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The Big Clock by Kenneth Fearing
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The Big Clock (1946)

by Kenneth Fearing

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A noir classic, The Big Clock by Kenneth Fearing was originally published in 1946. Set in New York, George Stroud works in publishing for a large conglomerate. He becomes involved with Pauline who is the mistress of his powerful boss, Earl Janoth. One night he leaves her at the corner near her apartment just as Janoth arrives. The next day, Pauline is found murdered. Janoth knows that someone was with Pauline and is a potential witness that can place him at the scene. To find this potential witness and “quiet” him, he arranges to have his staff track Pauline’s activities. George is put in charge of the investigation.

This story has been adapted for film a couple of times, once for a Ray Milland film and then again, loosely, in 1987 as the Kevin Costner thriller, “No Way Out". It is an ingenious plot, with many twists and turns to keep the reader on their toes. The narration jumps from character to character, as George races to prove Janoth is the murderer before Janoth finds out about his tie to Pauline and silences him. Thrown into the mix is an eccentric artist who could also identify George as the man with Pauline on that fateful night.

This sounds exciting on paper but somehow I just wasn’t pulled into the story and I found a few things rather confusing. For example, the main character is called George, his wife was Georgette and his daughter was named Georgia, but at one point or another they all went by "George". Another thing that I found disconcerting was the number of different characters doing the narration of the story which meant the reader was being bombarded by a number of different viewpoints. Finally, none of the characters excited my interest so in the end I really didn’t care about the fate of any of them. ( )
  DeltaQueen50 | Aug 14, 2017 |
I am seriously disappointed in this book since at no time during the narrative do we see either a big chicken or a well-endowed porn star. Why would you call your book THE BIG CO... Oh, wait. That's CLOCK, not... Um, okay. Never mind. My mistake.

Well then, starting over, it's not a bad story. Although having seen the movie first I couldn't really picture the hero as anything like Ray Milland. ( )
  jameshold | Jul 22, 2017 |


Oh, yes, how the clock still goes on humming. Kenneth Fearing heard its mechanical, deadly heartbeat, saw its two giant claws scrapping around and around the numerals – twelve on top, six on bottom, nine on the right and three on the left, back in the 1940s when he wrote his novel, The Big Clock – a tale about the work-a-day world filled with people willing to conform, no matter what the price: high blood pressure, cerebral hemorrhages, ulcers eating out the lining of their stomach, moral decay eating out their soul. As Fearing’s main character George Stroud says about the clock: “It would be easier and simpler to get squashed, stripping its gears than to be crushed helping it along.”

One of my all-time favorites, Kenneth Fearing’s classic noir/thriller published in 1946 is not only a caustic commentary on American business but a story holding the reader in suspense with a keen desire to keep turning the pages to find out what happens next right up to the last sentence. More specifically, the novel features the following:

Multiple Narrator/Rotating First-Person
Not only is the story told from the point of view of George Stroud, a sharp-looking, nimble-minded publishing executive/husband/father, but from the point of view of six other men and women – and with each rotation of first-person narrator the story picks up serious momentum and drives toward its conclusion. Considering how effective multiple narrators can be in the hands of an accomplished writer, it’s surprising this literary technique isn’t employed more frequently.

Femme Fatale
What’s classic hardboiled noir without a femme fatale? There’s Vivian Sternwood in Chandler’s The Big Sleep, Brigid O'Shaughnessy in Hammett’s Maltese Falcon, Phyllis Dietrichson in Cain’s Double Indemnity -- and, yes, of course, Pauline Delos in The Big Clock. Here’s George Stroud’s first impressions when meeting Pauline at a posh uptown Manhattan party: “She was tall, ice-blonde, and splendid. The eye saw nothing but innocence, to the instincts she was undiluted sex, the brain said here was a perfect hell.” Incidentally, here are the first impressions of a similar sharp-looking, nimble-minded married man on meeting femme fatale Caroline Crowley at a similar posh uptown Manhattan party in Colin Harrison’s 1996 thriller, Manhattan Nocturne: “She may well have been the most beautiful woman in the room. . . . her face was no less beautiful as it approached, but I could see a certain determination in her features.” Goodness, some things never change.

