I write and review crime fiction and thrillers and teach fiction writing and publishing at SSU.
The big clock of the title is our seemingly inevitable fate; time marching on relentlessly towards our end, and this also sums up the predicament the protagonist feels in this story of a man investigating himself for a murder he didn’t commit.
The lovely Pauline Delos has been murdered by her boyfriend, a magazine publisher, and this becomes obvious to one of his employees, standing in the shadows, having been almost caught in flagrante delicto mid-affair. The big boss, aware of another man’s presence at the scene, sets about trying to identify this stranger in the hopes of pinning the crime on him and saving his own skin. The publisher gives the task to said employee, a man with editorial control over a title breaking stories on real life crime.
The first half of the novel is a delight in terms of turns of phrase. At a business function, the first person narration of the protagonist describes the guests: ‘Some of them tomorrow’s famous fugitives from justice. A sizeable sprinkling of lunatics, so plausible they had never been suspected and never would be. Memorable bankrupts of the future, the obscure suicides of ten or twenty years from now. Potentially fabulous murderers. The mothers or fathers of truly great people I would never know.’ Also, the discussion on abortion in the 1940s is pretty powerful along with the mention of gay characters. The social commentary aspect is one of the things I most enjoy about the crime genre.
However it is only shortly after reaching the mid-point that the set-up is finally complete and we kick off with the inciting incident. So although the premise of the novel is terrific, we are, these days, much more used to thrillers starting in media res, and it seems a shame that the engines are warming for as long as they are. This novel is touted as being a tour de force of suspense but I believe today’s thrillers have to work a lot harder and their authors have to work for longer to ensure that tension is built and maintained.
The suspense leading to the final answering of the dramatic question, will he succeed or be undone, is gripping, and the twists and turns which occur when he is recognised but must skilfully sidestep his undoing or be damned are masterful. It’s just that I wanted it to go on for longer.