Washed gently by the lapping waves of time

high-windowThe High Window
by Raymond Chandler

Tim and I have both been working our way gradually through the Philip Marlowe books since I picked one up in 2011. He’s now a couple ahead of me and assures me there are no duds.

While Chandler may not have invented pulp fiction or purple prose, he really and truly mastered the art. From the first page, the language is exquisite. In the wrong hands this would be overwritten, or artificial, but Chandler uses it as the perfect reflection of his hero’s highly coloured view of the world.

Private investigator Philip Marlowe is really growing on me as a character. Deeply cynical and ever-so-aware of the worst of humanity, he is somehow not a morose pessimist who has given up on the world. Instead, he is ever hopeful, ever the gentleman, in his quiet take-no-notice-of-me way. Plus, he’s funny.

“I looked into the reception-room. It was empty of everything but the smell of dust. I threw up another window, unlocked the communicating door and went into the room beyond…a framed licence bond on the wall, a phone, a washbowl in a stained wood cupboard, a hat-rack, a carpet that was just something on the floor, and two open windows with net curtains that puckered in and out like the lips of a toothless old man sleeping. The same stuff I had had last year, and the year before that. Not beautiful, not gay, but better than a tent on the beach.”

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I may break a few rules

The Big Sleep
by Raymond Chandler

The first book in the Philip Marlowe series (though not the first I’ve read) this blackly funny story of the darker side of LA confirmed my love for Chandler and his purple prose. I read it for book club, which led to a hilariously highbrow conversation about what has never aspired to be more than pulp fiction. But it’s good pulp fiction.

The plot is…complicated. I was beginning to think I had missed something towards the end and then Marlowe explains the whole thing to another character, which I suspect his publisher made him put in there. The story begins with the private detective being hired by dying millionaire Sternwood to deal with a pesky blackmailer. It seems straightforward but one bad guy leads to another and Sternwood’s two daughters are both troublesome, turning it all into one big knot of murder and intrigue.

Marlowe himself is an intriguing character. He’s a good guy and has a strong moral code that he imposes on himself, yet he delights in pissing off the police or letting people believe that he’s up to no good. And he’s not above kissing a girl and then discarding her. He’s clever, but not so clever that he’s pieced it all together from the start. He gives the impression of a devil-may-care attitude but looking closely at his actions you realise he actually cares very much. As he explains to Sternwood, “I do my best to protect you and I may break a few rules, but I break them in your favour.”

Chandler’s LA is of course marvellously seedy. Even the rich Sternwood girls are caught up with gangsters and crooks, from the petty to the top of the pile. It is his (and by extension Marlowe’s) understanding of the criminal world, and how several seemingly distinct cases are tied up together by the associations between people, that makes the book brilliant and confusing.

And it’s funny. Marlowe’s narration is full of sharp observations and ironic humour. I love lines like “You have to keep your teeth clamped around Hollywood to keep from chewing on stray blondes.” The language in general is gorgeously overblown, which is a style some members of my book club found offputting. But I can’t help adoring a book that sets a scene: “I got down there about nine, under a hard high October moon that lost itself in the top layers of a beach fog.”

For a book written in the 1930s, there is an interesting attitude towards homosexuality. Marlowe uses language that would be considered homophobic today but elsewhere he appears open-minded about such things. When joking about his impending death, he says “Don’t scatter my ashes over the blue Pacific. I like the worms better. Did you know that worms are of both sexes and that any worm can love any other worm?”

I think I preferred Farewell My Lovely, but this was still a great read and I fully intend to read the rest of the series.

First published 1939 by Alfred A Knopf.

Fiction noir?

Farewell My Lovely
by Raymond Chandler

This is the second book in the Philip Marlowe series, which began with The Big Sleep. I’ve not read that title but having seen the film a few times I figured some of the plot twists and turns might be spoiled for me, so Farewell My Lovely would be a better test of whether I am likely to enjoy the books. I really, really did. Purple prose is amazing.

In case you don’t know, Philip Marlowe is a private detective in Los Angeles. The tale is narrated by Marlowe in that overblown, sarcastic, slang-laden voice now famous for narrating film noir, but originated by Chandler in this series. Unlike other detective stories I have read, it would be hard to guess where the story is going or solve the crime before Marlowe because he doesn’t share his insights until the last moment. You just have to go along for the ride, watch and enjoy the methods and accidents that Marlowe uses.

Marlowe has a habit of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, so he’s learned to make the most of it. When bankrobber Moose Malloy is released after eight years in jail, Marlowe witnesses him commit murder in his search for former girlfriend Velma. Later that same day, Marlowe receives a mysterious commission to act as a man’s bodyguard for the evening, an evening that does not end well. Clues slowly emerge from both cases and fascinating later-than-life characters abound:

“He was looking up at the dusty windows with a sort of ecstatic fixity of expression, like a hunky immigrant catching his first sight of the Statue of Liberty. He was a big man, but not more than six feet five inches tall and not wider than a beer truck…He was worth looking at…From his outer breast pocket cascaded a show handkerchief of the same brilliant yellow as his tie. There were a couple of coloured feathers tucked into the band of his hat, but he didn’t really need them. Even on Central Avenue, not the quietest dressed street in the world, he looked about as inconspicuous as a tarantula on a slice of angel food.”

Marlowe is flawed but loveable. He is completely aware of his limitations and tends toward pessimism and distrust, yet he carries right on getting involved, even if there isn’t a pay cheque promised. He’s a sucker for a pretty lady and has a love-hate relationship with the police.

I have heard and read many takes on Chandler’s style, but nothing comes close to the real thing. It is brilliantly melodramatic, darkly funny and strangely beautiful. The language rolls around on your tongue:

“There was just enough fog to make everything unreal. The wet air was as cold as the ashes of love.”

I suspect if I read too much of this at once the effect would be spoiled, so I’ll wait a while before reading the next title in the series, but I’ll greatly look forward to it in the meantime.

First published 1940.

N.B. One of the reasons I finally picked this book out of the TBR was that a new film has come out loosely based on it. The Big Bang sounds terrible but also possibly enjoyable? Only one way to find out.