The Thin Man by Dashiell Hammett (1934)

‘I don’t believe it,’ she said. ‘You made it up. There aren’t any people like that. What’s the matter with them? Are they the first of a new race of monsters?’
‘I just tell you what happens; I don’t explain it.’ (p.100)

After four novels of hard-faced no-nonsense brutality and cunning (as well as the fifty or so short stories he wrote from 1922 to 34 or so) who’d have expected Hammett’s fifth (and final) novel would be a comedy, and a genuinely funny one at that. It’s a return to the first person narrator (as in Red Harvest and The Dain Curse) but transformed into the voice and character of Nick Charles who is an affable forty-one year-old ex-detective who lazes round in top hotels on the money of his charming and loaded wife, Nora, going to parties and drinking almost continually.

He is reluctantly dragged back into the detective business when the daughter of a former client turns up (Dorothy Wynant), helplessly drunk, her mother (Mimi) is revealed as a violent hysteric, her stepfather (Jorgensen) tries to hit on her and the aforementioned client (eccentric inventor Howard Wynant) is implicated in shooting his secretary (Julia Wolf) to death and, to cap it all, a hoodlum sent by a former client, bursts in to their luxury hotel room and tries to shoot him. It’s the she secretary shooting that becomes the core of a standard murder mystery.

Whodunnit? Nick has to find out and the text consists of decreasing amount of action and increasing amounts of theory-spinning as all the characters behave suspiciously while weaving complicated theories implicating each other. The plot itself is relatively simple but the theory spinning eventually becomes rather tiresome. But it’s not the plot, it’s the nonchalant savoir faire and humorous banter, particularly between Nick and Nora, which make this a genuinely amusing read.

Nora screwed up her dark eyes at me and asked slowly: ‘What are you holding out on me?’
‘Oh dear,’ I said, ‘I was hoping I wouldn’t have to tell you. Dorothy is really my daughter. I didn’t know what I was doing, Nora. It was spring in Venice and I was so young and there was a moon over the – ‘
‘Be funny. Don’t you want something to eat?’ (Penguin 1961 paperback edition, p.18)

Hammett uses the same approach as the previous novels ie little or no direct access to the characters’ thoughts instead deploying predominantly dialogue or the description of externals – rooms, clothes, appearances, facial expressions. But whereas in the predecessors the dialogue was hard-edged and designed to show the characters’ alienation from each other, indifference to each other, here the tone – even if venturing for spells into tough guy stuff with cops or crims – always returns to the comfy banter between the married couple at the heart of it, or to Nick’s deadpan jokiness.

So far I had known just where I stood on the Wolf-Wynant-Jorgensen troubles and what I was doing – the answers were, respectively, nowhere and nothing. (p.28)

The confidante

It is just so damned handy to have a partner or confidente, someone the protagonist-hero-detective can share his thinking with, who can pick him up and dust him down and encourage and support. A sidekick, someone to spar with. Don Quixote had his Sancho Panza, Holmes has Watson; pairing wise guy Nick who knows his way round the underworld with smart socialite Nora, for whom the dark underbelly is a revelation, is a clever manouevre. Violence or plot twists which just seems random and therefore alienating in Falcon and Key, can here be situated and contextualised by being explained to Nora. Even if there isn’t an exact explanation – at least we know there isn’t an exact explanation, instead of being puzzled by random and often brutal violence as we often were in the previous novels.

Nora was wide-eyed and amazed. ‘It’s a madhouse,’ she said. ‘What’d they do that for?’
‘You know as much about it as I do,’ I told her…
‘Listen, you’ve got to tell me what happened – everything. Not now, tomorrow. I don’t understand a thing that was said or a thing that was done.’ (pp.118-119)

Movie versions

When it’s not disappearing into more and more complicated theory-spinning, The Thin Man has the feel of the wisecracking movies of the period, all fix-me-another-drink-dahling. It comes as no surprise to discover it was not only made into a movie starring William Powell and Myrna Loy (1934) but that the movie was so popular it spawned no fewer than five sequels which were appearing well into the 1940s.

American boozing

Part of the humour – or the humorous backdrop to the comedy – is the couple’s continuous and compulsive drinking, partying and eating out. Reminds me of F Scott Fitzgerald.

‘My nice policeman wants to see you,’ she said. ‘How do you feel?’
‘Terrible. I must have gone to bed sober.’ (p.47)

‘Where’d you get the skinful?’
‘It’s Alice. She’s been sulking for a week. If I didn’t drink I’d go crazy.’
‘What’s she sulking about?’
‘About my drinking.’ (p.104)

‘How about a drop of something to cut the phlegm?’
‘Why don’t you stay sober today?’
‘We didn’t come to New York to stay sober.’ (p.143)

Must have been an incongruous vibe during the depths of the Depression to be putting out fictions about humongously rich people leading boozy lifestyles, parties, opening nights, jazz… Then again, taken as a consumer product, this novel is more like the fantasies of Hollywood which were at their most silken and sparkly when the Depression was at its bleakest. Entertainment. Distraction. Fantasy.

