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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 385

The Big Clock is a detective story with a twist: the detective is both the seeker and the quarry. George Stroud, a writer for Crimeways magazine, inadvertently becomes a witness to suspicious circumstances that lead him to believe his boss, the owner of the magazine and a publishing empire, may...

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The Big Clock is a detective story with a twist: the detective is both the seeker and the quarry. George Stroud, a writer for Crimeways magazine, inadvertently becomes a witness to suspicious circumstances that lead him to believe his boss, the owner of the magazine and a publishing empire, may be guilty of murder. Rather than a “whodunit” in which the detective finds out the murderer’s identity, the plot of this novel revolves around George’s dual roles. The boss, Earl Janoth, hires Stroud to find out who this potential witness is. The reader comes to suspect that Janoth already knows the witness is Stroud. Because George was not actually in the room where the murder took place but was standing outside the building, he did not see the crime committed.

In a complex narrative structure that makes Stroud the protagonist, as his perspective dominates most of the chapters, Kenneth Fearing also puts other characters in prominent positions in different chapters. This method gives the reader insights that George lacks about the case.

Both Stroud and Janoth are married. Janoth has been having an affair with Pauline Delos, whom Stroud meets at a party Janoth is hosting. Stroud also begins an affair with Pauline, a tempestuous blonde. One night, when he drops her off at home, he sees Janoth meet her outside and go up to her apartment with her. Janoth sees a shadowy figure on the street, interrogates Pauline about him, and strikes her in a rage. The next day, it is revealed that she was killed. The plot twist comes when Janoth hires George head up a team of investigators to find the shadowy figure. Because George assumes his boss is the killer and that he will try to frame the other man, he is intent on escaping detection.

As the investigation traces Pauline’s final days over the preceding weekend, witnesses are located at shops and bars where they had gone together. Stroud feels the web closing around him. All these witnesses gather at the Janoth Enterprises headquarters, having seen the shadow man enter. Stroud is saved at the last minute, as Janoth apparently jumps to his death, possibly despondent over a corporate takeover in which he has lost his business. But the reader is left to wonder: Was he pushed?

Summary

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 740

The Big Clock is a psychological suspense novel that achieves its effect primarily through irony. The major character, George Stroud, is assigned the task of finding a missing person, a phantom witness both he and the reader know is actually George Stroud himself. As the novel builds, his position becomes ever more precarious, and the suspense is enhanced by the seeming inevitability of his being found out. He is racing, literally, against the clock, because time is playing with his life, and the suspense of the net closing around him keeps the narrative alive.

The story begins when Stroud meets Pauline Delos, the girlfriend of his employer, at one of Janoth’s fabled big parties. Events coincide, and he has an affair with the woman. As he is dropping her off at her apartment on their return from a weekend together, Stroud sees Janoth meet her at the door of the building. In turn, Janoth sees only the shadowy image of a man. Up in her apartment, Janoth asks her about the man with whom she has been and accuses her of harboring lesbian tendencies. Janoth becomes so enraged when she implies he has a similar relationship with Steve Hagen that he strikes her. The next day, Stroud discovers that Delos has been murdered. Immediately, Janoth’s second in command, Steve Hagen, has Stroud set up an investigation to find the man his boss had glimpsed on the street. Hagen spins a tale of a business conspiracy in which the man is involved, but Stroud knows that Janoth intends to pin the murder on him in order to deflect suspicion from himself.

Stroud’s team of investigators follow up details of the weekend that Delos had told to Janoth before she died, details that will surely bring the investigators straight to Stroud. The searchers know the pair had visited Gil’s Bar and Grill, a Third Avenue antique shop where the man had bought a painting by Louise Patterson (by outbidding another woman, who coincidentally turns out to have been Patterson herself), and the cocktail lounge of the Van Barth. In the finale, witnesses from these establishments all gather at the Janoth building to identify the phantom, whom one of them has seen enter the building. With the building about to be subjected to a floor-by-floor search and his discovery made increasingly inevitable, Stroud makes a last dash for Janoth’s penthouse office. There, he discovers that the company is being taken over by another publishing conglomerate. With the search called off, Stroud is safe. Later, Janoth is pushed or pushes himself out a window in his thirty-second-floor office.

The Big Clock is presented through seven different viewpoints, each of which occupies at least one chapter. The use of multiple first-person narratives is a feature of Fearing’s genre mystery writing, and it is most effective in the novel. As the focus of the plot, George Stroud’s point of view is given in eleven chapters and thus influences the reader more than the rest. Interestingly, the woman who dies is not represented by her own words and remains a shadowy character, rather in keeping with much noir fiction. Stroud’s wife, however, is given a chapter in which she contributes to the unflattering portrait of her husband. The other characters with chapters include Earl Janoth, with three chapters, Steve Hagen with one, Georgette Stroud with one, Louise Patterson with one, and Janoth Enterprises employees Edward Orlin and Emory Mafferson each with one, a total of nineteen chapters. These viewpoints serve to round out the characters, provide extra information, and move the narrative forward, especially as details of the mysterious witness begin to emerge.

An interesting play on the name “George” echoes throughout the novel, from George Stroud to his wife Georgette to his daughter Georgia. Curiously, within the family, all are called “George,” as though interchangeable, which gives rise to some amusing dialogue. Delos gives the name of the man with whom she has spent time as yet another George, George Chester.

Two film versions of the novel have been produced: The Big Clock (1948), with Ray Milland as Stroud and Charles Laughton as Janoth, and No Way Out (1987), with Kevin Costner and Gene Hackman in the lead roles. In the latter film, which deviated from the novel more than the first, the setting was changed from a behemoth magazine publishing house to a branch of the U.S. military.

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