Death Is a Lonely Business Book Review - Lunchtime Lit With Mel Carriere
Lunchtime Lit Is A Shelter for Abandoned Books
If I'm your mailman, I'm going to walk across your front porch every day. I'm not being a creepy peeping Tom, I'm not casing the joint, I'm just doing what I get paid to do, deliver your mail.
Naturally, because the nature of the beast forces me onto your property on a regular basis, I am going to lay eyes upon those intimate artifacts that separate you from the other 7.5 billion people in the human race. I am going to observe your garden gnome, your antique butter churn, your cactus planted in a boot, and your pink flamingo on a pole.
Although these decorations continue to be active extensions of your personality, things you use to make a statement about who you are and where you are coming from, items of sentimental value you have no intention to toss into the dust bin anytime soon, I can tell more about you by the swag you are trying to throw away.
People often leave their unwanted refuse accumulating on their front porches, lying there in limbo while they make a decision what to do with it. They fully intend to part ways with these items, but sometimes there are emotional strings attached that keep them from cutting the chord completely. Then the mailman walks up and facilitates the decision.
In this way I espied a milk crate full of books sitting on a front porch along my mail route. This was not the first time it has happened, but usually such tired tomes are in the transitional phase to the junk yard for a good reason - being titles like Glamour Guide for Teens, Broke Is No Joke, Finding Your G Spot, etc. etc. These are words that people tried on for size, believing they had magic to pull them out of their poverty, turn them into sexual dynamos, or give a positive outlook to an otherwise gloomy, hopeless existence. They soon discovered that the books did not deliver like I, the mailman do.
Yet a few weeks ago, while still happily embedded in the seemingly endless saga A Suitable Boy, I found an unexpected gem lying there on the slag heap of false promises and broken dreams. This lantern shining in the gloom of human misery was Death Is A Lonely Business, by Ray Bradbury. I knocked on the door offering to buy it. The novel's former owner told me, albeit somewhat sadly, to take it away for free, to give it a good home. Perhaps Ray Bradbury and his work say something about who the man with the milk crate of abandoned books is and what he stands for, just as he does for me.
Lunchtime Lit Rules
Once the adoption papers have been processed and the orphaned book has been taken into reviewer Mel Carriere's protective custody, California law strictly prohibits him taking it home for sneak reads at night. It must remain like a neglected foster child in his battered orange Homer box, to be read only on his thirty minute Postal lunch break.
Lunchtime Lit Year to Date Recap * **
Power In The Blood
A Suitable Boy
Death Is A Lonely Business
**Word counts are estimated by hand-counting a statistically significant 23 pages, then extrapolating this average page count across the entire book. When the book is available on a word count website, I rely on that total.
*Twenty-three other titles, with a total estimated word count of 5,009,783 and 749 lunchtimes consumed, have been reviewed under the guidelines of this series.
Now Trending - Fahrenheit 451
The author of Death Is A Lonely business is, of course, Ray Bradbury, and his Fahrenheit 451 is a hot topic here on Lunchtime Lit - never reviewed, but frequently mentioned in other reviews. The ubiquitous citation of this novel indicates that it remains relevant, that its tireless topics are timeless. It is an epic ostrich of a book disguised as a sparrow.
Who can call themselves a fan of Ray Bradbury and truthfully claim that it is not because of Fahrenheit 451? If you are a disciple of the written word, if you are fanatical about freedom of speech, then this finest and most famous of all of Bradbury's books is your gospel. Its joys are your joys, its worries and woes are your own. Not only did this novel depict a society in which deep thinking is being systematically set aflame, it also accurately predicted the fate of our modern world, a planet full of electronic junkies who have willingly surrendered their free will to the now trending...
Although his tales are bantam boxers, they pack a powerful punch. Unlike Tolstoy and Vikram Seth, Bradbury does not require a thousand pages plus to deliver a sermon that will bring you to the altar. Yet to the altar you will come, never on your knees, but walking upright and proud. His messages weave their way into your soul without you knowing it, during a still, peaceful interlude in which you thought you were only being entertained. Maybe you were curled up at home in bed or on your sofa, maybe you were wiling away the hours of a weary flight, maybe you were parked beneath a tree on your half hour postal lunch break, when Ray Bradbury spoke to you in his very non intrusive way.
A Menagerie of Misfits
Although on its surface Death Is A Lonely Business might appear to be just another pedestrian crime novel, there is still something Fahrenheit 451ish here. In a very non-preachy way, Bradbury echoes the theme of like minds coming together, a small group of humans clinging to an ideal in a world that does not appreciate their values. The destruction of the pier in Venice, California is symbolic of a beloved way of life being plowed under. The real meaning of friendship and loyalty, that forged through a shared appreciation for the product of man's mind is being bulldozed there, to make way for profitable commercial culture.
