Playback by Raymond Chandler (1958)

He stuck a pill in his kisser and lit it with a Ronson.

After purging himself by writing at great length about alcoholics with a grudge against the modern world in The Long Goodbye, Chandler’s final novel is his shortest and most focused. I’d read that it was his weakest and nearly didn’t bother to read it, but I’m glad I did.

Plot

The events take place over just a few days in the small Californian coastal resort of Esmeralda, based on La Jolla where Chandler spent his final years (the only one of the novels set outside Los Angeles).

Marlowe is hired by a big-time LA lawyer to tail a woman arriving on a train from out East. He doesn’t know why and has to find out what the job is as he’s doing it, with the usual interruptions from blackmailers, local hoods, small-time crooks, a rival PI and, as always, the cops.

‘Perhaps if I had a rest and my brain cleared, I might have some faint idea of what I was doing.’ (Ch. 17)

The attitude is the same abrasive, tough guy as ever: given a choice Marlowe will always insult and antagonise whoever he’s talking to – everyone is crooked and two-faced, especially the broads, the cops are brutal and the crooks are brutaller.

I guess what critics mean when they disparage the book is that a lot of the verbal fireworks of the earlier books have gone – there are almost none of the smart-ass similes which set The Big Sleep alight – but that is symptomatic of the way the entire style is briefer, more pragmatic and focused.

It is a lean novel, and this has its own enjoyment. A lot of the energy missing from the narration has gone into the dialogue, which is as tight and edgy as ever.

And – despite all the guns and fights and blackmail and corruption – what I see as the essentially comic nature of Chandler’s work is close to the surface as ever.

Tough guy

I caught Mitchell on the side of the neck. His mouth yapped. He hit me somewhere, but it wasn’t important. Mine was the better punch, but it didn’t win the wrist watch because at that moment an army mule kicked me square in the back of the brain. (Ch. 5)

He looked durable. Most fat men do. (Ch. 6)

The men wore white tuxedos and the girls wore bright eyes, ruby lips, and tennis muscles. (Ch. 8)

He looked tough asking that. I tried to look tough not answering it. (Ch. 17)

Almost all the characters call each other tough (‘Tough guy, huh?’, ‘So Mr Tough Guy’, He wasn’t as tough as he looked, ‘Don’t get so goddam tough’, I was a real tough boy tonight, etc etc).

In fact most of them aren’t tough at all and Marlowe, above all, exists in this contradictory space where he tells us he’s tough, he talks ironic, wisecracking tough, he’s rude and aggressive tough, especially to the cops when he really doesn’t need to be. And yet we know that underneath he is Sir Galahad, an essentially pure man with a clean conscience.

‘How can such a hard man be so gentle?’ she asked wonderingly. (Ch. 25)

That’s the paradoxical effect of reading all Chandler’s novels. They seem like they’re dealing with human corruption, violence, evil – and yet the vibrancy of the style and the supreme confidence of the manner leave you feeling invigorated and clean.

Eyes

In earlier posts I’ve written in detail about Chandler’s awareness of eyes, as the characters constantly probe and size each other up, and about the wonderful phrases he creates for even the simplest looks.

In this last novel his ‘eye-awareness’ is still prominent – eyes and looks and stares and glances are described on every page – but the astonishing verbal inventiveness of the earliest novels has vanished like morning mist:

  • She leaned back and relaxed. Her eyes stayed watchful. (Ch. 5)
  • His colour was high and his eyes too bright. (Ch. 5)
  • He looked at her. He looked at Mitchell. He took his cigarette holder out of his mouth and looked at that. (Ch. 8)
  • She looked at him. He looked at her. (Ch. 8)
  • We stared hard into each other’s eyes. It didn’t mean a thing. (Ch. 9)
  • I didn’t say anything. I watched her eyes. (Ch. 10)
  • He looked me over. His eyes were wise eyes. (Ch. 15)
  • He wore glasses, had a skin the colour of cold oatmeal and hollow, tired eyes. (Ch. 17)
  • I stood up. We gave each other those looks. I went out. (Ch. 24)
  • He stared at me with cool, blank eyes. (Ch. 26)

I mean it’s still good. But it doesn’t have the breath-taking brilliancy and unexpectedness of the earlier novels.

Locations

There’s the same precision of observation in Chandler’s descriptions of rooms and interiors which I’ve pointed out in an earlier post, just used less often.

There are almost too many offices like Clyde Umney’s office. It was panelled in squares of combed plywood set at right angles one to the other to make a checker-board effect. The lighting was indirect, the carpeting wall to wall, the furniture blonde, the chairs comfortable, and the fees probably exorbitant. (Ch. 11)

For me that word – ‘probably’ – weakens the whole sentence. I think earlier Marlow would have been more crisp and decisive.

One way to describe the falling-off is that in his last few novels Chandler becomes more measured and reasonable, balancing or questioning his own judgments. More human and fallible. But it was precisely the absence of doubt, the complete confidence in his own perceptions, which made the earlier novels so thrilling.

Similes

The smart-ass similes, the single most striking element of Chandler’s style which dominated the first few books, have almost completely disappeared by this last one. This handful are pretty much the only ones in the entire book.

There was nothing to it. The [train] was on time, as it almost always is, and the subject was as easy to spot as a kangaroo in a dinner jacket. (Ch. 2)

‘The walls here as as thin as a hoofer’s wallet.’ (Ch. 5)

I wouldn’t say she looked exactly wistful, but neither did she look as hard to get as a controlling interest in General Motors. (Ch. 11)

Not great, are they?

Comedy

On the other hand, a couple of sequences or lines in this novel made me laugh out loud, something none of the others had done. Hence my suggestion that, despite serious or even tragic incidents elsewhere in the book, on the whole this novel seemed to me to bring out Chandler’s essentially comic nature.

When I entered Miss Vermilyea was just fixing herself for a hard day’s work by touching up her platinum blonde coiffure. I thought she looked a little the worse for wear. She put away her hand mirror and fed herself a cigarette.
‘Well, well, Mr Hard Guy in person. To what may we attribute this honour?’
‘Umney’s expecting me.’
‘Mister Umney to you, buster.’
‘Boydie-boy to you, sister.’
She got raging in an instant. ‘Don’t call me “sister”, you cheap gumshoe!’
‘Then don’t call me buster, you very expensive secretary. What are you doing tonight? And don’t tell me you’re going out with four sailors again.’
The skin around her eyes turned whiter. Her hand crisped into a claw around a paperweight. She just didn’t heave it at me. ‘You son of a bitch!’ she said somewhat pointedly. Then she flipped a switch on her talk box and said to the voice: ‘Mr Marlowe is here, Mr Umney.’
Then she leaned back and gave me the look. ‘I’ve got friends who could cut you down so small you’d need a step-ladder to put your shoes on.’
‘Somebody did a lot of hard work on that one,’ I said. ‘But hard work’s no substitute for talent.’
Suddenly we both burst out laughing. (Ch. 11)

Happy Ending

And, astonishingly, there is a happy ending! Chandler sets us up to expect the opposite with some ‘down these mean streets a man must go’, 1950s existentialism, as our hero returns, exhausted and jaded to his poor man’s apartment:

 I climbed the long flight of redwood steps and unlocked my door. Everything was the same. The room was stuffy and dull and impersonal as it always was. I opened a couple of windows and mixed a drink in the kitchen. I sat down on the couch and stared at the wall. Wherever I went, whatever I did, this is what I would come back to. A blank wall in a meaningless room in a meaningless house. (Ch. 28)

When, to my absolute amazement, the phone rings and it is Linda Loring from the previous novel, The Long Goodbye, a millionaire’s daughter who he had a thing for but who left him to go to Paris. And here she is, phoning from Paris and saying she loves him and can’t live without him, and she agrees to catch the next flight to LA to be with him. Marlowe is going to live happily ever after!!

I reached for my drink. I looked around the empty room – which was no longer empty. There was a voice in it, and a tall, slim, lovely woman. There was a dark head on the pillow in the bedroom. There was that soft, gentle perfume of a woman who presses herself tight against you, whose lips are soft and yielding, whose eyes are half-blind… The telephone started to ring again. I hardly heard it.

The air was full of music.

 Who’d have guessed, who’d have expected it!

At its most basic a tragedy has a grim and deadly ending and a comedy has a happy ending, no matter what’s gone before. This astonishing turn-up on the last few pages of Playback not only ends the book on a comedic and positive note, it sheds its light back over the whole series of novels, highlighting the ironic, witty humour which threads through all of them, and confirming my sense that Chandler was a kind of mid-century, film noir Oscar Wilde.


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The Long Goodbye by Raymond Chandler (1953)

‘I need a drink,’ Spencer said. ‘I need a drink badly.’ (The Long Goodbye Chapter 42)

This is a long book about alcohol and alcoholics.

At 464 pages in the current Penguin edition, The Long Goodbye is by some margin the longest of Chandler’s novels. There is the same tough guy attitude as in the earlier novels, the same obsessive notation of eyes and looks (‘They had watching and waiting eyes, patient and careful eyes, cool, disdainful eyes, cops’ eyes.’ Ch. 6), the same smart similes (‘I belonged in Idle Valley like a pearl onion on a banana split.’ Ch. 13) – but they are less frequent, less helter-skelter than in the taut, supercharged Big Sleep and other earlier novels. All spread across a much bigger acreage of more relaxed, more reflective prose.

