“Goldfish” by Raymond Chandler

For the most part, the stories collected in Trouble Is My Business were written before Raymond Chandler’s novels, and they all bear a slightly different tinge from his longer works. Chandler condensed is darker and grittier.

In “Goldfish,” Philip Marlowe gets a tip from someone he trusts and sympathizes with that could make him a lot of money. Suddenly he is embroiled in a chase with thugs and vixens; they each gain the upper hand by turns until finally Marlowe gets everything to fall into place. Pretty standard. Except in “Goldfish” it all happens, with just as much precision and detail of scene and character, in a third of the space.

Instead of doing without any of the real Chandler trademarks, the plot just gets a bit simpler. Fewer players are involved; there are fewer twists. There is still real mystery and suspense. But the shrinking of the distance between plot elements means the harsher bits of Chandler’s work seem to come faster and thicker. Marlowe finds his first body after just five pages; normally it would take longer than that to get to the home of his client. And the violence continues through nearly to the last scene.

The villains in “Goldfish” are surprisingly hard and clear for such a short work; they are at least as good as the ones in his novels. And remarkably, while the story begins in LA the bulk of it takes place in Olympia, Washington:

The Snoqualmie Hotel in Olympia was on Capitol Way, fronting on the usual square city block of park. I left by the coffeeshop door and walked down a hill to where the last, loneliest reach of Puget Sound died and decomposed against a line of disused wharves. Corded firewood filled the foreground and old men pottered about in the middle of the stacks, or sat on boxes with pipes in their mouths and signs behind their heads reading: “Firewood and Split Kindling, Free Delivery.”

Behind them a low cliff rose and the vast pines of the north loomed against a gray-blue sky.

Marlowe doesn’t quite make it with those old men, but he doesn’t stay a fish out of water in the Pacific Northwest for long either. And he’s just about at his best in the final scene, with “[a]n icy finger…moving up and down my spine” for only the quickest second before he realizes he’s being played. Very good, and very pulp.

The Long Embrace by Judith Freeman

I don’t often find myself to interested in writers’ love lives, but Raymond Chandler’s does have a bit of intrigue. His marrying a woman 18 years his senior is at least unusual. So with Philip Marlowe’s chivalry in mind, I thought Judith Freeman’s The Long Embrace: Raymond Chandler and the Woman He Loved would be an interesting look at Chandler’s somewhat mysterious wife Cissy and their relationship, which was clearly very important to him.

Freeman was certainly taken with this relationship, but what she presents in The Long Embrace makes for a strange narrative. It turns out the Chandlers moved around a lot both before and during their marriage, living in various LA neighborhoods as well as the surrounding country and suburbs, eventually settling in La Jolla. Freeman covers Chandler and his wife through 35 moves, and her main technique is to narrate her own research efforts alongside their life stories. She drives around LA and looks for the apartments they lived in, some of which are razed, others remodeled, others apparently untouched over the decades.

While this technique is pretty standard, it’s fatal to the success of The Long Embrace. As Freeman drives around Chandler’s old haunts, disconcertingly calling him “Ray” at least half the time, she attempts to describe LA as it is now—or, as it was when she was doing this research (it’s not clear when that is). But as any Chandler fan should know, anyone else who tries to write about the city will come up short. An example:

Cissy and Ray had rented a number of places in this neighborhood, the area around the old Ambassador Hotel. The ambassador was now abandoned, closed up, and waiting for its next incarnation. The Los Angeles School District had recently taken possession of the property under the law of eminent domain, and it now appeared that the once great hotel, site of the legendary Cocoanut Grove and the place where Robert Kennedy was assassinated by Sirhan Sirhan in a pantry near the kitchen, was about to be turned into an elementary school for Mexican and Korean children. A great behemoth of a hotel, it was now neglected and shabby, surrounded by dying palms and parched birds-of-paradise. But once it had been the jewel of L.A. hotels. The opening-night party, on New Year’s Eve in 1921, was described as a kind of coming-out party for Southern California, with three thousand guests in attendance: as one newspaper reporter put it at the time, “The splendor of the setting for the affair probably has never been equaled on the Pacific Coast.”

There’s mostly not much wrong with this, although a stronger copyedit could have been used throughout. There are a lot of issues with verb tense; such-and-such “was now” something, where now means when the book was researched, but it also “was” something else back when “Ray” was living in LA. Or Chandler “had been” doing something, and so “had” the LA School District. Word choice is also sometimes a problem. Visiting the La Jolla house, Freeman tries “to appear inconspicuous so as not to alarm the neighbors, all of whom had signs on their premises announcing that private security agents protected their premises.” I admit I am more sensitive than average to this kind of thing, but a general tendency to drift into ambiguity and a lack of tightness point to insufficient editing. A better effort in this area would also, I think, have done much to guard against Freeman’s sometimes too-cloying attitude toward her subjects and her willingness to engage in Carry-Bradshaw-style rhetoricals (“And why was there a stronger taboo (or at least bias) against older women having romantic, sexual relations with younger men?”).

