death lonely

One man bands: also a lonely business.

“Venice, California, in the old days had much to recommend it to people who liked to be sad.”

My second visit to California in the space of a few weeks, this was an entirely different part of it with a very different atmosphere. I revere Ray Bradbury as one of the greatest writers ever and have fond feelings towards many of his short stories and the perennial favourite Fahrenheit 451. This had an interesting title (I can never resist anything about death) and I’d never heard of it, which always makes things more intriguing, so I thought I’d give it a go.

It is the story of a nameless writer (although it appears to be a fictional version of Bradbury himself) who lives in Venice, California, a town with apparently little to recommend it except, as in the above opening line, to those who enjoy being sad. Everything seems dark and gloomy, there is always fog, and everyone seems just a little … off.

The narrator, an author with a very vivid imagination, meets a drunk stranger on the tram who says just five words to him – “Death is a lonely business”. When he finds the body of an old man in one of the drowned carnival cages by the pier, he thinks he may be going mad and enlists the help of detective Elmo Crumley to help him find out who is responsible. The detective, who also writes in his free time and knows everyone in town, is at first reluctant to help, as the author has no evidence of wrongdoing but becomes convinced that it was murder.

Around him exists a large collection of strange friends and acquaintances who soon begin to experience accidents and curious happenings – some of which are fatal. Scared that he is leading a deranged murderer to these people, the author begins to track down the supposed killer.

I love Bradbury, but I did not love this book. I found it a real slog to get through and, while the ending was satisfactory and it’s mostly tied up, one does have to wonder how much sense any of it really made. As I said above, it’s clear that the narrator has a good imagination, and it’s left to your own to decide how many of the events are really happening and how many of them are in his head. The characters are bizarre and include Henry (blind, but with an excellent sense of smell), Fannie (a 380-pound former opera singer), Peg (stranded in Mexico City), Dr Shrank (a fraudulent psychiatrist with a morbid library), Constance Rattigan (a former star of the silver screen), Cal (the worst barber in the world) and many others. They’re nicely constructed but you feel on edge with all of them, like any one of them could turn up behind you and scare seven shades of beige out of your being.

Diehard Bradbury fans will probably adore this cavalcade of nonsense, and it’s nice to read something by him that is a novel and not a short story (I love his short stories, but sometimes you want something with a bit more substance), but if you’re new to him then I wouldn’t recommend you start with this one. It’s rather depressing, haunting and, while still oddly beautiful, it doesn’t exactly fill one with joy. It’s a bit of a slog but if you like mysteries, the pay out is worth it.

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