Discursive

What distinguishes TLG is its discursiveness: it feels a lot more rambling and long-winded than all the previous books. Whereas in an earlier book he would have been just lighting a cigarette when the phone rang, in this one he has three consecutive customers come into the waiting room and tell him all their woes at length, and then Marlowe reflects on the sorry role of the private eye – and only then does the phone ring and the plot resume.

So passed a day in the life of a P.I. Not exactly a typical day but not totally untypical either. What makes a man stay in it nobody knows. Sometimes you get beaten up or shot or tossed into a jailhouse. Once in a while you get dead. Every other month you decide to give it up and find some sensible occupation while you still walk without shaking your head. Then the door buzzer rings and you open the inner door to the waiting-room and there stands a new face with a new problem, a new load of grief, and a small piece of money. (Ch. 21)

The world-weary tough guy attitude is still there, but it all moves slower and longer. Eg Marlowe has to track down an absconded alcoholic husband, finds a note by the abscondee mentioning a Dr V, speculates that he is being looked after by a crooked dope doctor whose surname starts with V, spends chapter 15 visiting a friend in a big intelligence company who has files on such doctors, then spends chapters 16, 17 and 18 slowly visiting three crooked doctor Vs, and then chapters 19 and 20 ‘rescuing’ the missing husband and driving him home to his wife. It is all very enjoyable, and the pen portraits of the three doctors are vivid and funny, but that’s 5 chapters just to track a guy down.

In a similarly discursive mood, Chandler takes a couple of pages in chapter 13 to give us a memorable typology of blondes, irrelevant to the plot, but interesting colour. This unbuttoned, rambling chapter is also the one in which he gives Marlowe a famous self-description:

‘I’m a licensed private investigator and have been for quite a while. I’m a lone wolf, unmarried, getting middle-aged, and not rich. I’ve been in jail more than once and I don’t do divorce business. I like liquor and women and chess and a few other things. the cops don’t like me too well, but I know a couple I get along with. I’m a native son, born in Santa Rosa, both parents dead, no brothers or sisters, and when I get knocked off in a dark alley sometime, if it happens, as it could to anyone in my business, and to plenty of people in any business or no business at all these days, nobody will feel that the bottom has dropped out of his or her life.’ (Ch. 13)

Loosely phrased, isn’t it? Long sentences, particularly the last one which wears out its welcome before it ends. Whereas the earlier books described things, this one reflects on them, thinks about them – which makes it an enjoyable experience but in a different way.

Changing times/changing crimes

Chandler began writing stories for pulp magazines in 1933 when what was required was blondes and guns and quick bang-bangs and Jimmy Cagney was the screen gangster. The twenty years between then and 1953, when The Long Goodbye was published, saw incredible changes – the Second World War and the Holocaust and the atom bomb and the Cold War – along with the post-War rise of American consumer culture which transformed the settings of the stories, the lifestyles and vocabulary of its characters.

If the earlier books were (very high quality) entertainment, The Long Goodbye is all that with elements of social history which give it a new interest. In particular, the criminalisation of American society which must have seemed a startling new development in the 20s and 30s has settled in to become the American character.

‘I don’t like hoodlums.’
‘That’s just a word, Marlowe. We have that kind of world. Two wars gave it to us and we are going to keep it.’ (Ch. 3)

‘We all made plenty in the black market after the war.’ (Ch. 11)

Makes me think of The Godfather which covers the period 1945 to 1955 when the mafia entrenched its control of crime and diversified into all kinds of ‘legitimate’ business ventures until it becomes all but impossible to tell the difference between Big Business and Big Crime.

‘There ain’t no clean way to make a hundred million bucks,’ Ohls said. ‘Maybe the head man thinks his hands are clean but somewhere along the line guys got pushed to the wall, nice little businesses got the ground cut from under them and had to sell out for nickels, decent people lost their jobs, stocks got rigged on the market, proxies got bought up like a pennyweight of old gold, and the five per centers and the big law firms got paid hundred grand fees for beating some law the people wanted but the rich guys didn’t, on account of it cut into their profits. Big money is big power and big power gets used wrong. It’s the system. Maybe it’s the best we can get, but it still ain’t mu Ivory Soap deal.’
‘You sound like a Red,’ I said, just to needle him. (Ch. 39)

In fact the criminals, the big time criminals, are treated with a sort of respect; they are smooth, urbane, confident like Mendy Menendez, and Marlowe enjoys his antagonistic back-chat with them. Chandler’s acid cynicism is reserved for the so-called ‘honest’ professions, for doctors and lawyers and, above all, the police. The depiction of American police as violent, stupid and corrupt is far more terrifying than that of the criminals.

Opinions

Chandler’s dyspeptic view of society is on show more than ever. He was complaining about the sexualisation of his society in the 1940s. It’s only got worse:

Once in a while in this much too sex-conscious country a man and a woman can meet and talk without dragging bedrooms into it. (Ch. 22)

What we nowadays call the media fare no better:

  • I threw the paper into the corner and turned on the TV set. After the society page dog vomit even the wrestlers looked good. (Ch. 3)
  • [An old chess game he plays through is] a battle without armour, a war without blood, and as elaborate a waste of human intelligence as you could find anywhere outside an advertising agency. (Ch. 24)
  • ‘I own newspapers but I don’t like them. I regard them as a constant menace to whatever privacy we have left.  Their constant yelping about a free press means, with a few honourable exceptions, freedom to peddle scandal, crime, sex, sensationalism, hate, innuendo, and the political and financial use of propaganda.’ (Ch. 32)

Technology:

There is something compulsive about a telephone. The gadget-ridden man of our age loves it, loathes it, and is afraid of it. But he always treats it with respect, even when he is drunk. The telephone is a fetish. (Ch. 27)

Just people socialising comes in for stick:

It was the same old cocktail party, everyone talking too loud, nobody listening, everybody hanging on for dear life to a mug of the juice, eyes very bright, cheeks flushed or pale and sweaty according to the amount of alcohol consumed and the capacity of the individual to handle it. (Ch. 23)

(Another long sentence which starts off with the old brio but fizzles out into banality.) And the Law/ the whole apparatus of law enforcement and justice?

‘Let the lawyers work it out. They write the laws for other lawyers to dissect in front of other lawyers called judges so that other judges can say the first judges were wrong and the Supreme Court can say the second lot were wrong. Sure there’s such a thing as law. We’re up to our necks in it. About all it does is make business for lawyers.’ (Ch. 43)

Psychiatrists are given a hammering in chapter 44. And then there’s the stupid gullibility of his own countrymen:

The coffee was overstrained and the sandwich was as full of rich flavour as a piece torn off an old shirt. Americans will eat anything if it is toasted and held together with a couple of toothpicks and has lettuce sticking out the sides, preferably a little wilted. (Ch. 45)

(Side note: the McDonald brothers reorganized their business as a hamburger stand using production line principles in 1948, and Ray Kroc joined as a franchise agent in 1955, before buying them out and turning McDonalds into the worldwide business with annual revenues of $27.5 billion we know and love today.) Not many aspects of contemporary American life escape Marlowe’s withering criticism. Take advertising, a boom industry in post-War America:

‘Getting so I don’t care for the stuff,’ he said. ‘Maybe it’s the V commercials. They make you hate everything they try to sell. God, they must think the public is a half-wit. Every time some jerk in a white coat and a stethoscope hanging round his neck holds up some toothpaste or a pack of cigarettes or a bottle of beer or a mouthwash or a jar of shampoo or a little box of something that makes a fat wrestler smell like mountain liclac I always make a note never to buy any.Hell, I wouldn’t buy the product even if I liked it.’ (Ch. 46)

Bitch bitch bitch. But the real theme of this book is alcoholism.

Self portraits as an alcoholic

Chandler was an alcoholic, chain-smoking 65 year-old when the book was published, and most of it was written while his beloved wife Cissy suffered her final illness. His age, his weakness, her illness, all seem to have encouraged the tendency to rambling reflectiveness, about life, about his characters, about his work.

The plot is not as convoluted and improbable as in the earlier books, in fact it’s relatively simple: so why is the novel so long? Because it rotates and repeats around the figures of the two central male figures, lost, depressed, demoralised crashing alcoholics who draw Marlowe into their ambits to make up a drunk trio who have the same repetitive, getting-nowhere, long conversations about life and booze and broads.

  • The alcoholic war hero Terry Lennox, scarred and aimless but good-natured – the opening 3 or 4 chapters are about the friendship Marlowe strikes up with him and they announce the tone of the novel with their meandering, unrushed portrait of a very male friendship.
  • Richard Wade, the spoilt alcoholic writer who, despite his commercial success writing genre novels (‘He has made too much money writing junk for half-wits.’ Ch. 13), has come to doubt his entire career and is facing crippling writer’s block. (‘All writers are punks and I’m one of the punkest. I’ve written twelve best-sellers… and not a damn one of them worth the powder to blow it to hell.’ Ch. 23)

Marlowe seems to have the same rambling conversation with Richard Wade about six times, each time Wade getting drunker and more abusive till he passes out. Marlowe’s repeated visits out to the Wade place to ‘help’ him don’t make any sense, specially as he explicitly turns down the job of being Wade’s minder: they just allow Marlowe/Chandler to make the same kind of remarks about the awful empty lives of the rich and successful who spend their time getting drunk and being unfaithful to each other, obsessively repeating the actual process of getting drunk in words.