The Power of Myth
Robert Bly speaks of a major character from ancient Norse mythology: the giant: the giant is a being we can not only view as huge, cannibalistic, mean, violent and heavy-footed, but also as psychic energy from our shadow side that can, when we become enraged, take possession of us. Perhaps, on some level, the author was aware of this mythology when writing how business tycoon Earl Janoth reacts with extreme violence after Pauline makes accusations about his homosexual relations with Earl’s life-long friend/business colleague: “It wasn’t me, any more. It was some giant a hundred feet tall, moving me around, manipulating my hands and arms and even my voice. He straightened my legs, and I found myself standing.“

Greenwich Village Artist
George Stroud collects the paintings of Louise Patterson. As a point of contrast to the men and women droning their life away in an office, Louise is a complete eccentric who hates anything smelling of the business world. Since events pull her into the story, she interacts with Stroud and his colleagues. Here is a snatch of dialogue where she lambasts one of the mousy white-collar types, “What the hell do you mean by giving my own picture some fancy title I never thought of at all? How do you dare, you horrible little worm, how do you dare to throw your idiocy all over my work?” The author gives Louise Patterson a turn as one of the first-person narrators -- a real treat for readers.

The Art of the Novel
Kenneth Fearing was a poet as well as a novelist. Although The Big Clock is a scathing depiction of the world of business, it is also a work of first-rate literature: all of the characters are complex and developed. There are no easy answers given; rather, Fearing’s poetic vision prompts us to reflect deeply on the challenges we face living in a modern, urbanized, highly standardized, clock-driven world.

A New York Review Books (NYRB) Classic, its two hundred pages, can be read in a few days -- highly, highly recommended. I wish I could give it ten stars but the system only goes up to five.



Kenneth Fearing (1902-1961) ( )
  GlennRussell | Feb 16, 2017 |
This book set in the NYC publishing world of the 1940's is classic noir fiction. A wonderfully complex book that touches on many themes and keeps you turning the pages faster and faster. ( )
  Iambookish | Dec 14, 2016 |
Each chapter is in 1st person view point of the person named in the chapter heading. It was a little confusing and seemed unlikely that George would be married to Georgette and have a daughter Georgia. The ending came out of nowhere. ( )
  nx74defiant | Sep 13, 2016 |
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First words
I first met Pauline Delos at one of those substantial parties Earl Janoth liked to give every two or three months, attended by members of the staff, his personal friends, private moguls, and public nobodies, all in haphazard rotation.
Quotations
She was tall, ice-blonde, and splendid. The eye saw nothing but innocence, to the instincts she was undiluted sex, the brain said here was a perfect hell.
Some of them were unaware they were gentlemen and scholars. Some of them tomorrow's famous fugitives from justice. A sizable sprinkling of lunatics, so plausible they had never been suspected and never would be. Memorable bankrupts of the future, the obscure suicides of ten or twenty years from now. Potentially fabulous murderers. The mothers or fathers of truly great people I would never know.
For business purposes he and Janoth were one and the same person, except that in Hagen's slim and sultry form, restlessly through his veins, there flowed some new, freakish, molten virulence.
And five minutes later, two blocks away, I arrived at 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. Daily, we freely made them.
I turned into the echoing lobby, making mine.
The awfulness of Monday morning is the world's great common denominator. To the millionaire and the coolie it is the same, because there can be nothing worse.

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Also published as "No Way Out".
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From the back cover:
George Stroud is a hard-drinking, tough-talking, none-too-scrupulous writer for a New York media conglomerate that bears a striking resemblance to Time, Inc. in the heyday of Henry Luce. One day, before heading home to his wife in the suburbs, Stroud has a drink with Pauline, the beautiful girlfriend of his boss, Earl Janoth. Things happen. The next day Stroud escorts Pauline home, leaving her off at the cornier just as Janoth returns from a trip. The day after that, Pauline is found murdered in her apartment.
Janoth knows there was one witness to his entry into Pauline's apartment on the night of the murder; he knows that the man must have been the man Pauline was with before he got back; but he doesn't know who he was. Janoth badly wants to get his hands on that man, and he picks one of his most trusted employees to track him down: George Stroud, who else?
How does a man escape from himself? No book has ever dramatized that question to more perfect effect than The Big Clock, a masterpiece of American noir.
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George Stroud, editor at Crimeways magazine, is involved with the wrong woman - his boss's. The boss kills her in an argument and pins the crime on a man seen outside her home just before the murder.

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