The unnamed narrator is an impoverished writer trying to make his way, but he is not alone, he has his oddball support staff to prop him up. His girlfriend Peg, "absent among all those catacomb mummies in Mexico," makes eagerly awaited calls to the pay phone across the street from his shabby apartment. When the loneliness becomes unbearable he visits his rotund, mayonnaise munching friend Fannie, a former opera singer. Fannie connects him to Constance Rattigan, a star of the silver screen who has become disillusioned by the decay of her craft, and has withdrawn herself from Hollywood. Elmo Crumley is a jaded detective who does not want to be a cop at all, but a writer. The center of gravity of the story is a tenement house whose inhabitants may appear to be poor, but are fiercely dedicated to the welfare of one another. The rickety dwelling is patrolled by Henry the blind man, an adroit sleuth who makes up for his lack of sight by mastery of his other senses.
Some self-appointed arbiter of life and death has decided to take it upon himself to put the tenement's occupants, and others who are close to our unnamed narrator, out of what he perceives to be their misery. This clever assassin contrives means by which his victims either terminate their own lives, or remove themselves to less deadly climes. In this way the killer is part and parcel of the Venice urban renewal project that is earnestly underway. Can our unnamed narrator stop the fiend before he disposes of all the people he values?
Venice, California, in the old days had much to recommend it to people who liked to be sad.— Ray Bradbury - opening line of Death Is A Lonely Business
Venice was and is full of lost places where people put up for sale the last worn bits of their souls, hoping no one will buy.— Ray Bradbury - Another characteristic sample from "Death Is A Lonely Business."
It is fairly obvious that our unnamed narrator in Death Is A Lonely Business remains unnamed because he is none other than Ray Bradbury himself.
In fact, Bradbury is a former inhabitant of Venice, California, the backdrop of this crime novel plus, this friend with benefits. He lived there between the years of 1942 to 1950, his formative years as a writer, as something of a roller skating beach bum. The author is obviously intimately familiar with his setting, and accurately conveys the gloom of a foggy Southern California seaside town. In the course of the novel the narrator travels down south to places I am familiar with - The Hotel Del Coronado and the Tijuana bullring by the sea, here in my own backyard. This deft depiction convinces me that despite his Midwestern upbringing, Bradbury has California in the blood. The pall the novel depicts is not quite so thick here by the Mexican border, but I have experienced the oppressive mist that can suck happiness out of the most sunny of settings.
Venice was founded by developer Abbot Kinney in 1905, on some marshy land he won in a coin flip. This visionary drained the swamp by building canals he supposed were reminiscent of Italy's namesake city. He hired an architect to mimic the Gothic architecture of the floating metropolis, and increased the allure of his investment by constructing a "pleasure pier" with multiple attractions for tourists, who poured in by the thousands. The faux city-state by the Pacific could be toured via miniature railway and of course, by gondolas plying waterways that were soon to be clogged by greasy crude.
Two decades after its founding, oil was discovered on the Venice Peninsula and the charming, italianesque landscape was quickly pincushioned by 450 wells. Plagued by infrastructure problems resulting from an unprecedented population boom, Venice then annexed itself to the city of Los Angeles. It soon became a neglected backwater. By the 1950s Venice was known as the "Slum by the Sea," a low rent district that provided a haven for counterculture artists of the Beat Generation. This was the Venice of young, pre-fame Ray Bradbury, and it is this prematurely aged, decrepit Venice, a postcard-perfect vacation destination now threatening to erode into the Pacific, that provides the somber scenery for Death Is A Lonely Business.
Ray On A Bad Day Still Beats Everybody Else
The jaunty, light and bouncy writing style of Ray Bradbury, replete with metaphor and strange, incongruous descriptions that deftly convey an impressionist's mood rather than classical detail, stands in brilliant, sunlit contrast to the foggy shroud strangling the seaside city.
Here is such a defining snippet from Fahrenheit 451, where the protagonist Guy Montag is drifting down a stream "...mild and leisurely, going away from the people who ate shadows for breakfast and steam for lunch and vapors for supper." This is not a literal description of the activities of the Bradbury universe's inhabitants, but a metaphorical flourish that allows readers to paint a picture inside their own heads, from various shades and perspectives. It imparts a mood that is much more powerful than dry, dull detail.
Death Is A Lonely Business continues the Bradburyesque tradition of favoring mood over realism. There is nothing at all of what we could call realistic in this book. There is no detailed Crime Scene Investigation into the multiple deaths by mysterious circumstances. Instead we get broad but potent brush strokes. The nostalgic denizens of the Venice Pier go for one last joy ride on the roller coaster just as the hungry bulldozers are revving up to topple its foundations. How could this happen in real life, without CONDEMNED signs being nailed up weeks in advance, security posted around the perimeter to prevent the intrusion of last-minute throwback thrill seekers, and disclaimers being signed by anybody going within a stone's throw. No, Bradbury's style is not realistic at all, nor is it intended to be. Instead, his method transmits emotion and meaning that is much more powerful than any superficial shell that might surround them.
Death Is A Lonely Business might not be Bradbury at his best. It does not contain the literary fire of Fahrenheit 451 and the ageless tales of The Martian Chronicles. Still, Ray on a bad day surpasses crowds of cookie cutter crime novelists. These two-bit hacks with their computer generated plots, soulless characters, and dumbed-down dialogue languish at the bottom of the literary milk crate, left behind as refuse after the greats have been rescued off the top.