Sun
Sep 7 2014 2:00pm

Ray Bradbury Writes Noir: Death Is a Lonely Business

I suspect most people think of science fiction and fantasy when they hear the name Ray Bradbury, who—along with Isaac Asimov, Phillip K. Dick, Robert A. Heinlein, and Arthur C. Clarke—represented the very best of modern thought-provoking and socially-conscious escapism. His Fahrenheit 451, The Martian Chronicles, The Illustrated Man, to name a few, are required reading for any serious student of sci-fi/fantasy. But apart from his legions of dedicated fans, many may not be aware that Mr. Bradbury took a stab at several noir novels rather late in his career, the first of which was 1985’s Death Is a Lonely Business, his first full-length novel in over a decade. The book is dedicated to several notables of crime fiction including Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, and Ross Macdonald. To their noir hardboiled legacy, he writes in his own Bradbury-ian elegance, fusing the well-worn (and, frankly, by then, tired) detective novel with a great deal of his distinct lyrical flair. Examples: “books clustered like vultures with their black feathers and dusty golden stares” and “Venice was and is full of lost places where people put up for sale the last worn bits of their souls, hoping no one will buy.” To his credit, Mr. Bradbury never borders on parody or pastiche (a problem I’ve noticed with other writers when attempting to emulate the golden era masters) and instead paves his own path down those shadowed mean streets cluttered with desperate and longing characters.

The novel opens with an unnamed twenty-seven-year old protagonist—a writer very much like the young Ray Bradbury—who irreverently calls himself the Great American Novelist, traveling on a lonely railcar with only one other man on the train. The fellow passenger begins eerily moaning and wandering about, which is enough to creep out the writer, but the chill culminates when the eccentric rider whispers to the writer’s back, “Death is a lonely business.” Bradbury had me wondering in this scene, is this other passenger flesh and blood or a spectral presence?

After the writer quickly disembarks, attempting to forget the dreadful voice “exhaling vapors of fear,” he retires to his barren room where he stares at the blank page of an unfinished book. He lives a meagre existence, with his only source of income being an occasional sale to a detective or science fiction pulp magazine, and those are few and far between. Adding to his despair, he’s missing his girlfriend, Peg, who is studying far away in Mexico City.

The writer can’t shake the peculiar encounter with the stranger on the train—is there more evil lurking? Later, he asks a bartender:

“You ever think something awful is going to happen, but you don’t know what?”

“It’s called the heebie-jeebies.” … The bartender looked over my shoulder as if he saw the ghost of the man on the train there.

The writer wanders aimlessly from the bar, striding along an old canal where some circus wagons had toppled years ago, then discovering a lifeless body in one of the submerged cages. His mind at first plays tricks, imagining it’s an old lion tamer waking up. The ethereal voice haunts him, “Death is a lonely business.” Is this horror unfolding in his imagination? Is he the killer? Or are a real killer’s crimes at hand, with the writer’s thoughts somehow mysteriously adding to the proceedings? The cops show up and try to alleviate his fears, telling the writer that it’s just a transient who accidentally drowned, though he ‘knows’ otherwise and attempts to convince a detective named Elmo Crumley that it could be the first in a series of murders. Ultimately the writer, along with Crumley’s wry help (who seems more interested in being a writer himself than a detective), begins a crusade to determine who the serial killer will claim next and apprehend him before he strikes. The writer suspects a souvenir collector, because he begins noticing odd trinkets like old newspapers, a train ticket, punchout confetti, and a portion of a Scott Joplin picture are missing from the various crime scenes. He makes a list of possible future victims which, to Elmo’s annoyance, pretty much includes the entire community.

A motley bunch of older residents—“everyone is old in Venice, California”—populates this deteriorating, bleak world, and each lonely character seems a little more desperate than the next: a former silent movie star, a canaries-for-sale lady, an obese ex-opera-singer, and so on. Each, like our writer, remembers longingly the Venice of a bygone era, and here’s my one and only knock against the book: the worshipping for this lost Shangri-La goes on and on and on. Bradbury sold me on its past beauty in the first few chapters, but he repeatedly finds new ways of defining the splendor that was Venice. Because of this padding (though understand, it’s beautifully-painted in words), I have a sense this was a short story that at some point was transformed into a longer novel. The tale probably could have been even more effective as a streamlined novella. So, the declining city plays a big part in Death Is a Lonely Business, and obviously, Bradbury has bittersweet memories of a place that had become known by the time he lived there in 1949 as a struggling writer as the “Slum by the Sea.“ In the same way Chandler’s Marlowe battles a valiant, losing war to save L.A., Bradbury’s amateur detective in Venice attempts to turn the clock back on a crumbling paradise by figuring how who is murdering its citizens. 

