Monday, July 09, 2007

The Big Clock

The Big Clock is considered to be a classic representation of American Noir and, in many ways, I agree with that assessment. It has all of the elements that reflect that style of writing: a dark atmosphere, hardboiled narration, crime, suspense, obsessive passions, guilt ridden individuals caught up in circumstances beyond their control, etc. But this 1946 Kenneth Fearing novel fell flat for me and I can't say that I much enjoyed it.

George Stroud, one of the novel's several first-person narrators, works at a major publishing corporation and has a nice little life going for himself. His world includes a wife by the name of Georgette and a little girl called Georgia, a family that seems to genuinely enjoy calling each other by the name "George" in casual conversation. But all is not what it appears to be. George Stroud has cheated on his wife in the past and he makes little effort to change that habit, even going so far as to start an affair with the mistress of the founder of the company that employs him, one Earl Janoth.

Circumstances catch up with Stroud at the end of one weekend spent with this mistress of both men when, upon returning her to her apartment, he is glimpsed by Earl Janoth who has unexpectedly shown up at the apartment house. The brief encounter with Janoth becomes a threat to Stroud's very life after Janoth, in a sudden fit of rage, strikes the young woman a death blow with the wine decanter from which they were drinking before he confronted her about the mystery man he had seen with her.

The novel takes a Hitchcockian twist when Stroud is called into Earl Janoth's office and is placed in charge of a massive project to identify the mysterious man who might have the power to place Janoth at the murder scene. Stroud, of course, has to appear to be making the most of the company's massive resources to find the man while, at the same time, trying to make sure that he is never identified as being that man himself.

Author Kenneth Fearing still had me up to this point. I enjoyed watching Stroud squirm as he tried so desperately to appear to be the hound rather than the rabbit. The suspense level continued to build nicely and I wondered if he was going to avoid the goons who wanted to kill him or if he was going to have to finally confront them directly. But the timing involved in Fearing's solution is just so improbable that it ruined the novel for me and I wonder why the book is considered to be such a classic of its type. The book did translate well to film and has been made into two movies, The Big Clock starring Ray Milland and No Way Out, a Kevin Costner film.

Rated at: 2.5


  1. Looks from the picture that this book is one of those NYRB Classics. I think their mission is to reintroduce things that are out of print or out of favor. I love the series, and it seems to have a lot of hits, but maybe this is one of their misses...

  2. The concept sounds faintly reminiscent of Double Indemnity, also of that period. I've not read this one, so I am noting it down for later in the year.

  3. Gentle Reader, you're correct, it's one from that series. I do think it probably deserves "classic" status because of it having been filmed twice and because it was written fairly early in the American Noir period. It was just a bad match for me.

  4. Jill, it's kind of similar in style to that one. It's short, so you won't be wasting much reading time if it turns out that you don't care for it. If you do get around to it, let me know what you think.