Bradbury Noir: The Crimes of a Science Fiction Master
By Cullen GallagherNovember 24, 2020
Killer, Come Back to Me by Ray Bradbury
Bradbury’s trademark tone — a sense of wide-eyed awe at both dreams and nightmares, on this planet and others — is as evident in his mysteries as in his SF. The stories here might be of this earth, but there’s still something otherworldly about them. They are populated by visions of future selves (“A Touch of Petulance,” Dark Forces, 1980), murderous infants (“The Small Assassin,” Dime Mystery Magazine, November 1946), sentient robot doppelgängers (“Marionettes, Inc.” Startling Stories, March 1949), and screams and songs that rise from deep underground to fascinate a young girl (“The Screaming Woman,” Today, May 27, 1951). A little weird, a little dark, a little mysterious, and very kaleidoscopic, this is pure Bradbury noir, where even menace is filled with wonderment.
While Bradbury’s macabre leanings have previously been gathered in other collections — including his first, Dark Carnival (1947), and The October Country (1955, which reprints nearly half of Dark Carnival with several additions) — the pulp crime corpus of Bradbury’s literary output has only been collected once before, in 1984’s A Memory of Murder. While Killer, Come Back to Me reprints seven stories that appeared in that earlier volume, what makes the new book so significant is its expanded vision. Here we have stories from three stages of Bradbury’s career: 10 originally published between 1944 and 1949, which cover his pulp days; eight from 1950 to 1970, which are pulled from digests and popular magazines and represent his transition into the mainstream, coinciding with his emergence as a novelist; and finally three from 1980 to 2010, which are drawn from anthologies released in the later part of Bradbury’s career, including a 1984 autobiographical essay that concludes the volume.
It should come as no surprise twist that Hard Case Crime is behind this anthology. Originally modeled after midcentury newsstand paperback imprints like Gold Medal, Hard Case has, in recent years, proved to be as much a historiographer as a publisher, mining the past for gaps in literary legacies. Chasing rumors of lost manuscripts like explorers hungry for mythical treasure, they’ve emerged triumphant with previously unpublished works by the likes of Samuel Fuller, Erle Stanley Gardner, and Donald E. Westlake, alongside early pseudonymous works by Gore Vidal and Michael Crichton. Still, Killer, Come Back to Me stands as one of the publisher’s most outstanding achievements, both in scope and presentation. Looked at purely as an object, it’s a gorgeous hardcover edition, sporting a new cover painting by Paul Mann, interior illustrations by Robert Gale and Deena So’Oteh, and a red fabric tassel sewn into the binding to give it an extra collector’s touch. More significantly, however, it recasts readers’ and scholars’ impressions of Bradbury, establishing his crime writing as a lifelong commitment, not just a youthful flirtation.
Bradbury’s life of crime spanned seven decades. Unlike Elmore Leonard and Brian Garfield, who started with Westerns, then moved to mysteries and didn’t look back, Bradbury never left the mystery genre for good. His commitment to both crime and SF recalls the career of Fredric Brown, who, while 14 years older, only entered the pulps shortly before Bradbury did and divided his output between the two genres until his death in 1972. Like Brown, Bradbury’s work displays the influence of Weird Tales and Dime Detective (where both authors published), embedding elements of the bizarre and supernatural in murder mysteries. Among Bradbury’s weirdest stories is a Dime yarn called “Corpse Carnival” (July 1945), which begins with one of two conjoined twins witnessing the murder of the other. Once surgically separated, the surviving brother returns to the circus to find the killer. While its carnival setting is reminiscent of Tod Robbins’s 1923 story “Spurs” (filmed as Freaks in 1932), Bradbury’s story actually anticipates other carnival noir offerings, such as William Lindsay Gresham’s Nightmare Alley (1946) and Fredric Brown’s Dead Ringer (1948) and Madball (1953, which originated as the short story “The Pickled Punks”).
Carnivals were an important influence for Bradbury, as stories like “Corpse Carnival” and the novel Something Wicked This Way Comes (1962) attest. Combining an observation from Bradbury’s mentor, SF author Henry Kuttner, and the literary theories of Mikhail Bakhtin, Jonathan R. Eller and William F. Touponce have commented on what they call the “carnivalization” of Bradbury’s fiction. As they write in Ray Bradbury: The Life of Fiction,
Bakhtin saw carnival as a form of life and carnivalization as a dialogic process of literary meaning deeply implicated in the ideological clashes of its day. We believe that this is how Bradbury conceives of it too. Quite apart from generic concerns, Bradbury’s works manifest a preoccupation with desire and the unconscious (Freud) as well as the modern crisis of values (Nietzsche) and provide critiques — through carnivalization — of those notions.
One could add that noir itself was a product of these modern ideological developments. Indeed, Bradbury’s experimental, carnivalesque approach to genre is particularly noticeable in his crime fiction, in which narrative conventions are often eschewed or subverted to make room for the author’s unique perspectives.
