The Big Clock by poet Kenneth Fearing is one of those pieces of crime fiction that you can call literature and no one in the know would raise an eye brow. There is no wise cracking detective here, so if you are into those kinds of things, it would be classified as Noir. It is unusual in another way, and that is that we know who the murder is almost from the start. It’s been called a “whodunit” in reverse. And I thought David Ellis invented that way of telling a story in In The Company Of Liars.
The story ‘s main character is George Stroud, the Executive Editor of Crimeways Magazine (that’s where this blog got it’s name) one of the bigger publications of Janoth Publications. It has been said that the model for Crimeways and Janoth Publications is Time-Life. The Big Clock of the story is the “worlds biggest clock” that stands like an overseer in the lobby of the sky scrapper that houses Janoth Publications’ various concerns. It is also a metaphor for everything George feels is wrong with his life; the job where he feels he deserves not only a raise, but more money than all the other people in a similar position. It is the daily grind of family life and a safe, but dull marriage, it is the establishment itself which doesn’t recognize individual talent. “The big clock ran everywhere, overlooked no one, omitted no one, forgot nothing, remembered nothing, knew nothing. Was nothing. “ But George thinks, he can escape the big clock. Out think the big clock. Even if for only a few hours now and then. George is married-and you can tell Fearing had some fun here-to Georgette and has a daughter named Georgia. One night at a cocktail party attended by George and Georgette and thrown by Earl Janoth, his boss, he meets Pauline Delos. Pauline is Janoths mistress…and stunningly gorgeous. “She was tall, ice-blonde, and splendid. The eye saw nothing but innocence, to the instinct she was undiluted sex, the brain said here was a perfect hell.”
About five weeks later he wakes to the gong of the big clock. Work is going to be a challenge, he gets a letter from Haiti where a college friend has managed to escape the big clock and dreams of adventures there, his daughter demands attention and though George, ever the manager, can handle these occurrences, his wife is seeing a doctor about having another child, George Junior no doubt. The big clock threatens to catch him in it’s gears and cogs and grind him up with the rest of humanity. That night, after having told Georgette he would be staying in the city to plot with his fellow editors how they were going to talk Janoth into more money and expanding Crimeways, the meeting gets canceled. He calls his wife to say he will be home after all, but the maid tells him that his wife has gone to her sisters on some emergency. So, with the evening to himself he hits the bars. At about the third bar he runs into Pauline. Thus begins an affair. George has had affairs before, and his wife knows it and has read him the riot act and won’t put up with it again. But George can fool the big clock, George is smarter than the big clock and won’t be ruled by it.
After many different trysts and evenings exploring Gil’s Bar, a quaint little dive where Gil keeps his personal museum and plays the game. Ask Gil to see anything and from the bric-a-brac behind the bar he would tell you a story. The game was to stump him. Ask to see a shrunken head, he had one or an item he could work a shrunken head into his history. Fearing works things like the night spots and projects at work (Funded Individuals, there one for a whole nother post!) into the story that makes you think he could write entire novels about them. George and Pauline plan a weekend out of town. Georgette and Georgia are away to see relatives and Earl Janoth is out of town. They have a wonderfully romantic weekend and finish it off with a round of their haunts in New York and a trip to an art gallery where George buys a painting from the dust bin by an artist he collects. Later, he drops Pauline off at her apartment, but as she is getting out of his car who should pull up in his limo, but Earl Janoth. But Earl doesn’t recognize George in the street light and he shortly escorts Pauline up to her apartment. After a few drinks they argue. He wants to know who the man is and makes a remark that “at least this time it isn’t a women.”. Risqué for a novel written in 1946. She then accuses him of being homosexual, especially with his business partner, Steve Hagen. A fight breaks out and Earl kills Pauline with a crystal decanter. In a panic, Earl wipes all traces of his visit that evening. But of course, it is well known that Pauline is his mistress so he is bound to be a top suspect. he walks, through the cold night to his partners Steve Hagen’s apartment, Steve quickly takes charge and cooks up a plan to cast the unknown stranger seen dropping Pauline off at the corner as the suspect. He provides an alibi for Earl and throws the investigative powers of Janoth Publications into locating this man. Pauline had given him some clues as to where they had gone that evening and Earl had found out about the out of town trip. Soon they are on to the painting and where it was bought. They, Earl and Steve, decide to take these clues and give them to none other than George Stroud with complete authority and finances and all the personnel of Janoth’s various publications to track him down.
As George mounts a man hunt for himself we are shown the personalities of the various players, including George, corporate lackeys, the artist, the millionaire as his life come apart, his “friend” Steve who is not so much a friend as protecting his investment, and the vultures in the wings waiting to dine on Janoth Publications. We are treated to a peek behind the curtain into Fearing’s intricate portrait of murder and the corporate mentality and it couldn’t feel more current. Fearing’s writing style maintains a taut, yet relaxed feeling that reads so easy in this work of classic noir. This classic belongs on the shelf next to the works of Hammett, Chandler, Cain and Woolrich of every reader of the genre.
The Dirty Lowdown