Monday, December 8, 2008

Noir City #3: Clocked!

The Big Clock by Kenneth Fearing (1946)

No quibbles about this one. Kenneth Fearing's The Big Clock is a fixture on 100 best-noir novel lists, and is perhaps the perfect man-hunting-for-himself novel. It's the only book worth remembering poet-turned-novelist Fearing for, but it is one hell of a good reason. Everything about this book (pardon me) meshes.

Protaganist George Stroud is a "smug, self-satisfied, smart alecky... rubber stamp executive" for Janoth Enterprises, publishers of a Newsways, a Time-like newsweekly. How smug? Stroud is sleeping with Pauline Delos, megalomaniac publisher Earl Janoth's bi-sexual mistress. How self-satisfied? Stroud keeps an overnight bag and a bottle of scotch at a nearby residential hotel for those frequent "late nights at the office" when he can't make it home to the wife and kid.

The inevitable shit-storm, however, is not the usual shit-storm. One night, Stroud and Janoth see each other near Delos's place. Janoth doesn't recognize Stroud, but upstairs he mocks Delos for this one at least being a man. Delos responds by calling the mighty publisher "a carbon copy of a fairy gorilla" and claiming Janoth's right-hand man, Steve Hagen, yearns for him in a most unconventional way. Janoth retaliates by "accidentally" hitting her over the head with a decanter. Five times.

Janoth and Hagen put their heads together and quickly figure out that the "mystery man" is the only thing tying Janoth to Delos's murder. They mobilize the resources of Janoth Enterprises to "neutralize" this threat. Guess who's the lucky underling tapped to spearhead this no-expenses barred effort?

Stroud is more than up for scheming to avoid being ground up by what he calls "The Big Clock," the novel's symbol for fate and the system that inevitably grinds up all. (I'm sure it's just a coincidence that Fearing is a former Time staffer.) But the suspense mounts as the investigation's momentum smashes through his subterfuges. Tension peaks with minions excitedly informing Stroud that a witness has spotted the "mystery man" going into the Janoth building, and all exits are guarded. Fighting/brown nosing to the end, Stroud announces he won't leave the building until they run their man down. The floor-by-floor search begins, and ends with The Big Clock tolling, not for Stroud, but for Janoth. Stroud is saved--and goes back to being the same bastard he was before. Now that's noir!

It takes more than a few cute camera angles for a movie to live up to this book. We'll find out how the 1948 version of The Big Clock fares when it screens Thursday, January 29th at the Castro Theater.


aimeemarieeee said...

I love the holidays, but now I can't wait for Jan and the fest!!!

Ben Terrall said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ben Terrall said...

Not as incredible as The Big Clock, but then how many novels are?
This is a murder mystery of sorts set in an arts colony along the lines of Yaddo, which Fearing knew the ins and outs of from personal experience.

Each chapter is told from the perspective of a different character, including a round-the-clock drinking painter, various writers, and the policeman who investigates the murder committed. Several of the characters' voices are catty enough to be torn from All About Eve, and the back and forth bitching at meals in the colony is priceless. Hence I found much of it hysterically funny, and though some of the exposition at the end may be a bit far fetched, it might also be partly Fearing parodying of the genre. Far fetched plot details don't tend to bother me in a book with this much brilliant stuff in it anyway.