Obituary: Howard Browne

Jack Adrian
Monday 15 November 1999 01:02

HOWARD BROWNE was that unusual beast, a writer who not only succeeded on both sides of the editorial desk, but who was equally at home in two quite disparate genres, hardboiled detective fiction and SF/ Fantasy. His fantasy, in particular, was of the swashbuckling kind, a million miles - or rather, bowing to the genre, a million light years - from his tales of mean streets, mainly written under his pseudonym John Evans (one of many: others included Lawrence Chandler and Lee Francis).

He successfully jumped media, too, as well as genres, turning, when the pulp magazines began to wither and die in the early 1950s, from writing punchy, riveting prose to creating compelling screen- and tele-plays. And, like all able fictioneers, even at an advanced age he could still turn disaster into triumph - two rejected screenplays, "The Violent World of Jake Lingle" and "A Bowl of Cherries", upon which he had lavished much care and attention, he transformed into a brace of fine late (very late: he was then in his mid-eighties) novels, Pork City (1988) and the hilarious Scotch on the Rocks (1991).

Howard Browne was born in Omaha, Nebraska, the son of a baker, in 1908, and began his education in Lincoln, Nebraska. However, he dropped out of high school and rode the rails (i.e., hid in the boxcar) to Chicago to seek his fortune. He worked as a legman, or stringer, for a local newspaper before, at the age of 21, securing a post as department-store credit manager, a position he held for over a decade and which gave him an unparalleled insight into the psyche of his fellow men.

He wrote science fiction as an antidote to the hard reality of the job, the seedy scams, the lies, the swindles he was subjected to, then, realising that much of this experience was priceless, turned it to his own advantage, flinging off, in just four years, three of the finest and most influential hardboiled detective novels of the post-war period.

By this time he was already a successful editor of both science fiction and detective fiction, in 1941 having been recruited by the Chicago-based pulp-oriented publishing house Ziff-Davies, who issued books but whose main line was magazines. Browne was appointed managing editor of Amazing Stories and Fantastic Adventures, both pulps low down in the SF ratings, and editor of Mammoth Detective Stories, a pulp he virtually created out of nothing and cleverly jump-started by utilising talent from his SF stable in cross-genre roles. Writers such as Chester Geier, Robert Moore Williams, Dwight Swain, Margaret St Clair and the brilliant fantasy miniaturist Nelson Bond discovered a talent for writing superior and inventive mystery fiction under Browne's benevolent but firm editorial hand.

As managing editor of the two SF pulps Browne necessarily had to try and cope with their editor Raymond Palmer, whose grasp on reality some, at times, might have deemed tenuous at best. Throughout the 1940s Palmer championed a writer called Richard Shaver who was obsessed with the Fortean notion that the world was secretly ruled by "deros", the last degenerate remnants of a race of super-scientific beings whose reign had begun in prehistory.

Although written as fiction, the series, beginning with "I Remember Lemuria" in Amazing Stories for March 1945, was presented as fact. Initially, as knockabout SF, it caused a leap in circulation - which then plummeted when the series virtually took the magazine over, with readers writing in retailing (retelling?) their own experiences of the bizarre machinations of the "deros". Palmer left to start his own line of magazines, leaving Browne to pick up the pieces.

Browne's own fantasy tales, in the main, were by no means sophisticated, his best-known works being the sub-Burroughsian Warrior of the Dawn (1943) and its sequel Return of Tharn (1956), both featuring sword-and-semi-sorcery adventures set in a prehistoric Earth.

His hardboiled detective fiction, too, excellent though it is, owed, at times rather too much to earlier giants. As Browne himself admitted, "The writing style of my first books was heavily influenced, to put it mildly, by Raymond Chandler and James M. Cain." His first mystery, Halo in Blood (1946), had, in places, a somewhat overstrong affinity with one or two Dashiell Hammett novels. Nevertheless, the "Halo" series - the other two books are Halo for Satan (1948) and Halo in Brass (1949) - featuring the private investigator Paul Pine, are outstanding examples of 1940s hardboiled chic, both plot- as well as character-driven.

Browne tired of pulp writing and editing (he also cracked the high-paying "slicks" such as Redbook, Esquire, Cosmopolitan and the prestigious American Magazine), and moved to California, where he turned his hand to scriptwriting, at one time or another finding employment with all the leading Hollywood studios. His screenplays included those for Portrait of a Mobster (1961), The St Valentine's Day Massacre (1967, with George Segel and Jason Robards), and, in 1975, Capone, written at the mildly astonishing age of 67, at a time when the average age of a motion-picture screenwriter was around the late thirties.

His television credits were legion. He wrote for most of the major entertainment series, including Public Enemy, Sugarfoot (Tenderfoot in the UK), Ben Casey, The Virginian, Run For Your Life, Alias Smith and Jones, The Rockford Files, Mission Impossible, Maverick, Mannix, Columbo, 77 Sunset Strip, as well as over 120 episodes of the classic oater Cheyenne.

A major regret is that Howard Browne never completed the final Paul Pine novel, part of which was published in a severely limited edition as The Paper Gun in 1985. Perhaps the best and most memorable of his novels, however, is the non- series "impossible" mystery Thin Air (1954), at the start of which, after coming home from vacation, the hero's wife gets out of the car, enters their house - and disappears utterly. The explanation in the end is as good as the premiss, the writing is needle-sharp, the pace throughout scorching, and the whole book is pure entertainment - something at which Howard Browne excelled throughout his long and clearly fulfilled career.

Howard Browne, writer: born Omaha, Nebraska 15 April 1908; married 1931 Esther Levy (marriage dissolved 1959), 1959 Doris Kaye (one son, two daughters); died Santiago, California 28 October 1999.

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