Thursday, December 3, 2009

Down the mean streats a man must go who is not himself mean.

The High Window, by Raymond Chandler

Raymond Chandler didn't invent the hard-boiled genre, but he did it better than anyone except (arguably) Dashiell Hammett.

His career as a writer started--as so many of the best hard-boiled writers did--working for Black Mask magazine. But unlike most of the best writers in the pulp era, he wasn't prolific enough to make a living doing short stories. So he began to concentrate on novels. In 1939, he cannibalized the plots of several of his stories, melded his various protagonists into wisecracking P.I. Philip Marlowe, and produced the superb novel The Big Sleep. It was the first of a series of wonderful, evocotive books in which Chandler repeatedly proved himself to be a master of the English language.

Chandler was always more concerned with character and theme than with plot. To be honest, that's why I prefer Hammett over Chandler--if only slightly. Both men would often construct stories with complex plots, but Hammett always managed to tie up all the loose threads in time for the climax. Chandler, on the other hand, almost always left a thread or two dangling.

But this is a matter of pure personal preference on my part. It's unfair to seriously criticize Chandler for considering his plots to be of secondary importance. He knew exactly what he was doing. He knew that what was most imporant was the image of a tough but good man who maintains his personal integrety no matter how much corruption bubbles up around him. Philip Marlowe is a modern knight-in-armor. Not shining armor, perhaps--there are too many whiskey and tobacco stains for that. But he's a knight all the same.

He is, in fact, the perfect example of what makes the hard-boiled genre so valuable. It's a literary form that is inherently cynical about human nature and human society. But the best hard-boiled stories balance this out by reminding us that there are men and women in the world who still live by their word and maintain a viable code of ethics.

In The High Window (1942), Marlowe is hired to recover a rare coin that's been stolen by an errant member of a rich family. Not surprisingly, the case soon expands outward to include jealously, unfaithful spouses, greed and (of course) murder.

Marlowe slogs through it all until he finally gets to the truth, sifting through a cesspool of lies and half-truths along the way. But in the end, we see that Marlowe--tough guy that he is--will always act with compassion and honor as he chooses to look after the welfare of one of the few more-or-less innocent persons he encounters.

The High Window is the only one of the first four Marlowe novels that was plotted out in advance by Chandler as a self-contained story--the others all made use of plot elements cobbled together from Chandler's short stories. Because of this, it's more tightly plotted than the other novels--though one can also argue it's more formulaic.

But it's still a fast-paced, atmospheric tale. However loose or tight his novels were in terms of plot, Chandler's prose is always a joy to read. His ability to use a few sharply worded sentences to both advance the plot and capture the essence of a scene or character never ceases to amaze me. Take these two sentences, for instance, describing a former showgirl who's caught herself a rich husband:

"From thirty feet away she looked like a lot of class. From ten feet away, she looked like something made up to be seen from thirty feet away."

It's crisp and funny; it literally begs to be read aloud; and it gives us a perfect sense of the character. Chandler was always doing stuff like that. It's why he still remains virtually unmatched as a writer.

Next month, we'll visit with mystery writer Ellery Queen as he solves The Dutch Shoe Mystery.

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