Racing the Clock of Life

The Big Clock (1946)

By Kenneth Fearing

The Big Clock is a different kind of murder/crime novel, but nonetheless dark and tawdry as American Noir should be. It’s different because the murder doesn’t come until well into the novel, and then really isn’t the focus of the suspenseful race against the clock. The focus is George Stroud, an ambitious magazine writer/editor, a man who drinks hard and cheats on his wife, who thinks quite highly of himself, of his intelligence, and his appreciation of aesthetics, particularly when it comes to art. The plot is a finely honed chase story about an innocent man, at least innocent of murder, trying to save his life. Even more, it’s a keen psychological probing of a cunning mind, that of George Stroud.

Outlined, the story begins with George grumbling to himself at a party thrown by his employer, Earl Janoth, chairman of Janoth Enterprises, an agglomeration of magazines. There he meets Pauline Delos, a magnetic blonde, who also happens to be seeing Janoth. Sometime later George and Pauline hookup, when George’s wife and daughter are safely out of town. The pair have a wild weekend in New York, where they buy a painting that proves a key clue in the tale, and upstate in Albany. At the end, he sees her home, but not to her door because Janoth is arriving at that precise moment. George holds back in the shadows, unrecognized. Next thing he knows, Pauline is dead and the most likely murderer is Janoth. In a twist, though, to protect himself, Janoth and his business partner concoct a tale about the mystery man, who is the only one who can place Janoth at Pauline’s apartment, with the objective of eliminating him. They sic the full resources of the publishing house on finding the man, and they put George in charge. George, faced with the task of ferreting out himself, has to continually throw his team of investigative reporters off his scent, until, at the end, they have pretty much closed in on him. It’s then that Fearing springs a surprise, the seed of which he has placed in plain view at the outset of the novel.

Readers will find two features of the novel particularly interesting. First, the clock of the title; it serves as both a sort of stopwatch counting down the hours and minutes until George finds himself exposed. It also functions as an overarching symbol of the relentless grind of life, it’s unalterable march to the fatal moment in every life. The second are the Louise Patterson paintings; one hanging in George’s office builds tension as we readers and George wait for somebody to identify it as a Patterson. Even more, though, George’s attachment to his Patterson paintings, and specifically the one from the antique shop, speak volumes about George’s character: his self-pride, his superior aesthetic eye, and his willingness to behave recklessly to preserve is purchase, which is really part and parcel of his identity.

You’ll find The Big Clock not only suspenseful but more sophisticated than the typical noir crime novel. w/c

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