by Jeremy Lott
The pages of Ray Bradbury's new book crackle with lightning (!); pathos (!); bathos (!); bad puns (!); and dozens (!)łnay, hundreds (!)łof obscure '60s pop culture references! It underscores all of this with lots (!) and lots (!) of mild obscenity (!) and obsessive punctuation!! Really!!!!
If that intro annoys the reader as much as it does the reviewer (In college, I objected to one textbook on the grounds that it had too many exclamation marks.) then you might want to give Let's All Kill Constance a pass. Unlike Bradbury's recent decent collection of short stories, One More For the Road, this novel has all the signs of Literary Greatness Syndromełthat is, the author's name has become enough of a draw that he no longer has to turn out decent prose to pay the bills, and he knows it.
To be fair to Bradbury, he serves readers notice that this is not likely to be one his better efforts. Underneath a stunning cover painting by JosT Luis Merinołbest described as Narcissus meets the roaring '20słthe story begins "It was a dark and stormy night. Is that one way to catch your reader? Well then, it was a dark and stormy nightą" The writer-hero of the story is banging away at his typewriter in his beach house in Venice, California, in the wee hours of the morning, trying to finish a new schlock horror novel ("digging graves" to cure insomnia). All the sudden, someone knocks on the door. When the author opens it, a woman's frame is illuminated by a "series of flicker-flash lightning bolts."
The silhouette belongs to ex-movie star Constance Rattigan, known to friends and foes alike as "the Rattigan." This normally abrasive personality is shaken by the discovery that someone has sent her a "book of the dead"ła phonebook from 1900 with some names marked with red "crucifixes" (in reality, just crosses). Constance worries that something in her past is finally catching up with her, and she disappears shortly thereafter.
The un-named narrator-hero (a writer with thick black glasses who at one point has this great idea about a hero who burns books with keroseneą) joins with friends and sidekicksłincluding grumpy police detective Elmo Crumley, the clear-seeing Blind Henry, and legendary movie director Fritz Wongłto attempt to find Constance. Instead they uncover a trail of dead bodies, all connected to the Rattigan in some wayła priest, a projectionist, a psychic, her ex-husbandłand a series of one-off actresses of yesteryear who went missing after they made it big. The gumshoes begin to believe that if Constance is alive, she should be stopped before she can do any more damage. If it wasn't so cumbersome, Bradbury might have added "before she kills again" to the title.
And yet, we're given little reason, if any, to care about the outcome. Dedicated fans may find things to like in this book to make up for the bad staccato dialogue, thin chapters, poor characterization, and ludicrous plot (such as the kerosene joke above), but I suspect to most readers, it will come off more as a bad B-movie script than an enjoyable mystery novel. I guess you could say we'll have to all kill Constance some other time. ņ
Jeremy Lott writes a monthly review column for Books & Culture.