Tag Archives: noir

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

PULP Paperbacks: “Farewell, My Lovely”, a 1944 edition

12 Dec

He was looking up at the dusty windows with a sort of ecstatic fixity of expression, like a hunky immigrant catching his first sight of the Statue of Liberty. He was a big man but not more than six feet five inches tall and not wider than a beer truck. He was about ten feet away from me. His arms hung loose at his sides and a forgotten cigar smoked behind his enormous fingers. […] Even on Central Avenue, not the quietest dressed street in the world, he looked about as inconspicuous as a tarantula on a slice of angel food.

It’s not hard to see where the cover artist got his inspiration for this pulp paperback classic. We have written before about the marvellous Brattle Book Shop in Boston, and many of its second-hand pulps are now on our office shelves gathering primary colour dust. Just yesterday, we hit the store again, and PULPable picked up this 1944 edition of Raymond Chandler’s Farewell, My Lovely. The artist, credited simply ‘Hoffman’, clearly read at least a few of the sentences above before going to work that day.

Front cover of a 1946 Pocket Books edition of "Farewell, My Lovely"

His second novel, Chandler fought hard for the unusually wistful title. Published by Knopf, the company’s founders Alfred and Blanche Knopf were worried that the name Farewell, My Lovely might, instead of attracting the usual rough-and-tumble reader of detective noir, encourage romance fans to pick up the book.

During writing, Chandler’s working title had been The Second Murderer, but he had dropped the Shakespearean reference in favour of a whimsical ‘farewell’. In a 1940 letter to George Harmon Coxe, he wrote:

I didn’t know it had been announced under that name [The Second Murderer]. When I turned the manuscript in they howled like hell about the title, which is not at all a mystery title, but they gave in. We’ll see.

By October, the book had been published and sales were disappointing. Further, more conciliatory, letters to Blanche Knopf suggest that Chandler felt harried into choosing his title and had received little guidance from her or Alfred. Nevertheless, Farewell stands the test of time, and remains for many people Chandler’s best. Unlike its predecessor, The Big Sleep, it leaves no loose ends to its central mystery; and its other competitor for top noir, The Long Goodbye, can drift a little too close to melancholy and further away from the arch tone that makes his earlier novels so much more fun.

But like the cover artist, Pocket Books’ back-cover blurber must have felt the need to jazz up a slightly whimsical title with some terrible prose:

Beneath the headline “Bad Blood Flows Freely”, we have a poorly punctuated attempt at summarising Chandler’s novel in the style of Chandler.

This is a thrilling story – shockingly realistic – of a world in which viciousness is normal. In it you will find Philip Marlowe, Private Detective, and a rare rogue’s gallery of unbeautiful characters, including: a giant who did not know his own strength; a Negro who ends up with a broken neck; a gin-drinking drab with a fine new radio; a ravishingly beautiful blonde with a rich and sadly tolerant husband, but no morals; an Indian with the shoulders of a blacksmith and the legs of a chimpanzee; a charlatan who calls himself a psychic consultant; a doctor with a plug-ugly for an assistant; a gambler; and an honest cop and several crooked ones.

Who could resist these unbeautifuls?

In addition to being a wonderful pulp paperback, this books is also a testament to the US’s involvement at the time in a World War. At the bottom right-hand corner of the back cover, pulp readers are advised to “send this book to a boy in the armed forces anywhere for only 3 cents”. Pocket Books’ inside covers also

Pocket Books helps the war effort

encouraged people to recycle any paper items they had – including pulps – so that they could be donated to the war effort and converted into “a container for a quart of blood plasma that will save a GI’s life”, “an airborne container… that will drop food or medicine to liberated peoples” or, thrillingly, “it may show up as the shell case for the shell, or the bomb band for the bomb, that will be the very last explosion to finally shatter the nerve and will-to-fight of the enemy!” In short, “save every scrap and you’ll help end the scrap.” Perhaps, then, Chandler and his fellow pulp authors did have a hand in bringing the bad guys to justice in 1945.

Though original sales of Farewell, My Lovely might have been lower than hoped, these Pocket Books editions kept the title in circulation for years to come. In a 1951 letter to their Vice President, Freeman Lewis, Chandler thanked Lewis with his tongue firmly in cheek for the new Pocket Books’ edition of Farewell:

Is it permissible to wonder why the people who do illustrations and covers can’t pay some attention to the text? The bedspring shown in your cover illustration is entirely wrong, since it is a type of spring which is very light and would be useless as a weapon. If your illustrator had taken the trouble to read merely a few lines at the top of page 144 in the book, he might not have made a fool of himself and incidentally of me, since the kind of spring I was writing about would be a very efficient weapon, almost as efficient as a blackjack. The kind he illustrated would be of no use at all!

