Saturday, January 21, 2012

The Laughing Butcher - Fredric Brown

Story: The Laughing Butcher

Author: Fredric Brown
Source: Carnival of Crime -The Best Mystery Stories of Fredric Brown.
Story Number: 21
Fredric Brown was an American science fiction and mystery author. His debut mystery novel ‘The Fabulous Clipjoint’ won the Edgar for the Best First Novel in the year 1948. He has contributed more than 150 stories to the pulps and yet, except for the connoisseurs of the golden age of detective fiction, he is hardly remembered today!
Bill Pronzini in the introduction to this collection has this to say about Fredric Brown: “He invented several ingenious new ways to tell his stories; he introduced dazzling, sometimes outrageous, sometimes delightfully preposterous plot devices, apparently for the sheer artistic pleasure of developing them into plausible stories.” The best example which meets all these characteristics is his masterpiece of psychological horror “Don’t Look Behind You”, in which the narrator reveals in the first paragraph of the story that it is the reader who is the intended murder victim and goes on to tell a story as to how it all came about.
Fredric Brown also wrote a few genuine locked room or impossible crime stories and I have picked one such for this post. The laughing butcher refers to the evil butcher of the town of Corbyville, a sideshow magician and mentalist belonging to the 1000 odd population of ex-circus people. The townsfolk suspect him of practicing witchcraft but the women just adore him. But he has his eyes for only one woman and that woman is married to his arch nemesis Len. One day, when Len is passing his shop, the butcher points out a doll to him to indicate that Len would die shortly. This results in a showdown in which the butcher comes up triumphant without breaking a sweat.  All this drama is being watched by a Chicago cop (who is on his honeymoon) standing in a bar across the road, a bar in which the bartender is a 4 foot dwarf and a champion chess player. The cop rescues Len from the butcher and on their parting, hears the evil laughter of the butcher echoing throughout the road.
After getting the complete story about the rivalry between Len & the butcher, the cop and his wife continue on their honeymoon journey. 2 weeks later, a headline catches the cop’s eye. The butcher has been lynched by the residents of the town as they suspected him of killing Len, who has met a most mysterious death. Two sets of prints are seen going towards the scene of the murder, one belonging to the dead man Len and the other belonging to a big heavyset man like the butcher. But other than that the snow is undisturbed, there’s no sign of the 2nd man’s prints progressing beyond the scene of crime or going back and there’s no other clue to the identity of the murderer. So how did the second man vanish from that place when there are no trees or any other escape routes?
The cop decides to make a pit stop on the way back; he observes the scene of the crime, makes some deductions and leaves without revealing his conclusions as he says he doesn’t have any proof to back up his theory. Five years down the line, he reveals what exactly must have happened to his brother-in-law which provides an interesting variation to the impossible crime situation of the missing footprints in the snow.

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