Everyone drinks too much in Chandler’s books, but in this one Marlowe for the first time starts drinking in the morning and the narrative persuades us that’s OK. At a key moment when Mrs Wade is trying to seduce him, he breaks free but instead of going home, goes downstairs in the Wade mansion and drinks a bottle of scotch till he passes out. In all the other books, although events were always ahead of him, nonetheless Marlowe was sharp and alert and eagle-eyed. In this one he seems strangely passive, unable to prevent the deaths of his friend Lennox or the drunk writer he’s sort of hired to protect.

From the repetitive drunk structure, to the drink problems of the three male characters, though to a score of vignettes of excess alcohol consumption, the whole book reverts obsessively to images of drink and drunkenness.

There was a sad fellow over on a barstool talking to the bartender, who was polishing a glass and listening with that plastic smile people wear when they are trying not to scream. The customer was middle-aged, handsomely dressed, and drunk. He wanted to talk and he couldn’t have stopped even if he hadn’t really wanted to talk. He was polite and friendly and when I heard him he didn’t seem to slur his words much, but you knew that he got up on the bottle and only let go of it when he fell asleep at night. He would be like that for the rest of his life and that was what his life was. You would never know how he got that way because even if he told you it would not be the truth. At the very best a distorted memory of the truth as he knew it. There is a sad man like that in every quiet bar in the world. (Ch. 13)

There is much to enjoy here, Chandler’s unique style is still priceless – but the meandering repetitive structure of the plot embodies and re-enacts the tedious repetitiveness of the alcoholic. The same drunk again and again and again, the same moans and whines and bitching which can only be ended by a bullet in the head.

Raymond Chandler’s novels ranked by length

  • Farewell, My Lovely 320 pages
  • The Lady in the Lake 304 pages
  • The Little Sister 304 pages
  • The High Window 288 pages
  • The Big Sleep 272 pages
  • Playback 208 pages

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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.

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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The Little Sister by Raymond Chandler (1949)

1. The artificial world of films and acting

Previous Chandler novels referred to their characters putting on acts, behaving like they’re in a B-movie, copying mannerisms from mobsters in the movies and so on. The Little Sister takes this theme to a new level.

This was the first novel Chandler wrote after a spell working as a Hollywood scriptwriter and he puts his insider information to good use. The key figure, Mavis Weld, is a Hollywood actress and the plot involves Marlowe in encounters with Hollywood agents, actors and wannabes, and even takes him onto the set of a movie being filmed. (Wikipedia informs me that aspects of the character of Mavis’s agent, Sheridan Ballou, were copied from Chandler’s writing partner, Billy Wilder, who he cordially disliked.) Accordingly, the incidence of acting similes and metaphors – along with references to contemporary actors (Orson Welles, Lillian Gish, Maureen O’Brien, Cary Grant) – shoots through the roof.

‘Aren’t you going to wrap it up in a handkerchief, the way they do in the movies?’ (Ch. 27)

His finger tightened around the trigger. I watched it tighten… This was happening somewhere else in a cheesy programme picture. It wasn’t happening to me.’ (Ch. 14)

‘I ought to slap your face off,’ I said. ‘And quit acting innocent. Or it mightn’t be your face I slap.’ (Ch. 15)

‘I’m sure I didn’t know you scared that easy. I thought you were tough.
‘That’s just an act,’ I growled.

‘But you’re not in any jam. You’re right up front under the baby spot pulling every tired ham gesture you ever used in the most tired B-picture you ever acted in – if acting is the word -‘ (Ch. 12)

‘I come up here to get co-operation,’ he told French… ‘You’ll get co-operation French said. ‘Just don’t try to steal the picture with that nineteen-thirty dialogue.’ (Ch. 24)

And despite – or because of – his experience working in the Dream Factory, Chandler is not a fan of Hollywood. At least, Marlowe is not a fan of Hollywood. Throughout the novel Hollywood movies and their cheap gimmicks and mannerisms and corny dialogue, the sleazy sex-obsessed lifestyles of its stars, the corrupt greedy aspirations of people who want to get into movies, and the lowering of standards of behaviour which both the movies and the stars who populate the movies have encouraged among the population are the target of explicit diatribes, implicit in numerous descriptions of directors, agents and stars, and scattered in numerous throwaway remarks.

A long way off through trees I could see the lights of a big house. Some Hollywood big shot, probably, some wizard of the slobbery kiss, and the pornographic dissolve. (Ch. 28)

And then there is the quality of the films themselves. In this novel Marlowe goes to see one and give us his disgusted commentary:

So I went to a picture show and it had to have Mavis Weld in it. One of those glass-and-chrome deals where everybody smiled too much and talked too much and knew it. The women were always going up a long curving staircase to change their clothes. The men were always taking monogrammed cigarettes out of expensive cases and snapping expensive lighters at each other… The leading man was an amiable ham with a lot of charm, some of it turning a little yellow at the edges. The star was a bad-tempered brunette with contemptuous eyes and a couple of bad close-ups that showed her pushing forty-five backwards almost hard enough to break a wrist. (Ch. 13)

But his withering worldview is much wider than that. Marlowe’s tiredness comes from one man setting himself against the entire world, a world fallen catastrophically far from some fantasy prelapsarian Eden, in which men are performing apes or preening dandies, almost all women are sluttishly available, in which the bookish hero makes jokey references to Shakespeare or Wuthering Heights or Samuel Pepys which only emphasise the vast gulf between his literate and high standards and the gutter morals of the pond life he consorts with, in which the cops are corrupt and justice doesn’t exist and the bad flourish and the good die horribly.

2. The Fallen World of Philip Marlowe…

Once, long ago, it must have had a certain elegance. But no more. The memories of old cigars clung to its lobby like the dirty gilt on its ceiling and the sagging springs of its leather lounging chairs. (Ch. 8)

I stepped out into the night air that nobody had yet found out how to option. But a lot of people were probably trying. They’d get around to it. (Ch. 13)

In fact chapter thirteen is one long cynical plaint of disgust about the contemporary world, the ‘cold half-lit world where always the wrong thing happens and never the right’.

‘I used to like this town,’ I said… ‘A long time ago. There were trees along Wilshire Boulevard. Beverley Hills was a country town. Westwood was bare hills and lots offering at eleven hundred dollars and no takers.Hollywood was a bunch of frame houses on the interurban line. Los Angeles was just a big dry sunny place with ugly homes and no style, but good hearted and peaceful. It had the climate they just yap about now. People used ot sleep out on porches. Little groups who thought they were intellectual used to call it the Athens of America. It wasn’t that, but it wasn’t a neon-lighted slum either… Now we get characters like this Steelgrave owning restaurants. We get guys like that fat boy that balled me out back there. We’ve got the big money, the sharp shooters, the percentage workers, the fast dollar boys, the hoodlums out of New York and Chicago and Detroit – and Cleveland. We’ve got the flash restaurants and night clubs they run, and the hotels and apartment houses they own, and the grifters and con men and female bandits that live in them. The luxury trades, the pansy decorators, the Lesbian dress designers, the riff-raff of a big hard-boiled city with no more personality than a paper cup. Out in the fancy suburbs dear old Dad is reading the sports page in front of a picture window, with his shoes off, thinking he is high class because he has a three-car garage. Mom is in front of her princess dresser trying to paint the suitcases out from under her eyes. And Junior is clamped on the telephone calling up a succession of high school girls that talk pidgin English and carry contraceptives in their make-up kit.’ (Ch. 26)

… in which all women are biddable…

 She reached a quick arm around my neck and started to pull. So I kissed her. It was either that or slug her. She pushed her mouth hard at me for a long moment, then quietly and very comfortably wriggled around in my arms and nestled. (Ch. 7)

The girl behind the counter was a straw blonde with a long neck and tired eyes… She had a low lingering voice with a sort of moist caress in it like a damp bath towel. (Ch. 8)

She slapped me delicately across the tip of my nose. The next thing I knew I had her in my lap and she was trying to bite a piece off my tongue. (Ch. 12)

She hauled off and slapped me again, harder if anything. ‘I think you’d better kiss me,’ she breathed. Her eyes were clear and limpid and melting. (Ch. 12)

‘You always wear black?’ I asked.
‘Yes. But it is more exciting when I take my clothes off.’ (Ch. 23)

‘Will you make love to me tonight?’ she asked softly.
‘That is an open question. Probably not.’
‘You would not waste your time. I am not one of those synthetic blondes with a skin you could strike matches on. These ex-laundresses with large bony hands and sharp knees and unsuccessful breasts.’ (Ch. 26)

… everyone behaves like B-movie tough guys…

 ‘Don’t get tough with me,’ the man said. ‘I’m a bad man to get tough with.’ (Ch. 4)

I reached over and pressed down the riser on the phone. Held it that way while I fumbled around for a cigarette. I knew he would call right back. They always do when they think they’re tough. They haven’t used their exit line. (Ch. 7)

‘Do you smoke that piece of old rope because you like it or because you think it makes you look tough?’ (Ch. 8)

‘I got business to attend to. Beat it and keep going.’
‘Such a tough little guy,’ I said. (Ch. 11)

 … jokey highbrow references are wasted on ignoramuses…

 ‘Never the time and place and the loved one altogether,’ I said.
‘What’s that?’ she tried to throw me out with the point of her chin but she wasn’t that good.
‘Browning. The poet, not the automatic. I feel sure you’re prefer the automatic.’ (Ch. 12)

A male voice called: ‘Here, Heathcliff. Here, Heathcliff.’ Steps sounded on a hard walk.
‘That’s Heathcliff,’ the chauffeur said sourly.
‘Heathcliff?’
‘That’s what they call the dog, Jack.’
Wuthering Heights?’ I asked.
‘Now you’re double-talking again,’ he sneered. (THW Ch. 5)

‘Maybe the printing was just a little game he played with himself.’
‘Like Pepys’s shorthand?’ I said.
‘What was that?’
A diary a man wrote in a private shorthand, a long time ago.’
Breeze looked at Spangler. (THW Ch. 16)

…  and ironic references to the genre only emphasise everyone’s entrapment…

‘That didn’t have anything to do with the Stein killing. Steelgrave was under glass all that week. No connection at all. Your cop friend has been reading pulp magazines.’
‘They all do,’ I said. ‘That’s why they talk so tough. (Ch. 16)

3. The exceptionalism of the private detective

Or, Why the single private investigator regards himself as above the fray, an exception to the fallen world – an exceptionalism which is particularly clear in the contrast between the PI – allowed great leeway to follow his own conscience in the pursuit of a personal vision of Justice – and the agents of the Law, the police, constrained by procedure and the limitations of bureaucracy.

