The High Window by Raymond Chandler (1942)

A lot of smart conversation, full of worldliness and sly wit. (Ch 7)

Being a hard-boiled tough guy in these books seems to involve an awful lot of posing, a lot of acting the part, a lot of knowing that you’re acting the part, and a lot of judging how other people are acting their parts. Chandler’s texts are very stagey. All the characters point out to all the other characters how they’re putting on an act. Or watch each other closely to try to assess just how much of an act they’re putting on.

It’s this artful self-consciousness combined with stylish one-liners which continually makes me think of the plays of Oscar Wilde. And, of course, they’re both funny 🙂

Tough guys

‘I wouldn’t carry that tough-guy manner too far, if I were you, Mr Marlowe.’ (Ch 2: Miss Davies to Marlowe)

‘If you will pardon a homely phrase, your tough guy act stinks.’ (Ch 3: Murdock to Marlowe)

‘In my business,’ he said, ‘tough guys come a dime a dozen. And would-be tough guys come a nickel a gross. Just mind your business and I’ll mind my business and we won’t have any trouble.’ (Ch 17: Morny to Marlowe)

‘What I like about this place is everything runs so true to type,’ I said. ‘The cop on the gate, the shine on the door, the cigarette and check girls, the fat greasy sensual Jew with the tall stately bored showgirl, the well-dressed, drunk and horribly rude director cursing the barman, the silent guy with the gun, the night-club owner with the soft grey hair and the B-picture mannerisms, and now you – the tall dark torcher with the negligent sneer, the husky voice, the hard-boiled vocabulary.’ (Ch 19: Marlowe to Linda Conquest)

Influence of the movies

In particular, Marlowe complains that various hoods and would-be tough guys he meets have copied their patter and manner from the movies. Since the first talkie is generally taken to be The Jazz Singer in 1927, that’s barely 12 years of talkies by the time The Big Sleep (1939) was published, and since we know the novels are based on short stories published as early as 1933, that’s less than a decade in which actors like James Cagney and George Raft popularised a look and walk and talk which Marlowe complains lowlife crims are consciously copying.

‘All those boys have been to picture shows and know how night-club bosses are supposed to act.’ (Ch 4)

The blonde sobbed in a rather theatrical manner and showed me an open mouth twisted with misery and ham- acting. (Ch 9)

‘Oh Alex – darling – don’t say such awful things.’
‘Early Lilian Gish,’ Morny said. ‘Very early Lillian Gish.’ (Lillian Gish being a very early movie star.)

Morny lifted his cigarette away from his lips and narrowed his eyes to look at the tip. Every motion, every gesture, right out of the catalogue. (Ch 18)

A fallen world

Detective novels and stories are generally written by conservatives. They all-too-easily fall into lamenting the decline and fall of civilisation and the collapse of old-fashioned standards. The tough guy, whose job it is to navigate the lower reaches of society’s pond life, is continually brought up against the so-called collapse in standards of behaviour and is given plenty of opportunity to plaint.

Chandler adds a peculiar wrinkle to this as he had, of course, been brought up in England and attended a notable English public school, Dulwich College, in the pre-Great War years. He is, amazingly, a product of English Edwardian society which we tend to associate with a E.M. Fosterish politeness and gentility. No wonder the rough-house politics, business and underworld of post-War California came as a bitter shock.

The expression of the face lacked something. Once the something might have been called breeding, but these days I don’t know what to call it. (Ch 2)

There are recurring laments that, in these times, when politicians, cops and judges are corrupt, a man can only do the best he can do to carve out a little justice in an unjust world. Laments that would have found an echo with the author of Beowulf, with Shakespeare, with Hogarth, with Juvenal, with the later Dickens, with, er, lots of writers.

The white moonlight was cold and clear, like the justice we dream of but don’t find. (Ch 32)

This is not a sophisticated worldview. For all pulp’s hard-boiled veneer, it is, in its deep attitudes, curiously simple-minded.

