Wednesday, September 3, 2008
From the Shelves of the Paco Library
As one of America’s most prolific authors of science fiction and fantasy, Ray Bradbury needs no introduction. I have to admit, though, that as much as I admire his flights of imagination in construing life on other planets, and in molding monsters and magicians and time machines on this one, it is his skill in portraying small-town America that has always appealed to me most; this is why Dandelion Wine is my favorite Bradbury novel. Few, if any, authors do small towns as well as Bradbury, whose ability to evoke the sights and sounds and customs of the rural hamlet and the self-contained suburb sets the reader down in a time and place that, in the author’s expert hands, becomes instantly familiar.
Today’s “Shelves” feature highlights a novel that was a bit of a departure by Bradbury in subject matter, but which nonetheless is shot through with his evocative genius. Death is a Lonely Business, set in 1949, is a homage to both the town of Venice, California, where Bradbury spent eight years of his life, and to the hard-boiled crime stories of the ‘30’s and ‘40’s. The main character (who is never named, but is the alter ego of Bradbury himself) is a writer of mystery stories who teams up with Detective Elmo Crumley to investigate a series of strange, seemingly unrelated deaths that increasingly look like murder to the young narrator.
The characters are deliciously eccentric, but utterly believable (it is part of Bradbury’s gift to show how the ostensibly strange makes us more, not less, human). I’ll avoid dropping any more hints about the plot, but I do want to quote a snippet that demonstrates the author’s power in conveying the feel of his setting:
“Venice, California, in the old days had much to recommend it to people who liked to be sad. It had fog almost every night and along the shore the moaning of the oil well machinery and the slap of dark water in canals and the hiss of sand against the windows of your house when the wind came up and sang among the open places and along the empty walks.
Those were 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 rollercoaster, being covered by the shifting tides.
At the end of one long canal you could find old circus wagons that had been rolled and dumped, and in the cages, at midnight, if you looked, things lived – fish and crayfish moving with the tide, and it was all the circuses of time somehow gone to doom and rusting away.”
Bradbury published a sequel, titled A Graveyard for Lunatics, which continues the noir theme, but carries it to Hollywood in 1954. Both of these books are genuinely fun reads.