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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 20 October 2013
Kenneth Fearing (1902 -- 1961) is sometimes called the "Chief Poet of the American Depression". His noir novel, "The Big Clock" (1946), while set in the aftermath of the Depression, captures a great deal of the lost, wandering character of New York City life in the early 1940's. The novel is intricately plotted and builds tension skillfully to its conclusion. But the book succeeds through its atmosphere, metaphors, and depictions of places more than through its story.

The book is told in the first person but with multiple speakers. This technique offers different perspectives on events as the story moves forward. The different speakers are identified in the separate chapter headings which makes the shifts easy to follow. The primary character is George Stroud who works as an executive for a large magazine conglomerate and lives in the suburbs with his wife and six-year old daughter. Stroud is a hard drinker and a womanizer who is torn between his ambitions for success in corporate life and his own dreams of a more independent footloose life, as evidenced in his earlier jobs as the owner of a roadhouse, a race-track detective, an all-night broadcaster, among other things. Stroud becomes involved with a woman, Pauline Delos, the mistress of his boss, Earl Janoth, who also narrates two chapters in the novel. Janoth is trying to save his magazine business from a corporate takeover.

The plot involves both the stifling, conformist nature of corporate life and a murder. There is a great deal in the book about personal identity and its lack. When Stroud brings Delos to her apartment after a tryst late one night, he sees Janoth from the car. Janoth sees a man but not well enough to make an identification of Stroud. As the evening progresses, Janoth kills Delos in a jealous rage. He and an assistant then ask Stroud to search for the witness on the street, on the pretext that the person was involved in the takeover machinations. Stroud thus is in a position of searching for himself and of throwing off the search.

The key metaphors of the book include "the big clock" which symbolizes the deterministic, remorseless, and purposeless movement of corporate life, for Fearing. Another mataphor, the opposite of the big clock, is a shabby place called Gil's bar, where people simply drift in and out. The proprietor keeps a museum of old junk and challenges his patrons with the stakes of a drink to name something he doesn't have in the "museum". Painting and art also play important roles in the story in the person of an artist named Louise Patterson, who also narrates a critical chapter of the book. Stroud is an admirer of Patterson's work. The twin titles given to one of her paintings which shows simply coins changing hands, "Judas" and "Study of Fundamentals" also capture the themes of the novel.

In his ambivalent roles as hunter and hunted, organization man and free spirit, Stroud reflects at one point in the story about his rigid, pressure-filled, business life:

" [T]he whole organization was full and overrunning with frustrated ex-artists, scientists, farmers, writers, explorers, poets, lawyers, doctors, musicians, all of whom spent their lives conforming, instead. And conforming to what? To a sort of overgrown, aimless, haphazard stenciling apparatus that kept them running to psychoanalysts, sent them to insane asylums, gave them high blood pressure, stomach ulcers. killed them off with cerebral hemmorrhages and heart failure, sometimes suicide. Why should I pay still more tribute to this fatal machine? It would be easier and simpler to get squashed stripping its gears than to be crushed helping it along."

In 1948, Fearing's novel was made into a movie starring Ray Milland. "The Big Clock" effectively uses the noir, crime genre to explore larger themes. The book is included in a Library of America volume "Crime Novels: American Noir of the 1930's and 40s" Crime Novels: American Noir of the 1930s and 40s Vol 1 (Library of America) for readers who wish a broader exploration of American noir writing.

Robin Friedman

A review called "Not Yet: On the Novels of Kenneth Fearing" by McKenzie Wark focused my attention on the double symbolism of the big clock and Gil's bar that I discuss in the review.
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 26 December 2012
First published in 1946, "The Big Clock" tells the story of newspaper man George Stroud. Stroud, an amoral charmer, works for the large media conglomerate Janoth Enterprises, headed by Earl Janoth a man whose face is 'permanently fixed in a faint smile he had forgotten about long ago'. These two men become involved in a murder and in a brilliant plot device Stroud is ordered to head an investigation to find the last man seen alive with the victim - himself.

The plot alone makes "The Big Clock" a great noir novel and by using multiple narrators Fearing allows us to follow the investigation from the point of view of the villain and the 'hero' - as well as several other characters. What makes this novel something more though is the resolutely strange writing which makes everything feel slightly off kilter. If you are prepared to go along for the ride this is an enjoyable and gripping read which vividly evokes and often satirizes its corporate setting.
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VINE VOICEon 19 March 2010
George Stroud works in an advertising agency cum publishing house in post-War New York. In todays terms we would call him and his colleagues investigative journalists or even paparazzi. George is also quite a sleazeball. He is a womaniser, adulterer, self-obsessed to the point his boss describes him as having 'colossal vanity'. His excuse for a weekend cheating on his wife is, 'I had one of those moods'.

By a cute story twist from Mr Fearing he is set up to investigate a murder where he knows he will 'discover' that he is the patsy. At first sight I struggled to believe such a story could be credible but all credit to the author that this trick is successful.

Although the trick works, I cannot say the same for Mr Fearing's style. A multi-narrator tool is used but to little effect as I struggled to tell the difference between the voices; what was the point of this method? 'The Big Clock' is used as a clunking metaphor for the march of time. This is a shortish read that can be done in one sitting, yet even so the first 40-50 pages could do with a kick up the backside.

He did convey a seedy feel to George and his world. I was taken aback by the 1940's description of his bisexual girl friend as 'a part-time Liz'! Also was Mr Fearing short of proper names; George is married to Georgette and they have a daughter Georgia.

Worth reading for the curiosity of the storyline but fairly low down on the crime thriller food-chain.
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on 6 April 2011
Chandler described The Big Clock as a 'tour-de-force' and said it made his own work 'look like thirty cents'. If you like Chandler/Hammet/Cain then you should listen to Raymond and give The Big Clock a chance. It is the strangest noir thriller I have read with a powerful theme of the man investigating himself. Kenneth Fearing's disdain for big business and his interests in art and politics (as well as alcohol, adultery and murder) give the book several layers of unusual edge.
A classic from the Forties. Well worth a read.
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on 22 May 2012
The early chapters are a bit confusing, because of the style. Each chapter is from the point of view of that person. Having more than one person is as old as the first mystery writers e.g. Wilkie Collins, but is really unusual. The point someone made about identifying with each character was not important to me. Knowing how they approached the same events was useful. None of the characters are really heroes or villains. It is difficult to be wholly on the side the main character who is clearly without an ethical base and extremely arrogant and self centred.

The plot is not the best I have read, but is clever in the sense of making the reader think. Well worth the read and very different from the typical crime novel where action is more important than thinking through what is really happening.

Good enough to be the basis of two films (I prefer the Ray Milland one to the Kevin Costner).

Read this if you want a book that doesn't have clues and crime scene analysis, but gets you thinking about what people want and how they get it.
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