Monday, October 13, 2008

Books: The Big Sleep; Farewell, My Lovely; and The High Window; by Raymond Chandler

Hardboiled is, of course, the word to encapsulate all three of Chandler's first three novels conveniently packaged by the Everyman's Library into one volume, but to write it off at just that is to miss all the fun: the long-legged showgirls with big, red mouths; the zoot-suited gangsters who are as wide as they are tall; the spoiled heiresses and their limp-wristed male companions; the old drunk women and their window-peeping neighbors; the suspicious cops who puff cigars like religion; the rain, the whiskey, the cigarettes; the pistols, the blackjacks, the laudanum; the smutty photos, the blackmailers, and the private detective who begrudgingly toils in their seamy underworld.

Chandler is far better than your average noir hack writer, though he makes some occasional slips that at first had me wondering (commas where semicolons ought to be, and a habit of using the same word twice in one sentence, as if in too much of a rush to think of a synonym or more elegant construction).* That said, he proves himself with the wildest off-color metaphors and ironic similes (something like "the old bag was as fresh as a two-dollar whore at sunrise," which I actually just made up myself, since I didn't flag the book for the best ones while I was reading).

The Big Sleep is his best-known for a reason; not only is it the novel in which Chandler introduces Philip Marlowe, but it's the one with the most plot twists (and naked ladies), surrounding the murder of a (old, gay) man who runs an old-fashioned underground lending library of pornography. Farewell, My Lovely, by contrast, starts with an exchange of a rare jade necklace for ransom, and The High Window, a stolen rare gold coin. Jewels and money, as important as they are, are nowhere near as titillating as pornography, and while the other two novels contain their share of gangsters, hustlers, and broads, Chandler does seem to have lost some steam (plot-wise, never language-wise) as he wrote on. Maybe if The Big Sleep weren't so brilliant, we wouldn't have noticed.

*Witness: "He wrestled it around on the highway and drove back towards town along a three-lane highway washed clean by the rain. . ." That sentence would be a lot snappier without the phrase "on the highway."

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