DEATH IS A LONELY BUSINESS (1985) by Ray Bradbury

I delayed reading this book for the best part of thirty years but finally made the leap last week. I was thirty pages in when I heard the news: Ray Bradbury had died at the age of 91. The following, my 200th post in fact, is by way of a small tribute to this legendary American author. Like so many, he hooked me in childhood. When I was handed a copy of The Illustrated Man as a preteen, its  stories for the very first to really stirred something profound in me. He was I think the first writer to really impress upon me, even at such a tender age, the genuine power and strangeness that the word on the printed page could carry beyond its literal meaning. So, since I have some twenty of his books on my shelves, the question remains: why did I wait so long to read this one? What was I afraid of?

Kerrie’s Alphabet of Crime community meme over at the Mysteries in Paradise blog has reached the letter D and the following review is my contribution this week. I also offer it for Friday’s Forgotten Books meme, run by Patti Abbott at her Pattinase blog. You should head over there to both of these blogs right now and check out some of the other selections on offer.

“Venice, California, in the old days had much to recommend it to people who liked to be sad.”

Death is a Lonely Business was Bradbury’s first novel in over thirty years, since the publication in 1962 of Something Wicked This Way Comes. With that book it shares a dark, carnivalesque atmosphere and a brooding tension is which evil tries to smite goodness and innocence, though here the question of whether this is a truly personified villain or a spectral presence is only revealed at the end. On the other hand, that book’s small town ambience is replaced with a fascinating depiction of the canals and piers of Venice circa 1950-something, though the date cannot be truly precise. According to the dust jacket blurb the story is set in the 1949, though internally there are several things to contradict this. Indeed, the overall feel is closer to it being the early 1950s as there is a reference to the movie Sunset Blvd, released in August 1950 and to films by ‘Sir’ Carol Reed, even though the director only received his knighthood in 1953. The book has an unnamed narrator who is 27 years old and a budding writer with just a few sales to pulp magazines currently to his credit. In other words, this is pretty much a portrait of Bradbury as he would have been at the time when he too lived in Venice in the 1940s.

“You a writer?”
“I damn well am.”

Indeed, to really get a feel for the period and what Bradbury was like, and artistically capable of at the time, one should perhaps first dip into A Memory of Murder (1984), a collection of short stories he wrote for the pulps in the 40s, often using such pseudonyms as ‘Leonard Douglas’, ‘Edward Banks’ and ‘D.R. Banat’. In the introduction he claimed to particularly like The Long Night’, ‘The Trunk Lady’ and his much re-published classic, ‘The Small Assassin’. To these I would have to add ‘Gotcha’, a brilliantly clever and simple story of marital terror that remains one of his best attempts at a story of psychological suspense but which was actually published in the late 70s (for a great review of this book, read Ed Gorman’s earlier FFB entry here). All of these are useful primers for his novel, though the one story that is not included in the collection but by rights should be (thematically at least) is ‘The Fog Horn’, the story of a lonely beached dinosaur that is invoked directly right in the opening pages. The book is dedicated to the greats of hardboiled fiction – Hammett, Cain, Chandler and Ross Macdonald as well as Bradbury’s great friend and mentor Leigh Brackett, but as it develops the book in fact has a lot more in common with works like Muriel Spark’s 1959 novel Memento Mori.

“You look like you just came back from a Chinese funeral and were hungry all over again.”

This is certainly a morbid book, a true celebration of life in death. The setting is the pier in Venice and the roller coaster that lies like the bones of a dinosaur at the ocean’s edge. The pier’s amusements are being torn down and those that work and live there (the silent movie showman whose screenings takes place on a boat; the psychiatrist with the unlikely name of AL Shrank; the Teutonic star of countless war movie who lives above a carousel) are seeing their world erode. The narrator and the large cast of eccentrics that populate the story (the most memorable characters include Fannie, the gargantuan soprano too overweight to be able to sleep lying down; Cal the world’s worst barber; Harry the blind man who keeps on going by betting successfully on the horses; the manufacturer of glass eyes who never makes a sale) are the protagonists here but would be mere supporting players in any other story. The impecunious writer is struggling to find his true voice as an artists and churns out pulp tales while he pines for his beloved, currently away in Mexico. One rainy night, while riding on a tram, a drunk gets on and warns him that, “Death is a Lovely Business.” The terrified writer refuses to even look at him and while walking home finds the body of an old man in a lion cage sunk in one of the canals. Is it just an accident or murder? The writer comes to believe that it is actually something much more sinister and eventually several other sad, lonely deaths take place. The writer comes to believe that he is being stalked by death, who visits and leaves seaweed on his doorstep as a reminder.

