Friday, January 29, 2021

The Book You Have to Read:
“The Big Clock,” by Kenneth Fearing

(Editor’s note: This is the 169th installment in The Rap Sheet’s continuing series about great but forgotten books.)

By Steven Nester
In general, novels penned by poets seem like daunting reads. (Can anyone really be certain what some modern poets are attempting to say in their works? Now, imagine those works at book length.) But not all modern poets are inscrutable, and luckily for readers, neither is their prose. Many have succeeded in producing long fiction, gaining a popular readership along with critical acclaim. Among those was Kenneth Fearing (1902-1961). A pulp writer and left-leaning poet in the 1930s (with five collections to his credit), Fearing turned to fiction writing in the 1940s and ’50s. His fourth novel, 1946’s The Big Clock, brought him the greatest fame and fortune, becoming the source material for not one, but two Hollywood films, shot three decades apart. A psychological thriller, told through several first-person narrators, it is an acknowledged classic.

The better part of The Big Clock is recounted by George Stroud, executive editor of the New York City-based Crimeways, a Janoth Enterprises publication known as “the nation’s police blotter.” Stroud is intelligent, a hard worker, and a good father. He’s also a bit of a cynic whose wandering eye gets him into the jam of a lifetime (and into the middle of a very clever plot) when he steps out with Pauline Delos. “Tall, ice-blond, and splendid,” Delos also happens to be the love interest of Stroud’s boss, Earl Janoth, who presides over a faltering magazine syndicate (reportedly based on Time Incorporated, for which the author himself once worked), and who expects much from his employees, giving Stroud the opportunity to pass judgment on the capitalist grind “that seemed to prefer human sacrifices of the flesh and of the spirit over any other token of devotion.”

After spending a wild weekend together, Stroud goes to drop the delectable Delos off at her apartment building. But the couple spot Janoth waiting out front. Janoth sees them as well. He recognizes Delos, but not Stroud. It’s a close call for the philandering Crimeways editor, but he’s far from home free.

Once upstairs, Janoth and Delos argue, and things get out of hand. Taunted and berated beyond the breaking point, Janoth finally beats Delos to death. Then, with nowhere else to go, he flees to the apartment of his right-hand man, Steve Hagen, and admits his crime. Weak and cowardly, and already against the ropes with his troubled magazine empire, Janoth wants to surrender himself to the police, but Hagen will have none of it. He’s all cunning, with plenty of backbone that’s as crooked as a snake. After talking Janoth off the hangman’s scaffold, the pair begin to conspire. To save Janoth’s skin (and Hagen’s power and prestige), they know they must identify and find the man who brought Delos home that day—and then deal with him, letting the fall guy fall where he may. To make that happen, Hagen lets loose some of the best bloodhounds there are—the staff of Crimeways—who are told to locate the man, but not why he’s wanted. For Stroud, though, the reason is obvious: He’s being asked to implicate himself in the murder of Pauline Delos. It doesn’t take long for the investigative team to discover every stop Delos and her mystery lover made during that fatal weekend. Those who witnessed their drunken traipsing can put a name to Delos, but not Stroud.

With George Stroud feeling his pursuers closing in, author Fearing suddenly throws out a wild card.

Louise Patterson is an underappreciated artist whose works Stroud collects. He and Patterson bickered that fatal weekend over the purchase of one of the artist’s pieces at an antiques shop. Stroud eventually won the painting—and now it’s the only piece of physical evidence that can link him to Delos. Patterson is a hot mess. Disheveled and bibulous, with a face “like an arrested cyclone,” she comes across as an irascible crackpot with a mouth like a sailor’s. A determined believer in her worth as an artist, she’s been buying back all of her paintings, hoping to feature them in an upcoming retrospective. She can positively finger Stroud, and he has the damning framed canvas that proves they met. When, in the midst of this evolving investigation, Patterson is called to the Janoth Building, and she sights Stroud, she knows exactly who he is. Yet her reaction isn’t what he had expected.

Although Patterson is thrown off-balance by their office encounter, she recovers quickly, and engages in a private conversation with Stroud that is a most delicate minuet of innuendo and threat. Any reader not brought to the edge of their seat while listening to their exchange possesses a tin ear. The artist wants the picture back that Stroud outbid her for, but Stroud wants more. She realizes she’s being blackmailed—the picture in trade for her silence—and the ante is upped still further when Patterson notices a painting of hers on the wall of Stroud’s office, one of several she learns are in his possession. Stroud is reckless and a gambler; Patterson could turn him in and connive to repossess her art … except that the notoriety bestowed upon the piece when it’s linked to a sensational homicide would certainly increase its value far beyond her means. An agreement of some kind must be struck—but not before another dire turn is encountered.

(Above) A poster for the 1948 film based on Fearing’s novel.

For you see, the dogged Crimeways hounds—still on the hunt for answers—are busily searching the headquarters of Janoth Enterprises. As they make their way to the boardroom, where Janoth, Stroud, Hagen, and others await, Stroud prepares to accept his fate as an accused murderer. But just when all seems lost … well, telling any more  would spoil the surprise. Suffice to say that afterward, Stroud must still deal with Patterson.

She stalks Stroud and at length confronts him in a bar. Drunk, she demands the painting be returned to her, but Stroud sticks to his guns and refuses. They hold each other in a tenuous abeyance, each at the mercy of the other, with Stroud at the disadvantage. However, that standoff confirms for Patterson her own worth as an artist, as Stroud puts his freedom, reputation, and family on the line to keep the painting—an ultimate compliment if there ever was one.

An arrangement of sorts is struck, unspoken and definitely non-binding. Will Patterson hold to it, though? No one knows. The “big clock,” that implacable mechanism “to which one automatically adjusts his entire life,” continues to tick away as the book ends, leaving readers twisting in the wind.

The Big Clock was first adapted for the silver screen—under that same title—in 1948, with a script by Jonathan Latimer (author of the book Solomon’s Vineyard), and starring Ray Milland, Charles Laughton, Maureen O’Sullivan, and Rita Johnson. In 1987, director Roger Donaldson plumbed Fearing’s tale a second time, producing No Way Out, a tense Washington, D.C.-set thriller starring Kevin Costner, Sean Young, and Gene Hackman. As well-received as those pictures were, the novel is still better—a cunning twist of classic noir, complete with crisp dialogue and pretty darn mean streets.


Roger Allen said...

A third film based on The Big Clock - more loosely than the others but well worth seeing - is the French film Police Python 357.
I've always wondered if Welles's Mr Arkadin was inspired by The Big Clock. The differences are big enough to deny direct plagiarism, but there are strong similarities.

Sean Day said...

Great article. Interesting tidbit, at least for fans of modern art: the character Patterson is based on real-life artist Alice Neel.

Howard said...

Also connected to The Hudsucker Proxy, at least according to some.