Michael Caleb Tasker was born in Montreal, raised in New Orleans, and now resides in Australia, where he was a staff writer for Look, the Sydney-based fine arts magazine, for a number of years. Tasker’s writing has won the Saturday Evening Post Great Fiction Contest as well as the Ernest Hemingway Flash Fiction Prize. In today’s blog post, Tasker ponders the lonely lives depicted in the mystery fiction of Ray Bradbury and Patricia Highsmith. Tasker’s story “Another Saturday Night” appears in our current issue (March/April 2022) — Janet Hutchings
Last year I bought a collection of Ray Bradbury short stories. It was his collected crime stories, packaged as Killer, Come Back to Me, and I keep coming back to it. Boy, did he ever have style. Soft touches, simple touches, that end up as so much more. But, for my money, the best part of his work is the terrific sense of loneliness that he conjures up. I first found this many years ago in his story “The Pedestrian” (which isn’t in the collection), wherein a solitary walker wanders through an empty night in what turns out to be a fairly dystopian world. But it is the sense of solitude, the treasure trove of loneliness, that drew me in and I was glad to see this same sense in quite a few of the stories in Killer, Come Back to Me.
In stories like “At Midnight, in the Month of June” (which first appeared in EQMM in 1954), “The Whole Town is Sleeping,” or “The Smiling People,” Bradbury really digs into the solitude, both in mindset and environment. Take the opening of “At Midnight”: “He had been waiting a long, long time in the summer night, as the darkness pressed warmer to the earth and the stars turned slowly in the sky . . . Standing alone, watering the flower bed, he imagined himself a conductor leading an orchestra that only night-strolling dogs might hear.” This is the most peaceful introduction into the mind of a murderer I can remember reading. Better still, the environment speaks to character and character speaks to environment; the glimpse into this man’s psyche, with its night-strolling dogs, well mirrors the quiet midnight town. The story is something of a companion piece to “The Whole Town is Sleeping,” which centers on a town under the constant threat of a murderer (dubbed the Lonely One). Here, our hero, our victim, Lavinia, lives in a town seemingly cut off from the rest of the world, a town “kept to itself by a river and a forest and a meadow and a lake,” but in Bradbury’s hands, this isolation comes across not as anything sinister but as something wonderfully bucolic. And this wealth of loneliness is mirrored by Lavinia, who when asked if she gets lonely says: “Old Maids love to live alone.”
“At Midnight” revolves around “Whole Town’s” killer, the Lonely One, and it’s his POV we are put in, while he lies in wait for, and then almost peacefully murders, Lavinia. Reading the two stories back to back, as they are in Killer, Come Back to Me, really emphasizes Bradbury’s take on solitude, presenting loneliness in a positive light through the town, Lavinia, and even in the Lonely One. “At Midnight” ends as both the stories began, with a sense of loneliness, with a scene that appreciates the relief of isolation: “He pushed the door wide open and stepped into the Owl Diner, this long railroad car that, removed from its track, had been put to a solitary unmoving destiny in the center of town. The place was empty.” In many of Bradbury’s stories, in my favorite stories, for transgressors and victim alike, loneliness is not a burden, not something to be understood or overcome or dealt with, rather loneliness is the world as it should be.
Writers need solitude. I’ve read that a lot and I agree. In his Nobel acceptance speech Hemingway said that “Writing, at its best, is a lonely life,” while in Green Hills of Africa he wrote: “Writers should work alone. They should see each other only after their work is done, and not too often then.” Henry Miller suggested, “What the buddings artist needs is the privilege of wrestling with his problems in solitude.” Over 150 years ago Kierkegaard wrote: “In ancient times as well as in the Middle Ages people were aware of the need of solitude and had respect for what it signifies. In the constant sociability of our age people shudder at solitude to such a degree that they know no other use to put it to but (oh, admirable epigram!) as a punishment for criminals.” I like that: “constant sociability.” If only Kierkegaard could see us now. But it’s not just writers who need solitude, their characters do as well. And, by and large, these characters are far more fun to read about than writers.
