The High Window by Raymond Chandler

I don’t have a lot of willpower. I can be stubborn, I can be persistent, but they’re other things entirely. But willpower. Put an item in front of me that I either like or suspect I will enjoy and I find it tricky to turn my interest elsewhere. This makes me a rather bad dieter, a fluctuating exerciser, an ‘accidental’ book and handbag buyer, and a regular flirt. It should also help give you an idea of just how hard I’m finding it right now to not write this entire review of Raymond Chandler’s The High Window in a Chandler-esque fashion. Because how on earth can one resist using such stylish expression?

Chandler’s writing, and the narration of his character Phillip Marlowe in particular, invites mimicry. Everyone thinks they can do it and everyone thinks they do it fairly well. Some people do it and don’t even realise who they’re imitating, such has Chandler’s style weaved its way through the gullies of our collective subconscious. The reason for this, I think, is because of the appeal of his storytelling style, of the language that he uses, of the specific and often slightly quirky observations he makes, of the dry wit. Boil all that down and we end up with words. The words he chose and way he uses them. A fellow blogger recently reviewed The Big Sleep, which has also been reviewed on Pile o’ Books before, by simply listing some of his favourite sentences from the novel. It was a cool way to talk about the appeal of Chandler’s style in an entertaining way, and to be honest I wish I had thought to do it first. Because for me, the pleasure of reading Chandler is all in the kick I get out of coming across his descriptions and observations, of reading his snappy dialogue, of hearing Marlowe’s comebacks to the clients, broads and scumbags who pepper his cases.

This is usually the general area of a post where I would attempt to give a brief rundown of the plot of the book I’m discussing, but you know what, I’m starting to realise that I don’t really read Chandler for the ‘story’. Sure, sure, private detective tale, someones wants the hero to find something, someone is dead, some crazy bird is causing a fuss, our hero must sort out everything for all involved, get paid and try not to wind up dead in a ditch himself. I dig that kind of thing, I do. And we all know that Chandler is the writer other crime writers should erect a small shrine to and give thanks that he made detective stories what they are. But! I confess that in the end, at least with The High Window,  I wasn’t as concerned about what had happened to the coin, who’d copied what, double-crossed who, wanted which person dead, pushed which chap out of a window. I mean sure, I paid some attention—I was reading the book after all—but the ‘whodunnit’ and the ‘wotsgunnahappen’ were not my main focuses. I was more wrapped up in the words and phrases and descriptions. And if you read my post from last year on the Big Sleep, you’ll see that what I gushed about the whole time were these exact things.

So here is a rather short, crass review of Raymond Chandler’s The High Window, from a so-called avid and wide reader who may need her head read: ‘Words good, plot passable. Will read novels written by this author again but won’t necessarily be breaking into the local second-hand bookstore to snaffle another noir crime special on the double.’ (But can we make that a double? Thanks.)

I read The High Window in p-book form. If I had read it on my Kindle I would have used the highlighting tool on every second page. And because I read a paper version this book is sitting on my (currently sparsely inhabited) bookshelf in London. If you happened to be gawking about my bedroom, spied the novel and pointed at it, I would tell you that Raymond Chandler is a wonderful writer, a superb stylist and that reading The Big Sleep was a joyous experience for me. So read The Big Sleep first. And if you fall in love with the words and style of this breakthrough crime fiction writer, then you can read The High Window and enjoy those types of words and that same style all over again. You just may not recall exactly what happened to that coin, or perhaps, in the end,  just not care so much.

C is for Chandler

I like to think cartoons teach us everything worth learning. How else would we know that cats hate dogs, coyotes are stupid and a secret agent mouse lives in a pillarbox in London? And there’s a cartoon character that is partly responsible for my love of the detective novel and, surprisingly, it’s Tweety Bird. Yep. Sorry about that. But the annoying yellow fluffball had one inspired incarnation and that was as a Philip Marlowe-esque P.I.  It was possibly only one episode I saw repeatedly on weekday afternoon re-runs of Loony Tunes but it has always stuck in my head. So much so that it informed me of Raymond Chandler, Marlowe and Humphrey Bogart’s portrayal of hard-boiled detectives long before I knew anything about noir crime fiction. 

And so here have the letter C. For Raymond Chandler and his classic noir detective novel, The Big Sleep.

The thing with a writer like Chandler and his intertextual popularity, is that he is one of those authors I’d always felt I had read when, in fact, I hadn’t. I once had someone say to me, ‘I don’t think I’ve read any Austen,’ and I wanted to reply, ‘Hell, if you can’t remember, you illiterate moron…’ But I was a bit like that with Chandler. I could wing my way through long conversations about him, sounding totally informed and being totally fraudulent. And Tweety Bird is to blame for some of that.

But now I have finally read some! And it’s the stuff goddamn dreams are made of, sweetheart. So what is it about his writing which is so deliciously detectively delightful?   

Chandler’s use of language is imaginative, specific and stupendous. I adore slang and informal language. I love that it’s always changing, it’s egalitarian nature and that it can be so particular to certain people, places or eras. It is colourful, expressive and can be intricately precise in its definition and use. When I started reading The Big Sleep I began to dog-ear pages with the most exquisite one-liners and descriptions on them until I feared I would find myself with a book resembling a Crufts catalogue and so desisted. But trust me, nearly every page contains some gem of literary usage of the English language, and what is great about Chandler is he was one of the first (and one of the best) to use it in this way. And just because his prose reads a bit free and easy and isn’t stiffly formal, he is an extremely considered wordsmith and every single word is working very, very hard, and to me, that’s the sign of a classy writer.

Dames, joes, broads, grifters, cops on the take, criminals on the make – there are no innocent bystanders in this novel, our protagonist Marlowe included. Marlowe is a fascinating character – the down and out gumshoe with the bottle of whisky in his filing cabinet, the man men either want to trust or kill, that women want to throw themselves at or slap silly. The P.I. who wants to do right by his clients, even if that means doing wrong. A man who plays his cards close to his chest, who doesn’t mind resorting to the rough stuff to get the information he needs. I could go on and he would still sound like a lone-wolf, hard-drinking, no-friends, down-and-out, heart-in-the-right-place, wise-cracking, trenchcoat-wearing stereotype, except that we must remember that the stereotype largely comes from Marlowe and for that we can revel in its magnificence.

The Big Sleep is a reflection of the time it was written and the time it is set, but it is also a novel with a strong sense of place. As a reader I felt I was among the action. Just little old me, standing in a corner of a room or slumped in the back seat of a car, perhaps trying to hide behind that cop with the big arse at a crime scene. When you read this novel you are on the streets of LA, you drive along the California coast, you sit in a diner with your coffee and eggs, you stand amongst the fog and squall of an incoming storm. And you do it all in the 1930s which is why the language is so engaging, why the little details of dress, furniture or driving a car are so interesting, why you let the chauvinistic behaviour wash over you (or perhaps raise a wry eyebrow and then continue reading). Often when we get that strong sense of place in novels it is when the setting is in a small community or perhaps in a country we see as exotic. I love that this sense is so strong in a story set in an American city, in the type of story where you think you should just be focusing on the plot and who did what to whom.

Lastly, I love that I have finally actually read Raymond Chandler and met his Philip Marlowe before he was Humphrey Bogart. And I can’t wait to read more.