She laughed… ‘Still want to leave for San Francisco tomorrow?’
‘Not unless you’re in a hurry. Let’s stick around for a while. This excitement has put us behind in our drink.’ (p.189)

The Thin Man

Turns out the missing scientist they’re all looking for, who remains elusive despite his phone calls, letters and fleeting visits: he was always very tall and thin but Nick is the first to realise he’s dead.

‘What was that joke about a guy being so thin he had to stand in the same place twice to throw a shadow?’
I laughed – not at the joke – and said: ‘Wynant’s not that thin, but he’s thin enough, say as thin as the paper in that cheque and in this letters people have been getting.’
‘What’s that Guild demanded, his face reddening, his eyes angry and suspicious.
‘He’s dead. He’s been dead a long time except on paper.’ (p.179)

Songs mentioned in the text

“Though her life was merry (though her life was merry)
She had savoir-ferry (lots of savoir-ferry)”

Related link

Stylish Penguin paperback cover of The Thin Man

Stylish Penguin paperback cover of The Thin Man

The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett (1930)

‘You’re good. You’re very good. It’s chiefly your eyes, I think, and that throb you get into your voice when you say things like, “Be generous, Mr Spade.”‘ (p.404)

He stood beside the fireplace and looked at her with eyes that studied, weighed, judged her without pretence that they were not studying, weighing, judging her. (p.421)

Like its two predecessors, Hammett’s third novel The Maltese Falcon was originally serialised in the pulp magazine Black Mask (between September 1929 and January 1930) before being published as a one-volume novel later the same year. Unlike its two predecessors it doesn’t feature the unnamed Continental Operative as detective-hero, instead introducing Sam Spade.

Third person

The Continental Op stories are told in the first person. We overhear the Op thinking through his cases or explaining that he’s putting on this or that facial expression for his interlocutors, we watch him figuring out, guessing, taking a punt, speculating.

In contrast, the Falcon is told in the third person and this makes a real difference. We are on the outside and Hammett doesn’t give us any of the characters’ thoughts. Instead we get much more detailed descriptions of their faces and expressions and eyes than in the earlier books. Lots more. And we have to figure things out for ourselves.

For example, in the second part of the second chapter, ‘Death in the fog’, the police lieutenant, Dundy, and the detective, Tom, make an unwanted call on Spade’s apartment at 4 in the morning to push him about his partner’s murder. If it had been the first-person Continental Op we’d have been overhearing all his thoughts and calculations. But it’s in the third person so all we get is dialogue, the disposition of bodies and detailed descriptions of faces, as the two men try to outplay each other.

This approach allows much more scope for our interpretation of what’s going on, more scope for ambiguity and uncertainty, making it a much more complex and stimulating read. I’ve read comments praising Hammett’s dialogue but it’s more than a question of dialogue alone, it’s the sentences which describe the facial expressions around the dialogue which give it its power. It’s like a rally in tennis or a ballet. Thus:

The Lieutenant looked at his glass for a dozen seconds, took a very small sip of its contents, and put the glass on the table at his elbow. He examined the room with hard deliberate eyes, and then looked at Tom… Tom moved uncomfortably on the sofa and, not looking up, asked… The Lieutenant put his hands on his knees and leant forward. His greenish eyes were fixed on Spade in a peculiarly rigid stare, as if their focus were a matter of mechanics, to be changed only by pulling a lever or pressing a button… Spade smiled and waved his empty glass a little… ‘What do you want, Dundy?’ he asked in a voice hard and cold as his eyes. Lieutenant Dundy’s eyes had moved to maintain their focus on Spade’s. Only his eyes had moved… Spade made a depreciative mouth, raising his eyebrows… He stopped smiling. His upper lip, on the left side, twitched over his eyetooth. His eyes became narrow and sultry… Placidity came back to Spade’s face and voice… Lieutenant Dundy sat down and put his hands on his knees again. His eyes were warm green discs… He smiled with grim content… The wariness went out of Spade’s eyes. He made his eyes dull with boredom. He turned his face round to Tom and asked with great carelessness… Spade nodded. His face was stupid in its calmness… ‘I know where I stand now,’ he said, looking with friendly eyes from one of the police detectives to the other… Spade looked at him and smiled, holding the finished cigarette in one hand… Dundy looked with hard green eyes at Spade and did not answer him… Spade looked at the Lieutenant with yellow-grey eyes that held an almost exaggerated amount of candour… ‘We’ve asked what we came to ask,’ Dundy said, frowning over eyes hard as green pebbles… (Picador Four Great Novels edition pp.388-393)

Having a third person narrator, being on the outside of the characters and limiting himself to only reporting, in detail, the changes in their faces, expressions and eyes, paradoxically makes Falcon a much more psychological novel. Whereas the Op told us what he was thinking and when he was lying, here we have to piece it together from the outside, only from what Hammett shows us, which gives the whole text a much greater sense of psychological depth.

The merits of the respective plots play a part (Falcon is just a much better story), but I think it’s also the new-found depth derived from this approach which make the Falcon so much more appealing, more read, better known and more frequently filmed (three times) than the first two novels.

More literary?