Readers may haphazardly stumble into this novel, after scrolling through a few blurbs here and there, expecting a straightforward, hardboiled novel on the level of The Long Goodbye or The Maltese Falcon. But Bradbury is no Chandler or Hammett, and we don’t expect him to be. Hell, in many ways he’s a far superior storyteller, and I’m thankful he took us back to ”the days when the Venice pier was falling apart and dying in the sea and you could find there the bones of a vast dinosaur, the roller coaster, being covered by the shifting tides."Death Is a Lonely Business is inspired writing from a master. I’m looking forward to seeing where he takes this character with the sequels A Graveyard for Lunatics (1990) and Let's All Kill Constance (2003).


Edward A. Grainger aka David Cranmer is the editor/publisher of the BEAT to a PULP webzine and books and the recent anthology collection, The Lizard’s Ardent Uniform and Other Stories.

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16 comments
1. Bob Randisi
David, try A GRAVEYARD FOR LUNATICS and LET'S ALL KILL CONSTANCE, Ray's other mysteries.RJR
David Cranmer
2. DavidCranmer
Will do, Bob! Yeah, R.B. has me hooked on his noir other-worldly offerings.
3. randal120
I read this and A GRAVETARD FOR LUNATICS way back when they first came out. Missed the third one.

Now you're going to make me hunt it up and reread the first two again.

Darn it!
David Cranmer
4. DavidCranmer
You are one up on me, Randy. But I have them standing by and can't wait to read them.
5. aka Ron Scheer
Nicely reviewed. I'm wondering whether RB was influenced at all by TOUCH OF EVIL, which has some of the old Venice as a backdrop, and plenty of noir.
6. Garnett Elliott
I love this book, because in reading it you read all of Bradbury; you can see where 'The Sound of Thunder,' and 'The Foghorn,' and even 'The Martian Chronicles' comes from. It comes from dying Old Venice.
7. Prashant C. Trikannad
David, I read this book several years ago when I didn't know anything about Bradbury or that he was a famous sf writer. I think I picked up the book minly because I was intrigued by the title. Your excellent review makes me want to re-read it for a fresh perspective. I wonder if the dedication to noted crime fiction writers was Bradbury's way of acknowledging their superiority over a genre he didn't write in, in spite of being a "far superior storyteller" as you say.
David Cranmer
8. DavidCranmer
Ron, from my research it shows he lived in Venice, California for a significant time as a young man and saw the remnants of when it was a far more beautiful city. Wikipedia says: “Yet the main character is undoubtedly Bradbury himself, portrayed in a period of his life just before his marriage and his success with The Martian Chronicles.”
Nicely put, Garnett. It was a terrific bookend (though I know he lived many more years) to his career and acknowledgement of inspiration that the then city of Venice had provided for him.
Prashant, I believe the dedication was a respectful tip of the hat to giants in the genre. Nice classy touch from a man overflowing with class.
9. Mates
Nothing like eyeballs rolling around on a beach and a catchy title to get your attention.
David Cranmer
10. DavidCranmer
Mates, Never underestimate a catchy title I say. It was while scrolling through some hardboiled/noir titles that Death Is a Lonely Business jumped out at me. A definite play on classic titles like Murder is My Business and Trouble is My Business. Very effective. Especially with orbs in the sand.
Brian Greene
11. BrianGreene
Nicely written and a strong case made for a book I didn't know about. Love the work you're doing here, David.
Scott Adlerberg
13. ScottAdlerberg
Good piece, Edward. Enjoyed that. I read the novel years ago and what I remember most is the atmosphere of crumbling old Venice that Bradbury evokes. I agree with you. It's not a typical hardboiled novel, but being Bradbury, how could it be? He definitely brings his own very distinctive touch to the genre.
David Cranmer
14. DavidCranmer
Scott, I wonder (being a devil's advocate here) if the atmosphere hangs just a bit too heavy? I have a feeling, in the long run, the crumbling Venice passages over plot is what most readers will take away from Death is a Lonely Business.
15. Col
Fairly sure I read this years ago, time to revisit I think.
David Cranmer
16. DavidCranmer
I'm sure you will find it well worth the second read, Col. And I'm now looking for the next two books in the series.
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