THE LAST LAUGH
Perhaps we should start off by clearing something up . . . There’s not a damn thing funny about Walter C. Brown’s Laughing Death, not a damn thing. Despite any implications of humor in the title what we have here is a very grim piece of work, a unique and a compelling page-turner.
Take a plot and devices from the weird menace genre, format as a police procedural, add an Asian master criminal and finally mix in the tone common to "The Black Mask Boys" and we wind up with Laughing Death.
Walter C. Brown is perhaps best remembered for his appearances in Black Mask, but he appeared far more regularly in general fiction venues such as Short Stories, Argosy, and Blue Book. Most of these tales also featured Asian settings or were placed in San Francisco’s Chinatown, a district that Brown obviously knew very well from firsthand experience.
There are divided opinions on Laughing Death. Some consider it a minor classic, a genuine forerunner to the weird menace genre that was to follow in a couple of years. Others, citing the rather liberal use of terminology such as "Dago" and "Chink" consider the book unenlightened at best and racist trash at worst. As is usually the case when extreme opinions are offered, the truth is somewhere in the middle.
Having read a good bit of Brown’s other fiction, wherein his Asian characters are portrayed even-handedly, without any overt racism, I can say that it is his characters (a group of hardboiled police detectives) who are tossing around the pejorative terms. The question then becomes: "Does the terminology used fit the characters using it?" The answer being that it most definitely does. The detectives, Harper and Lafferty, portray attitudes that, sadly, were all too common among law enforcement personnel of the time.
Portrayed as better-educated, both the crime reporter Doyle and Police Superintendent Knowles refrain from using such unenlightened terminology. In other words, Brown is completely consistent in his characterization and, based on his work elsewhere, I’d have to say that while his characters may exhibit racist tendencies, the author seems to be free of such attitudes.
So what makes Laughing Death a minor classic of the form? Well, first and foremost, it’s a lively page-turner, tightly-plotted with excellent pacing. However, more than that, its greatest interest to us "students of the game" is the fact that not only does it blend genres (weird menace, Asian super-criminal, and police procedural), but it does it so seamlessly. In 2014, such a novel would hardly cause a raised eyebrow, but here we’re talking about a book published in 1932, well before the weird menace genre was launched in the pulps. In those days police procedurals were more examples of wild imaginations than anything bearing close resemblance to actual police work.
Now as to the characters, one of the things Brown does exceptionally well is capture realistic voices of the time. It may not be pretty, but it is for better or worse, likely accurate. A cop now who threw around pejorative terms like "kike", "chink", "dago" and so on would likely be drummed off the force or at the very least ordered to undertake sensitivity training. The 1930s was a very different time. Black men were barred from playing Major League baseball, Jim Crow laws were the order of the day in the South, and while the Northern US may not have been as overtly racist from a legal standpoint, it was certainly every bit as repressive as the South. Northerners just did a better job of hiding it.
Brown’s characters, despite their prejudices, show quite a degree of nuance in their attitudes. The stereotypical Irishman, Lafferty, is perhaps the worst. Harper generally avoids the racial slurs unless responding with a quote from someone else. While the Chinese characters are saddled with much of the usual stereotypical baggage, a close examination will re-veal that each is portrayed as an individual.
I’ve read a lot of Brown’s work. NYC’s Chinatown and its inhabitants were favorite subjects of his and he obviously knew the area and the people well. It is almost always a terrible mistake to equate the words and/or attitudes of a fictional character with the actual views of the author. That’s why it’s called "fiction".
I was once called on the carpet for a character’s use of the "n-word" in a novel. The fan accused me of racism based on this. I pointed out that the character was a speedfreak, ex-Aryan Nations member recently freed from prison, did they really think that this guy was going to be portrayed as a bastion of enlightenment?
A very great writer, Elmore Leonard, once told me that the very best thing a writer could do was listen to how people actually talked and not change it. As Leonard is often considered the best writer of dialogue that the mystery field has ever seen, I have to agree. Walter C. Brown did this and did it very well. If anyone is put off by any terminology in this book, I apologize, and can only suggest that you seek out some of his other detective tales set in the same venue. Or, perhaps I’ll make an effort to put a collection of his novelettes set in New York’s Chinatown together. Rather than that of a racist, the impression that one comes away with is that Walter C. Brown was genuinely fond of both the setting and its people and was doing a very good job of being faithful to Elmore Leonard’s dictum. Keep in mind he did it when Leonard himself was still in grade-school.
As far as plotting, Laughing Death is definitely one of the best books of its type. There are a lot of blind alleys and red herrings for our heroes to investigate and while the villain of the piece may not be of the stature of Eugene Thomas’ Chu-Sheng or Edmund Snell’s Chanda-Lung, as far as super-criminals go, but he’s still plenty vicious. Once again, there’s nothing funny about Laughing Death.