From the start of the crime genre the detective is placed in opposition to the plodding feet of the official enforcers of the Law. As early as the three Edgar Allen Poe stories (1840s), which are generally thought to have founded the genre, the freedom of action and incisive insight of independent detective C. Auguste Dupin is set against the plodding hapless efforts of the Parisian police. Conan Doyle 50 years later echoes exactly the same tropes: Holmes the brilliant outsider and loner is effortlessly superior to the bumbling Grigson and Lestrade of Scotland Yard. Watson observes him frequently not telling the police the full story and suppressing facts to ensure his own freelance version of justice prevails.

Chandler has the same fundamental structure – as a freelance private detective Marlowe uncovers and encounters all kinds of aspects of a crime or ‘case’ which the police never see. But there are several interesting differences:

  • the cops are not just ineffective, they are sometimes actively corrupt
  • Marlowe is not superhuman; he is deeply fallible

His fallibility is emphasised throughout, it is a leitmotiv that he only realises twists and deceptions too late, a point rammed home in the final chapter where he sees the sinister Dr Lagardie entering the hotel Van Nuy and calls the cops but, between them they’re too slow to prevent Lagardie killing the unpredictable nymphomaniac Dolores Gonzalez.

For some reason it’s the police from Bay City neighbouring Los Angeles who come in for stick in Chandler’s novels. In Farewell, My Lovely Marlowe is beaten unconscious by two corrupt Bay City cops who then dump with a ‘doctor’ at a ‘clinic’ who shoots him full of ‘dope’ . In this novel the thuggish Lieutenant Moses Maglashan from Bay City sits in on an ‘interview’ with Marlowe and makes it quite clear that his techniques include beating suspects unconscious or permanently damaging their kidneys.

Marlowe is split: he is generally sympathetic to the cops, who he sees as ordinary people trying to do an impossible job:

They just sat there and looked back at me. The orange queen was clacking her typewriter. Cop talk was no more treat to her than legs to a dance director. They had the calm weathered faces of healthy men in a hard condition. They had the eyes they always have, cloudy and grey like freezing water. The firm set mouth, the hard little wrinkles at the corners of the eyes, the hard hollow meaningless stare, not quite cruel and a thousand miles from kind. The dull ready-made clothes, worn without style, with a sort of contempt; the look of men who are poor and yet proud of their power, watching always for ways to make it felt, to shove it into you and twist it and grin and watch you squirm, ruthless without malice, cruel and yet not unkind. What would you expect of them? Civilisation had no meaning for them. All they saw of it was the failures, the dirt, the dregs, the aberrations and the disgust. (Ch. 24)

On the other hand, it’s in The High Window that Marlowe crystallises the reason he so often – and so provokingly – doesn’t tell the police the full story, in fact so often goes out of his way to conceal evidence, hide the truth and generally be a difficult customer:

Breeze said: ‘Make your point.’
I said: ‘Until you guys own your own souls you don’t own mine. Until you guys can be trusted every times and always, in all times and conditions, to seek the truth out and find it and let the chips fall where they may – until that time comes, I have a right to listen to my conscience, and protect my client the best way I can. Until I’m sure that you won’t do him more harm than you’ll do the truth good. Or until I’m hauled before someone who can make me talk.’
Breeze said: ‘You sound to me just a little like a guy who is trying to hold his conscience down.’
‘Hell,’ I said. ‘Let’s have a drink…’ (THW Ch. 15)

Despite the throwaway context, this is the justification all private detectives make for doing it their way. It is the core rationale of the genre.

Pulp jacket cover of The Little Sister

Pulp jacket cover of The Little Sister


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Eye imagery in ‘The High Window’ and ‘The Little Sister’ by Raymond Chandler

Chandler’s characters are all acting

All Raymond Chandler’s novels dwell on the way the cops, crooks and dames in his mythical noir Los Angeles landscape are more or less consciously acting a part.

The texts regularly describe almost all the characters as playing up to roles they’ve set themselves, or modelling their behaviour on the actors they’ve seen up on the silver screen:

The blonde sobbed in rather a theatrical manner and showed me an open mouth twisted with misery and ham-acting. (The High Window, Chapter 10)

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. (THW, Ch. 18)

Silence. Then the sound of a blow. The woman wailed. She was hurt, terribly hurt. Hurt in the depths of her soul. She made it rather good. ‘Look, angel,’ Morny snarled. ‘Don’t feed me the ham. I’ve been in pictures. I’m a connoisseur of ham. Skip it.’ (THW, Ch. 30)

Even the highly self-conscious, first-person narrator, Philip Marlowe is aware that he is performing routines, that all the world’s a stage:

I killed my cigarette and got another one out and went through all the slow futile face-saving motions of lighting it, getting rid of the match, blowing smoke off to one side, inhaling deeply as though that scrubby little office was a hilltop overlooking the bouncing ocean – all the tired clichéd mannerisms of my trade. (Ch. 11)

Marlowe humorously notes the way the tough guys he encounters ceaselessly model themselves – their mannerisms and attitude and wisecracking style – on the protagonists of Hollywood crime movies in what seems to be a widespread outbreak of reality copying fiction.

Thus Raymond Chandler’s novels are fictions in which fictitious characters criticise each other for modelling themselves on other fictitious characters.)

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

Why are eyes so important?

Throughout the novels, I’ve been struck by the ingenuity Chandler expends on his descriptions of eyes and the numerous ways he finds to describe looks, glances, stares etc, and wondering why he takes so much trouble on what amounts almost to a mini-genre within his writings.

Finally, I think I realise how these two prominent themes – the acting, and the seeing – are interconnected.

Eyes are mechanisms of concealment and revelation

A detective is trying to get at a hidden truth which many, if not all, the other characters are trying to conceal from him.

Most if not all of the characters are lying. He himself is lying a lot of the time, or spinning different versions of events to watch their affect on his listeners. So, in a detective novel, what people say – words alone – are a poor guide to what is going on, to what people really mean, to what people’s intentions really are.

Given that, in this Universe of Liars, most of what most people say is baloney, it follows that everyone is judging everyone else not so much by their words, but by their actions.

They are, in other words, watching everyone else very closely and everyone is aware that they are being watched. They are watching how each other act, sizing up how successfully or not all the other characters are playing their roles play a part. They are watching themselves play their parts, and watching how others watch them play the part, in the long series of deceptions which make up the ‘plot’.

And one of the hardest things to fake, to pull off, is acting with your EYES.

People’s looks and glances can, potentially, say much more than people’s words and, inadvertently, give away all kinds of meanings and intentions which words alone conceal.

Thus, in Chandler’s texts, time and again, quick unguarded looks and regards give people away, reveal depths or meanings or truths which they are trying to conceal. In the following I categorise and try to define the various ways Chandler uses eye imagery.

1. Eyes as concealers – and revealers – of others’ intentions

The descriptions of eyes are a kind of fulcrum on which the pursuit of concealed truths balances and moves.

Chandler’s attention to the eyes of his characters and his often wonderfully inventive and vivid descriptions of eyes and looks aren’t an accident of style or a pretty habit: they are a crucial part of the structure of concealment and revelation which makes up ‘the detective story’.

As an old proverb has it, the eyes are windows into the soul and, in cynical 1940s Los Angeles, the eyes are windows which their owners are doing everything in their power to shutter and curtain, to cover with ‘blinds’.

But the eyes’ owners are all too often weak, and their eyes continually reveal things which the studied mannerisms of the body, the careful lies of the mouth, the calculated exchange of money and wounds, are at such pains to conceal.

She stared at me and said nothing. I thought that an idea was stirring at the back of her eyes, but if so it didn’t come out. (THW, Ch. 19)

She stared out of her own eyes for a brief instant before the act dropped over her again. (TLS, Ch. 12)

Her mouth twitched as if she was going to laugh. But there was no laughter in her eyes. (TLS, Ch. 19)

Her eyes widened a little too innocently. Her laugh was a little too silvery. (TLS, Ch. 19)

‘4 P 327,’ I said, watching his eyes. Nothing flicked in them. No trace of derision or concealment. (TLS, Ch. 11)

Murdock lifted his eyes. He tried to make them blank with astonishment. He only made them dull and shocked. (THW, Ch. 34)

I looked hard at him. It didn’t buy me a way into his soul. He was quiet, dark and shattered and all the misery of life was in his eyes. (TLS, Ch. 21)

Her cheeks were a little flushed. But behind her eyes things watched and waited. (Ch. 27)

She dabbed at her eyes. She watched me around the handkerchief. Once in a while she made a nice little appealing sob in her throat. (TLS, Ch. 33)

In other words, paying close attention to people’s eyes can be one of the quickest routes to insight and knowledge available to the seeker for truth in this fallen world, this ‘cold half-lit world where always the wrong thing happens and never the right’ (TLS Ch 13) – but that attention is continually foiled and deceived by others’ attempts at concealment.