DLR, 12.12.10

PULP Fictions: Crafting the Perfect Pulp

8 Dec

he tropes and types of pulp fiction still populate our pages and screens: femmes fatales emerge from shadows, gangsters claim lone guns on mantelpieces, and gumshoes crack wise on the mean city streets. In his treatise on mystery fiction, The Simple Art of Murder, Raymond Chandler advised his correspondents:

When in doubt, have a man come through a door with a gun in his hand.

Today, PULPable is going to teach you how to craft the perfect pulp. What you need first is:

A Title to Die For

Pulp titles fall into surprisingly few categories, and the best are a form of melodramatic poetry.

1.  A pun based on an idiom or phrase:
My Kingdom for a Hearse (reproduced below in all its glorious technicolor) provides a classic example. Rhyming puns are also popular. If you’re interested in some seasonal pulp, check out my very own guest post over at Darby O’Shea entitled Slay Bells Ring.

2. The classic formulation: The Adjective Noun
Chandler’s The Big Sleep and Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon are perhaps the most famous of any pulp novels, and inspired countless imitators and hangers-on. The Gentle Hangman is a personal favourite, and is featured in PULPable’s header (look up).

3. A variation on the format, The Man/Woman Who Did Something
Also spearheaded by Chandler with The Man Who Liked Dogs, this has provided some Western-style retribution in The Man Who Got Even With God as well as some variations of my own, including The Woman Whose Chihuahua Blew Away.

4. And if you’re lost as to a pun or a simple formulation, just ensure that your title includes the words “murder”, “death”, “kill”, or any other pulpable term that takes your fancy.
Try:

A Dame Called Murder
Kill Now, Pay Later

Love Me To Death, or
Suddenly A Corpse
.

My favourite might be Death Wore an Astrakhan Hat.

 

A Simile as Sharp as Paper Dart

Turning a phrase like no other, Chandler unwittingly created pulp cliches like no other. In The High Window, he crafts a perfect paragraph hooked around a simile fully aware of its cheesiness:

 

Raymond Thornton Chandler

The heart-rending dialogue of some love serial came out of the room behind her and hit me in the face like a wet dishtowel. The bright-eyed woman said: ‘You a friend of theirs?’ In her voice, suspicion was as thick as the ham in her radio.

If in doubt, make a statement and then qualify it with a simile: He was tough. As tough as nails, and half as charismatic. And yes, you can have that example free of charge. Even the best parodists have come up with some classics. On A Prairie Home Companion, one of Guy Noir’s dolls is described by Garrison Keilor:

She wore a knit sweater and jeans so tight it looked as if she’d been poured into them and forgot to say When.

So what’s left? Well, don’t forget to commission:

An Exploitative, Technicolor Pulp Cover

The great pulp artists are no longer with us. Though hipster irony might bring us McSweeney’s anthologies of Thrilling Tales, the unironic, sexually provocative pulp book cover is long gone. Last time at PULPable, we took a look at a classic, Visa To Death, that featured all the classic elements of pulpdom: gangsters, dames, and death!

The original detective novels spawned a plethora of niche pulps.  And these niche pulps have provided some of he best by way of exploitative femmes fatales and sexy gun molls. A damsel in distress evades a bullet; a square-jawed hero, comes to the rescue; and you have (drum roll, please) Romantic Detective magazine.

The angles of the language and the painted lines of the cover art have, inevitably, been lampooned and pastiched into oblivion. But some of the most melodramatic and nonetheless appealing graphic design graced the covers of the original pulp magazines and paperbacks. For all the knowing nods and winks, what pulp did best, and can still do, is pull us out of the humdrum and into the high-stakes, and in doing so, entertain and amuse.

As usual, Ray said it best in The Simple Art of Murder:

The mystery story is a kind of writing that need not dwell in the shadow of the past and owes little if any allegiance to the cult of the classics. It is a good deal more than unlikely that any writer now living will produce a better historical novel than Henry Esmond, […] a sharper social vignette than Madame Bovary, […] a wider and richer canvas than War and Peace or The Brothers Karamazov. But to devise a more plausible mystery than The Hound of the Baskervilles or The Purloined Letter should not be too difficult. Nowadays it would be rather more difficult not to.

DLR 12.09.10

PULP Precedents: Putting the Detective into Detective Fiction

10 Sep

Part psychoanalyst and part physical detection, part author of his own tale and part a product of his own time, the Detective has long been a symbol for the modern era of science, justice and the search for meaning in an increasingly anarchic world.

