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It may seem odd, but there are a surprising number of poets who have also cranked out mysteries, and vice versa.

Edgar Allan Poe, of course, is known for his detective stories and his poetry. Famed crime novelists Raymond Chandler and Dorothy L. Sayers started their careers as poets. Cecil Day-Lewis, the Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom, wrote twenty mystery-thrillers under the pseudonym Nicholas Blake.

Another in that group is Kenneth Fearing who has been dubbed “the chief poet of the American Depression” and an important influence on the Beat poets, especially Allen Ginsberg.

In his lifetime, Fearing published seven books of poetry and seven mysteries, including his major work The Big Clock, a much-praised 1946 book with an unconventional twist on the crime novel genre.  Actually, several unconventional twists.

The greatest twist?

For one, the main character is George Stroud, and eleven of the book’s nineteen chapters are narrated by him.  But the other eight are told by six other characters — three by Earl Janoth, the top boss at the New York-based, Time-like media empire where Stroud works, and one each by Steve Hagen, Janoth’s right-hand man; Edwin Orlin, a lower-echelon reporter; Stroud’s wife Georgette; Emory Mafferson, another reporter; and a painter named Louise Patterson.

For another, there is a murder victim by the name of Pauline Delos, a strikingly beautiful woman who likes to sleep around, and the reader knows by page 66 who did it.  In fact, the reader watches the killing happen.  But, when Janoth sets his entire newsgathering organization in motion, it’s not to solve the murder — not at all — but to locate a shadowy figure who was seen with Pauline just a little bit before she was slain.

Stroud is put in charge of the search for the guy, and, as he’s been instructed, he tells the dozens of reporters and researchers assigned to the case that it has to be with some high-level corporate shenanigans aimed at Janoth Enterprises.  But he knows that’s not true.

That’s because — in the greatest twist — he’s the shadowy figure he’s searching for.

The greatest twist

Actually, that really isn’t the greatest twist.

The Big Clock is a cleverly plotted, well-paced novel that centers on a not-all-that-attractive George Stroud and the somewhat seamy, unseemly (though totally respectable) world in which he moves.

It’s been credited with being an inspiration to film noir movie dramas — stylish, cynical, moody, shadowy, seamy and unseemly.

The greatest twist, though, is that this isn’t so much a noir mystery as it is a poetic meditation on the brutal dehumanization of the post-industrial, assembly-line, high-efficiency world of mid-20th century America. (As such, it is also a parable about our early 21st-century.)

The title signals the story, and so does Stroud on the book’s third page:

In short, the big clock was running as usual, and it was time to go home.  Sometimes the hands of the clock actually raced, and at other times they hardly moved at all.  But that made no difference to the big clock.  The hands could move backward, and the time it told would be right just the same.  It would still be running as usual, because all other watches have to be set by the big one, which is even more powerful than the calendar, and to which one automatically adjusts his entire life.

A metaphor

Kenneth Fearing is a poet, and the big clock is a metaphor, a figure of speech that Fearing develops throughout his novel.  For instance, a few pages later:

One runs like a mouse up the old, slow pendulum of the big clock, time, scurries around and across its huge hands, strays inside through the intricate wheels and balances and springs of the inner mechanism, searching among the cobwebbed mazes of this machine with all its false exits and dangerous blind alleys and steep runways, natural traps and artificial baits, hunting for the true opening and the real prize.

Then the clock strikes one and it is time to go, to run down the pendulum, to become again a prisoner making once more the same escape.

For of course the clock that measures out the seasons, all gain and loss, the air Georgia [Stroud’s daughter] breathes, Georgette’s strength, the figures shivering on the dials of my own inner instrument board, this gigantic watch that fixes order and establishes the pattern for chaos itself, it has never changed, it will never change, or be changed.

Well, you get the idea.

“Just about everything”

The big clock is not only a metaphor for the rat-race modern life but also for the situation in which Stroud finds himself.

Because he’s in charge of the effort to find himself, he’s able to maneuver this and adjust that, put the brakes on here and send someone off on a wild goose chase there, but there is an inexorableness — an unwavering tick-tock progression — to the situation he’s in.

Despite his great struggling, the dozens of highly skilled reporters working for him start to find things out and the walls begin to close in. That’s another metaphor, but it works with the one about the big clock. 

As the big clock ticks, the walls tick in, just a little, just a little, just a little.  And Stroud is feeling himself caught in the squeeze.

The big clock ran everywhere, overlooked no one, omitted no one, forgot nothing, remembered nothing, knew nothing.  Was nothing, I would have liked to add, but I knew better.  It was just about everything.  Everything there is.

He’s used every dodge he can, and, more and more, it becomes crystal clear that there’s no way out of his predicament.

There is a last twist.  And it just proves at an even deeper level how “blind, impersonal” the big clock is.

Patrick T. Reardon


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