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Let's All Kill Constance

by Ray Bradbury

(Morrow, $23.95, 210 pages, hardback; January 3 2003.)

The nameless narrator of this book is a Hollywood screenwriter -- clearly identified by the circumstantial information given on page 68 of this book as Bradbury himself -- is beachfront neighbour to fading movie queen Constance. One dark and cover scanstormy night she comes to him telling him that she is in threat of her life; when she shortly afterwards disappears he goes off on a quest -- sometimes on his own, sometimes accompanied by one or more friends including cynic-with-heart-of-gold private eye Crumley -- in an attempt initially to save her but soon just to work out what the hell is going on. As we follow them we gain a portrait of the Hollywood of yesteryear, its idiosyncrasies and its fundamental glamorous tawdriness.

This is Bradbury's third attempt at a roman-a-clef noir detection -- earlier were Death is a Lonely Business (1985) and A Graveyard for Lunatics (1990) -- and it's enjoyable enough in a superficial sort of a way: vaguely entertaining, but completely uninvolving. It is this latter quality, or lack thereof, which is the novel's downfall as a noir, for noirs depend above all on an atmosphere that requires the total involvement of the reader. Bradbury's natural style, with its flightiness and exaggerated poeticism, works against him in this genre -- ironic to find oneself saying this, because of course it was precisely that style which made particularly his early works of fantasy so comprehensively engrossing. There it was perhaps that the style left open so much space for ambiguity; here the ambiguity irks. (Chandler's language, for example, was often richly poetic, but at the same time its meaning was always crystal clear.) Here's a sample:

All the doors still stood wide, bright lights burned inside while Gershwin punched holes in a player piano roll in 1928 to be played again and again, triple time, with no one listening except me and Crumley walking through lots of music, but no Constance.

Even after one's worked out the meaning of this sentence there are still, as it were, bits of scattershot phrasing left flying adrift. That "triple time", for example. Did Gershwin, working in 1928, record the pianola roll at one-third speed? Perhaps pianola rolls were always recorded at one-third speed, for technological reasons -- the punches could work only so fast, or something? If so, this is a bit of knowledge beyond the humble reviewer's ken. Or maybe Constance set her pianola to play at three times normal speed. Come to think of it, it must have been an electric pianola, because otherwise she'd still be sitting there pumping the pedals. When was the electric pianola invented? ... and so on.

A reasonable practitioner of noir fiction would have had the reader, glued, two-thirds of the way through the chapter after next by now, not still stuck on page 20 grappling with this sentence.

There are some memorable moments, though, most notably the narrator's encounter with Constance's first, forgotten-nonentity husband, now dwelling eremitically in a hilltop shack surrounded by tottering megaliths of piled old and rotting newspapers. There is a skewed richness in such scenes reminiscent of the best of Mervyn Peake. But they are oases of vividness amid much that is desert.

There are annoying technical blemishes. On pages 44-5 there's an extended exchange of dialogue in the midst of which Bradbury loses track of which of the two characters is speaking. On page 72 there's reference to the British beer Old Peculier, but spelt "Old Peculiar". And so on.

But what's most irritating of all about this book is its lack of ambition. Yes, even the greatest of writers -- and Bradbury's career speaks for itself -- obviously wants to relax with a romp every now and then rather than attempting a masterpiece with each and every new book, but Bradbury of all people is surely capable of producing an excellent romp rather than just a piece of lazy froth like this.

To put this another way: Bradbury has the prized capacity to create works that (and this is irrespective of whether the reader necessarily likes all of them) give the impression of having been greatly loved -- loved with an enormous passion, with a fullness of the heart -- by the writer. It's a magical ability, and every writer in the world wishes s/he had it.

This book doesn't have that quality.

Review by John Grant.

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