Let's All Kill Constance
(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 stormy
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.