(Reviewed by J.D. Jung)
Everyone adjusts their life to the big clock; sometimes it races forward, sometimes it moves backward. It impersonally reaches for some, and forgets others. George Stroud is one who it reaches for, but fortunately misses.
Stroud, a married father, works for Crimeways, part of the publishing conglomerate, Janoth Enterprises. He speaks of the Janoth Building, “looming like an eternal stone deity among a forest of its fellows. It seemed to prefer human sacrifices, of the flesh and of the spirit, over any other token of devotion.” You get the idea of how he feels about his job. In fact, he views his whole life as pretty drab.
Then one night at a party he meets the seductive Pauline Delos–the girlfriend of his boss, Earl Janoth. They run into each other again, and soon begin an exciting affair.
One evening after dropping her off near her apartment, George sees Earl Janoth coming up to see her. Earl and Pauline quarrel and she is found dead. Janoth rushes to his associate and best friend, Steve Hagan, to confess to the murder. Hagan provides damage control and takes charge of the situation. Were there any witnesses? Janoth states that a man saw him enter the apartment. It is imperative that this man be found, and Hagan engages all of the resources at Janoth Enterprises to find him. Janoth seeks one of his best employees—you guessed who—George Stroud, to handle the job. How does Stroud conduct the investigation, knowing that it is he who they are looking for? He is not only afraid for his life, but also does not want his wife to find out about the affair.
The Big Clock keeps us entangled in the life of a man who we don’t particularly care about, but I still couldn’t put the book down. Tension never ceases to build and though it is written as a noir thriller, it provides social commentary ranging from class warfare to the role of art in society. Throughout the novel, Stroud refers to the big clock. I kept picturing the clock in Fritz Lange’s Metropolis, but this silent, invisible clock represents so much more to Stroud.
The introduction written by Nicholas Christopher provides insight into the author and the story. It’s a must-read, but there are spoilers, so skip it until you have finished the book.
The Big Clock is not without flaws. Author Kenneth Fearing dabbles in so many issues, but doesn’t seem to completely commit to some. Also the final ending is very abrupt; however, it doesn’t really matter.
So why then am I so excited about this book? Yes, it grabbed me from the start and I read it in one sitting. The way the story is told is very unique. The book is written in the first person, but from different perspectives. In fact each chapter is from the perspective of a single character. Most of the chapters are from Stroud’s viewpoint, but we also read chapters from Janoth, Hagan and some co-workers working on the case. A certain painting plays a significant role in the plot and the artist gives us her assessment. We also learn more about Stroud’s marriage through his wife’s eyes. As the book is only 200 pages, this style enables us to see each character in more depth.
Though written in 1946 , the subject matter is still relevant. In fact, Kenneth Fearing (1902-1961) brings moral and social issues (that I assumed were kept in the closet during that era) right out into the open.What I find remarkable is that The Big Clock provides social commentary that carries into the 21 century.
This release of The Big Clock is published by NYRB Classics. I would like to thank Small World Books in Venice, CA for recommending this gem to me.