People’s eyes, looks and regards become a kind of battlefield of concealment and revelation.

2. Eyes as enquirers into the narrator’s mind

But of course it works both ways: the other characters’ eyes not only reveal the inner state of the would-be liars to us (through the eyes of the narrator, Marlowe), they are also the searchlights which those third-person liars themselves use to probe into the narrator’s acts and thoughts.

They are not only the means other people use for acting and lying to us; they are also the device those other people use to assess whether the narrator is are acting and lying to them.

Toad studied me carefully with narrow eyes… ‘I heard you were kind of hard-boiled,’ Toad said slowly, his eyes cool and watchful.
‘You heard wrong. I’m a very sensitive guy. I go all to pieces over nothing.’
‘Yeah. I understand.’
He stared at me a long time without speaking. (TLS, Ch. 14)

The neat-appearing young man gave me a searching glance as I exchanged the check and some money for an envelope… He didn’t say anything, but the way he looked at me gave me the impression that he remembered I was not the man who had left the negative. (TLS, Ch. 16)

His sharp black eyes didn’t miss anything in my face. (THW, Ch. 7)

Finally he nodded yes, green eyes, watching me carefully… (THW, Ch. 9)

Breeze nodded and chewed his lips and explored my face with his eyes. (THW, Ch. 15)

He lifted his eyes and ran them lazily over my face. (TLS, Ch. 24)

Lieutenant Moses Maglashan took the carpenter’s pencil out of his mouth and looked at the teeth marks in the fat octangular pencil butt. Then he looked at me. His eyes went over me, slowly exploring me, noting me, cataloguing me. He said nothing. He put the pencil back in his mouth. (TLS, Ch. 24)

‘I don’t believe you,’ she said, and her eyes watched me like a cat watching a mousehole. (TLS, Ch. 33)

Marlowe looks at people’s eyes very closely for two reasons: to try and see into their souls, to see the true state of their feelings and intentions; and to assess how shrewdly they are looking into his soul and figuring out his motivations and purposes. Often this ballet of the looks, this interplay of eyes, is enacted in the prose:

I watched her for a minute, biting at the end of my lip. She watched me. I saw no change of expression. Then I started prowling the room with my eyes. (TLS, Ch. 28)

Fascination and exuberance

And hence Marlowe and Chandler’s fascination with eyes and looks. Every encounter with another human being is the occasion for weighing up and judging others, using our eyes: using our eyes to assess their eyes and using our eyes to assess their eyes assessing our eyes. No wonder he has scores of striking descriptions of what people’s eyes look like and how they use them, the affect of their looks, glances, gleams and stares.

And the subject becomes an opportunity for Chandler to show off, to take the language for a walk, rejoicing in the exuberance of his almost Shakespearian gift for vivid phrase-making:

She had pewter-coloured hair set in a ruthless permanent, a hard beak and large moist eyes with the sympathetic expression of wet stones. (THW, Ch. 2)

A dangerous-looking redhead sat languidly at an Adam desk… I went over and she put a couple of cold blue pellets into me with her eyes… (TLS, Ch. 17)

Another cop in a tilted back chair nodded to him, and looked me over with that dead grey expression that grows on them like scum on a watertank. (TLS, Ch. 19)

3. Mirrors

There is a third category of ‘eye-awareness’, one that crops up fairly regularly: which is when Marlowe sees his own eyes in a mirror and, for a fleeting moment, applies his usual level of penetrating insight to himself.

I got up and went to the built-in wardrobe and looked at my face in the flawed mirror. It was me all right. I had a strained look. I’d been living too fast. (TLS, Ch. 20)

Of course, this trope is generally used to emphasise the jaded world-weariness which is Marlowe’s schtick, the exhausted knight toughing it out in a fallen world, which is how Marlowe likes to see himself, or how Chandler likes to see Marlowe.

On the way out I had another look at the face in the mirror. I looked as if I had made up my mind to drive off a cliff. (TLS, Ch. 20)

I pulled away from the door and pulled it open and went back through the hall into the living-room. A face in the mirror looked at me. A strained, leering face. I turned away from it quickly… (THW, Ch. 8)

‘That’s a nice sharp pencil you have there,’ I told him.
He looked up, surprised. The girls at the pinball machine looked at me, surprised. I went over and looked at myself in the mirror behind the counter. I looked surprised. (THW, Ch. 13)

Passing the open door of the wash cabinet I saw a stiff excited face in the glass. (THW, Ch. 26)

I got out a handkerchief and wiped the palms of my hands. I went over to the wash-basin and washed my hands and face. I sloshed cold water on my face and dried it off hard with the towel and looked at it in the mirror. ‘You drove off a cliff all right,’ I said to the face. (TLS, Ch. 24)

You can see from these examples how the mirror motif is generally associated with tough guy posing. Hell, I look tired. Hell, I’m a jaded tough guy private dick. The self-referentiality of his gaze is linked to the acute self-consciousness of all the characters, all playing parts.

4. Sun glasses

There’s another minor category of eye imagery, which is when the eyes are covered – by sunglasses or, sometimes, the glinting surface of normal glasses.

I don’t know how widely used shades were in late 1930s California, but they crop up surprisingly rarely in the novels. When they do it’s clear what their function is – to conceal the wearer’s eyes which, in the light of above, is an elementary, physical way of protecting or concealing the wearer’s motives and thoughts.

Sunglasses make the face significantly more impenetrable. Maybe this is why people wearing shades feel ‘cool’ i.e. less open to scrutiny, to having their expression searched and comprehended – and therefore more distant and detached from everyone else, including people they speak and interact with.

And why we feel a little threatened when dealing with people (especially the police) wearing shades. It is because, not being able to ‘read’ their mood or tone in their eyes, we feel adrift, uncertain, wrong-footed. At a disadvantage.

An attitude of supposed invulnerability which Marlowe mocks in one his few allusions to them:

The man in the brown suit posted himself at the end of the bar and drank coca-colas and looked bored… He had his dark glasses on again. That made him invisible. (THW, Ch. 4)

‘You may have noticed a certain atmosphere and strain about this house. Even with those silly mirror glasses on. Which you may now remove. They don’t make you look the least like Cary Grant.’ (TLS, Ch. 21)

Othertimes, as already noted, the shades are there, but the mockery is implicit. They are, quite simply, more opportunities for Chandler to display his virtuoso way with phrase making.

He had a pair of green sun-glasses on his nose… The dim movement of his eyes was visible behind the green lenses, fish moving in a deep pool. (THW, Ch. 22)

The small head jerked up. The light glinted on the glasses. There were no eyes behind them. (TLS, Ch. 33)

5. Neutrals

There’s another type of eyes – neutral eyes, belonging to people whose eyes are neither attacking or defending, people who are outside of the game of deception and search the main characters are playing. Take the old guy who mans the elevator in the dilapidated Belfont Building in The High Window.

The same old plough-horse sat in the elevator on his piece of folded burlap, looking straight in front of him, almost gathered to history. (THW, Ch. 14)

To paraphrase Freud, sometimes a pair of eyes are just a pair of eyes. Or are they? The irony is that this old geezer – named Grandy – despite his dead, watery, old-man’s eyes, has in fact been observing the goings-on in the key building and is able to provide Marlowe with key information.

Maybe there are no innocent eyes anywhere in the stories.

6. Eyes of the dead

Of course there is a state in which eyes are there but no longer playing an active part in proceedings, namely when their owners are dead. No longer looking or concealing, they are hors du combat. For them the long war of human inter-judging is over.

His eyes were half open as such eyes usually are. They stared at a point in the corner of the ceiling. (Ch. 28)

The eye imagery reaches a kind of crescendo on the very last page of the The Little Sister, when Dr Lagardie murders Gonzalez in what appears to be a drugged-up state. And both of them are defined by the state of their eyes.

The doctor is so stoned he can’t see, he doesn’t seem able to see i.e. to understand, what he has done – seeing and perceiving are over for him and so he isn’t worth either talking to or judging. He is not in the game.

But this is even more true of the murdered nymphomaniac. The final sentence of the book describes the attending medic closing her dead eyes.

For this text, for the time being, the endless war of eyes against eyes is over. The last word of the novel is ‘eyes’, the last action the closing of eyes, the ending of perception, the last thing to go, the most important thing, the attribute which – I am arguing – is one of the central and defining activities of Chandler’s novels.

He glanced across at Dr Lagardie who saw nothing and heard nothing, if you could judge by his face. ‘I guess somebody lost a dream,’ the intern said. He bent over and closed her eyes. (Ch. 34)

7. Marginal eyes

And some final, minor examples of eye-sensitivity in the texts. They demonstrate that even to achieve small effects, to give the quickest snapshots of characters or their emotions, for Chandler the state of the character’s eyes is a crucial element, a talisman, the key indicator.