‘A shop-soiled Sir Galahad’

Nonetheless, what makes the novels comedies no matter how many people get killed (and it’s generally only ever 4 or 5 not very nice people) and how many crooks get away, is that Marlowe’s innate chivalry, honour, his sense of justice and morality, are never seriously called into question. Possibly the High Window is the novel which shows this most clearly in that the strongest plot thread is Marlowe’s chivalric rescue of a damsel in distress, the psychologically damaged and exploited young secretary Merle Davis, an act of chivalry which leads his friend the doctor to jokingly call him ‘a shop-soiled Sir Galahad’ (Ch 28).

As I mentioned in a previous post, the most Victorian of poets, Tennyson, was brought to mind by some of Chandler’s lush phraseology. And now, again, is brought to mind for his famous or infamous lines about Sir Galahad:

My good blade carves the casques of men,
My tough lance thrusteth sure,
My strength is as the strength of ten,
Because my heart is pure.

It somehow makes sense that, just as the master of such effortlessly lyrical prose made huge efforts to rein it in and keep it simple, so, on the level of characterisation, an author who goes on and on and on about how hard-boiled, tough and cynical his hero is, in fact continually reveals him to be sentimental, principled and old-fashioned. This is the thrust, after all, of Chandler’s most famous piece of critical writing, the short essay about contemporary crime fiction, The Simple Art of Murder:

But down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. The detective in this kind of story must be such a man. He is the hero, he is everything. He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor, by instinct, by inevitability, without thought of it, and certainly without saying it. He must be the best man in his world and a good enough man for any world. I do not care much about his private life; he is neither a eunuch nor a satyr; I think he might seduce a duchess and I am quite sure he would not spoil a virgin; if he is a man of honor in one thing, he is that in all things. He is a relatively poor man, or he would not be a detective at all. He is a common man or he could not go among common people. He has a sense of character, or he would not know his job. He will take no man’s money dishonestly and no man’s insolence without a due and dispassionate revenge. He is a lonely man and his pride is that you will treat him as a proud man or be very sorry you ever saw him. He talks as the man of his age talks, that is, with rude wit, a lively sense of the grotesque, a disgust for sham, and a contempt for pettiness. The story is his adventure in search of a hidden truth, and it would be no adventure if it did not happen to a man fit for adventure.

It is a notion of chivalry as pure as anything in Malory or Spenser or Tennyson.

Contemporary slang

As a side note, Chandler picks up on what were apparently modish and fashionable phrases, phrases we take for granted but which were newer in 1942, and which he is obviously satirising:

The blonde coughed. ‘Sit down and rest your sex appeal.’ (Ch 5)

The online dictionary dates the origin of the phrase ‘sex appeal’ to the mid-1920s and associates it with post-War style of advertising ie it is still relatively new in the 1940s and, like lots of advertising slogans, mainly used by its target audience as material for knowing jokes.

‘She’s a tall, handsome blonde. Very – very appealing.’
‘You mean sexy?’
‘Well – ‘ she blushed furiously, ‘in a nice well-bred sort of way, if you know what I mean.’ (Ch 2)

Was saying ‘sexy’ in this way a relatively new thing? Certainly it was post-War. How widespread did the usage become in the 1920s? Did anyone take it seriously?

‘I wouldn’t carry that tough-guy manner too far, if I were you, Mr Marlowe.’
‘I’m not tough,’ I said, ‘just virile.’ (Ch 2)

Presumably this is a smart-ass wisecrack and sounds like the humour relies very precisely on contemporary usage. Was ‘virile’ in the news or in certain ads or part of the wave of Freudian psychology (which specifically features in The High Window in the doctor’s diagnosis of Merle Davis’s psychological trauma)? Here and throughout Chandler’s quips clearly depend on a knowledge of contemporary buzzwords, advertising slogans etc, and are taking the mickey out of contemporary culture.

I wonder if there are any plans for the Annotated Raymond Chandler. His novels are getting old enough that they would benefit from intelligent footnotes which go beyond the obvious truisms and help to explicate these buried references. Chandler is a writer of exquisite precision. It would be wonderful to have the precisions we have lost with the passage of time sensitively explained and restored.

Pulpy cover of 'The High Window'

Pulpy cover of ‘The High Window’, costing all of 25 cents!

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1 Comment

  1. 'Made to Kill' is a pitch-perfect tribute to Raymond Chandler... with robots

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