Old Scotland Yard

The Detective archetype also plays a pivotal role in some of the most famous Pulp fiction, from the original Bat-Man in Detective Comics and the first mention of the Continental Op in a 1923 issue of Black Mask magazine to The Maltese Falcon in 1941 and Polanski’s Chinatown, through to its numerous incarnations on the CSIs and investigation shows enthralling audiences worldwide. From their inception in England in 1843, the literati were already ascribing a specific character to the “detective police”; Andrew Wynter:

Stiff, calm and inexorable, an institution rather than a man… a machine, moving, thinking and speaking only as his instruction book directs… He seems… to have neither hopes nor fears.

Illustrations from a physiognomy text book: how to assess despair from appearance alone.

And more than this, they were the height of modernity. Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (1859) was yet to be published, but it was only the centre of a storm of scientific curiosity and academia; phrenology – the study of the human skull to determine the facets of the individual’s mind – had become an almost-accepted science; and physiognomy told the intelligentsia that character could be assessed from outward appearance alone. The original detectives, with little recourse to forensic science, had quickly to learn how to be both physiognomist and phrenologist. In 1860, Darwin predicted a time

when we regard every production of nature as one which has had a history; when we contemplate every complex structure as the summing up of many contrivances, each useful to the possessor.

Summing up with science and pseudo-science could have been a job description for the original detective police officers. Of the eight men who were initially assigned to the group, the most convincing case for the origin of an archetype has come in Detective Inspector Jonathan ‘Jack’ Whicher, whose profile in Kate Summerscale’s The Suspicions of Mr Whicher is as compelling as those of his fictional counterparts. Whicher was described by his colleagues as intelligent, quiet, of a perfectly ordinary stature and appearance, but full of the gall required to bluff out pickpockets and con artists. To Whicher, “finding out” a murderer was all about the “summing up of many contrivances”.

Constance Kent, prime suspect in the Road Hill murder case investigated by Whicher

Constance Kent, prime suspect in the Road Hill murder case investigated by Whicher.

The case that Summerscale covers involved an unsolved child murder at a country house in Road – a town near Bath – and the various family secrets and psyches that came to light during the investigation. Whicher was, at the time, in correspondence with Charles Dickens, whose interest in the detective phenomenon had begun almost as soon as their existence was made public. He eulogised them in an 1850 magazine piece as

respectable-looking men of perfectly good deportment and unusual intelligence… with an air of keen observation and quick perception when addressed.

But his primary fascination was with their psychological make up – what made them so effective at their jobs and why they above all others could ‘find out’ a suspect and convict them on the basis of nothing more than “keen observation”. Whicher reportedly told Dickens the tale of his apprehending a horse-thief on the basis of appearance alone. Whicher, alone in a country pub, told the man:

It’s no use. I know you. I’m an officer from London and I take you into custody for felony. I’m not alone here, whatever you may think. You mind your business, and keep yourselves to yourselves. It’ll be better for you.

Dickens’ Bleak House featured Inspector Bucket, a character based on Whicher’s colleague Charles Frederick Field; the first fictional police detective, he was a “sparkling stranger”. Though, like Whicher or Field, Dickens focussed on outward appearance and physical attributes (as well as names) to determine character, he also acknowledged in the unfinished Edwin Drood that “circumstances may accumulate so strongly even against an innocent man, that directed, sharpened, and pointed, they may slay him”.

The Whitechapel murders launched detective fever which surpassed even the tale of Road Hill. Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone pitted detectives and local investigators against a country house theft of a precious gemstone, and protagonist Sergeant Cuff’s investigation turns on psychology. He asks a suspect:

Do you feel an uncomfortable heat at the pit of your stomach, sir? and a nasty thumping at the top of your head?… I call it the detective-fever.

But Collins also wrote in 1860 in high praise of Eugene Vidocq, a French master criminal turned detective, who was “impudent, ingenious and daring”, and who went on to be the basis for Victor Hugo’s Inspector Javert and Jean Valjean. As in the Jack the Ripper case, the alluring detective had to share the stage with the equally intriguing criminal whose ingenuity kept his crimes under wraps.

The Detective had, in the minds of Dickens, Collins and many more authors, become one of the most interesting ‘metatypes’ that they had encountered. Their primary function echoed that of the authors they intrigued – creating a plot from nothing, following the clues that were laid out for them until they could string together what had happened, until they could introduce a coherent narrative.

