The Lady in The Lake by Raymond Chandler (1944)

Fictions offer escape. Through figures in the story, through their actions and thoughts, we readers live vicariously, acting out lives and experiences we’ll never have in our ordinary safe existences. In the crudest genres male readers identify with triumphant heroes, with James Bond or Jason Bourne, while women maybe project themselves into attractive heroines or strong clever women like VI Warshawski or older shrewd figures like Miss Marple etc. In fact the range of characters we can identify with is vast, endless, and our attention can wander within any given text, sympathising now with one character, now with another, maybe with many at the same time, maybe dramatising conflicts in our minds and arguing now for one side, now for another.

It used to be argued that the humanising, civilising effect of reading fiction is precisely the way it can help us empathise with others, giving us insights into other lives and beliefs and experiences, opening our hearts, making us better members of an ideal liberal, tolerant, multicultural society. Maybe…

Authorial competence

But we readers not only identify with characters. Implicitly we identify with the author, or the narrator, or the text, while we are reading it. We ‘immerse’ ourselves in a text. We ‘lose ourselves’ in a book. An aspect of this pleasure is savouring not only character and plot, but the skill of the author or narrator and their ability to describe, to evoke in language, to ‘paint’  descriptions of landscape and setting, along with – if it’s that kind of book – their opinions, insights, reflections about life… To identify with what has been called the ‘implied author’ the picture of the person telling the story that we build up as we experience the text.

One distinguishing feature of the crime novel or thriller as a genre is its uncanny precision. The narrator, even if they don’t know everything that’s going to happen, nonetheless situates events in a world dense with precision and certainty. (A symptom of this is the way so many post-war thrillers give precise timings to their narratives. ‘CIA Headquarters Maryland, Thursday, 8.07am‘ is the kind of datestamp you meet in thousands of thrillers.)

Seems to me this precision does at least two things:

  • Its immediate purpose is to give pace to the narrative, a sense of speed and momentum.
  • Just as importantly but maybe less obviously, it offers a deep consolation and reassurance to the reader. Someone is in control. No matter how grisly the events described, the text is policed and ordered (from this perspective the datestamps I mentioned are one of the ways that control is signaled at regular intervals). In a world more than ever beyond the control of us little people, where huge forces seem to overwhelm the average citizen, the precision of the thriller gives the reader a spurious and consoling sense of order and control.

Setting the scenes

There are no datestamps in Chandler, who was writing before their introduction (by whom and when? I wonder). Instead, Chandler’s control is signaled at every point of his prose by its tautness and precision and understatement – qualities which are emphasised by the his occasional deployment of the opposite, the highly-wrought poetry of the similes and metaphors which light his prose like flashes of lightning. This paragraph demonstrates this quality of control – the precise and thorough description – which leads up to a boom-boom punchline.

I went past him through an arcade of speciality shops into a vast black and gold lobby. The Gillerlain Company was on the seventh floor, in front, behind swinging double plate-glass doors bound in platinum. Their reception-room had Chinese rugs, dull silver walls, angular but elaborate furniture, sharp shiny bits of abstract sculpture on pedestals and a tall display in a triangular showcase in the corner. On tiers and steps and islands and promontories of shining mirror-glass it seemed to contain every fancy bottle and box that has ever been designed. There were creams and powders and soaps and toilet waters for every season and every occasion. There were perfumes in tall thin bottles that looked as if a breath would blow them over and perfumes in little pastel phials tied with ducky satin bows, like little girls at a dancing class. (Ch 1)

Fact, fact, fact, then a dinky – essentially comic – and textbook Chandler simile.

Chandler’s descriptions of interiors

In a previous post I wrote about the importance of eyes in Chandler. In The Lady In The Lake I was struck by the precision of his description of interiors. Of rooms.

The private office was everything a private office should be. It was long and dim and quiet and air-conditioned and its windows were shut and its grey venetian blinds half-closed to keep out the July glare. Grey drapes matched the grey carpeting. There was a large black and silver safe in a corner and a low row of filing cases that exactly matched it. (Ch 2)

He describes every element of the room with factual accuracy and precision. The mess we sloppy unpredictable humans make of our lives may be full of shocks and surprises but the universe in which it all takes place isn’t. It is defined and placed and solid.