In Harvest and Dain a lot of the reader’s effort went into, was designed to go into, trying to figure out the complexities of the plot and the characters’ motivations, before – that is – they were laid bare by the narrator in the concluding, Wind-Up chapter (in the classic detective novel style). This put them towards the pulp, genre end of the spectrum, with its focus on outlandishly complex plot machinations.

Here there is still a lot of plot, but the interest has shifted to trying to suss out the characters moment by moment in scenes which are written with much more interest in the detail of moment by moment flickers of emotion, feeling, intelligence over faces described only from the outside. Sure there’s an overarching crime plot – but there’s a lot more going on in each individual scene, a lot more portrayal of mood and personality and psychology. And this puts Falcon towards the literature end of the spectrum.

The eyes have it

I wrote a long post about the importance of eye imagery in Raymond Chandler’s novels. The same conclusions are true of this novel. Deprived of information from a first person narrator or the knowledge that comes from free indirect speech (where the text depicts the character’s thoughts as if reported by a narrator; Greene uses it all the time) we are put in the same position as the characters, having to suss out the other’s motivation from their facial expressions alone, of which the most acute and revealing facet is the expression around the eyes – smiling, hard, crying, cruel, cold etc.

So, chapter four describes Spade’s visit to Mrs Wonderley aka Brigid O’Shaughnessy who slowly reveals a bit more of the secret, and their sparring is depicted in the dialogue, of course, but also in their facial expressions and particularly in the state of their eyes.

His smile brought a fainter smile to her face… Her eyes, of blue that walmost violet, did not lose their troubled look… Spade smiled a polite smile which she did not lift her eyes to see… she stammered, and looked up at him now with miserable frightened eyes… Perplexity was added to the misery and fright in her eyes… Her eyes suddenly lighted up… Her face had become haggard around desperate eyes… She squirmed on her end of the settee and her eyes wavered between heavy lashes, as if trying and failing to free their gaze from his… (pp.401-403)

The same happens at every dialogue, that is throughout the book, on almost every page: the play of facial expressions and especially the state of the eyes reveals/conceals just as much as the spoken words. There was less in the first two books because there was so much action, shooting and blasting.

  • Sam Spade: yellow-grey eyes (p.408) ‘His eyes were shiny in a wooden satan’s face.’ (p.423)
  • Effie Perine: brown eyes (p.396)
  • Brigid O’Shaughnessy: cobalt-blue eyes (p.375) ‘Her eyes were cobalt-blue prayers.’ (p.423)
  • Lieutenant Dundy: hard green eyes (p.392)
  • Casper Gutman: dark and sleek (p.466) ‘The fat man’s eyes were dark gleams in ambush behind pink puffs of flesh.’ (p.469)
  • Joel Cairo: black eyes (p.538)
  • Wilmer Cook: small hazel eyes (p.456) ‘The boy’s eyes were cold hazel gleams under his lashes.’ (p.534)
  • Luke the hotel detective: crafty brown eyes (p.457)

Spade is sexy

The Continental Op emphasised to twenty-year-old Gabrielle Leggett that he was old, middle-aged, forty, and past making a pass at her. He is very close to Dinah Bird in Harvest but never makes a move on her or even contemplates it for a second.

By contrast Sam Spade is sexy, looking ‘rather pleasantly like a blond satan’. He is the regulation six foot tall and

  • he has a comfortably flirtatious relationship with his secretary
  • he has been having an affair with his partner’s wife
  • he handles Miss O’Shaughnessy’s passes at him with savoir faire until he decides to go ahead and sleep with her
  • he pats the secretary at the hotel’s shoulder in a calm confident way

He is portrayed as knowing his way around women, how to manage and handle women, in a way the Op couldn’t. He has a free, easy and confident way with women as with men, as with life. However, he himself says there is a problem with his attitude which is that he only really knows how to flirt with women, implying he doesn’t know how to treat them as just people; whether his Miss Moneypenny-ish relationship with his secretary Effie proves or disproves this is open to debate.

If you were to indict him, central would be the way he betrays Brigid after sleeping with her (and making her strip naked in his apartment to search her) – though he has by that time established that she shot his partner dead in cold blood. And then there’s his shabby treatment of his partner’s widow, Iva – though that seems realistically messy. Nobody’s claiming he’s a saint.

From the outside

Over the course of the novel it becomes very striking how deliberately Hammett describes all the humans in it from the outside as if they’re robots. He describes their movements as if observing animals, pedantically noting every move and flicker. This has a very unsettling effect. Take this, Spade furtively unlocking his office door in case there are intruders inside:

He put his hand to the knob and turned it with care that permitted neither rattle nor click. He turned the knob until it would turn no further; the door was locked. Holding the knob still, he changed hands, taking it now in his left hand. With his right hand he brought his keys out of his pocket, carefully, so they could not jingle against one another. He separated the office key from the others and, smothering the others together in his palm, inserted the office key in the lock. The insertion was soundless. He balanced himself on the balls of his feet, filled his lungs, clicked the door open, and went in. (p.490)

Maybe it’s meant to be building up tension, but the basic idea – he unlocked the door carefully – needn’t have been described this meticulously nor stretched out to this length. Why do it? For the immediacy? To make the reader feel like they’re watching every minute movement? And the same technique is applied to scenes with no tension, when he’s kissing Brigid or rolling a cigarette or sitting on a chair. All described in pedantic and very externalised detail.