“Venice was and is full of lost places where people put up for sale the last worn bits of their souls, hoping no one will buy.”

Our narrator teams up with cop and wannabe author Elmo Crumley (presumably named for the author James Crumley) to try and solve the case and finds a further unexpected ally in the reclusive but still fabulous silent movie star Constance Rattigan (a mixture of Gloria Swanson, Joan Crawford and Katharine Hepburn). Is the writer imagining it all? Certainly the book suggests that he is forever in the grip of his fervid imagination, the prose frequently making wild leaps that break with naturalism for a more poetic slant; it is littered with some wonderful phrases (he describes his home as a “twenty-by-twenty studio apartment with a body-damaged sofa”), though some may find the tone a little too high-pitched, the air a little too rarefied and the recourse to emotion over logic really not to their taste, I loved its dense wordplay. Although the case is ultimately solved, this proves to be a highly personal rumination on the deep-rooted meaning of the word mystery. So, why did I wait so long to read this book? Well partly I suppose it was partly my instinct to store goodies up for a rainy day. More probably, I may also have been uneasy at what I would find – it was not universally acclaimed when it first came out after all; and indeed, many believed that by this time Bradbury was well and truly passed his heyday, his best work to be found in the 50s and 60s.

“It was a dead man wanting out.”

Despite its dedication to the masters of the private eye genre, this is a book that only Bradbury could have written and is all the better for it. In my teens, as a new fan of Chandler, Hammett and Macdonald, I probably would have balked at its simple plot and sheer strangeness. Now that I am older I think I can tap more easily into the distinctive mixture of poetry, sentiment and nostalgia that so infuses his work. Bradbury continued the adventures of his unnamed alter ego in A Graveyard for Lunatics (1990), set in a Hollywood film studio in 1954, and Let’s All Kill Constance (2002) set in 1960, both of which reunite out narrator with Crumley, now a private eye. The three have also been published as an omnibus volume entitled, Where Everything Ends. I can’t wait to read the next two books in the trilogy, now that I’m old enough to look back at my own youth with the requisite mixture of awe, warmth and maybe a tinge of both pride and embarrassment.

***** (4 fedora tips out of 5)

This entry was posted in 2012 Alphabet of Crime, Crime Fiction Alphabet, Dashiell Hammett, Friday's Forgotten Book, Leigh Brackett, Los Angeles, Private Eye, Ray Bradbury, Raymond Chandler, Ross Macdonald, Scene of the crime. Bookmark the permalink.

21 Responses to DEATH IS A LONELY BUSINESS (1985) by Ray Bradbury

  1. I have had this one, and GRAVEYARD, for a bunch of years, like you saving them for that rainy day. I suppose it’s tme to pull them out and take a look.

    Probably won’t as I have a habit of saving unread books by favorite authors that have passed on because there will be nothing new from them. I once held onto THE MALTESE FALCON for about years as it was the only Hammett fiction I hadn’t read, In book form anyway. I heard last year that s clutch of unpublished stories had turned up in his papers and look forward to seeing them released. Unless I just missed it, always possible, that hasn’t happened yet.

    • Glad to hear it’s not just me! I like the sound of more Hammett stories – the last collection I bought was Nightmare Town, which had an intro by William f. Nolan and included the first draft of The Thin Man.

  2. Fifteen years that. My fingers get ahead of my brain occasionally.

    • Thanks for feedback Randy – I am perpetually going back and correcting errors and typos in my previous posts … But 15? Ah, I got you beat, I am way stupider than that, still working on the assumption that I will live forever. I have 6 John Dickson Carr book and two Ellery Queen novels that I have had on the shelf since the 1980s and which I have been steadfastly leaving unread. But I am starting, and I’m in my mid 40s, to forget some of the books I red before so I think I will have to finally accept that my mind is providing a different way to salt things away …

  3. Sadly, I have plenty of books that I picked up 30 years ago that I haven’t gotten around to read. Yes, some of them are John Dickson Carrs and Ellery Queens. But there are plenty of others. So many books, so little time…

    • Better than the other way round though George – too much like that classic Twilight Zone episode, ‘Time Enough at Last’ …

      • My all time favorite Twilight Zone episode. I sympathized. In the event of such a catastrophe, that’s likely how I would spend my last days. While my eyesight is not that bad, I do wear glasses.

        • It is such a cruel thought – in the event of global annihilation, I would probably be more helpful as a librarian than as an electrical engineer, that is certain! definitely need to go and get a spare pair of specs made, just in case …

  4. John says:

    That episode of “Twilight Zone” for me is Serling’s cruelest story. Why should he be punished like that? Simply because he was obsessive? I own hundreds of books I will probalby never get to read. It saddens me and I try not to think about it.

