Ray Bradbury is one of the masters of twentieth century supernatural fiction, having written more than four hundred short stories in the genre. With Death Is a Lonely Business, his first novel since Something Wicked This Way Comes (1962), he begins what may be a new career as an author of detective fiction. Dedicated to the memory of Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, James M. Cain, and Ross Macdonald, the book recalls the hard-boiled whodunits they shaped and perfected, not only because of its Southern California setting but also because of its pervasive class consciousness, the conflict between the past and the present, and the portrayal of a hero who functions both as a detective and as a sensitive moral force struggling to preserve his ideals in a physically and morally dilapidated society. Like the works of his predecessors in the genre, Bradbury’s novel sets his hero on a quest to root out the forces of evil, in this instance from Venice, California, in 1949. The unnamed detective, however, is not a professional but a writer of science fiction for popular magazines who is suffering both from poverty and loneliness, the former because his sales to the pulp magazines are infrequent, the latter because his current girlfriend is studying in Mexico. (He says: “All the women in my life have been librarians, teachers, writers, or booksellers. Peg was at least three of those, but she was far away now, and it terrified me.”)
Much of the crucial action of the novel occurs on or near the Venice amusement pier, a tawdry remnant of a past magnificence. The dismantling of this great playground is a central symbol of a past that vainly tries to fend off the inevitably encroaching present. What once was a pleasure area has become a haven for the grotesque, a graveyard for the killer’s first victim, almost the site of the hero’s death, and eventually the place where the villain himself meets his end. Except for the hero and his policeman friend, the key figures in the book are old men and women who refuse to break their ties to a world that exists largely in their imaginations.
The action begins with the twenty-seven-year-old writer riding a nearly empty trolley car late one night to avoid returning to his small studio apartment and an untitled novel that he cannot get started. The only other passenger is a rank-smelling man sitting behind him, who, before departing, mutters, “Death is a lonely business.” The writer then wanders to the canal where submerged circus wagons lie, rusting among the sand and seaweed. In one he sees a body, that of an old man whose pockets are filled with the confettilike punch-outs of trolley tickets. This is the first of four mysterious deaths. The writer suspects foul play, believing that each victim had been stalked by the same person, who also seems to be haunting the young man. During this period, as the unsettling crisis develops, his novel comes to life, almost as if it is nurtured by the tensions the bizarre deaths create.
The young man’s first challenge is to convince the police detective, Elmo Crumley, that the several deaths are neither natural nor accidental; he wins over Crumley, in part because of the accumulating circumstantial evidence, but also because Crumley (“some forty-four years old, with a balding head and a raspy voice”) is a closet intellectual, a romantic who has created a jungle retreat in his backyard, and a would-be author. In the course of the investigation, the two become collaborators both in the case and in the creating of Crumley’s novel, to which the young man donates a title (“Death Is a Lonely Business”) and numerous details, many of which parallel the unfolding case. Crumley, in fact, finishes his manuscript at about the time the young man is ready to resolve the mystery, and this ironic role change is merely one of the many such touches that Bradbury has concocted. Among the others are the fact that the cast of characters includes two aging former film stars, who continue to play different roles in real life; a cinema theater owner whose celluloid world is more real to him than the one outside his projection booth; and a former opera diva who continues to hold court and sing her arias, albeit in a rundown tenement. Still another ironic element is the fact that the most perceptive person...
(The entire section is 1765 words.)