If the above is a description of a purely physical act, the following is a small example of what happens in almost every dialogue ie Hammett not only records the words spoken, but describes in minute detail the physical behaviour of each of the participants.

 Spade said, ‘Yes,’ very lazily. His face was sombre. He touched his lower lip with a finger, looked at the finger, and then scratched the back of his neck with it. Little irritable lines had appeared in his forehead. He blew his breath out heavily through his nose and his voice was an ill-humoured growl. ‘You wouldn’t want the kind of information I could give you, Bryan.’ (p.506)

Vocabulary

There’s two or three slang terms in the novel (‘fog’ = kill p.537) but the switch to the third person has allowed Hammett to drop a lot of the patois which the Continental Op used in his racy narration. The slang now only occurs in the dialogue of the characters. Something that stands out on a handful of occasions is Hammett’s use of unusually formal, technical and Latinate vocabulary. It’s as if he wanted to distance himself from his pulp milieu, or was experimenting with a more detached vocabulary, complimenting the more detached, external, objective style of description mentioed above.

  • an ellipsoid p.513
  • incoordinate steps p.518
  • in her mien was pride p.551

Related links

Edition of Black Mask magazine containing the first instalment of The Maltese Falcon

Cover of the September 1929 edition of Black Mask magazine containing the first instalment of The Maltese Falcon

Hammett’s five novels

  • Red Harvest (February 1, 1929) The unnamed operative of the Continental Detective Agency uncovers a web of corruption in Personville. There’s a lot of violence, shoot-outs on almost every page, plus the individual murders.
  • The Dain Curse (July 19, 1929) The Continental Op is dragged into three episodes involving members of the Dain family: first the French ex-con posing as Dr Leggett is murdered and his wife shot; then the daughter Gabrielle involved in murders at a weird cult; then the husband who has loved her all along is killed and, while the Op is detoxing the morphine addict, the truth of the long sorry saga is revealed.
  • The Maltese Falcon (February 14, 1930) Drastically different in feel from the previous two murder-fests and told in the third person: detective Sam Spade solves the mystery of three murders surrounding a mysterious jewel-encrusted medieval statuette, and deals with the colourful trio of crooks who are prepared to kill for it: Brigid O’Shaughnessy, Joel Cairo and Casper Gutman.
  • The Glass Key (April 24, 1931)
  • The Thin Man (January 8, 1934)

The Dain Curse by Dashiell Hammett (1929)

‘You’ve got a flighty mind. That’s no good in this business. You don’t catch murderers by amusing yourself with interesting thoughts. You’ve got to sit down to all the facts you can get and turn them over and over till they click.’ (p.320)

In retrospect Red Harvest seems a rather delirious fantasy: an entire town populated only by rival gangs of gangsters and their molls and armies, set at loggerheads and wiping each other out in a mounting frenzy of violence. More parable than fiction. The red in the harvest is a harvest of blood; almost everyone dies, should have been titled The Slaughterhouse.

The Dain Curse starts out much more restrained and sober, as a traditional crime story: research scientist Leggett has borrowed some diamonds from a merchant because he thinks he might be able to improve the look and appearance of sub-standard stones. One night they are stolen. The Continental Detective Agency is asked to investigate by the insurance company and our friend, the Continental Op, is assigned the case. We find him rooting through grass outside the burgled house then interviewing various witnesses and suspects. Routine detective work. Only slowly does it, also, unravel into a murder fest…

A back story

Early on we discover Leggett is not at all who he pretends: he commits suicide and leaves a long and improbably detailed account of his improbably colourful life of crime in remote foreign lands – reminiscent of the way the Sherlock Holmes novels rely on long back stories in India (The Sign of Four, 1890) or among the Mormons (Study In Scarlet, 1887) or Buchan will rely on the long-past vow which lights the action in the final Richard Hannay adventure, The Island of Sheep (1936). But maybe the suicide note is not all it seems… and so on…

A partner

It’s just so convenient to have a partner, someone to deploy on missions when you can’t do everything yourself, to act as dummy or decoy but above all, someone to discuss the case with while it’s in mid-stream – and someone to mull over the loose ends with when it’s over, and who can make sense of it all for the reader.

