“E non ho amato mai tanto la vita, tanto la vita!”– “Tosca”
Ray Bradbury shouts out to Ray Chandler in 1985’s “Death is a Lonely Business,” the first in a little noir trilogy from the man best known as the frightmare fantasist of “Something Wicked This Way Comes,” or as the sci-fi master of “The Martian Chronicles” and “Fahrenheit 451.”
Here, the 65-year old Bradbury goes back in time to cast himself as an anonymous up-and-coming scribe in the early 50s, a kid mocked for his tales of Martians that never seem to sell. The romantic sap is jonesing for a girlfriend who’s off in Mexico, studying the mummies of Guanajuato (the same ones from “The Next in Line,” because this novel is nothing if not self-referential.) To stave off loneliness, the unnamed narrator puts on the trench-coat of a hard-boiled detective (it’s not a comfortable fit), and sets off to solve a string of bizarre deaths in Venice Beach, California.
Bradbury never strays far from his own distinctive world of ghostly presences and haunted carousels. In other words, don’t expect procedural rigorousness or realistic dives into the underclass. Instead, expect Bradbury’s half playful, half ridiculous poetic flights – and some memorable cartoon characters, like Elmo Crumley, literary cop; Fannie, a 380-lb shut-in whose passion for Puccini matches her passion for mayonnaise jars; and the lovable Constance Rattigan, a less-alarming Norma Desmond.
“Death is a Lonely Business” barely hangs together as a murder mystery, but you stick around for Bradbury’s nostalgia and his obvious affection toward the eccentric old-Hollywood denizens who have been left behind to decline in solitude by the Californian seashore.This is his “Sunset Boulevard”: he’s re-playing the lean and hungry days, yearning to resurrect the passionate youth who lugged an Underwood Corona around and thought $300 for a story sale was the ultimate triumph.
Puccini’s “Tosca” spins on a record player throughout “Death is a Lonely Business.” Enjoy!