Take, for example, “Dead Men Rise Up Never” (Dime Mystery Magazine, July 1945), a crime story that Bradbury filters through Gothic and supernatural lenses. A group of gangsters hide out in a seaside house after they kidnap their boss’s girlfriend for ransom and accidentally kill her before they can collect. As they wait for the inevitable showdown, Bradbury plunges us into an atmosphere of uncanny ennui. One of the gang talks to the corpse, while others discuss houses that can be seen beneath the surface of the ocean:
About twenty feet under. On a clear day when the sun cuts down, the water's a blue diamond with the mission held inside it. […] On clear days you can see it lying there in the water, very quiet. Maybe it's just a ruin, but you imagine you see the whole thing; the stained glass windows, the bronze tower bell, the eucalyptus trees in the wind.
The gangster is enthralled, as though he is speaking of Atlantis; his tone is that of Poe describing “The City in the Sea.” Later, when the confrontation does happen, all the action occurs in a single paragraph, plus one line before and after: four sentences in total. Skim even a little and you miss it. Bradbury ends the story as the narrator describes the sounds of ghosts singing to him. “They’re in the choir loft, Willie, sending way up high after that gloria. That is real singing, Willie — listen to it while you can. You’ll never hear anything like it again.” It’s a disquieting conclusion to what, in other writers’ hands, would have been a slam-bang hardboiled shoot-out with a bloody catharsis.
While Bradbury’s earlier pulp stories are recognizably “pulpy,” for lack of a better word — displaying a fast-grab appeal, lurid angles that could be deliriously painted on cheap paper, and gimmicks that would distinguish the yarn from others on the newsstand — the later tales reveal how he grew as a writer, as well as how his markets changed as his popularity soared. He was able to leave the pulpiness on the newsstand and move on to more respectable (and better paying) pages. “The Whole Town’s Sleeping” (McCall’s, September 1950) follows three women as they walk home from the movies and find the latest victim of the town strangler in the wood. Bradbury is more interested in atmosphere than action, and here he anthropomorphizes the surroundings to build suspense and turn a quaint small community into something ominous: “The ravine was deep, black and black black. And the world was gone, the world of safe people in bed. The locked doors, the town, the drug store, the theater, the lights, everything was gone. Only the ravine existed and lived, black and huge about her.”
Four years later, in “At Midnight, in the Month of June” (Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, June 1954), Bradbury revisits the setting of “The Whole Town’s Sleeping,” but this time from the perspective of the strangler. The criminal compares his serial murdering to playing hide-and-seek as a child, with the whole town seeking him. The ending, which shows us a grown man drinking milk and munching on graham crackers, could not be more disturbing. It is indicative of Bradbury's sinister take on Americana, which permeates Killer, Come Back to Me.
Perhaps the most distinctive story in the anthology is the most recent, “Where Everything Ends.” It was originally published in a 2010 volume of the same name from Subterranean Press, which collected Bradbury’s surreal trilogy of crime novels, Death Is a Lonely Business (1985), A Graveyard for Lunatics (1990), and Let's All Kill Constance (2002). Sharing with Death Is a Lonely Business the beachfront setting of Venice in Los Angeles (Bradbury’s own stamping grounds from the 1940s), “Where Everything Ends” gives a metaphysical twist to the classic trope of a private eye investigating the death of his partner. Tracking the killer to the iconic canals, the protagonist spends most of the story swimming across the neighborhood, imagining what the killer would have seen, where he would have turned, and where he would have come up for air, as though he were channeling the killer’s spirit. Much as in Death Is a Lonely Business — a dreamscape quasi-memoir about a pulp writer tracking a murderer across Venice as its roller coaster, movie house, and other emblems are dying off — Bradbury is less interested in actual detection or violence than in the magic of mystery, the power of the unknown to transform the quotidian into the extraordinary. In this sense, Bradbury’s crime writing is not really distinct from his SF. Both are projections of the same authorial worldview. And that’s what makes Killer, Come Back to Me such a revelation — by focusing on one underappreciated element of Bradbury’s work, the editors evoke the most distinctive feature of his artistic imagination.
The last piece of writing in the book is the autobiographical afterword, “Hammett? Chandler? Not to Worry!” Originally written to accompany A Memory of Murder, the piece presents Bradbury’s own assessment of his criminal enterprise:
It follows that detective fiction, as well as the fantasy, science, and weird genres, was a lark of mine. My talent developed faster in the latter fields because it was intuitive. My weird, my fantastic, my science fiction concepts came as lightning bolts and knocked me head first into my machine. The detective tales, because they required hard thinking, prevented my flow, damaged my ability to use my intuition to the full. They were, as a result, quite often walking wounded.
I think Bradbury was being too hard on his detective stories. There’s nothing “wounded” about “The Trunk Lady” (Detective Tales, September 1944), in which a young boy finds a body in the attic while his parents have a dinner party below and experiences a child’s horror as he is first introduced into the adult world of violence; or “The Fruit at the Bottom of the Bowl” (Detective Book Magazine, November 1948, originally titled “Touch and Go!”), in which a killer cleans up his fingerprints, with each successive print revealing another aspect of the crime. These are all clever, engaging, eerie stories, filled with unexpected twists and informed by a sensibility that can only be called Bradburian.
Cullen Gallagher lives in Brooklyn, New York. He blogs about crime fiction at Pulp Serenade (www.pulp-serenade.com).
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