Dr Watson is the archetpye because he fulfils all these roles so well. the Op was able to confide in Dinah Brand in Red Harvest, until, that is, he woke up holding the domestic ice pick which was embedded in her dead chest. In this one the Op conveniently runs into his old mucker the novelist Owen Fitzstephan who helps out with a few minor errands but whose real purpose is the epilogue chapter at the end of each of the three parts, where they sit and piece together what happened and why, for our edification. Until Fitzstephan himself becomes part of the story…

Three parts

The text is divided into three parts, each one dealing with a cluster of deaths and the rather far-fetched explanations which are concocted to account for them:

  • The Dains A few bodies turn up before Leggett is found dead with a note. In an extended revelation scene the Op moves through several theories of who did what to arrive at a sort of truth, that the current Mrs Leggett is one of two Dain sisters who, back in Paris, before the War, were in love with Maurice Pierre de Mayenne. He married the other sister, already pregnant with the daughter Gabrielle. The current Mrs elaborately arranges for the little girl to shoot dead her mother; Leggett takes the rap and goes to Devil’s Island until he manages ot escape and works his way to California and a new identity; the current Mrs brings up Gabrielle, tracks Mr L down, surprises him by arriving on his doorstep then, when Mrs L kills not one but 2 private dicks she’s hired to track him down but were now blackmailing her, she a) kills them both b) persuades Mr L to shoot himself (!). At which point she makes a break for the stairs, is tackled by the Op and Gabrielle’s thick hunky boyfriend Collinson, and in the scuffle, guess what, the gun goes off and she is dead. Among the many facts and fictions thrown around during this mayhem, Mrs Leggatt née Lucy Dain, says there is a Curse on all the Dain family; which now amounts to young Gabrielle.
  • The Temple Ten days later the Op is called off another job by the family lawyer who is uneasy that Gabrielle has insisted on going to stay at the San Fran headquarters of a religious sect. The Op is installed there, with the sect owners’ agreement, but that night all hell breaks loose. The Op is drugged by dope fed into his room by secret pipes, encounters a weird physical illusion, bumps into Gabrielle almost naked holding a blood-stained ornamental knife (see illustration, below) saying ‘I killed him’, finds the famiy doctor stabbed to death by said knife on the religion’s ‘altar’, returns to find Collinson and Gabrielle gone, goes into the servant girl’s room and is overcome with fumes again, then attacked, then nearly knifed, then clubbed, then rushes back down to the altar to find the doctor gone and the lady of the house & cult (Mrs Haldorn) tied up on the altar and her husband, Joseph, having chosen that night of all nights to go beyond the cult they’d cooked up with theatrical robes, hypnotism and dope fed into the followers’ rooms, purely to make money, but on this night he’s finally flipped, thinks he genuinely is God, and is about to sacrifice her on the altar; the Op has to shoot him six times and then stab him through the throat to kill him. Then the Op and Owen the novelist have another session piecing it all together.
  • Quesada the Op is called off another case (again) by an urgent cable from Eric Collinson who has hurriedly married Gabrielle and spirited her off to a secluded cottage in Quesada, rural California. He finds Eric’s body fallen off a clifftop path. A lot then happens. there are car chases and car smashes. The sheriff’s wife is doscovered to be unfaithful to him with another police official, tells our guys her husband did it, but is then discovered murdered, we go out in a small boat round hidden coves round the coast where a bad guy is discovered who has kidnapped Gabrielle but is shot down before he can reveal who put him up to it… A small bomb goes off in the Op’s apartment, injuring him, the crim who brought it, and mangling to a pulp his friend the novelist. The main thrust of this section is the Op helps Gabrielle go cold turkey to get over her morphine addiction, and manages to protect her from potential killers, including Mrs Haldorn from the cult, the Mexican maid with the knife, the crooked lawyer who tried it on with her once, and Fink, the helpmeet at the cult who made and placed the bomb. Quite a few more people get killed before the Op/narrator explains it in a detailed 7 or 8 page finale, packed with detailed explanations of everyone’s outlandish motivations and wildly improbable schemes, which caused so much death and, in the end, changed so little. Gabrielle walks clean and free – there is a Happy Ending.

Four short stories

In fact, as with Red Harvest this ‘novel’ started life as four connected stories in the ‘pulp’ magazine, Black Mask. Seperate short stories, or a conscious novel published in the serial method which dates back to Dickens and beyond?

  • Black Lives’ (November 1928)
  • ‘The Hollow Temple’ (December 1928)
  • Black Honeymoon’ (January 1929)
  • ‘Black Riddle’ (February 1929)

The Continental Op

Striking that the protagonist of these stories is described as short and stocky:

  • ‘He was a man past forty, I should say, rather short and broad – somewhat of your build… ‘ …’ (Picador Four Great Novels edition, p.197)
  • five foot six (p.223)
  • ‘a middle-aged fat man’ (p.284)

Compared with the tall, dark, handsome strangers Sam Spade ‘quite six feet tall’, Philip Marlowe ‘slightly over six feet’, Sherlock Holmes ‘rather over six feet’ etc etc.

Fast

As I noticed in Greenmantle (1916), almost as soon as the motor car had been invented it was getting stolen, hijacked, caught up in high speed pursuits, presumably acting out our unconscious desires for speed and flight and brainless excitement.

He had a Chrysler roadster parked around the corner. We got into it and began bucking traffic and traffic signals towards Pacific Avenue. (p.222)

This ride ends, as any traffic policeman might have predicted, in a bad crash where all the cars’ occupants are injured. Bit more realistic than Harvest in which there are innumerable car chases and high speed shootouts.

Underworld slang

Similarly, now I come to look for it, there is less underworld slang and thieves argot in Hammett than you might expect.

