use his own words, "the first time you're ever beaten up, especially when it's unjustly and through no fault of your own, does something to you. It's like when your parents die; it's like the first time you ever sleep with a woman. It does something to you; you aren't quite the same after that." Ed is determined to settle this business with the sheriff before leaving the town or part of him would be left lying on the floor of the police station.
A second distraction comes in the form of a beautiful librarian, Molly, who makes Ed feel a little weak in the knees, but this plot-thread comes to unexpected and slightly embarrassing end. I told you this was a hardboiled coming-of-age story of a young detective. Justine Haberman even commented that he appeared to have matured a good three years since the last time they talked, because Haberman had the idea she had been talking with an eighteen year old that time.
Ed still has to determine the veracity of the interplanetary radio and Amory's opinion on the radio signals he has been receiving is even more fascinating than the rumors that he's been listening in on a Martian civilization. Not to mention the werewolf murder.
John noted in his previously mentioned review that this story is one of those rare detective novels that treats lycanthropy "as a mental illness," rather than "relying on the usual mythology and legends found in werewolf movies that threat the phenomenon as real," which is actually more terrifying – because the criminally insane exist outside of the printed page. Unfortunately, the answer to the werewolf is not exactly, what you call, a rug-puller. However, every single plot-thread is dovetailed so beautifully that you can't possibly be left disappointed when you turn over the final page.
If there's anything to complain about, it's that Brown completely overlooked the possibility to blow his readers away with a tragic and devastating epilogue.
It's not a spoiler to say that the signals didn't emanate from Mars, or any other celestial body, but what if an epilogue had been added taking place on that planet. A scene depicting an elderly Martian overlooking his devastated and dying planet, which used to be the home of a great civilization, but a disaster has reduced them to a small, dwindling nomadic tribe traveling from one shallow watering hole to another. Just trying to survive in this extremely hostile environment. This elderly Martian looks up to the stars and wonders if they could have been saved, if they had the means to send out a distress signal to that blue planet where an advanced species had slowly began to emerge when a comet had ended theirs. Admit it. This would have been a great note to end the book on.
So, all of that being said, The Bloody Moonlight is still a pretty good, hardboiled detective story with a stacked plot, chuck-full of eerie and blood-curdling murders, which doubled as a tough coming-of-age story. I recommend it!