Ray Bradbury, Let's All Kill Constance (William Morrow, 2003)

After 1985's Death is a Lonely Business and 1990's A Graveyard for Lunatics, Ray Bradbury has returned to his noir series featuring Elmo Crumley and a certain unnamed writer (obviously Bradbury himself). And we welcome them back with open arms.

In Let's All Kill Constance, Constance Rattigan comes into the writer's home bearing two books: a 1900 telephone directory and her own personal address book. There are several names marked in both books. Some are crossed out entirely: these are names of those no longer of this earth. Others are circled with a cross beside them. Constance believes that these are going to be the next to die and she is frightened since her own name is one of those circled. Constance leaves the books with the writer, then disappears.

Let's All Kill Constance is not quite as good as its predecessors, but any Bradbury is worth reading. His particular style is always welcome, its familiarity alone bringing a level of comfort to the experience -- like revisiting an old friend. And it's still better than a lot of books I've read.

The mystery itself is not as interesting as the characters and their relationships with each other. Although it feels at times (as with the female impersonator) that Bradbury is simply creating a character to fill his plot needs, he still makes each them real enough to justify the time spent with them.

The bulk of the novel concerns the search for Constance. Teaming up again with detective Elmo Crumley, the writer meets several people involved with Constance's past (many of whom she has just left when the writer and Crumley arrive) and puts together the pieces into a disturbing yet satisfying solution illustrative of the difficulties inherent in being a Hollywood actress.

But through all this Bradbury's youthful exuberance shines. Even at 82, his enthusiasm for life comes through as unadulterated innocence. He seems not to be jaded at all by the modern world, and so these books are not as "noir" as they would have been in other hands. And yet, it's refreshing to have, as a hero in this genre, a person whom the world has not made a pessimist.

This is another fine novel from Bradbury -- who recently received the National Book Award for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters -- but it is also dear to me because this series is probably the closest thing to an autobiography we will receive from this man, who has brought so much joy to so many people.

[Craig Clarke]

Ray Bradbury's official Web site is www.raybradbury.com.