  • dinge = black person
  • dark meat = black person
  • rats and mice = rhyming slang for dice
  • the nut = earnings, income
  • a gallon of the white = alcohol
  • chive = knife
  • heap = car

Style

In this novel the prose is less crunched and abbreviated than in Harvest, maybe because that one was set in a rather comic-book way among hard-talking gangsters, and this one is set among the more civilised professional classes starting with Dr Leggett the scientist, taking in the upper-class devotees of the Temple and including the Op’s pal, the novelist: all very literate and civilised types.

He takes a while to do detailed, rather laborious descriptions of characters. Chandler, Greene or Deighton would have nailed the following character in a few lines. Hammett is surprisingly verbose.

[Edgar Leggett] was a dark-skinned erect man in his middle forties, muscularly slender and of medium height. He would have been handsome if his brown face hadn’t been so deeply marked with sharp, hard lines across the forehead and from nostrils down across mouth-corners. Dark hair, worn rather long, curled above and around the broad, grooved forehead. Red-brown eyes were abnormally bright behind horn-rimmed spectacles. His nose was long, thin, and high-bridged. His lips were thin, sharp, nimble, over a small, bony chin. His black and white clothes were well made and cared for. (p.196)

There are occasional outbursts of jazzy prose, some smart-alec sentences, but not much. A dozen or 15 sentences like this out of a 200-page novel. Nowhere near the stylistic jazz and sparkle of Chandler.

We went outside and asked all the people we could find all the questions we could think of. (p.327)

I piled up what facts I had, put some guesses on them, and took a jump from the top of the heap into space. (p.353)

Go get

The Op is sardonic about the pushy District Attorney in Querada, describing him as ‘very conscious of being a go-getter’ (p.306). I was interested to see the Online Dictionary dating this term to 1920-25, making it very new when Hammett used it; though the Etymological Dictionary dates it further back to 1910.

Author’s message

‘Nobody thinks clearly, no matter what they pretend. Thinking’s a dizzy business, a matter of catching as many of those foggy glimpses as you can and fitting them together the best you can. That’s why people hang on so tight to their beliefs and opinions; because, compared to the haphazard way in which they’re arrived at, even the goofiest opinion seems wonderfully clear, sane and self-evident. And if you let it get away from you, then you’ve got to dive back into that foggy muddle to wrangle yourself out another to take its place’ (p.331)

Related links

Saucy cover of the Penguin paperback edition of The Dain Curse

Saucy cover of the Penguin paperback edition of The Dain Curse

Hammett’s five novels

  • Red Harvest (February 1, 1929) The unnamed operative of the Continental Detective Agency uncovers a web of corruption in Personville. There’s a lot of violence, shoot-outs on almost every page, plus the individual murders.
  • The Dain Curse (July 19, 1929) The Continental Op is dragged into three episodes involving members of the Dain family: first the French ex-con posing as Dr Leggett is murdered and his wife shot; then the daughter Gabrielle involved in murders at a weird cult; then the husband who has loved her all along is killed and, while the Op is detoxing the morphine addict, the truth of the long sorry saga is revealed.
  • The Maltese Falcon (February 14, 1930)
  • The Glass Key (April 24, 1931)
  • The Thin Man (January 8, 1934)

Red Harvest by Dashiell Hammett (1929)

People like inside stuff.

Hammett was born in 1894 and had a series of jobs before joining Pinkertons’ Detective Agency. After serving in World War I he returned to the detective business and also began writing short stories for pulp magazines, writing some 50 through the 1920s and into the early 30s. In the later 20s and into the early 30s he wrote the five classic detective novels upon which his reputation rests.

He introduced the character of the Continental Op – an unnamed operative for the fictional Continental Detective Agency (based on the Pinkertons) – in a story for the ‘pulp’ magazine Black Mask magazine in 1923 and went onto write nearly 30 short stories featuring him. After a few years he experimented with writing linked or connected stories. His first novel, Red Harvest, consists of four of these linked short stories, published in four consecutive instalments of Black Mask.

  • Part 1: ‘The Cleansing of Poisonville’, November 1927
  • Part 2: ‘Crime Wanted – Male or Female’, December 1927
  • Part 3: ‘Dynamite’, January 1928
  • Part 4: ‘The 19th Murder’, February 1928

The complete ‘novel’ with its 27 short chapters was published in February 1929.

Mentality

‘People like inside stuff.’ (p.66) They sure do. They like to feel there’s secret levels, hidden depths, concealed meanings, conspiracies, behind our mundane lives. Religion is just another kind of conspiracy theory. Our minds, evolved to suss out our fellow apes’ intentions, overcompensate and find meanings everywhere, anthropomorphise thunderstorms or bumping into doors, making the world full of intentions which aren’t actually there. Freud explained how our fears and drives, twisted and repressed by childhood traumas and social conventions, emerge as bizarre and florid obsessions and neuroses and behaviours. Everyone has them, everyone comes to their own settlement with their animal natures.

A fiction is an artificial self-contained world, a device, for generating complex meaning designed to entertain and gratify our meaning-sense.

