The Big Clock by Kenneth Fearing

“The big clock ran everywhere, overlooked no one, omitted no one, forgot nothing, remembered nothing, knew nothing. Was nothing.” – George Stroud

How does a man escape from himself? No book has ever dramatized that question more perfectly effect than The Big Clock, a masterpiece of American noir.

Fearing based the novel on the October 1943 murder of New York brewery heiress Patricia Burton Bernheimer Lonergan and Sam Fuller’s 1944 thriller The Dark Page. A combination of these two suggested a plot thread to Fearing, and he began writing The Big Clock during August 1944, continuing to work on the manuscript for over a year. He married artist Nan Lurie in 1945, and much of the novel was written in her loft on East 10th Street in New York City. The manuscript was completed by October 1945, and it was published by Harcourt Brace in 1946.

The Big Clock is the story of George Stroud, editor of Crimeways’ magazine, one of several publications in the Janoth Enterprises publishing empire. Stroud is dissatisfied with his job and his marriage.

One day, before heading home to his wife Georgia, Stroud has a drink with Pauline Delos, the beautiful girlfriend of his boss, Earl Janoth. Things happen. The two have a few dates, including a night away in Albany and a gay old time in Manhattan the next day. In the morning, Stroud escorts Pauline home, leaving her at the corner just as Janoth returns from a trip.

Janoth and Pauline have a spat over the shadowy man Janoth spotted walking from Pauline’s. “At least this time it’s a man,” Janoth quips. Yes, it seems that Pauline swings both ways. She in turn counters by questioning Janoth’s sexual proclivities, especially in regard to his relationship with his right-hand man, Steve Hagen. Enraged, Janoth bludgeons her to death with a brandy decanter. These homosexual references are pretty risqué for 1946.

Janoth knows there was one witness to his entry into Pauline’s apartment on the night of the murder; he knows that man must have been the man Pauline was with before he got back; but he doesn’t know who he was. He badly wants to get his hands on that man.

Janoth turns to the only man he can trust, Steve Hagen. The cool, calculating Hagen concocts a scheme to provide Janoth with an alibi and discover the elusive figure who could connect Janoth to the crime. In order to do this, Hagen calls on one of his most trusted employees to track him down: George Stroud, who else?
All signs point to the man seen with Pauline. However, Stroud can’t reveal his identity or deny his guilt, both due to the damning circumstantial evidence and because telling his side of the story would ruin his marriage and his career. Who would believe his innocence? Stroud also can’t stall the search or else draw suspicion to himself. He has to give the appearance of doing his typical persistent job of investigation, hoping to escape detection while uncovering enough evidence to place guilt on Janoth.

Stroud has been playing both ends against the middle and it’s all about to fall down around his ears.

Stroud’s cover story is that he is looking for a missing link in a high-powered political-industrial deal. Meanwhile, it appears that there are some dubious dealings going on behind the scenes at Janoth Enterprises that have nothing to do with Pauline Delos. During his investigation, Stroud learns that there is a leak within the organization that is strengthening a rival company, Jennett-Donohue, for a takeover of Janoth’s empire. Fearing ingeniously refers to this treachery with the title for a painting Stroud purchased on his last night out with Pauline – The Temptation of St. Judas. However, the identity of the traitor is never properly revealed.

The Big Clock ends abruptly and ironically illogical in its chronological structure. From approximately 8:30 pm to “the rest of the day”, Stroud speaks of making dinner dates and buying tickets for a show that night. Then a page later he’s talking about that afternoon. Perhaps Fearing is making an overly conscious effort to subvert “the big clock” by this shift in hour. He may be suggesting that there are no nicely-wrapped conclusions in life by never explaining the circumstances behind the novel’s business intrigue. He does this by using a story that Stroud tells his daughter with a moral of not pulling at any “loose threads.”

In The Big Clock, Fearing employs no less than seven narrators to tell his tale including Stroud, Janoth, Hagen, Stroud’s wife, two Crimeways reporters and unconventional artist Louise Patterson. Fearing captures each of the narrators’ voice, from the philosophical musings of Stroud, to the coldblooded assessments of Hagen, to the uncontrolled tittering of Patterson.

The Big Clock is Fearing’s most successful novel, commercially and aesthetically. It’s a crime story, but more surreal than hard-boiled. The two key figures in it are the Big Clock, of the title, and Gil’s Bar, which is its antithesis. The spaces and characters all array themselves in actual and spiritual proximity to one pole or the other.

Gil’s Bar is everything the Big Clock is not. It is an ill-lit, not to mention illicit, dive. Behind the bar Gil keeps a grand array of junk. Patrons challenge Gil to produce an item that they imagine he could not possibly have. Gil invariably produces it, and the patron stands Gil a drink while he tells the story of how he came to possess it. Whereas the Big Clock values everything every instant and discards everything every instant for something new, Gil’s junk heap operates on a different principle. Everything remains in the junk heap to be valued again and again, in yet one more of Gil’s anecdotes without end.

In The Big Clock, characters who are close to the orbit of Gil’s Bar are marked by their openness to art, alcohol and sexual variety. Characters close to the Big Clock instinctively close themselves off (although, this being America in the 40s, everybody drinks). The central character is the one most evenly divided between the two.

The Clock at Janoth Enterprises controls all of the timepieces in the building, as omnipresent and omnipotent as Janoth would like to think he is. Fearing’s “big clock” is metaphor for the invisible framework that seems to control the fate of man; the tedious beat to which most men march and a rhythm that Stroud believes himself above. Stroud fancies himself a free thinker, only seeming to escape from the “pincher claws” and “grinding gears” of “the big clock” when he surrenders himself to its mechanisms.

John Farrow’s 1948 The Big Clock starring Ray Milland is available on DVD. The book was also adapted for Roger Donaldson’s 1987 spy-thriller No Way Out with Kevin Costner.

In his introduction to Kenneth Fearing: Complete Poems (1994), Robert M. Ryley described the events of publication and the aftermath:
Published in the fall of 1946, The Big Clock made Fearing temporarily rich. Altogether he took in about $60,000 (roughly $360,000 in 1992 dollars): about $10,000 in royalties and from the sale of republication rights (including a condensation in The American Magazine), and $50,000 from the sale of film rights to Paramount. Overestimating his business acumen, he had negotiated his own contract with Paramount, permanently and irrevocably signing away his film rights, and relinquishing his television rights till 1952, by which time, he discovered to his rage and frustration, Paramount was showing late-night reruns and had thus cornered the market. A more immediate problem was alcohol. He told his friend Alice Neel (the model for Louise Patterson, the eccentric painter in The Big Clock) that since he could now afford to start drinking in the morning, he was having trouble getting any work done. On one occasion he almost died from a combination of scotch and phenobarbital, and in 1952 he was so shaken by his doctor’s warnings about the condition of his liver that he went on the wagon.

Fearing died in 1961, of malignant melanoma in Manhattan.

There is a famous anecdote about Fearing. During the Red-baiting years of the 50s, the FBI rounded up Fearing and asked him the inevitable question: “Are you a member of the Communist Party?” His answer: “Not yet.”

What makes it a story is the enigma of this answer. Is he saying that the FBI’s harassment is, ironically enough, the very thing that will drive him into the arms of the Party? Or is he saying that he is not worthy of the Party? Not ready? Or, more interestingly, that the Party itself is not ready for him?

Fearing’s writing style maintains a taut, yet relaxed feeling that works so well in classic noir. This book belongs on the shelf next to the works of Hammett, Chandler, Cain and Woolrich of every reader of the genre.

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