Sunday, December 19, 2010

The Big Clock (1946)

Kenneth Fearing was a veteran contributor to the pulp magazines of the '30s and '40s but probably considered himself a poet before anything else. Even as he continued to publish collections of verse he eventually branched out to crime novels, of which this short example may be his best known—the movie version starred Ray Milland and Charles Laughton and is something of a minor staple of the noir subgenre (it was remade in the '80s as No Way Out). As with much of the work in Robert Polito's Library of America collections the novel bears intriguing narrative innovations deployed almost casually in otherwise routine tales of mayhem and deceit. In the case of Fearing's work it's a matter of shifting first-person points of view. Various characters step up for a chapter or a handful of chapters at a time to move the story along. It's a bit clunky, as the voices don't change that much from character to character, and it's all too plainly plot-driven, but it nevertheless provides an interesting panorama that serves to keep readers just slightly off balance even as the plot begins to engage full throttle. George Stroud is a cynical executive in a giant faceless corporation in New York City—the model appears to be Henry Luce's mid-century Time, Inc.—who finds himself put in charge by his boss of an investigation into the murder of his (the boss') girlfriend. His boss tells him that a key witness has disappeared and must be found; only Stroud knows that that witness is himself (he had spent the weekend with the victim, and obviously doesn't want his boss to know), which means he must misdirect the investigation even as he makes his own attempt to find out what happened, in order to avoid the blame for the murder that he knows (and that we know, thanks to the first-person tactic) he didn't commit. It's an absurd conceit, but never mind. Fearing keeps events moving quickly even as the twists and convolutions maintain the suspense, and people speak to one another entertainingly in the usual clipped, flinty phrases of hard-boiled fare. Soon enough Stroud and the reader figure out who is actually culpable, and it all comes down to a manhunt in the skyscraper in which Stroud works, a manhunt for himself that Stroud must evade even as he heads it up. The action turns into an exceedingly clever kind of juggling act with even aspects of the New York art world involved, and in the end it's all tidy as hell; along the way, it holds our interest at every point.

In case it's not at the library. (Library of America)

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