The Wench Is Dead by Fredric Brown. E. P. Dutton (1955), 190 pp.
Howie Perry, a Chicago high school teacher doing sociological research for his master's degree, is spending the summer on skid row in Los Angeles. He wants to experience what happens there with as few connections as possible to his middle-class life back home. But he doesn't want to go completely without money, so he takes a steady job washing dishes. And he can’t ignore the interest shown by attractive B-girl Billie Kidler, so he’s soon in a pretty serious relationship. What he does to fit in then is drink enough alcohol to qualify as a genuine wino. He also gets to know other skid row residents, including Ike, a philosophical former ad-man who now sells numbers tickets; Ramon, a usually easy-going cook who needs his next heroin fix to stay calm; and Mame, a blowsy bartender who lives upstairs in Billie’s apartment house. When she’s beaten to death, Howie finds himself in a situation he never planned to study.
As the author makes clear, Howie’s problems go deeper than the murder. They go all the way to the idea of “participant observation.” He comes to realize that a massive gap remains between his experiences and those of the people he meets. He’s never learned to fear the police, for example, while Billie views them as her implacable enemy. As Howie becomes involved in other people’s lives, he increasingly believes that hiding his purpose is less as an essential element in his quest for truth and more as a sign that his mission is fundamental dishonest. As he ponders these issues, he must continue to tell himself that his disabling episodes of binge drinking will quickly end once he’s safely back home. Although the author cleans everything up in the end, the story doesn't focus on finding Mame’s killer. Instead, the book rivets readers’ attention with its thoughtful first-person narrator and evocative descriptions of life on skid row. It warrants comparison to fiction with literary ambitions, such as The Subterraneans or even Notes from Underground, though it moves along much more quickly.