Uncommon Mystery: Death is a Lonely Business

Oct 16, 2014

Credit Amazon.com

One of the most influential science fiction writers of the 20th century also dabbled in stylish noir tales of mystery and murder. Drawing inspiration from Raymon Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, Ray Bradbury penned a mystery set in a 1950s Venetian circus and the quirky detective Elmo Crumley.

On Sounds Good, Murray State University Professor Emeritus Michael Cohen continues his series of commentaries about "uncommon mysteries" with a review of Ray Bradbury's Death is a Lonely Business, published in 1985.

Ray Bradbury, Death Is a Lonely Business (1985)

The narrator is a twenty-seven-year-old writer of stories for pulp mystery magazines, a would-be novelist who can’t get his novel going until one night he finds the body of an old man he knew, floating in one of the canals near the beach in Venice, California. The writer lives on the beach among interesting people, including Constance Rattigan, a movie star who hasn’t been seen publicly since the twenties—the book is set in 1949 although Bradbury wrote it in 1985. Other characters include the canary lady, a frail woman who was the dead man’s landlady and who is the second victim of the killer. The narrator’s only clue is that on the night of the first murder, he heard the murderer mumbling behind him as he rode on the streetcar that runs between Los Angeles and Venice. But he can’t get the local detective to believe him that these are murders. The detective, Elmo Crumley, is a gardener and a literate policeman who is also writing a novel, and the narrator generously supplies Crumley with his own title, Death Is a Lonely Business, which is what the murderer whispered behind the narrator in the streetcar on the night of the first murder. Crumley’s name, by the way, is Bradbury’s homage to James Crumley, the author of The Last Good Kiss and other mysteries, and, by the way, one of the writers who read at Murray State University during the early days of its creative writing program. Raymond Chandler and other detective writers get passing mentions.

The background for Bradbury’s novel is the demolition of the amusement park and other attractions on the Venice Pier and the elimination of the trolley service from downtown L. A. to Venice, more or less true events that Bradbury adjusts to fit his fictional purposes. His narrator begins to investigate the deaths himself, and his quest takes him to Cal, the worst barber in Venice, to a flamboyant movie theater operator, and to a pseudo-psychologist who sidelines as a palm-reader, hypnotist, tarot-card interpreter and handwriting analyst.

The next victim is the narrator’s friend who calls herself Flora Florianna, a 380- pound housebound soprano who never sings when other people are around. Meanwhile the narrator continues his investigations with the most unlikely of sidekicks: first it’s Constance Rattigan, who turns out not to be a recluse at all, though she usually disguises herself when in public. When Constance disappears the narrator is assisted by Henry, a blind man who lives in Flora’s tenement building.

Bradbury was of course known for his science fiction and fantasy writing, and this was his first mystery novel, though he, like his narrator, wrote for mystery pulp magazines in the forties. If you enjoy reading Death Is a Lonely Business, you will be pleased to learn that Bradbury enjoyed writing it and went on to use some of the same characters in two more books of a trilogy. A Graveyard for Lunatics was published in 1990 and Let’s All Kill Constance in 2003. Bradbury died in 2012.

Michael Cohen is Professor Emeritus at Murray State University. His newest book is A Place to Read - a collection of essays about seven decades of living and reading. The Pennyroyal Arts Council's "Big Read Project" features Michael Cohen speaking about Dashiell Hammett's The Maltese Falcon, tomorrow night at 7 at the Alhambra Theatre, 507 South Main, Hopkinsville.

Books available on Amazon

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A Place to Read by Michael Cohen

Death is a Lonely Business by Ray Bradbury