Kenneth Fearing’s The Big Clock, a sharp and entrancing bit of noir published originally in 1946, concerns George Stroud, a writer at a Manhattan media conglomerate. His boss, Earl Janoth, is having an affair with a beautiful blonde woman named Pauline Delos. Stroud is introduced to Delos one evening, and they embark on a brief affair of their own. Until a pleasant evening when they go to an antiques shop together — Stroud finds a painting depicting two hands by an artist whose work he loves, Louise Patterson — and on to Gil’s, a run-down bar that Stroud frequents.
He takes her home and watches, from a slight distance, as she meets Janoth in front of her building. The streetlight’s behind him. Janoth doesn’t see his face. The next morning she’s found dead, and Earl Janoth’s sinister adviser, Steve Hagen, calls George Stroud into his office. A special project has come up requiring the utmost discretion; in fact, it’s a sort of missing persons case. The organization needs to find a man, Hagen tells him, who is at the nexus of “a political and business conspiracy.”
Hagen and Janoth know very little about the man they’re looking for, but they do know that he spent the previous afternoon and evening in the company of a striking blonde woman. They know that the man and woman spent some time in a dive bar called Gil’s, and that the man had earlier purchased a painting of two hands at an antiques shop — details, as it happens, that Pauline Delos mentioned to Earl Janoth shortly before he killed her.
Hagen is vague on his reasons for wanting to find the man, but he’s insistent that the man absolutely must be found. Hagen and Janoth have decided that Stroud, as a trusted employee, is the perfect candidate for the job. They would like Stroud to locate the man before the police get to him, which of course makes perfect sense; what they don’t mention, but what Stroud knows, is that the man who stood outside Delos’ apartment is the only witness who can place Earl Janoth at the scene of the crime.
Who is George Stroud? He has been told to put together a team and to use any company resources he needs to find the man Earl Janoth saw in shadow in front of Pauline Delos’ apartment building, and he quickly finds himself in the strange position of listening to his employees’ reports on himself. The reports aren’t overly flattering. He used to frequent Gil’s, his employees report, almost every night of the week. He is hard-drinking, shallow, and reportedly a bit pompous.
Fearing doesn’t give us much to go on either. The book has an oddly sketchy quality that captivates, and the man at the center is curiously blank. Stroud drinks too much. He loves art, specifically the paintings of Louise Patterson. He loves his young daughter. He seems fond of his wife, but he cheats on her without much in the way of apparent remorse, and a chapter from her point of view makes it clear that she experiences his infidelity as a nearly unsurvivable sorrow.
He takes considerable liberties — he’s a corporate man after the Mad Men model, the sort who keeps a valise at a residence hotel in the city in case he decides on a whim to stay over, with or without female accompaniment — but even before Pauline Delos’ murder, it’s apparent that he feels trapped. He finds himself thinking of the world as a deadening and inescapable machinery, gears and cogs grinding all around him. The Big Clock is men and schedules and departments and bureaucracies, everyone a cog:
One runs like a mouse up the old, slow pendulum of the big clock, time, scurries around and across its huge hands, strays inside through the intricate wheels and balances and springs of the inner mechanism, searching among the cobwebbed mazes of this machine with all its false exits and dangerous blind alleys and steep runways, natural traps and artificial baits, hunting for the true opening and the real prize.
Stroud’s a ghost in the machine. It’s interesting to contemplate what Fearing might have thought of the modern world, with its endless digital footprints and paper trails and constant erosion of privacy. Stroud is a writer, but that’s only the latest in a long series of professions. (“Timekeeper on a construction gang, race-track operative, tavern proprietor, newspaper legman, and then rewrite, advertising consultant…”) His habit of switching vocations is never explained, but it seems reasonable to think of his restlessness in terms of a search for some measure of freedom.
As his own investigation into himself and the police investigation into the murder of Pauline Delos begins to converge, the machine is closing in around him. He’s never been in more mortal danger, and yet the impression is of a man who’s been struggling to outrun himself all his life.