Elmo Crumley

Created by Ray Bradbury

“Venice, California, in the old days had much to recommend it to people who liked to be sad.”
— from Death is a Lonely Business

What? Beloved sci-fi superstar author Ray Bradbury wrote a P.I. novel?

Well, sorta.

No stranger to the pulps, it wasn’t the first time Bradbury had gone swimming in the crime fiction pool (he wrote plenty of odd stories for the crime and detective pulps when he was starting out) but he got serious and all novel-length about it in later years, penning the bittersweet ode to this little genre of ours in Death is a Lonely Business (1985). He even went as far as dedicating it to Chandler, Hammett, James M. Cain and Ross Macdonald, as well as his friend and mentor Leigh Brackett. Even the detective (and wannabe author) in it was named ELMO CRUMLEY (after P.I. author James Crumley).

But the real hero is the unnamed narrator, a struggling young pulp writer (essentially Bradbury himself) trying to make a go of it in the tattered, shabby seaside town of Venice Beach in the early fifties, who gets drawn into investigating a string of increasingly bizarre murders. Bradbury lived in Venice at the time, and I’m told he captures perfectly the atmosphere of that then-dying beach town, from its oddballs and refugees from the straight life (blind men and barbers; reclusive silent movie stars and drunks) to the slow dismantling of the amusements on the pier.

“Venice was and is full of lost places where people put up for sale the last worn bits of their souls, hoping no one will buy.”

One night, the young writer (we never learn his name) discovers the body of an old man in a lion cage, of all things, sunk in one of the canals.

Disturbed by his discovery, the writer teams up with Crumley, another oddball (his backyard is done up like the set to a jungle movie, complete with sound effects) to try and solve the case — or does he? Much of the book seems like a fever dream, an almost too simple plot suddenly morphing into impressionistic flights of fantasty and meta fiction (“‘Will you become a character in my novel?” “I already am’.”); the taut, semi-hard-boiled prose abruptly shapeshifting into unexpectedly beautful prose that veers at times perilously close to purple. And yet, somehow, it works. Part memoir, part fairy tale, part metaphysical shellgame, and yes, part loving tribute to crime fiction, it’s just a weirdly endearing work.

All these years later, I’m still not sure how I feel about it. Sure, I wish Bradbury had played it straighter, but even now there are scenes of such power — and similes so throbbing with wit and exactitude that I can’t shake them.

I mean, really — the superstructure of a roller coaster like the skeleton of a dinosaur against the sky?

Maybe it’s time for me to pick up the two sequels, A Graveyard for Lunatics (1990) and Let’s All Kill Constance (2002), wherein Bradbury’s alter ego (still echoing parts of the writer’s own life) and Crumley, now working as a private eye, team up again.

Bradbury, of course, was one of the most loved writers of the twentieth century, Lthe man responsible for such sci-fi classics as The Illustrated Man, Fahrenheit 451, Something Wicked This Way Comes, The Martian Chronicles and more.


  • “Venice was and is full of lost places where people put up for sale the last worn bits of their souls, hoping no one will buy.”
    — Death is a Lonely Business




Respectfully submitted by Kevin Burton Smith.


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