Fredric Brown was a wildly imaginative pulp writer of science-fiction and detective stories who was not averse to cross pollinating seemingly incompatible genres, "stretching the boundaries of any given genre" into his very own "strange, private geography" – giving us such wonderful oddities as The Bloody Moonlight (1949) and Night of the Jabberwock (1951). Recently, I stumbled across two of his little-known, somewhat anomalous, short stories differing greatly in tone and presentation from his more hardboiled, science-fiction tinged mysteries.
During the early 1940s, Brown penned two short stories for The Layman's Magazine, a periodical of the Episcopal Church, in which Rev. Roger L. Young, Doctor of Divinity, solves two so-called "slice of life" mysteries.
"No esoteric mumbo-jumbo could fool that fellow. Lord, no! His two feet were solidly planted on God's good earth."
The first of these stories, entitled "Miracle on Vine Street," was published in the January, 1941, issue of The Layman's Magazine and presents "the young Doctor Young," as he's known to his parishioners, with an honest to God impossible problem! Doctor Young learns a miracle has taken place on his street when his wife, Martha, asks him how a cat could have walked across a ceiling. One of their neighbors, Mr. Weatherby, had been painting and papering a new nursery the previous day, but, on the following morning, there was a track of paw prints on the ceiling – a track of prints made in pink paint! Before he went to bed, Mr. Weatherby had called his wife into the nursery to have a look at it and they both looked up at the ceiling, which they're "absolutely positively sure" was bare of any cat tracks. So how did they get up there?
Doctor Young tells his wife that he has no problem with people believing that "cats walk across ceilings" or that "the devil makes them do it," but when parishioners blame God, well, that's something else altogether. And he's determined to "take that cat off the ceiling" and "put it on the floor where it belongs."
"Miracle on Vine Street" is a very short story with a relatively simplistic plot, but not everything is shared with the reader and this will prevent you from working out the finer details of the solution. Nonetheless, it's still a fun, sweet little mystery with a likable and lively detective who has more than a touch of G.K. Chesterton's Father Brown. Particularly his personal outlook on what constitutes a miracle, which is not something as cheap as mere paw prints on a ceiling. I enjoyed it.
The second and final story, "The Sematic Crocodile," was published in the February, 1941, issue of The Layman's Magazine and is a cross between a juvenile mystery and a slice of life story. Something along the lines of Theodore Roscoe's "I Was the Kid with the Drum" (collected in The Argosy Library: Four Corners, 2015) and John Russell Fearn's "The Thief of Claygate Farm" (collected in The Haunted Gallery, 2011), but without any serious crimes.
Doctor Young is told by Sheriff Rance Clayton that his five-year-old son, Tommy, came home that morning with "a real whopper." Tommy had been playing outside when he came dashing home with the story that he had been chased by "an enormous crocodile" with "big red eyes," but the stream is only a foot deep. So his father finds it hard to believe he was chased by a fifteen foot crocodile and grounded him for the rest of the day. However, Doctor Young believes there's a kernel of truth to the boy's story and demonstrates there was something very human underneath the monstrous appearance at the stream.
"The Sematic Crocodile" is a minor, but charming, story with the kind of solution you would expect from one of Robert Arthur and William Arden's The Three Investigators mysteries. I enjoyed reading this one as well.
So, yeah, these stories are absolute lightweight mysteries, but showed a unexpectedly different side of Brown with surprisingly down-to-earth plots and homely characters that are the polar opposite of those usually found in his darker, grittier and more hardboiled detective fiction – which makes them standout among his work. You can read these stories in The Layman's Magazine of the Living Church, Numbers 1-20, on Google Books. Enjoy!