Tag Archives: raymond

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

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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