By Julien Luebbers ’19
23 years had passed since Ray Bradbury had published his last novel, but in 1985, Death is a Lonely Business was announced and distributed. The story takes place someplace not so far from here in Venice, California. Only for those who know Venice now, it paints a very different picture.
Seldom does one hear Bradbury describing the bright sun and the bustling shops on Abbot Kinney boulevard. In 1949, when the novel takes place, Venice is a declining seaside town, riddled with symbols of death and decay: a lion’s cage, half drowned in a murky and eerie canal, a dinosaur-like roller coaster being torn down, and a cramped tenement on the outskirts of town. The setting becomes a key amplifier in the novel, and is largely romanticized despite its clear lack of appeal. On page one Bradbury is off to a poetic start, giving the reader a run-down of the setting but not in a strenuous way, so to speak. He isn’t telling, he is showing. The images here and throughout the book encapsulate the reader and truly induct them into the world of the story.
Bradbury takes advantage of this setting to frame the novel in a sort of noir mystery style. In the first three pages of the book, Bradbury provides the story’s central mystery. He brings the reader right into a cable car with the protagonist, smelling the liquor on the lips of the man behind him.
In reality, Ray Bradbury lived in Venice from 1942 to 1950, writing various short stories, just like the protagonist. The book’s protagonist reveals a striking resemblance to a young Bradbury, which gives his character more depth. But while the reader is caught up in the protagonist’s emotional struggle with loneliness, there is not one mention of his name, giving the book an even greater sense of mystery.
While the protagonist represents Bradbury’s past, the detective character, Elmo Crumley, acts as a channel of sorts for Bradbury’s romanticism. Crumley lives in a fake jungle, with speakers and sound track to go along with it. With his bizarre jungle-like garden, Crumley helps the protagonist to investigate the mysterious circumstances surrounding the death of many interesting characters in Venice with whom the protagonist is associated.
That is where the plot picks up, quite early on in the first couple chapters. The protagonist uncovers a dead body, and is left with only the words “Death is a lonely business…”
While at some points, the reader may feel like they are being kept waiting for something to happen, right at that very moment, when the reader thinks they need to refill their water glass… BANG, another murder, another action-filled side plot, or another mysterious phone call.
The side characters add a whole array of interesting layers to the story. Colorful and abnormal characters are a commonality among Bradbury’s novels, but the characters here take the cake. From an obese singer, to an old woman who once sold canaries, to a hollywood film star and a psychologist, there is a seemingly endless supply of interesting past subplots.
Bradbury’s background is in science fiction writing, (not coincidentally, so is the protagonist’s) and so the book, despite its lack of interstellar travel and witches, has a supernatural feel to it. For much of the novel, Bradbury describes perfectly regular events in the same way he describes landing a spaceship in his short stories. One criticism for the book is that it is very easy to get lost or nod off during some of his more dense descriptions. Occasionally, in an attempt to bring the reader closer to the realm of the story, he will accidentally push them away. Although often these are the easiest times to take a break, watch some Netflix, or go do homework, I encourage readers to push through and leave themselves hanging off of one of Bradbury’s many cliffs. I promise it’s worth it.
Overall, Death is a Lonely Business is a worthwhile read, and one of three loosely related stories in a sort of series of mystery novels that Bradbury wrote in the late 80s and 90s. If mystery is your style, prepare to see the boundaries and expectations of the genre bent and transformed into some contortionist circus act. If not, get ready for a shocking, tense, and yet emotionally involving read.