The Big Clock

by Kenneth Fearing

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

The Big Clock is a 1946 fictional noir/thriller novel written by American poet and novelist Kenneth Fearing, who is often described as “The Chief of the American Depression.” It is the author’s fourth novel, following The Hospital (1939), Dagger of the Mind (1941), and Clark Gifford's Body (1942). A shortened version of The Big Clock was firstly published in 1946, in The American Magazine, as “The Judas Picture.”

The novel is set in the early 40s, in New York City, and perfectly describes the busy and deterministic American corporate life. It is filled with numerous metaphors, and interestingly enough, the title itself is a metaphor for the purposeless, never-ending, and almost mechanical movement of the business world.

A noteworthy element of the novel is the fact that Fearing decided to use multiple narration. Thus, the story is told from the perspective of publishing executive George Stroud—a seemingly loving husband and a father of a six-year old daughter, but also a hard drinker and serial womanizer, who becomes involved with his boss’ mistress, Pauline Delos. After that, the point of view rotates between six other people, gradually bringing the plot to its resolution.

As Pauline is found murdered in her apartment, the story suddenly turns into a murder investigation, which is why The Big Clock is considered a mystery novel as well. Some analysts, however, have argued that the novel is more characteristic of the surrealistic style than classical mystery novels, such as those by Arthur Conan Doyle or Agatha Christie.

Art and painting are also important themes of the novel. Fearing gives an eccentric artist named Louise Patterson a moment of glory, as she is one of the six narrators I’ve mentioned earlier. Stroud collects her paintings, which is how she’s connected to the original story. She also brings an element of humor, as she dislikes everything about the business world and often mocks it.

The Big Clock gained mainly positive reviews, and received three adaptations for film: The Big Clock (1948), Police Python 357 (1976) and No Way Out (1987), and one for radio—Desperate Witness (1973).

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