Mad

Except for her face she would have looked all right. In the first place her eyes were quite mad. There was white showing all around the iris and they had a sort of fixed look. When they moved the movement was so stiff that you could almost hear something creak. (Ch. 27)

Blind

A great long gallows of a man with a ravaged face and a haggard frozen right eye that had a clotted iris and the steady look of blindness. (Ch. 18)

Dying

He had eyes an eighth of an inch deep, pale grey-blue, wide open. They looked at me but didn’t see me. (TLS, Ch. 22)

Marlow is a ‘private eye’

Finally, and staring us in the face, is the fact that Marlowe is a Private EYE. What an odd phrase. Why does someone hire an ‘eye’?

Of all the parts of the body why is the private detective reduced by synechdoche to this one part of the anatomy? It is as if the job title recognises the importance of seeing above every other human ability, more important than any other aspect of a person which can be hired.

And it is as if the client’s two eyes just aren’t enough to interpret and understand – he must hire another pair. One pair of eyes isn’t enough in the war of eyes. The client needs to hire mercenary eyes.

Obviously the main point of the private eye is that they are unknown to whoever they’re tasked with investigating and spying on.

But that reinforces my point: watching, looking, spying, observing – and assessing, measuring, judging and interpreting – all these actions take place in Raymond Chandler’s novels predominantly through the eyes.

And hence, in the Chandler world, all references to eyes become loaded with phenomenal meaning and significance.


Appendix

a) Eyes in The High Window

All Chandler’s novels throng with sentences describing the look and action of eyes, ranging from the run-of-the-mill, through the contrived, to the inspired. It is the sheer variety, and the variety with which he describes such an apparently everyday business – looking and seeing – which is awe-inspiring.

Her eyes were as hard as the bricks in the front walk. I shrugged the stare off… (Ch. 2)

She watched me come into the room with the stiff, half-silly expression of a self-conscious person posing for a snapshot. (Ch. 2)

He leaned back again and brooded at me with pale eyes. (Ch. 3)

His eyes glinted, but he kept his smooth manner pretty well in place. (Ch. 3)

He eyed me over. ‘You ain’t working for him, are you?’ (Ch. 5)

He looked me up and down, brilliant black eyes sweeping slowly and the silky fringes of long eyelashes following them. (Ch. 5)

Vannier moved his hot angry eyes over to me and snapped. (Ch. 5)

The blonde giggled and petted his face with her eyes. (Ch. 5)

‘I think you could tell me yourself, if you wanted to.’
‘How are you going to make me want to?’ Her eyes were inviting. (Ch. 5)

His black eyes were sharp and blank at the same time, like a snake’s. (Ch. 5)

I looked at the blonde. Her eyes were bright and her mouth looked sensual and eager, watching us. (Ch. 5)

His face came all smooth again and his eyes opened, black and sharp and shrewd. (Ch. 7)

When the car stopped and I got out he didn’t speak or look at me again. He just sat there blank-eyed, hunched on the burlap and the wooden stool. (Ch. 14)

A check girl in peach-bloom Chinese pyjamas came over to take my hat and disapprove of my clothes. She had eyes like strange sins. (Ch. 17)

Prue let the front legs of the chair down on the carpet very quietly and looked at me. His good eye had a sleepy expression I didn’t like. (Ch. 18)

He raised his eyes on the last words and stared at me. I stared back and waited. (Ch. 18)

She moved her eyes over my face. We stared at each other. (Ch. 19)

I put my hay on the floor, just yesterday, and Mrs Murdock gave me the same hard level stare. (Ch. 20)

I waited, thinking she would tell me some story about how the coin had been returned, but she just stared at me bleakly over the wineglass… Her bleak eyes went up to the ceiling. (Ch. 20)

He stopped talking and looked up at me to see how I was taking it. Mrs Murdock had her eyes on my face, practically puttied there. The little girl was looking at Murdock with her lips parted and an expression of suffering on her face. (Ch. 21)

He stopped talking and wiped his face again. The little girl’s eyes moved up and down with the motions of his hand… The little girl tore her eyes away from his face and looked at me… The little girl stood up and smiled at her with shining eyes. (Ch. 21)

She drew her hand away swiftly and her eyes looked shocked… She jumped about three feet and her eyes blazed with panic… Her eyes melted with panic… Panic still twitched in the depths of her eyes, behind the tears. (Ch. 22)

The dim movement of his eyes was visible behind the green lenses, fish moving in a deep pool. (Ch. 22)

He waited, with his mouth a little open and the cigar in front of it, held up by a hard freckled hand, and his pale blue eyes full of dim satisfaction. (Ch. 23)

Spangler looked at me sideways along glistening eyes. (Ch. 23)

His cold black eyes looked over me silently. (Ch. 24)

She nodded. Her eyes stayed on my face. (Ch. 32)

A sort of panic twitched in the depths of her eyes, but very far back, very dim, and somehow as though it had been there for a long time and had just peeped out at me for a second. (Ch. 32)

She lifted her eyes slowly and gave me a long level gaze… Our eyes locked hard and held locked for a moment.  (Ch. 32)

His eyes had almost disappeared into the back of his head. They were doomed eyes. (Ch. 34)

b) Eyes in The Little Sister

She hesitated and there was something behind her eyes she tried not to have there. (Ch. 2)

Perhaps it was the  spring too. And something in her eyes that was much older than Manhattan, Kansas. (Ch. 2)

He gave me a narrow, thoughtful eye, then shovelled the money into a shabby brief-case. (Ch. 3)

He nodded, satisfied. The glare went out of his eyes. (Ch. 4)

He picked his cigar out of the green glass ash-tray and blew a little smoke. Through it he gave me the cold grey eye. (Ch. 4)

I gave him a shady leer. (Ch. 4)

She took half a step back, almost stumbled, and I reached an arm around her by pure instinct. Her eyes widened and she put her hands against my chest and pushed. (Ch. 7)

I saw Orfamay Quest’s face without the glasses, and polished and painted and with blonde hair piled up high on the forehead… And bedroom eyes. They all have to have bedroom eyes. (Ch. 7)

The girl behind the counter was a straw blonde with a long neck and tired eyes. (Ch. 8)

The floor carpet was new and had a hard look, like the room clerk. (Ch. 8)

I brought my eyes down and gave Flack a thick leaden stare. (Ch. 11)

Flack’s eyes flicked up at me and dropped all in one motion. (Ch. 11)

I did some more staring into his eyes. But I knew he was licked now. (Ch. 11)

Her eyes look enormous and black and the whites showed under them. (Ch. 12)

Her eyes were empty, her lips contemptuous. (Ch. 12)

The Gonzales looked back at her slowly, levelly, and with a knife in her eyes. (Ch. 12)

She stood her ground, one hand still reaching for the door-knob, her eyes full of dark-blue rage. (Ch. 12)

A peculiar stillness came over his face. A peculiar fixed look in his silent black eyes. (Ch. 12)

The creature with him was a weedy number with red eyes and sniffles. (Ch. 14)

Alfred’s eyes crawled sideways watching him, then jerked to the money on the desk. (Ch. 14)

Her hand reached automatically for the money. Her eyes behind the cheaters were round and wondering… She nodded her little chin half an inch. Her eyes were melting. ‘Take my glasses off,’ she whispered. (Ch. 14)

Spink gave me a narrow glare of hate. (Ch. 18)

[Torrance, the movie director] had hot black eyes, but there was no heat in his voice. (Ch. 19)

At the door she turned and looked around carefully. Then she fixed her lovely blue eyes on my face. (Ch. 19)

She looked at me a long and steady moment before she dropped her eyes… She stared at the photograph. Her eyes came up again slowly, slowly… She reached the photo out from somewhere and stared at it, biting her lip. Her eyes came up without her head moving…. Her eyes snapped down to the picture again. (Ch. 19)

He raised his head slowly and stared at me with fixed contempt. (Ch. 21)

She held this doohickey in a black gauntleted glove and stared at me out of depthless black eyes that had no laughter in them now… Her eyes filled with glare. She made a spitting sound. (Ch. 23)

The cops don’t like you to be wearing a gun in their territory… They like you to come in properly humble, with your hat in your hand, and your voice low and polite, and your eyes full of nothing. (Ch. 23)

Her eyes filled with glare. She made a spitting sound. (Ch. 23)

There were large lumps of muscle at the corners of his jaws. His eyes had a reddish glare behind them… Maglashan clamped his teeth tight and the line of his jaw showed white. His eyes narrowed and glistened. (Ch. 24)

The cops just sat there and looked back at me… They had the calm weathered faces of healthy men in hard condition. They had the eyes they always have, cloudy and grey like freezing water. The firm set mouth, the hard little wrinkles at the corners of the eyes, the hard hollow meaningless stare, not quite cruel and a thousand miles from kind. (Ch. 24)

The light flaring in her face seemed to be swallowed up by her depthless black eyes. (Ch. 26)

I watched her for a minute, biting at the end of my lip. She watched me. I saw no change of expression. Then I started prowling the room with my eyes. (Ch. 28)

I stared hard at French. He looked at me as if I was the wallpaper. His eyes didn’t seem to see me at all. (Ch. 29)

He stared at me with hard morose eyes. I was back in cop-town again. (Ch. 30)

One of them was from the jail, in denim, with a guard. A white-faced kid built like a tackle, with sick, empty eyes. (Ch. 32)

She looked innocently surprised. Then her eyes glowed… She leaned back. There was a vague worry behind her eyes, but she smiled. (Ch. 33)

Her tooth came down on the outer edge of her lower lip and something flared in her eyes and very slowly died away. (Ch. 33)

P.S.