There is, obviously, a wide range of styles or genres available to convey that meaning, to please the meaning-sense in our minds, from crack-the-case detective fiction at one edge to esoteric literature at another, fantasy, sci-fi, horror, romance scattered around, with a large lake of more or less plain story-telling in the middle.

Along the way there are countless incidental pleasures to be enjoyed, at innumerable levels: I’ve been there, I recognise that character, oh my God is Batman going to escape? oh my God is Elizabeth ever going to win Mr Darcy? look at those pretty dresses, wow is that how a Walther ppk works – from appreciating the skill of the overall narrative arc down to the level of the way individual sentences are handled; from wonderful description/word painting to  a sequence of snappily handled dialogue; the revelation of new and fascinating insights into human nature, to the vicarious thrills of physical trials and endurances.

Hammett’s novels offer the following fundamental pleasures:

  1. There is a dark violent world of crime beneath our boring everyday world. Ooh.
  2. It is complex, convoluted, a challenge to unpick and understand.
  3. But there is One Man who can unpick and understand it and explain it to us. Our guide through the Underworld, our Virgil. He suffers setbacks, maybe even wounds – to remind us he is human, to make him a better representative of the reader – but he knows everything and he will win. Stick with him, kid.

Plot

In Red Harvest, to feed the crossword and puzzle side of our minds, the plot is agreeably complex, boiling down to a fast-paced web of continually shifting alliances and betrayals.

There’s a detective agency called the Continental Detective Agency. Employees are Continental Operatives or Continental Ops and the (unnamed) narrator is one. He is called to Personville by a newspaper editor. He arranges to meet him that night but the editor is shot in the street. The Protagonist (the Continental Op or CO) discovers the crime and corruption lying behind the suburban streets of Personville. The whole town was created by Elihu Willsson, the archetypal old bed-ridden patriarch. During the Great War there were strikes in factories, the lumberyards etc. Willsson called in some tough guys to sort it out through violence and intimidation. But the tough guys liked the easy pickings and stayed. Willsson brought his son back from skylarking in Paris to run the Personville newspapers with a remit to uncover crime. But his son soon began to discover just how deep Daddy was involved in the badness. The chief of police, Noonan, is corrupt. Willsson Junior’s own wife appears to have been having an affair. The gangsters, including Whisper and his blowsy moll, Dinah Brand, reveal some of the dope, not least because the CO gets Whisper off the Willsson Junior murder rap.

The CO extracts a huge sum from the Old Man in exchange for ‘clearing up Dodge’, er, I mean Personville. After being shot at twice, the CO begins to take it all personally and, when the Old Man tries to call him off, announces he is going to go through with his mission and make this town clean again.

And that’s just the first forty pages or so…

Style

Hammett is famous for inventing the wisecracking detective and, since the tale is told in the first person, this means the wisecracking, street smart narrator. Compared to conventional English English the style and vocabulary are off-the-scale alien. To readers at the time it must have seemed the revelation of a whole new world, where a whole new language was spoken. To a reader in 2014, 85 years after publication, the experience is at several removes: set in a foreign country,  which has its own language, nearly a century ago, there are multiple layers to delve through, to get anywhere close.

So Hammett is credited with inventing the wise-cracking tough guy style – upon the chassis of a the ‘cool’, nothing-flaps-me attitude are built clipped, functional, no-nonsense sentences, larded with a large amount of (presumably) street patois, leading to a uniquely immediate and jazzy affect.

Criminal patois

Makes you feel clever, makes you feel part of the gang, on the inside, in the know:

  • Now I yanked the gun out and snapped a cap at Thaler, trying for his shoulder. (p.97)
  • bull = police officer
  • gat = gun
  • heap = car

Understatement

Combines the puzzle effect (ie can be so clipped you have to pause a moment to work out what’s happening) with tough manliness (ie I’m used to fights, shootouts, sudden death, nothing throws me!).

The grey-moustached detective who had sat beside me in the car carried a red axe. We stepped up on the porch.
Noise and fire came out under a window sill.
The grey-moustached detective fell down, hiding the axe under his corpse. (p.111)

Humour

Crucial ingredient. On one level the entire text is a kind of joke, with its comic book heroes and villains. It’s as plausible as a Jimmy Cagney caper, all wise guys and wide lapels and a steady diet of gags.

He stood at the foot of the bed and looked at me with solemn eyes. I sat on the side of the bed and looked at him with whatever kind of eyes I had at the time. We did this for nearly three minutes. (‘A New Deal’)

Dialogue

Hammett and Chandler are often praised for their snappy dialogue but it’s questionable whether anyone has ever spoken like this.

‘I don’t want to brag about how dumb I am, but this job is plain as astronomy to me. I understand everything about it except what you have done and why, and what you’re trying to do and how.’ (p.108)

It is more than contrived, it is as elaborately stylised, in its way, as Elizabethan blank verse.

