Thursday, January 14, 2016

Signal Watch Reads: The High Window (1942) by Raymond Chandler

I've been thinking a bit about the difference between the Continental Op work, Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe.  Brighter minds than me have surely covered this - but you're here reading this, so...  here we go.

To be sure, there are more similarities than there are differences.  Working class detectives working in a shadowy world where wealth buys your way into indulging your perversions and clear of ignominy.  Low class hoods are always on the make.  Dames who can work an angle have it made, until they don't.  And then they wind up cold and stiff.  It's not whether everyone you meet has an angle, it's what their angle is - and if they don't have one, they're a chump.

Mostly, anyway.

The Continental Op doesn't have a heart of gold, but he's a square guy.  He's a brawler, almost always has a gun and will throw some lead around.  Sam Spade has a heart in there, too, one that's more likely to fall for a dame than the Continental Op, who knows he's no looker and has reason to distrust any dame that gets too close.  But Hammett's detectives never really warm to much of anyone, even when they tell you otherwise.  At best, they tolerate others and try not to admit it when any women get too close.

The difference is - despite the bristle and seeming misanthropy - Philip Marlowe actually cares.  His edgy dialog is hard-boiled, yeah, and he's seen enough.  But he cares.  He wears his dialog and attitude less as a leathery scar, and more as a weapon he's brandishing to keep anyone from looking too close.  There's an interesting duality to what Marlowe says and how he says it about himself, and what he'll even self-report as he looks in a mirror - the guy looking back isn't usually holding up near as well as the snappy dialog would want you to believe.

A good 2/3rds of the way in, Chandler seems to want to acknowledge he's written a pretty standard detective story.  Marlowe visits a club run by a gangster, and is amused to find that everything about the place seems like it was pulled right out of a Warner Bros. picture.  So, maybe we know it's not the world's most original tale, but the execution is pretty darn good.  And, even more so than in Farewell, My Lovely, we see a bit of Marlowe that seems to have layers.

The case starts off simply enough.  A wealthy widow with a foppish playboy son has seen a rare coin go missing from her strong box.  The son is around, but the showgirl soon-to-be ex-wife has disappeared.  A coin monger has called the widow asking if the coin is for sale, and she wants Marlowe to (a) find the ex-wife and (b) get the coin back.  She's a bully and drunk of a woman, pushing around her meek secretary, and believing she frightens the world from behind her bottle of port.

Soon enough, the case gets weird with shady showgirls, ex-Hollywood toughs, and the bodies start showing up, with only limited connection to the case.

The book holds together very well until the grand reveal, which is all but deus ex machina.  You get the feeling Chandler was just writing and writing, hoping for an ending, and then had to make do with what he had laying around.  It feels lazy, but it's also a reminder that maybe Chandler was always more interested in writing interesting characters and dialog with an edge than he was in sleuthing through a crime.

As a character piece for Marlowe and for working his way through some stereotypes of the genre - already wellworn by the 1942 in both cinema and the pulps - Chandler manages to give all of them life more than you'd think they'd earn.  And the real final act is not about whodunnit so much as purifying the rotting house of the widow.

It's the details, again, how Marlowe is different from the Continental Op, who would have thought to ask the elevator man a few questions, but Marlowe seems genuinely delighted with the man, not spooked that he sees more than he lets on.  Despite Chandler's misanthropic exterior - you get the feeling the man knew people, even if he could not feel one of them.  His detective watches from the outside, genuinely wishing the world were better and taking cases to make it so.  Hammett's private eyes relish the work, the puzzle cracking, the sleuthing - but it's all on to the next case - and their line of work has guaranteed them employment.  Marlowe might just be that shop-worn Galahad he mockingly calls himself.

As an audiobook, the novel is astoundingly well read by Ray Porter.  The man has a gift for character, and his Marlowe is going to be how I imagine the character's voice in my head despite Dick Powell.  Just a terrific performance.

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