And finally, even the eyes of non-humans can be admitted into this realm of conflict, their animal devotion a respite from the endless inquisitor which is the human eye, but still not entirely innocent. No eye in Chandler ever is.

‘The eyes of your dog,’ Oppenheimer mused. ‘The most unforgettable thing in the world.’ (TLS, Ch. 19)


Other Raymond Chandler reviews

The High Window by Raymond Chandler (1942)

A lot of smart conversation, full of worldliness and sly wit. (Chapter 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 25 cents!


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Other Raymond Chandler reviews

Farewell, My Lovely by Raymond Chandler (1940)

‘For a private dick you certainly have a wandering kind of mind.’ (Chapter 24)

Chandler’s second novel is significantly longer than the first – 41 chapters agaist 32, 200 pages of dense type compared to 160. More happens and a lot of that more is Marlowe getting beaten up: he is knocked unconscious twice, strangled, checked in by unfriendly police to a private hospital where he is pumped full of dope (heroine?), threatened, shot at and makes a number of hair-raising escapes.

There’s the familiar but ever-wonderful mix of smart-arse similes and tough-guy attitude.

Tough guy

I used my knee on his face. It hurt my knee. He didn’t tell me whether it hurt his face.

He lay smeared to the ground, on his back, at the base of a bush, in that bag-of-clothes position that always means the same thing. (Ch 11)

He had a battered face that looked like it had been hit by everything but the bucket of a dragline. It was scarred, flattened, thickened, chequered and welted. It was a face that had nothing to fear. Everything had been done to it that anyone could think of. (Ch 2)

He had a gun in the drawer of course. They always have a gun in the drawer and they always get it too late, if they get it at all. (Ch 27)

This attitude we take for granted. For the seventy years since Chandler’s debut crime fiction, movies and TV have swamped us with images of tough guys, real men, American heroes. The attitude isn’t so new or impressive. What remains immensely impressive is the style and the wit.

Similes

The text is awash with plenty of florid comparisons, including probably the most-quoted one from any of  his works:

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. (Chapter 1)

The big man purred softly, like four tigers after dinner. (Ch 1)

The handrail was as cold and wet as a toad’s belly. (Ch 8)

The smile fell off his face like a soiled rag. (Ch 27)

Spliced plots

But mostly this greater length gives Chandler an opportunity to try out more and a lot of this more is more plotting, as a series of apparent coincidences intertwine into a really knotty sequence of complications. It explains a lot to learn that Chandler created his novels by splicing together the short stories he’d been writing since the early 30s; Farewell, My Lovely splices together three completely unrelated stories (Try the Girl, Mandarin’s Jade and The Man Who Liked Dogs) and then has fun trying to paper over the joins. The final chapter is devoted to Marlowe and his girl talking through the motives of everyone involved so that they make sense. I’m not sure they ever do. Still:

a) Improbably convoluted plots are a feature of ‘pulp’ fiction (as of opera). Pulp means crude. Everything is cranked up. Broads are in peril. Bad guys reach for their guns. The cops are corrupt. Rich guys can buy anything. Entire cities are owned by hoods. Jewels. Drugs. And, in the same way, plots are garish and vivid, throwing up corpses and gambling dens and spooky private clinics and car chases and gorgeous blondes coolly smoking and lots and lots of scenes in police stations.

b) Not only are the plots improbably convoluted, but they know they are improbably convoluted. The people caught up in them point it out. When Harry Jones is leading up to the revelation he hopes Marlowe will pays him 2 Cs for, he himself says ‘Act One’ and then recounts the build-up; then announces ‘Act Two’ for the important sequence of events. In a tell-tale moment in The Big Sleep, when Marlowe has to find an isolated house near an isolated garage out on some canyon road, Chandler simply has his car get a puncture just around the right place, and remarks, ‘Fate stage-managed the whole thing. (Ch 27)’ No. the author stage-managed the whole thing. There are a number of references to Shakespeare in FML: ‘My God,’ she wailed. ‘You look like Hamlet’s father.’ (Ch 27)

c) In the penultimate chapter (40) Marlowe and his squeeze, Anne Riordan, settle down with a scotch apiece to try and piece together the multiple events and disconnected fragments which make up the narrative we’ve just read. They start by parodying the ‘Golden Age of Detective Fiction’ set-up, joking that they ought to be at a dinner party in a country house, surrounded by servants and an odd assortment of guests one of whom is the murderer, until the butler faints and all is revealed!! Except, says Marlow:

‘It’s not that kind of story. It’s not lithe and clever. It’s just dark and full of blood.’

Except, you know what? It is lithe and clever, very lithe and very clever, the three stories like three snakes which dance around each other, the style very highly-wrought and knowing. And also – not that full of blood. In this long novel five people are murdered (the manager of Jovian’s, Marriott, Mrs Jovian, Moose, the cop in the final chapter) only one of which you actually see, the other four being static descriptions of corpses or remote accounts. So: light on actual murder scenes. Vastly more effort is put by Chandler into his stylish similes and longer, poetic descriptions, and by the character Marlowe into his snappy banter, sometimes so much effort it’s difficult to follow what he and the hood or cop or blonde are talking about.

Style over plot

So it comes as no surprise at all to read this quote from RC:

‘My whole career is based on the idea that the formula doesn’t matter, the thing that counts is what you do with the formula; that is to say, it is a matter of style.’

It gives the author’s imprimatur to what is clear already from sentence after wonderful sentence throughout the text. Chandler isn’t about plot or even attitude, which is the dime-a-dozen pupl tough guy attitude: Chandler is about style.

The most often noted aspect of his style is the bottomless well of smart analogies:

Clever

The hunch I had was as vague as the heat waves that danced above the sidewalk. (Ch 3)

The voice dragged itself out of her throat like a sick man getting out of bed. (Ch 5)

The coffee shop smell was strong enough to build a garage on. (Ch 13)

To be fair, not all of them work;  sometimes they can come over as cheap and contrived:

Contrived

Then suspicion climbed all over her face, like a kitten, but not so playfully. (Ch 5)

Thick cunning played on her face, had no fun there and went somewhere else. (Ch 5)

He came back softly, holding his pork pie under his arm, debonair as a French count in a college play. (Ch 30)

But other times they can be eerily accurate, saying something deeper than the immediate occasion demands, suggesting the ‘literary surplus’ which I referred to in my previous post, that extra something over and above what the situation requires:

True

Her eyes were a dead grey, like half-frozen water. (Ch 40)

The motor sounded like a small car. It had that contented sound that comes with moisture in the air. (Ch 10)

The boat slid up and down the swell now with a sinister smoothness, like a cobra dancing. (Ch 35)

I sat there and puffed my pipe and listened to the clacking typewriter behind the wall of the office and the bong-bong of the traffic lights changing on Hollywood Boulevard and spring rustling in the air, like a paper bag blowing along a concrete sidewalk. (Ch 14)

Stream of consciousness

But it also gives Chandler the opportunity to do more ‘literature’. Not once but several times Chandler treats us to quite a few pages of stream-of-consciousness. Was this ‘invented’ by James Joyce or Virginia Woolf as my teachers told me? Whatever, by 1940 it was common currency, available as a technique to anyone who felt the need. After he has been knocked unconscious in some deserted canyon, chapter 10 opens with a tour de force of internal monologue as Marlowe, confused and disorientated, slowly regains consciousness:

I put my right hand back on the ground and took the left off and swivelled it around until I could see my watch. The illuminated dial showed 10.56, as nearly as I could focus on it. The call had come at 10.08. Marriott had talked maybe two minutes. Another four had got us out of the house. Time passes very slowly when you are actually doing something. I mean, you can go through a lot of movements in very few minutes. Is that what I mean? What the hell do I care what I mean? Okey, better men than me have meant less.

OK it’s not Virginia Woolf. It’s more Chandler having fun performing variations on the usually sober linear narrative. Exactly the same happens when he wakes up 50 pages later having been incarcerated in a private clinic and injected with heroine – his disorientation allows Chandler to try out more rhetorical tricks and we can enjoy a master of English prose performing like a seal at the zoo:

Time passed again. I don’t know how long. I had no watch. They don’t make that kind of time in watches anyway… Half an hour of walking and my knees were shaking but my head was clear… I walked back to the bed. It was a lovely bed. It was made of rose-leaves. It was the most beautiful bed in the world. They had got it from Carole Lombard. It was too soft for her. It was worth the rest of my life to lie down in it for two minutes. Beautiful soft bed, beautiful sleep, beautiful eyes closing and lashes falling and the gentle sound of breathing and darkness and rest sunk in deep pillows… (Ch 25)

Part of what makes the books so enjoyable is sharing Chandler’s sense of playfulness. Despite a few corpses these are essentially comic books where the detective comes through just fine and all the loose ends are sown up but the comedy is in the knowing, rich, muscular, always humorous prose. There are numerous passages of pure descriptive pleasure:

I walked on slowly. Beyond the electroliers, beyond the beat and toot of the small sidewalk cars, beyond the smell of hot fat and popcorn and the shrill children and the barkers in the peep shows, beyond everything but the smell of the ocean and the suddenly clear line of the shore and the creaming fall of the waves into the pebbled spume. I walked almost alone now. The noises died behind me, the hot dishonest light became a fumbling glare. Then the lightless finger of a black pier jutted seaward into the dark. This would be the one. I turned to go onto it. (Ch 36)

And then – in among all the tough guy attitude and hard-cop banter and florid similes and blondes and gats and dope – there is something else peeking through. Something deeper, which finds expression in simple words arranged into haunting rhythms, something I think we’re justified in calling poetry.