Related links

Pulp cover of The red Harvest

Pulp cover of The Red Harvest

Hammett’s five novels

  • Red Harvest (February 1, 1929) The unnamed operative of the Continental Detective Agency uncovers a web of corruption in Personville. There’s a lot of violence, shoot-outs on almost every page, plus individual murders. Strangely, the CO himself says the violent atmosphere of personville has made him go ‘blood-simple’, becoming infatuated with murders and killing.
  • The Dain Curse (July 19, 1929)
  • The Maltese Falcon (February 14, 1930)
  • The Glass Key (April 24, 1931)
  • The Thin Man (January 8, 1934)

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 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 – 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 style is briefer, more pragmatic and focused. It is a lean novel, and this has its own enjoyment, although 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.

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 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, especially to the cops when he really doesn’t need to be. And yet we know 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)

Locations

The same precision of observation that I’ve pointed out in an earlier post on Chandler’s descriptions of rooms and interiors, 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 ‘probably’ weakens the whole sentence. One way to describe it is that in his last few novels Chandler becomes more measure and reasonable, balancing or questioning his own judgement. But it was 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 his style which dominated the first few books, have almost completely disappeared by this last one. These are pretty much the only ones in the 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)

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 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! At its most basic a tragedy has a happy ending and a comedy has a happy ending, no matter what’s gone before, and this astonishing turnup 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, highlighting the ironic, witty humour and confirming my sense that Chandler was a kind of mid-century, American Oscar Wilde.

Related links

Pulp book cover for Playback

Pulp book cover for Playback

The Long Goodbye by Raymond Chandler (1953)

‘I need a drink,’ Spencer said. ‘I need a drink badly.’ (Ch42)

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

Related links

Pulp cover of The Long Goodbye

Pulp cover of The Long Goodbye

The Lady in The Lake by Raymond Chandler (1944)

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

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

Authorial competence

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

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

Seems to me this precision does at least two things:

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

Setting the scenes

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

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

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

Chandler’s descriptions of interiors

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In 1940s Chandler these set-piece descriptions create:

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

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

A Fitzgerald room

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

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

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

The Chandler room

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The consolations of the crime novel

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

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

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

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

Related links

Cover of a pulp version of The Lady in The Lake

Cover of a pulp version of The Lady in The Lake

Pulp images and reality

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

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

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

Related links

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

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 shaping their behaviour to the models 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. (THW Ch 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 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 tough guys he encounters modelling 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 the 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)

The eyes have it

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

Finally, I think I realise how these two prominent themes are interconnected.

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 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, how successfully or not all the other characters 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. 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.

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 Los Angeles the eyes are windows which their owners are doing everything in their power to mask and cover.

But their owners are 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. Eyes, looks and regards become a kind of battlefield of concealment and revelation.

2. Eyes as enquirers into my mind

But of course it works both ways: their eyes not only reveal the inner state of the would-be liar to us (through the eyes of the narrator, Marlowe), they are also the searchlights those third-person liars themselves use to probe our (in this case, Marlowe’s) acts and thoughts. They are not only the means other people use of acting and lying to us; they are also the device those other people use to assess whether we 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 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 C24)

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 a 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 sometimes, of course, he is just showing off, taking 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 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, in fact, the mirror motif is generally associated with tough guy posing. Hell, I look tired. Hell, I’m a jaded tough guy private dick. More acting the part.

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. It’s clear what their function is: to conceal the wearer’s eyes which, in the light of above, is a 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’ ie less open to scrutiny, to having their expression searched and comprehended – and why we feel a little threatened when dealing with people (especially police) wearing shades because, since we can’t ‘read’ their mood or tone in their eyes, we feel adrift, uncertain, wrong-footed. An attitude of invulnerability 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)

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)

‘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)

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 – neutrals or people whose eyes are neither attacking or defending, people who are out of the game. 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)

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.

6. Marginal eyes

And some final minor examples of eye-sensitivity in the texts. They demonstrate that even to achieve small effects, to give snapshots of characters or emotions, for Chandler the state of the 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)

7. Eyes of the dead

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

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.

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. Both are defined by the state of their eyes.

The doctor is so stoned he can’t see, he doesn’t seem able to see ie 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 for 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 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)


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, as if the client’s two eyes just aren’t enough, he must hire another one.

Obviously the main point of the private eye is that its owner is unknown to whoever they’re set on, generally to spy on them. But that reinforces my point: watching, looking, spying, observing and assessing, measuring, judging and interpreting all take place through the eyes and hence any and so, in the Chandler world, all references to eyes become loaded with more-than-usual meaning and significance.


 

Appendix – a lot of examples

a) Eyes in The High Window

All his novels throng with sentences describing the look and action of eyes, ranging from the run of the mill through the contrived to the inspired.

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 wth 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)

PS

And finally, even the eyes of non-humans are, at one light-hearted moment, admitted, assessed and admired – their animal devotion possibly a respite from the endless inquisitor which is the human eye.

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

Pulp cover of The Big Sleep

Pulp cover of The Big Sleep. My, what big vacant eyes the doped-up Carmen Sternwood has!

The High Window by Raymond Chandler (1942)

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

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

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

Tough guys

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

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

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

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

Influence of the movies

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

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

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

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

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

A fallen world

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘A shop-soiled Sir Galahad’

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

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

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

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

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

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

Contemporary slang

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pulpy cover of 'The High Window'

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

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