Kenneth Fearing (1902 – 1961)


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The son of a Chicago attorney, Kenneth Flexner Fearing was born and raised in Oak Park, Illinois, and he attended public schools. He then studied at the University of Wisconsin, where he earned a BA in 1924. Although he worked for a Chicago newspaper for a time, after 1924 he lived mostly in New York City, where he associated with other poets in Greenwich Village. His poetry collections include Stranger at Coney Island and Other Poems (1948), Collected Poems of Kenneth Fearing (1940), Dead Reckoning (1938), and Angel Arms (1929). He won a Guggenheim Fellowship for creative writing in 1936, and it was renewed in 1939.

A well-known proletarian poet of the 1930s, a pulp magazine writer with several pseudonyms, and a Chicago and New York City publicity and editorial writer, Fearing turned to writing “psycho-thrillers” in the 1940s and 1950s. His fourth novel The Big Clock (1946) achieved much popularity and was released as a film by Paramount in 1947. Although some scholars now consider Fearing’s main contribution to be in the genre of poetry, the 1980 paperback republication of The Big Clock represents mystery buffs’ recognition of the novel as a classic. Some contemporary critics found that Fearing’s multiple first-person narrators detracted from the plots of his novels, but this technique allowed Fearing to probe the minds of both the pursued and the pursuers. His depiction of the atmosphere and vernacular of the city, which he first captured in his poetry, is in the style of the hard-boiled school of detective fiction, which Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, among others, had developed in the 1920s and 1930s.

The title of The Big Clock refers to its main character’s philosophy of life. The big clock, more powerful than man’s watches and calendars, is the clock “to which one automatically adjusts his entire life.” Man runs like a mouse into all “its false exits and dangerous blind alleys and steep runways, natural traps and artificial baits,” looking for the “real prize” in life. That prize is an illusion, for the big clock “has never changed, it will never change, or be changed.” This lack of control pervades George Stroud’s life; he is one step ahead of his lies to his wife and, by the end of the novel, one step from death. The suspense comes not from whether George will beat the big clock or fate (for no one can), but whether it is time for George or another to lose the race. (Source: Poetry Foundation, continue reading the full text here)

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(Source: Facsimile Dust Jackets LLC. Harcourt, Brace and Company (USA), 1946)

From Wikipedia: The Big Clock is a 1946 novel by Kenneth Fearing. Published by Harcourt Brace, the thriller was his fourth novel, following three for Random House (The Hospital, Dagger of the Mind, Clark Gifford’s Body) and five collections of his poetry. The story first appeared in abridged form in The American Magazine (October 1946), as “The Judas Picture”. The story was adapted for three films: The Big Clock (1948) starring Ray Milland, Police Python 357 (1976) starring Yves Montand and No Way Out (1987) starring Kevin Costner.

Synopsis: George Stroud is a hard-drinking, tough-talking, unscrupulous journalist working for tyrannical Earl Janoth’s media empire. And he’s involved with the wrong woman – his boss’s mistress, Pauline Delos. One day, as Stroud escorts Pauline home, he spies his boss returning from a trip. The next day, Pauline is found dead in her apartment. Janoth knows someone saw him enter Pauline’s apartment on the night of the murder; he knows it must have been the man Pauline was seeing on the side; but he doesn’t know his identity. To get his hands on the man and pin the crime on him, Janoth assigns his best investigative reporter and most trusted employee to track him down: George Stroud… (Source: The Orion Group Publishing Group)

The Big Clock has been reviewed, among others, at ‘Do You Write Under Your Own Name?’ Golden Age of Detection Wiki, The Complete Review, and Tipping My Fedora.

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