Death is a Lonely Business

By Ray Bradbury
ISBN 0-395-54702-0

Publication Year: 1985

Tags: Detective, Writer, Golden Gumshoes

Rating: ★★★★★

The year is 1949. A young writer of pulp fiction struggles with the feeling of death that surrounds him as the city tears down the great amusement pier in Venice, California. There will be no more rides, no more side shows, no more games of chance, no more fortune tellers and snake-oil salesmen. The huge movie marquee, where great names like Fairbanks, Chaney, Garbo, and Hepburn once lent their grace, reads only GOODBYE.

Death hits closer to home as well. Four bodies turn up – one trapped in a lion cage that lies submerged in the Venice canal, one in a cheerful flophouse, and two others in houses across town. The deaths could be natural, or they could be accidents, but our unnamed writer (Bradbury himself, at age 29, as he would have been in that year?) doesn’t think so. It just feels wrong. And although he claims to believe only in facts, Detective Elmo Crumley has to admit that he, too, doesn’t trust the appearances of innocence that surround the deaths. Unfortunately, it will take clues and facts to solve the crime – if there is one – and no one seems to have a motive of any kind.

I freely admit to a prejudice in favor of Ray Bradbury; he was the man whose works made me want to be a writer. Even with that prejudice, however, I can guarantee you that my rave review of this work is truly justified. His first full-length novel after more than 20 years (the great classic Something Wicked This Way Comes having been published in 1962), Bradbury once again proves himself still very much in control of his magnificent storytelling abilities.

Billed in the dust jacket as “a loving tribute to the hard-boiled detective genre of Hammet and Chandler, and a gently nostalgic evocation of a time and place,” Death is a Lonely Business is all that and more. It is difficult to say which of its charming aspects is the most significant, since all make reading the tale a delight, but I’ll stick my neck out (in more than one sense) and say that it’s the killer’s motive that makes this story genuinely unique. If you’re not “the reading type,” you’re spark out of luck; I won’t spill the beans, here or elsewhere. The most I’ll say is that I could compare it, in terms of just how unusual the motive and method of murder can be, to Agatha Christie’s Curtain. I think it fair to say that Bradbury has topped it. Not only is the whodunit and whydunnit different, but the what- and howdunnit is even more intriguing. ‘Nuff said; anything more would make me Mayor of Spoiler City.

I must disagree, at least on one level, with the classification of this story as a “hard-boiled detective novel.” Most writers of that genre weren’t as lush, as lurid, as synesthetic as the Undisputed Master of 20th Century American Fantasy. (Okay, I’ll dial it back a notch.) One of the great jewels in Bradbury’s crown is the richness of his images coupled with the fullness of his prose. A sample:

      Cal looked like a cowpuncher who now rode barber chairs. Think of Texas cowhands, lean, weatherbeaten, permanently dyed by the sun, sleeping in their Stetsons, glued on for life, taking showers in the damn hats. That was Cal, circling the enemy, the customer, weapon in hand, eating the hair, chopping the sideburns, listening to the shears, admiring the Bumblebee Electric’s harmonics, talking, talking, as I imagined him cowhand-naked dancing around my chair, Stetson jumpack-nested above his ears, crave-itching to leap to that piano [in a photo on the wall] and rake its smile.

Part of Bradbury’s dedication is to Raymond Chandler, James M. Cain, and Ross Macdonald, and all are fine writers of the classic genre. Even so, and with great respect, none had ever painted with such vivid prose. After only a few pages of this story, you are swept into the maelstrom of brooding, eerie, slightly out-of-phase reality that is the slowly dying Venice Beach of 1949. Our narrator grasps us firmly by the mind, jagged teeth embedded into our demon-possessed id, and yanks us into the fray…

      And the man down the aisle who somehow had got there without my noticing…
I did not look back at him. I learned long ago, looking only encourages.
I shut my eyes and kept my head firmly turned away. It didn’t work…
And a blast of terrible air from behind me as the unseen man cried, “Death!”
The train whistle cut across his voice so he had to start over.
Another whistle.
“Death,” said the voice behind me, “is a lonely business.”

The murderer’s appearance – even before there is a body for us to count – is planted solidly in our minds, in the mind of the narrator, in the mind of the writer who cannot understand the grip that this sentence has on him even as he puts a clean sheet of paper into his machine and types the title of a new work: DEATH IS A LONELY BUSINESS.

I can all but guarantee you that this book will be unlike any mystery that you’ve ever read. Motives and clues aren’t laid out in plain, easily understood language; you must come to listen to the heart, to the creaking moans of our emotional house of cards, before you’ll hear the confession to the crime. You’ll need more than your deerstalker or little gray cells to find this solution, but the clues really are there. Watch for plays on words, for clues in the familiar references that begin to identify our unnamed hero, and for the true vulnerabilities of the victims – those Achilles heels that each of us hides away, hoping no one will discover. The title itself is wordplay. The Master has challenged you to see the truth when it’s held right before your eyes, and he bets that you still won’t see it. Good hunting, mystery fan. Keep your night light burning.

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