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The Big Clock ()

Kenneth Fearing was a Chicago born poet, novelist and left-wing activist and the author of one of the great noir novels of all time.  It was later turned into a great film noir with Ray Milland and Charles Laughton and was remade as No Way Out, with Kevin Costner, Gene Hackman and Sean Young, in the 80's.

George Stroud is the executive editor of Crimeways, a publication of the Janoth group.  Earl Janoth, his tyrannical boss, refuses to give him a raise, so George seduces Janoth's icy blonde mistress, Pauline Delos: "The eye saw nothing but innocence, to the instincts she was undiluted sex, the brain said here was a perfect hell."  After several months, he asks her for another date & takes her to Gil's tavern, where Gil has his own museum behind the bar, with anything you can ask him for & a personal story about it,or the drinks are free.  Later, they stop in an antique store & George outwits an old woman and the dealer & the dealer & snags a Louise Patterson for just $50.  He drops her off at her apartment, just as Janoth is getting there, but Janoth can't really see who he is as he's shrouded in shadow.  Janoth & Pauline go upstairs & get into an argument.  He calls her to task for her lesbian lovers.  She accuses him of an affair with his malicious henchman, Steve Hagen: "a hard, dark little man whose soul had been hit by lightning, which he'd liked.  His mother was a bank vault, and his father an International Business Machine."  Janoth clubs her to death and races to Hagen to bail him out of the mess.

Hagen determines that they'll have Crimeways begin an investigation and try to pin the murder on the man that Janoth saw in the shadows, so they put it in George's hands.   But all of the evidence seems to point towards George himself, so he starts trying to block the investigation.  He, of course, knows that he's not guilty, but the "Big Clock" of life is grinding on and George is in deep trouble: "Sometimes the hands of the clock actually raced, and at other times they hardly moved at all.  But that made no difference to the big clock.  The hands could move backward, and the time it told would be right just the same.  It would still be running as usual, because all the other watches have to be set by the big one, which is even more powerful than the calendar, and to which one automatically adjusts his entire life."  This metaphor nicely captures the existential overtone of the novel, so common in film noir and the reason that Camus was drawn to James M. Cain & penned his own masterpiece The Stranger.

This tough little novel provides some dark delicious fun.

I just read the Big Clock, which I didn't like nearly as well as you did.  Storyline itself is great, provides a sense of claustrophobia as the machine starts to grind in on our "hero"-- which was my main problem with the book.  I disliked George to the extent that I was conflicted over whether he was worth rooting for.  A snide businessman who cheats on his wife (and in the aside at the end of the book, will continue to do so) almost deserves to be squashed by the Janoths of the world.

GRADE: A for the plot; D for character development; averages out to a C+.

Actually, I completely agree with you and I've downgraded accordingly.  This is one of those cases where the film version, which I've seen several times, bled over into my reading experience.  I didn't need character development, after all I knew who Janoth was, he was Charles Laughton.  And I was willing to cut the hero considerable slack because in my mind's eye he was Ray Milland & he didn't actually sleep with the girl.  Oh well, that makes up for my hating Field of Dreams the first time I saw it because stuff didn't fit my preconceived notions.


Grade: (B-)


See also:

Kenneth Fearing Links:
-ESSAY: Staff Pick: Kenneth Fearing’s The Big Clock (Emily St. John Mandel, September 16, 2011, The Millions)

Book-related and General Links:
    -Kenneth Fearing (bibliography)
    -REVIEW: of  CRIME NOVELS: American Noir of the 1930s and '40s (EARL L. DACHSLAGER, Houston Chronicle)
    -Twists, Slugs and Roscoes: A Glossary of Hardboiled Slang
    -ESSAY: The Mysterious Romance of Murder: The enduring highbrow fascination with detective stories (David Lehman, Boston Review)

(Be sure to see the excellent film version of The Big Clock.)