Tag Archives: double indemnity

PULP in Print: Raymond Chandler’s “The High Window”

18 Jan


Heigho. I think I’ll write an English detective story, one about Superintendent Jones and the two elderly sisters in the thatched cottage, something with Latin in it and music and period furniture and a gentleman’s gentleman: above all, one of those books where everybody goes for nice long walks.
~ A letter to Blanche Knopf, Oct. 1942

Although Raymond Chandler’s The High Window did not quite turn into a stately, tea-sipping, country house mystery, it is in many ways his most straightforward novel. There are no loose ends, unlike The Big Sleep; and there are far fewer complications than in its follow-up, Farewell, My Lovely. In the end, he believed that people would think it his worst book. All we know is that PULPable is happy to have a 1942 edition of The High Window on our bookshelves.

"The High Window" (1942)

We have previously waxed lyrical about the Brattle Book Shop (where we found both The Big Sleep and Farewell, My Lovely), but Chandler’s third novel made its way to us via Etsy user Rabitty and via Darby O’Shea. It is somehow fitting that it was found at an estate sale.

Originally, Chandler envisioned the book as “The Brasher Doubloon”, named for the rare and valuable coin of the same name which we discover has been stolen from its wealthy owner, perhaps by a wayward family member. Philip Marlowe is hired to track down the culprit, and in the course of the novel, he runs into gangsters, moneylenders and murderers.

Plagued by anxiety and alcoholism, Chandler was deeply depressed when he began work on The High Window. He wrote to his publishers, Blanche and Alfred Knopf, in March of 1942:

I’m afraid the book is not going to be any good to you. No action, no likeable characters, no nothing. The detective does nothing. […] The thing that rather gets me down is that when I write something that is tough and fast and full of mayhem, I get panned for being tough and fast and full of mayhem, and then when I try to tone down a bit and develop the mental and emotional side of a situation, I get panned for leaving out what I was panned for putting in the first time. […] From now on, if I make mistakes, as no doubt I shall, they will not be made in a futile attempt to avoid making mistakes.

He nevertheless liked the full package once the book had been published. With the exception of the author photograph that graced the back cover, Chandler approved of the new typeface, and of the cover design, which featured both the scales of justice and the doubloon itself.

The inside back cover. Note the author photo Chandler so disliked, and the terrible blurb.

The High Window was very much the beginning of Chandler’s career as a commercial artist. Shortly after the book’s publication in 1942, he was approached to work on the screenplay for a Billy Wilder movie, Double Indemnity – based on a James M. Cain story – which in turn led to writing credits on The Blue Dahlia and Alfred Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train. But Chandler was no fan of Cain’s:

I hope the day will come when I won’t have to ride around on Hammett and James Cain, like an organ grinder’s monkey. Hammett is all right. I give him everything. There were a lot of things he could not do, but what he did he did superbly. But James Cain – faugh! Everything he touches smells like a billygoat. He is every kind of writer I detest, a faux naif, a Proust in greasy overalls […] Hemingway with his eternal sleeping bag got to be pretty damn tiresome, but at least Hemingway sees it all, not just flies on the garbage can.

Nonetheless, Cain’s novella brought Chandler financial and commercial success, and – even better – it pointed Hollywood in his direction. By 1946, Bogart and Bacall brought Philip Marlowe to life in the film adaptation of The Big Sleep, and soon there were more Marlowes than you can shake a stick at, including 1947’s The Brasher Doubloon, which used the plot of The High Window alongside Chandler’s original title.

But what sticks with you after you finish Chandler’s third novel is not the tight plot or the acid-sharp similes. It is the wry tone of a writer who is having a good time with his genre, to the extent that he can poke fun at the ridiculous world of PIs, film noir, and Angeleno gangsters that he had helped to create. One character is “the fellow for whom they coined the term ‘ignorant as an actor’.” And there are more self-aware nods peppered throughout the book.

The man in the black shirt and yellow scarf was sneering at me over the New Republic.
“You ought to lay off the fluff and get your teeth into something solid, like a pulp magazine,” I told him, just to be friendly.
I went on out. Behind me someone said: “Hollywood’s full of them.”

Later, Marlowe even references dialogue that his soon-to-be Hollywood counterpart Humphrey Bogart uttered in Casablanca: “Skip it. I know it. Marlowe knows everything—except how to make a decent living. It doesn’t amount to beans.” Reading Chandler’s letters and articles, it’s difficult not to think that he considered movies an indecent living. But this didn’t stop him from making a small, uncredited cameo in Double Indemnity, reproduced here for film noir buffs and those of you who made it this far.

Chandler was right: The High Window isn’t his best. Nor is it his worst. But it is a book that is a lot of fun, and one that includes a mystery that runs logically from point A to point B. In that way, if in no other, it was as close to an English detective story as Raymond Chandler would ever get.

DLR, 01.18.11