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Ray Bradbury, Death is a Lonely Business
Ray Bradbury, Let's All Kill Constance
In 1985, over twenty years since the publication of his last full-length work, 1962's Something Wicked This Way Comes, Ray Bradbury reentered the novel-writing world with the release of Death is a Lonely Business, his foray into a genre dominated by Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and Ross MacDonald -- the crime novel.
This book has many layers to it. First, on the surface, it's a fine noir pastiche. Second, it's a fictionalized autobiographical portrait of Bradbury himself in 1949, in the early days of his publishing.
The narrator of Death is a Lonely Business is a writer living in Venice, California, where the local carnival pier is being demolished. He discovers the body of Willie Smith, underwater and trapped in a disused lion cage. Then a strange shadowy figure begins appearing in hallways and outside windows at night and the number of murders increases.
He teams with local police detective Elmo Crumley -- reluctantly, at first, on Crumley's part -- to solve the case. The only clues they have are the writer's intuition, articles that go missing from the deceased's residences, and a blind man's keen sense of smell.
Our hero is especially interesting as a portrait of Bradbury himself in 1949. The naive, plump, 27-year-old writer, who is just becoming successful, inspires immediate identification from fans of the master's work. We already like the author, so we immediately root for his doppelganger. I especially enjoyed the personal clues Bradbury laid within the story, some of which it takes a brave person to lay bare in print. But they work to gain our sympathy, which is quite necessary; in the beginning the writer is painted -- whether deliberately or not -- as a somewhat unsympathetic character prone to outbursts.
The other characters are just as fascinating: Crumley, the cop who just happens to also be a writer; Fannie, the 380-pound sedentary soprano; A.L. Shrank, the psychiatrist with the downbeat library; Cal, the incompetent barber with the ragtime past; John Wilkes Hopworth, the ex-silent film star who still pines for former love Constance Rattigan, his former costar who is dead set on not becoming Norma Desmond from Sunset Boulevard ("That dimwit Norma wants a new career; all I want most days is to hole up and not come out."); and Henry, the blind man, who is the only one who can identify the killer -- by his smell.
Death is a Lonely Business is Bradbury's entry into the noir genre, done in his inimitable style. He plays with the conventions, but since he so obviously loves the genre, this is easily forgiven -- embraced, even -- because the end result is, simply put, a fine addition to the canon.
After 1985's Death is a Lonely Business and 1990's A Graveyard for Lunatics, Ray Bradbury has returned to his noir series featuring Elmo Crumley and a certain unnamed writer (obviously Bradbury himself). And we welcome them back with open arms.
In Let's All Kill Constance, Constance Rattigan comes into the writer's home bearing two books: a 1900 telephone directory and her own personal address book. There are several names marked in both books. Some are crossed out entirely: these are names of those no longer of this earth. Others are circled with a cross beside them. Constance believes that these are going to be the next to die and she is frightened since her own name is one of those circled. Constance leaves the books with the writer, then disappears.
Let's All Kill Constance is not quite as good as its predecessors, but any Bradbury is worth reading. His particular style is always welcome, its familiarity alone bringing a level of comfort to the experience -- like revisiting an old friend. And it's still better than a lot of books I've read.
The mystery itself is not as interesting as the characters and their relationships with each other. Although it feels at times (as with the female impersonator) that Bradbury is simply creating a character to fill his plot needs, he still makes each them real enough to justify the time spent with them.
The bulk of the novel concerns the search for Constance. Teaming up again with detective Elmo Crumley, the writer meets several people involved with Constance's past (many of whom she has just left when the writer and Crumley arrive) and puts together the pieces into a disturbing yet satisfying solution illustrative of the difficulties inherent in being a Hollywood actress.
But through all this Bradbury's youthful exuberance shines. Even at 82, his enthusiasm for life comes through as unadulterated innocence. He seems not to be jaded at all by the modern world, and so these books are not as "noir" as they would have been in other hands. And yet, it's refreshing to have, as a hero in this genre, a person whom the world has not made a pessimist.
Let's All Kill Constance is another fine novel from Bradbury -- who recently received the National Book Award for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters -- but it is also dear to me because this series is probably the closest thing to an autobiography we will receive from this man, who has brought so much joy to so many people.
This review originally appeared in somewhat different form as two separate reviews on The Green Man Review. Copyright 2003. Reprinted with permission.
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