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.