I followed him up a flight of heavy wooden steps to the porch of the Kingsley cabin. He unlocked the door and we went into the hushed warmth. The closed-up room was almost hot. The light filtering through the slatted blinds made narrow bars across the floor. The living-room was long and cheerful and had Indian rugs, padded mountain furniture with metal-strapped joints, chintz curtains, a plain hardwood floor, plenty of lamps and a little built-in bar with round stools in one corner. (Ch 6)

During the plots Marlowe likes to emphasise his fallibility, point out his mistakes in managing a case, ‘Curses, why didn’t I realise sooner…’ etc. This has always struck me as being a blind, a convention of the genre. There are no mistakes when he sizes up people or, as I’m emphasising here, when he sizes up a room and its contents.

The Peacock Lounge was a narrow front next to a gift shop in whose window a tray of small crystal animals shimmered in the street light. The Peacock had a glass brick front and soft light glowed out around the stained-glass peacock that was set into the brick. I went in around a Chinese screen and looked along the bar and then sat at the outer edge of a small booth. The light was amber, the leather was Chinese red and the booths were polished plastic tables. (Ch 30)

He is a camera, he is a set designer placing all the elements just so, he knows the provenance and brand and material of every object in the room. He is an early example of a technique which would become epidemic in American fiction by the 1980s of itemising and listing every detail of every brand of what a person is wearing or driving or owns, as American life (in fiction at any rate) became more hollowed out, more psychologically empty, more a consumerist shell.

In 1940s Chandler these set-piece descriptions create:

  • A clearly visualised, well-defined universe in which the events can unfold.
  • The sense of a profoundly reliable narrator whose judgement, whose knowledgeability, whose sheer savvyness about the world, is blazoned forth on every page. He never hesitates. He never sees something he doesn’t understand or can’t put a name to. His all-seeing look and his all-comprehending mind give him (and us, the reader) a god-like omnipotence and this omnipotence is a big part of the pleasure to be got from Chandler’s texts.

I went back to the other end of the hall and stepped into a second bedroom with a wide bed, a café-au-lait rug, angular furniture in light wood, a box mirror over the dressing-table and a long fluorescent lamp over the mirror. In the corner a crystal greyhound stood on a mirror-top table and beside him a crystal box with cigarettes in it. (Ch 16)

A Fitzgerald room

Compare and contrast the description of a room by F. Scott Fitzgerald in The Last Tycoon:

The meeting took place in what I called the ‘processed leather room’ – it was one of six done for us by a decorator from Sloane’s years ago, and the term stuck in my head. It was the most decorator’s room: an angora wool carpet the colour of dawn, the most delicate grey imaginable – you hardly dared walk on it; and the silver panelling and leather tables and creamy pictures and slim fragilities looked so easy to stain that we could not breathe hard in there, though it was wonderful to look into from the door when the windows were open and the curtains whimpered querulously against the breeze. (ch 6)

Fitzgerald’s description is more imaginative, softer, more compromised by authorial comment, by emotional context. It is done in the gushy voice of the naive 25 year-old young woman narrator Cecilia. It is one of the many scenes or events whose main purpose is to convey the psychology of the characters or narrator as much as to depict the ‘reality’ of the ‘external world’. It is these accumulating insights, the succession of scenes conveying nuances of personality and attitude, which gives Fitzgerald’s characters, and the novel as a whole, the layers of depth which might be what we refer to when we say ‘literature’. It is not intended to make us feel in complete control, as the Chandler does.

The Chandler room

Back to the hard, well-lit world of Chandler:

I went in. There was a pot-bellied stove in the corner and a roll-top desk in the other corner behind the counter. There was a large blue print map of the district on the wall and beside that a board with four hooks on it, one of which supported a frayed and much-mended mackinaw. On the counter beside the dusty folders lay the usual sprung pen, exhausted blotter and smeared bottle of gummy ink. (Ch 7)

Chandler’s descriptions are immensely enjoyable, like watching the perfect technique of a world class sportsman. It is like reading off the spec of a luxury sports car, as flash, as impressive but, arguably, as superficial. They tell us is that Marlowe is a tough, no-nonsense guy, with a reassuringly superhuman grasp of a space and all its details. And, as readers, as we read, we partake briefly in that very American super-confident knowledgeability.

