Ray Bradbury

Death is a Lonely Business

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Death is a Lonely Business Summary

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Based on his time living in Venice, California between 1942 and 1950, American author Ray Bradbury’s mystery novel Death is a Lonely Business (1985) concerns a string of murders in the small seaside town. The story is told by an unnamed narrator loosely based on Bradbury himself, who works as a science fiction writer in Venice during the crimes, harboring a long distance relationship with a girlfriend who is studying in Mexico City. The narrator encounters Detective Elmo Crumley who helps him solve the murders which seem to target eccentric characters in the town. The novel is known, not for sticking to a central plot, but rather for its richness of character development, as well as its fixation on the construction of people’s imagined realities.

The novel begins late one night as the narrator rides a trolley back to his small studio apartment. He is frustrated by a case of writer’s block, which is stopping him from working on an idea for a new novel. The trolley is shared only by a disheveled, bad-smelling man, who disembarks after muttering, “Death is a lonely business.” Getting off the trolley, the writer walks past a canal near the derelict pier where a number of old circus wagons lie beneath the water. In the sunken wreckage, the narrator spots the body of an old man whose pockets contain a multitude of scraps of trolley tickets. The writer has a hunch that the man was murdered rather than the victim of an accidental drowning.

As he investigates the murder, the first of four, the narrator, running into Detective Crumley, tries to convince him that the deaths were caused by foul play. He eventually convinces him not because he has compelling evidence, but because Crumley resonates with his creative spirit: though he comes off as a balding policeman, he conceals an intellectual inner life and love of writing. The two investigate the murders as Crumley writes his own novel on the side. The narrator suggests the title “Death is a Lonely Business.”

Amid the murders, one character Bradbury spends special time characterizing is Constance Rattigan, an aging actress who had a moment of fame in the 1920s. Since then, she has been living alone in a castle-like house facing the sea, hiding from the public eye. At night, she visits her friend, Cora Smith, another lonely woman who is a former opera singer, having worked under the stage name Fannie Florianna. Both of these women hold illusory views of both the past and present, unable to participate in real life. He also describes a group of old men who gather at a dingy convenience store each day, inhabiting the past realities of the 1920s and 1930s. One tries to sell canaries, another lives in a shack by the pier and poses as a “psychologist,” though he really just offers tarot readings and other pseudoscientific services. In the psychologist’s shack, Bradbury inserts a reference to his formative love for libraries, describing one comprised of looming towers of books, six thousand in total. There is also John Wilkes Hopwood, a failed actor who appealed to audiences mainly for his physique, and now spends his days cruising around on a bicycle looking for men with whom to have sex.

As the narrator and Crumley get closer to the murderer, their own lives ironically take on the semblance of the same fictions that they observe other people inhabiting. When they finally take down the killer, he reveals that he believes he helped his victims by freeing them from their lonely self-sustained fictions. He tells the narrator that he is an integral party to the murders because he led him to potential victims, always finding the most interesting and deluded members of the Venice community. He inverts the normal notion of culpability, framing the narrator and Crumley as “collectors” of people for their books, and himself as a passive observer just doing his cleanup job.

Though the murderer’s bizarre logical inversion carries no legal weight, the narrator never forgets the murderer’s words, coming to realize that they carry a degree of truth: reality is always bound up in the stories we tell about ourselves and the people we meet. Borrowing tropes and plot structures from contemporary murder mysteries, Bradbury literalizes the act of murder and death as literary performances, illuminating a continuity between event and story. Rather than suggest that literature is based on, or enacted in, a vacuum, he asserts that it is entangled with what we think of as ordinary life, symbolizing it in the friendship formed between the detective and the writer.