Holmes in "Scandal in Bohemia", Strand Magazine, 1891

A Holmes illustration, Strand Magazine 1891

The concept of ‘detective as author’, perhaps most evident in Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories, brought the archetype into the public consciousness, made it fascinating, and dropped it into popular pulp fiction. The metatype went on to find its way, via Doyle and other writers, into the Pulp magazines of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The very British institution of the closed-house murder or theft (a la Road Hill or Collins) hit its peak with the Hound of the Baskervilles tale, but Doyle’s stories sat alongside those of Agatha Christie and PG Wodehouse. The psychological elements of the type did also find their way into American adventure periodicals such as the Argosy.

It is not surprising that tales of the stoic, observant Victorian police officer might merge into the mythos of the lone, law-keeping sheriff in the new West of the United States. Fanciful Dime Magazine tales of those heading in a westerly direction played up the same sense of mingled familiarity and exoticism which attracted the British public to horrific murders resolved by ordinary, plain-clothed men. And like the Penny Dreadfuls in England, Dime Magazines exalted in the tales regardless of their accuracy. Amidst Westerns and Detectives, others such as HG Wells were exploiting this

Beadles Dime Novels, the origin of a name

Beadle's Dime Novels, the origin of a name

familiar/exotic fascination with ‘speculative fiction’, the precursor to sci-fi.

Born in 1888 in Chicago, Raymond Chandler started out writing (by his own admission) terrible poetry in British literary magazines. But after his move back to post-World War I North America, he moved into the Pulp realm with stories in Black Mask magazine. Uniquely situated as a trans-Atlantic Pulpist, his Philip Marlowe embodied the very essence of the original detective police with an American twist. The thoroughly modern city-dweller, the lone sheriff, but also an aspirant criminal psychologist and complex character.

What is more, Marlowe – and by extension Chandler – also used a very Dickensian method of character assessment: physiognomy is alive and well in the wealthy world of 1930s LA. In The Big Sleep, he describes General Sterwood:

an old and obviously dying man watched us come and go with black eyes from which all fire had died long ago.  His long narrow body was wrapped… in a travelling rug and a faded red bath robe.

Basing his summing up on both outward appearance and assessment of inward character, Chandler echoes – albeit less directly – Dickens’ style. Miss Havisham had

bridal flowers in her hair, but her hair was white… I saw that the bride within the bridal dress had withered like the dress, and like the flowers, and had no brightness left but the brightness of her sunken eyes.

Marlowe is both a detective like Whicher and Field, and a Pulp hero interacting with outlaws and bandits in a new world. Chandler’s strength as a detective writer was in his balancing the depressing realism of a Whicher (taking on the tawdry characters in LA, the vicious killings, the adultery and indiscriminate relationships) with the romantic magic of Pulp westerns and superheroics (the style he employed in describing Marlowe’s world.)

But it was only with movies such as The Big Sleep that the detective became entrenched in the public consciousness.

Humphrey, in a shot from The Big Sleep

Humphrey, in a shot from The Big Sleep.

In turn, the tropes of film noir – stark chiaroscuro, stock types (gangster, detective, PI, femme fatale) and convoluted plot – came directly from the fusion of expressionism and Pulp stories. The archetype that leading men such as Humphrey Bogart embodied almost became the standard for generations of quiet-but-tough title characters. The style also played into a greater interest in the underlying psyches of the detective characters. Post-Freud, the eroticism and repressed violence often bubbled over into the action. Freud compared his role to that of the detective:

the task of the therapist is… the same as that of the examining magistrate. We have to uncover the hidden psychic material; and in order to do this we have invented a number of detective devices.

From phrenology to physiognomy to psychoanalysis, the modern Pulp Detective was born. In reality a complex character, but also an archetype appropriated by Victorian authors. Like Dickens and Wilkie Collins, the “detective police” had to be great readers of men. Post-Darwin, post-modern and post-science, their task was to find out the culprits on the basis that everyone was a product of their own character and experience, that personalities were cut-ups. Author of their own work, the detective remains one of the most important – and most modern – Pulp icons, from Jonathan Whicher and Darwin to Philip Marlowe and Freud, all by way of Pulp fiction.

DLR 10.09.08

PULP PI, part 2 – Chandler and Hammett

21 Feb

What is seldom mentioned in any criticism or writing on Raymond Chandler is the rather nebulous position he occupies in genre terms. Whilst he is famously, of course, the creator of ‘hard-boiled’ detective noir fiction, the style of his novels and stories—coupled with the contributions he made to the world of movie scriptwriting—place him in the Pulp genre but also on the nearby peripheries of ‘real’ literature. When literary critics were barely getting their teeth into modernism, sitting (let us imagine) in smoky 1940s salons discussing just what the hell Joyce was on about so that the Times could proscribe a solution, Chandler was already dissecting and intersplicing his writing in an almost post-modern way. And the post-modern cut up world is, to a large extent, what PULPable is about. 