In many of my favorite novels, in the works of giants of crime fiction like Raymond Chandler, Patricia Highsmith, and, more recently, Walter Moseley and James Lee Burke, people spend a lot of time, often the best of times, alone. I don’t mean to say this is unique to crime fiction, but solitude does take up a lot of space in a genre that by necessity requires social interaction. Highsmith’s cast of fairly sympathetic, sometimes accidental psychopaths, often give the impression that if they could just have a moment to themselves, a moment alone, to think, then such terrible events might not follow. In This Sweet Sickness, the lovelorn psycho David Kelsey spends much of his time alone, under an assumed name, setting up house for a woman who doesn’t want him. Of course, deadly hijinks ensue, but it is those moments where Kelsey sets up his house, almost literally building castles in the air, that not only go toward building sympathy for a dangerous stalker but, in their lonesomeness, provide a peace that Kelsey—and likewise the reader—won’t find again. And Highsmith does these moments of loneliness so well that when the action starts, I, for one, start to lose a small amount of interest.
Philip Marlowe’s lonesomeness was very much by design. In one of his letters, Chandler wrote of Marlowe: “he is a lonely man, a poor man, a dangerous man, and yet a sympathetic man . . . he will always have a fairly shabby office, a lonely house, a number of affairs but no permanent connection . . . I see him in a lonely street, in lonely rooms, puzzled but never quite defeated.” In short, isolation is Marlowe’s natural habitat. And it benefits the detective in much the same way in does the writer. Many writers (and perhaps most people) need time, alone, to think, to build castles in the air, to follow threads and dead ends: uninterrupted hours to invent and solve problems, to create and understand characters. And the same can be said for Marlowe.
As Johann Hari put it in his recent book on attention and concentration, Stolen Focus, “when your mind wanders, it starts to make new connections between things—which often produces a solution to your problems.” Hari and Dr. J. Smallwood, a professor of psychology Hari interviewed, don’t specifically mention the importance of being alone, the value in loneliness. However, Hari let his own mind wander while taking long walks, not unlike Charles Dickens who walked twelve or fourteen solitary miles a day while working on David Copperfield. For Hari, I gather the solitude is implied, as he hammers home the point that mind-wandering would be a little difficult with outside interruption.
When left alone, the mind is free to wander, to plot, to understand. And all his time alone lets Marlowe do exactly that. In almost all of the Marlowe novels, these moments spent mind-wandering in isolation are my favorite parts. Climax and revelation be damned, I’d rather re-read chapter thirteen in The Little Sister, where Marlowe drives around Los Angeles alone and lets his mind wander. That is all that happens in the entire chapter, driving and mind-wandering, alone. Yet, as Marlowe says “There was nothing lonely about the trip.” However, he puts things together, he adds up what he knows so far about the case (which isn’t much), he lays out the threads that he can eventually tie together. Naturally, it is mostly through conversation that he gathers information, but it is in those moments alone that he so often puts things together. They are often small moments, like in The Big Sleep, where after talking with a woman in a bookstore, digging for information, Marlowe returns to his car to sit in the rain: “I sat there and poisoned myself with cigarette smoke and listened to the rain and thought about it.” The chapter ends there, with Marlowe alone and thinking, letting his mind wander. But I get the feeling that Marlowe might have liked to have stayed there, alone in the car during a storm, a very long time.
Similarly, throughout the Marlowe novels, the small moments he spends alone, in his apartment or office, making coffee, shaving, thinking alone, come as welcome respite from his time spent with the outside world. When Marlowe is alone, there is no violence, there is no threat, there isn’t even the awkward difficulty of trying to make a friend, like Terry Lennox in The Long Goodbye. Instead, there is relief, some sense of stability, momentary though it may be, and castles being built in the air. Maybe it’s the combination of peace and rarity—that moment of calm in the eye of the storm—that make them so appealing, but, like with Bradbury, these small moments of loneliness are my personal favorite. Whether it’s sitting alone in a car, or having a solitary scotch in an empty office, or setting up a life for someone who isn’t there, or just talking a walk alone in the night, these moments of loneliness are killer, and I’ll keep coming back to them.