Kenneth Fearing’s best novels are constructed around a core of mystery that seems to become more complex the more carefully it is examined. Set in the mean streets of Manhattan and within the claustrophobic confines of self-enclosed, self-protective organizations, their mood reflects the despair of the Depression and projects the postwar paranoia of the Cold War. Their language is the sometimes brittle, often laconic, rough-edged vernacular of a poet familiar with the underside of existence.
Fearing’s characters are isolated people, standing wary and apart from a mechanized world they despise and then driven further into a kind of exile by the loss of the only person on whom they counted for romance. Accurately reflecting the loss of certainty of the modern era, Fearing’s protagonists are both victims and avengers, their guilt or innocence never completely established, the ambiguity of their moral position forcing them to make decisions based on the precept that their only means of creating value is through action. In the process of solving the mystery they face, Fearing casts them as versions of the nonaligned detective as existential explorer, aware of the ultimate absurdity of existence, struggling to survive in a nightmare world.