But Chandler never claimed to be the inventor of the genre he populised. That accolade was, in any interview or article, verbally presented to his contemporary Dashiell Hammett (1894—1961), whose New York Times obituary deemed him “the dean of the… ‘hard-boiled’ school of detective fiction”. Six years Chandler’s junior, Hammett was nonetheless very influential on Chandler’s fiction. In the interests of presenting a more enjoyable Chandler than the depressive alcoholic of my last post, I want to emphasise another important Pulp element—enjoyment. And where Hammett invented much of the tone and tropes of detective noir, it was Chandler who made it hugely enjoyable.

As a young man, Hammett had, like Chandler, signed up for service during World War I; unlike Chandler, however, he re-enlisted (despite serious illness) during World War II and had also spent several years as an operative for the Pinkerton Detective Agency. He turned eventually to writing, and defined what later became known as ‘hardboiled’ detective noir. In Chandler’s The Simple Art of Murder he praises Hammett:

 
“Hammett was the ace performer… He was spare, frugal, hard-boiled, but he did over and over again what only the best writers can ever do at all. He wrote scenes that seemed never to have been written before.”

 

But where Hammett’s experience brought an actual realism to his protagonists—the Continental Op, Nick Charles, and Samuel Spade (Spade even bearing Dashiell’s own real first name)—that often gets in the way of the elements that elevate Chandler’s writing. Chandler was a synthesiser of high and low, presenting the glamour as well as the underworld of LA (and by extension, the two halves of his characters), but he also wrote with a distinct voice which Hammett often lacks. In another section of The Simple Art of Murder, he describes what Hammett does best, in witty, overblown, and simply amusing language that even Dashiell never mustered when he was doing it:

 

“He took murder out of the Venetian vase and dropped it into the alley… gave murder back to the kind of people who do it for a reason, not just to provide a corpse; and with means at hand, not with handwrought dueling pistols, curare, and tropical fish.”

 

There is no such florid language in Hammett’s descriptive passages. Though Chandler’s style is often described as ‘spare’ too, it’s a far cry from his contemporary’s, which has more of the Hemingway about it.  One of his earliest novels, Red Harvest (1929), almost dispenses with description which does not apply directly to action and dialogue. The characters are already noir wiseacres, but the Op’s cracks are few and far between, and restricted to dialogue rather than internal monologue:

 

“What’s the rumpus?”

 “Don Willsson’s gone to sit on the right hand of God, if God don’t mind looking at bullet holes.”

“Who shot him?”

“Somebody with a gun.”  (Chapter 1)

 

The Thin Man (1934) maintains a similar tone, but grounds Greek-American Nick Charles firmly in a reality that Chandler would never quite emulate. Nick is an ex-private investigator, like Hammett, and is married. Though set in New York, the action takes place within Nick’s circle of knowledge, and the domesticity of marriage, pets, and retirement from the PI world ground things in reality, but also ground the story, making it unable to reach the levels of psychological and spatial evocation that Chandler reaches.

 

The grey and dull, yet steely and sharp-edged corners of the modern city come through in Chandler’s voice, as do the wit and pathological honesty of his letter-writing. “The streets were dark with something more than night,” begins one paragraph in Farewell, My Lovely. It is a verbal conceit, but it is one which expresses something we have all felt: walking home in the dark through those streets that we would not venture down even during the day. In The High Window, he offers this description, beautiful and yet dislocating in its imagery, grounded in the reality of nouns and adjectives:

 

“The wind had risen and had a dry taut feeling, tossing the tops of trees, and making the swung arc light up the side street cast shadows like crawling lava.”

 

Where Hammett was actually spare, tight, realistic in writing style, Chandler drew on the ridiculous simile and the self-knowing winks to the reader regarding Hollywood or the film industry he worked in. When Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon (1930) was made into a movie it was Humphrey Bogart—the silver screen’s later Philip Marlowe—who put his fedora on to play Sam Spade. Without Bogart’s performance there, it is unlikely that we would have had quite the same template for Marlowe in both story and film form.

 

Chandler synthesised both the novels and the movies of the hardboiled genre, dissecting them and reconstructing narrative out of elements of both, injecting it with his own poetic wit, cutting up and splicing his own life into Marlowe’s, and lifting the shadows from the plodding realism of a Pulp genre to create a truly modernist American literary form. And if you don’t believe that Chandler is a modernist author? Just try reading The Big Sleep and working out exactly who killed whom, and for what reasons—it’s almost as confusing as Finnegans Wake.

DLR 21.02.08