The room contained a library dining-table, an armchair radio, a book-rack built like a hod, a big bookcase full of novels with their jackets still on them, a dark wood high-boy with a siphon and a cut-glass bottle of liquor and four striped glasses upside down on an Indian brass tray. Beside this paired photographs in a double silver frame, a youngish middle-aged man and woman, with round healthy faces and cheerful eyes. They looked out at me as if they didn’t mind my being there at all. (Ch 33)

You have to admire, to marvel really, at the ease with which he can conjure a space and an atmosphere in just a few strokes.

I went into the club library. It contained books behind glass doors and magazines on a long central table and a lighted portrait of the club’s founder. But its real business seemed to be sleeping. Outward-jutting bookcases cut the room into a number of small alcoves and in the alcoves were high-backed leather chairs of an incredible size and softness. In a number of the chairs old boys were snoozing peacefully, their faces violet with high blood pressure, thin racking snores coming out of their pinched noses. (Ch 17)

The subtlety, the nuance and the doubt, the sense of human fallibility which comes over so strongly in Fitzgerald, is absent in Chandler. But different genres, different texts, different aims, call for different techniques. Is it this lack of investigation of human psychology which has limited Chandler to genre fiction and makes Fitzgerald worthy of study at college? Maybe. But it doesn’t stop you feeling, as you read Chandler’s effortlessly commanding prose, that you are in the hands of a master.

The consolations of the crime novel

My point is that it’s paradoxical that a genre which prides itself on being so tough and harsh and realistic, in actual fact produces in its readers an infantilising sense of comfort and reassurance and security. These texts produce the opposite of the anxiety and worry we experience all too often in or own lives. They continue to be so popular because they are so wonderfully reassuring. Freud said he couldn’t offer his patients what they all wanted, which is consolation. That is precisely what these novels offer in spades. Wipe away your tears. Daddy Chandler is in complete control.

The Rossmore Arms was a gloomy pile of dark red brick built around a huge forecourt. It had a plush-lined lobby containing silence, tubbed plants, a bored canary in a cage as big as a dog-house, a smell of old carpet dust and the cloying fragrance of gardenias long ago.

The Graysons were on the fifth floor in front, in the north wing. They were sitting together in a room which seemed to be deliberately twenty years out of date. It had fat overstuffed furniture and brass doorknobs, shaped like eggs, a huge wall mirror in a gilt frame, a marble-topped table in the window and dark red plush side drapes by the window. It smelled of tobacco smoke and behind that the air was telling me they had had lamb chops and broccoli for dinner. (Ch 23)

The Master of Prose knows and understands everything. And he is on our side. He is our Master.

Related links

Cover of a pulp version of The Lady in The Lake

Cover of a pulp version of The Lady in The Lake

Pulp images and reality

All the talk of hard-boiled attitude splashed all across the blurb and metatexts on Chandler seem to me baloney. Marlowe is a sentimental slop, the shop-soiled Sir Galahad who goes out of his way to help his clients and protect the innocent or vulnerable. It is a feature of pulp that – like the Hollywood Chandler cordially detests – it simplifies and sentimentalises. It’s not really fair to involve the book cover over which Chandler probably had little say, but this paradox is typified by the pulp-style cover of this book, above. How ethereal and attractive to the (male) bookshop browser is the tastefully-dressed blonde floating dreamily in the water, fully clothed with her eyes still tastefully made-up. Here’s Chandler’s description of the body as he and the local caretaker recover it up in the mountain lake:

The thing rolled over once more and an arm flapped up barely above the skin of the water and the arm ended in a bloated hand that was the hand of a freak. Then the face came. A swollen pulpy grey white mass without features, without eyes, without mouth. a blotch of grey dough, a nightmare with human hair on it. (Ch 6)

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  1. Playback by Raymond Chandler (1958) | Books & Boots

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