    I read this years ago and can’t remember any of it. Now I want to re-read this *and* GRAVEYARD FOR LUNATICS.

    • Believe me John, I’m with you, it’s just a horrible ending, but it has got to be probably one of the 3 or 4 best known from the series – I love Twilight Zone though. I’ve bought the Blu-ray editions and the picture and sound quality is truly astonishing.

      I really, really liked Bradbury’s book – I can completely understand why people didn’t warm to it and might find the plot inadequate to support a novel-length story and the sentiment too upfront. But I loved the imagery and the sound of Bradbury’s voice here (I am not so keen on some of his later collections I’m sorry to say) and am greatly looking forward to A Graveyard for Lunatics, not least because it is set in the movie world and includes very thinly veiled fictional versions of two of my heroes: Fritz Lang and Ray Harryhausen (who thankfully is still with us and I’ve at least managed to stand next to him at a couple of receptions).

  5. Jerry House says:

    Bradbury will be missed. I’ve been saving LET’S ALL KILL CONSTANCE, BTW.

    • Amen to that Jerry. I actually don’t have a copy of that book yet – I bought the first two almost as soon as they came out but for some reason the third passed me by initially. No idea why. But I like the fact that it brings back Constance as she is a great, lovable eccentric in Death is a Lonely Business.

  6. I have had that book on my shelves to read for a while too (not near to 30 years). Maybe now I will pull it out and read it. It is hard to imagine what a Ray Bradbury mystery will be like, but I am sure it will be good.

    I had forgotten that he wrote Fahrenheit 451 in the early 50’s. Got to brush up on my Ray Bradbury. Read a good bit of it years ago.

    And I love all the covers. The one with the skeleton is great.

    • The Other Cahnge of HobitThanks Tracy – the collection of pulp stories, A Memory of Murder, was apparently published under rather odd circumstances as it included a number of stories that Bradbury hadn’t been able to include in his own collections, so when he heard that an anthology was being prepared he offered to participate on three conditions: he would write an introduction, the inclusion of ‘The Small Assassin’ and ‘Wake for the Living’ which he had included in other collection and which are more highly considered, and that the book only appear in paperback and not be reprinted. I don’t think the paperback is necessarily hard to find, but I’m glad I held on to mine (according to the receipt inside I bought at at one of my favourite bookstores in Berkeley, ‘The Other Change of Hobbit’ on 22 April 1990 – incidentally, the bookstore is still there, more or less:

  7. Yvette says:

    Haven’t read it, but as always, enjoyed your review. I was thinking that there’s quite a lot of Ray Bradbury I haven’t read. Though I’m positive I did read some once upon a time. I think, maybe, SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES. I know I saw the movie. I do remember reading Farenheit 451, Ages ago. Please don’t quiz me. 🙂

    • But Yvette, didn’t you get the memo? Bradbury is mandatory now! Of the short story collections, The October Country, Dandelion Wine (marketed as a novel but really a short story fix-up) and The Martian Chronicles are just wonderfully good.

  8. Looks like a lovely bookstore, maybe my friends who live in San Jose have been there (he went to library school at UC Berkeley). I have a paperback copy of One More for the Road (short stories), but I confess I bought it for the hitchhiking skeleton on the cover.

    • So either you or Bradbury have a real skeletal fetish! I actually don’t have that collection (I missed several of his later ones). I haven’t been to California in nearly 20 years sad to say, but I still have the memories (for now).

  9. Sergio, Bradbury is one of those authors who endears himself to readers even if they have only heard of him and never read him. I have read some four novels by him and this one has been on my to-be-read pile for a while now. Just the title is enough to make you want to read it. I am looking for an anthology of his short stories of which there were 600 of them. Most of his books are adorned with fantastic illustrations, like the ones you reproduced. Have you read his interview over at THE PARIS REVIEW? If not, here’s the link — I’d like to know your views on what he has to say. Pretty candid, Bradbury is.

    • Thanks for the comments Prashant and thanks for the link to the interview – it is certainly a bit of a marathon but full of good things, like “I don’t believe in optimism. I believe in optimal behavior”. Bradbury could get quite cranky in interviews and its interesting how that comes through though it is irritating that they don’t differentiate between the old and new interview material – illuminating all the same though. Cheers.

  10. Pingback: A GRAVEYARD FOR LUNATICS (1990) by Ray Bradbury | Tipping My Fedora

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