Freeman still has plenty to teach, though she frustratingly knows much more about Chandler and his life than she actually tells, making veiled references or seemingly unsupported claims about his opinions that I could probably verify with a real biography. But there is some good information about the changes LA and Southern California have gone through in the past sixty years, worthwhile insights about the psychology of Philip Marlowe, and a look into how his creator saw his own role as a writer of genre fiction versus literature. At the same time, because of the lack of thoroughness, it can seem like Freeman is coopting Chandler’s personal—and likely highly idiosyncratic—issues for her own very contemporary political ends.

No matter how much it may have changed since his time, I think I’d rather keep reading Chandler’s very own literary creation of LA.

Chandler vs. Hammett

Reading about P.D. James’s Talking About Detective Fiction, I found a post at A Work in Progress that excerpted James on hard-boiled American fiction, catching my eye with it’s description of Dashiell Hammet:

Hammett had a rough upbringing and supported his family by writing short stories for the pulp magazines. Interestingly (but maybe not at all surprising) his editors wanted “violent action, vividly portrayed characters and a prose style ruthlessly pruned of all essentials.”

I suppose this is someone’s misprint, or mis-edit, but I read this shortly after finishing The Thin Man, my second go with Hammett, thinking it was a bit too apt. A few weeks ago I noted that Chandler actually made me visualize scenes, which he presents in extreme detail and with admirable precision.

In The High Window, for example, when he goes to the home of a blackmailer who’s just been killed, he gives a cinematic and vivid description of the room the body is found in. That physical description is important, not just as a window into the life and situation of the blackmailer, or even just as a collection of evidence useful in solving the murder, but also immediately important to the events that will unfold in the coming pages.

One of the ways Chandler achieves his vivid images is through his trademark similes. I like them, quite a bit, but what really gets me is his perfect diction. Words are specific and extremely appropriate. It all helps the visualization, and the action, and the characterization.

Hammett feels much more stripped down—not that there’s much wrong with that for pulp, of course. In The Thin Man, the first and completest description of Mimi, one of the three major female characters:

The doorbell rang. I went to the door. Eight years had done no damage to Mimi’s looks. She was a little riper, showier, that was all. She was larger than her daughter, and her blondness was more vivid. She laughed and held her hands out to me.

Mimi turns out to be a wild force of nature. Her whole family is a bit mad; she has probably done something very Freudian to ruin her children. It makes for a lot of hysterics and a dialogue-heavy novel where it seems much of the time the most the narration gives you is information about how so-and-so’s “eyes [are] shining” and how this other one sounds “excited.” And those first few sentences up there could be a parody of Hemingway.

Compare with The High Window‘s first description of Mrs. Murdock, Philip Marlowe’s client in this case and a roughly similar figure, in terms of the novel, to Mimi:

There was a reed chaise longue over by the window. It had a curved back and enough cushions to stuff an elephant and there was a woman leaning back on it with a wine glass in her hand. I could smell the thick scented alcoholic odor of the wine before I could see her properly. Then my eyes got used to the light and I could see her.

She had a lot of face and chin. She had pewter-colored hair set in a ruthless permanent, a hard beak and large moist eyes with the sympathetic expression of wet stones. There was lace at her throat, but it was the kind of throat that would have looked better in a football sweater. She wore a grayish silk dress. Her thick arms were bare and mottled. There were jet buttons in her ears. There was a low glass-topped table beside her and a bottle of port on the table. She sipped from the glass she was holding and looked at me over it and said nothing.

Mrs. Murdock is much more solid for me than Mimi ever is; I have an easier time all around understanding her as an agent. Even Nora, Nick Charles’s wife and co-star of The Thin Man, is never so comprehensible for me. She’s game and fun and has breakfast in the afternoons and is only 26 but so much older and wiser than young Dorothy, older and wiser than Nick even, but innocent, and just all-around wonderful. Perhaps she’s just too perfect, or that Nick is also much more slippery for me than Marlowe, but the interpersonal dynamics are much more difficult for me to understand in Hammett.

And that’s sort of surprising, because I’m so often surprised by who’s actually dunnit in Chandler, and surprised by what he decides to let go and what needs to be reported to the police and all that. Then again, I did think the reveal in The Thin Man was a bit cheap—not against the unwritten rules of the genre, but skirting the line of too clever or not clever enough by half, to paraphrase Evadne Mount.