It got darker. I thought; and thought in my mind moved with a kind of sluggish stealthiness, as if it was being watched by bitter and sadistic eyes. (Ch 34)


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The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler (1939)

Haven’t read Chandler since school. I’d forgotten how very literary he is, how artful and contrived the prose is – from the era between the wars which, after all, saw an explosion of Modernist experimentation with prose.

And that these books are essentially comedies. The way the plot serves up contrived scenes made of confrontations between extravagant characters who exchange clipped, artful dialogue remind me of no-one so much as Oscar Wilde – when I came across a character actually named Wilde in chapter 18 (Taggart Wilde, the District Attorney) I burst out laughing. Is it a deliberate reference or homage? After all, Chandler references Marcel Proust early in the book (Chapter 11). In their way, the characters and plots are as stylised, as exaggerated and mannered as anything from The Importance of Being Earnest.

Male knowingness

The text radiates post-Hemingway savoir vivre: the essence of this kind of writing is a very male attitude of total knowledge, complete knowledgeability about women, guns, booze, crime, all the tricks and cons of detectives and crooks – the way of the world – or of a certain kind of world. A world of sex, money, violence, drugs which we – as impeccably law-abiding citizens – are thrilled and entertained to enter, and with such a rock-safe chaperone as the artful first-person narrator.

Take women:

It might have annoyed Eddie but business is business, and you have to hold your teeth clamped around Hollywood to keep from chewing on stray blondes. (Ch 21)

Sure. So many stray blondes, what is a man to do. Or booze:

I unlocked my deep drawer and got out my office bottle and two pony glasses. I filled them and we drank. (Ch 11)

Obviously he has an ‘office bottle’ of booze. It isn’t even specified what type, it’s just general purpose drink whose purpose is to emphasise his manliness. Of course he has an office bottle. Of course he drinks spirits during the day. But what are pony glasses? The narrator knows. He assumes we know. His routine use of this stylised diction flatters us, assumes we know all about hooch and shamuses and gats. That we’re men of the world, too. Sure. No problem.

Or money:

First off Regan carried fifteen grand, packed it in his clothes all the time. Real money, they tell me. Not just a top card and a bunch of hay. (Ch 20)

Everyone says ‘grand’ now, so reading this doesn’t convey the thrill of the thieves’ argot it originally would have. But ‘a top card and a bunch of hay’, it takes you a moment to realise, must be entertaining jargon for a real dollar note at the top of a wad of fakes.

Since none of us are policeman, or Los Angeles policemen from 1939, none of us can know for sure how much of this was actually the way people dressed and acted and spoke back then – and how much is baroque invention.

‘Hard-boiled’ prose style

You read on the blurb and have the general impression that Chandler invented or is famous for the tough-guy hard-boiled style. And it’s true many of the sentences are ostentatiously clipped, short and understated. Especially around the sensational subjects which are the staples of ‘pulp’ writing (and, let’s face it, of most entertainment), sex and death.

She was wearing a pair of long jade earrings. They were nice earrings and had probably cost a couple of hundred dollars. She wasn’t wearing anything else.

Death, of course, comes in many forms, all of them a combination of the grotesque and the sordid. All of them, of course, observed with the laconic, world-weary eye of the jaded detective.

Geiger was wearing Chinese slippers with thick felt soles, and his legs were in black satin pyjamas and the upper part of him wore a Chinese embroidered coat, the front of which was mostly blood. His glass eye shone brightly up at me and was by far the most lifelike thing about him. At a glance none of the three shots I heard had missed. He was very dead. (Ch 7)

But almost immediately you realise the clipped sentences are outnumbered by the more artful and colourful sentences. In particular the wealth of deliberately outlandish and vivid similes.

Smart-ass similes

It was raining again the next morning, a slanting grey rain like a swung curtain of crystal beads. I got up feeling sluggish and tired, and stood looking out of the windows, with a dark harsh taste of Sternwoods still in my mouth. I was as empty of life as a scarecrow’s pockets. (Chapter 25)

A few locks of dry white hair clung to his scalp, like wild flowers fighting for life on a bare rock. (Ch1)

I lit a cigarette and blew a lungful at him and he sniffed at it like a terrier at a rat-hole. (Ch 1)

This room was too big, the ceiling was too high, the doors were too tall, and the white carpet that went from wall to wall looked like a fresh fall of snow at Lake Arrowhead. (ch 2)

Her whole body shivered and her face fell apart like a bride’s pie crust. She put it together again slowly, as if lifting a great weight, by sheer will power. (Ch 10)

His cigarette was jiggling like a doll on a coiled spring. (Ch 16)

Then her breathing began to make a rasping sound, like a small file on soft wood. (Ch 23)

The purring voice was now as false as an usherette’s eyelashes and as slippery as a watermelon seed. (Ch 26)

Blood began to move around in me, like a prospective tenant looking over a house. (Ch 28)

The pug sidled over flatfooted and felt my pockets with care. I turned around for him like a bored beauty modelling an evening gown. (Ch 13)

‘Pug’ refers to the baddy’s henchman and, as with the ‘bored beauty’, conveys ironic superiority, knowing confidence. It denotes the superiority of Marlowe over the situation, and of us, the privileged readers, also – so superior we can observe it with witty detachment. The delicious similes both heighten the comic/grotesque element of situations – and tickle the palate of the jaded reader.

But look again at that sentence and note that ‘with care’. That phrase denotes something extra, something I’ll call the ‘literary surplus’. It isn’t required by either the mechanics of the plot or the pulp injunction to amuse us with tricksy analogies. It is a real precision of imagining, conveyed with a real precision of language. It is this extra ability, which Chandler can turn on at will, which makes his work real art, real literature.

The literary surplus

I braked the car against the kerb and switched the headlights off and sat with my hands on the wheel.

‘and… and… and…’ a sequence of simple physical (male) acts described in chronological order with no colour whatsoever and linked only by ‘and’ was invented by Hemingway to give modern tough-guy prose a kind of Biblical simplicity and force. There is plenty of Hemingway in Chandler and he knows it. But then…

Under the thinning fog the surf curled and creamed, almost without sound, like a thought trying to form itself on the edge of consciousness. (Ch 23)

The poetic, the lyrical side of Chandler’s sensibility is mostly reined in, constrained into stylised similes and tough-guy patois. But here we see it exposed and, therefore, more vulnerable.

Dark silent mystified eyes stared at me solemnly, the doubt growing larger in them, creeping into them noiselessly, like a cat in long grass stalking a blackbird. (Ch 24)

This is repetition, but not and… and.. and repetition. This is repetition with variation of phrasing (‘…growing larger in them, creeping into them…’) which is shading a thought or perception, which takes the reader into the process of thought, her dawning thought and the narrator’s growing perception. It is very far from the definitive thing, the finished smart-arse remark, the Wildean apothegm, served up on a plate for which Chandler is famous:

His mouth drooped open and his cigarette hung to a corner of it by some magic, as if it had grown there. (Ch 25)

As the book progresses these more vulnerable poetic moments occur more often.

The windshield wiper could hardly keep the glass clear enough to see through. But not even the drenched darkness could hide the flawless lines of the orange trees wheeling away like endless spokes into the night. (Ch 27)

Wow. Marlowe comes round after being poleaxed and tied up by Canino, to find himself tended by Agnes Lozelle:

‘What time is it?’ I asked
She looked sideways at her wrist, beyond the spiral of smoke, at the edge of the grave lustre of the lamplight.

‘Grave lustre’. Or the moment when Marlowe enters the silent office to discover Harry Jones’s corpse:

A tramcar bell clanged at an almost infinite distance and the sound came buffeted by innumerable walls.

Something very 20th century, very Kafka, very urban alienation, is created with a handful of words. And yet how rich and poetic each phrase is: clanged… almost infinite distance. The microsecond lingering which reading ‘innumerable’ requires reminded me of the lushest of lush poets, Tennyson:

Sweeter thy voice, but every sound is sweet;
Myriads of rivulets hurrying thro’ the lawn,
The moan of doves in immemorial elms,
And murmuring of innumerable bees.

Can it be that there is poetry in this prose?

An old man dozed in the elevator, on a ramshackle stool, with a burst-out cushion under him. His mouth was open, his veined temples glistened in the weak light. He wore a blue uniform coat that fitted him the way a stall fits a horse. Under the grey trousers with frayed cuffs, white cotton socks and black kid shoes, one of which was slit across a bunion. On the stool he slept miserably, waiting for a customer. (Ch 26)

Burst-out is the kind of liberty-taking with the language which the Americans have been doing for a century or more with their much bigger population and diversity of dictions. Weak light is functional but poetic also. A stall fits a horse is a wise-guy, pulp simile. By the time I got to slit across a bunion I am pausing because there is real compassion here. Isn’t Marlowe a super-tough guy, inured to sex and death and old losers. But here an old guy on his uppers is evoking compassion. And then:

On the stool he slept miserably, waiting for a customer.

This is far from the Hemingway heritage. This reminds me of Joyce, the Joyce of Dubliners where every sentence is weighed and balanced, and the moving of one adverb creates a slightly alien, alerted meaning. ‘On the stool’ should come after the verb phrase, not before (though even in the right place it would read oddly). Placing it before makes ‘miserably’ conspicuous, foregrounds the sentiment, instead of burying it as hard-boiled is meant to, brings out the feeling, the real literary and humane feeling, which underlies everything in the book.

What an artist!


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