Saturday, March 11, 2017

If You Like Raymond Chandler Avoid This Book Like A Bed Bug Motel

Five days ago I finished reading one of the Philip Marlowe books I'd not read, Farewell My Lovely. It was a big mistake.  That is if I ever wanted to go back to reading Raymond Chandler.  The book is a total mess, the plot is ridiculous, absurd, rambling, more than just confusing and, at times, for most of the book, it's non-existent.  The number of times Marlowe gets knocked out is worse than entirely implausible, it is monotonous  And the alcoholic Chandler has him drink enough to kill a big band.  I don't think the author of a super-hero comic book would try to pull off that level of concussive, brain poisoning implausibility.

The racism that pervades the book is repellent from start to finish.  There are the "n" bombs which at least have the excuse that that's probably how most white cops and detectives in LA talked.  On top of that are the scene at the "shine bar" the "Indian" who stinks, the Asian fakir, various servants, ...  And then there is the sexism but that's typical of the genre.  And, if you haven't read it yet, the forest of florid similes in that book will probably do more to put you off of Chandleresque similes than you could imagine possible.  I'd give you a wise crack simile right now but I've already given you one and I don't want to develop the habit.

I hadn't read Edmund Wilson's two controversial short essays about detective novels before finishing Chandler's book but, finding them online, he mentions this book in particular.   While giving Chandler a compliment on his ability, he says that he found this book, in particular, a let down at the end.   From WHO CARES WHO KILLED ROGER ACKROYD?

On the other hand, it seems to me—for reasons sug­gested above—a fantastic misrepresentation to say that the average detective novel is an example of good story-telling. The gift for telling stories is uncommon, like other artistic gifts, and the only one of this group of writers—the writers my correspondents have praised— who seems to me to possess it to any degree is Mr. Ray­mond Chandler. His Farewell, My Lovely is the only one of these books that I have read all of and read with enjoyment. But Chandler, though in his recent article he seems to claim Hammett as his master, does not really belong to this school of the old-fashioned detective novel. What he writes is a novel of adventure which has less in common with Hammett than with Alfred Hitch­cock and Graham Greene—the modern spy story which has substituted the jitters of the Gestapo and the G.P.U. for the luxury world of E. Phillips Oppenheim. It is not simply a question here of a puzzle which has .Been put together but of a malaise conveyed to the reader, the horror of a hidden conspiracy that is continually turning up in the most varied and unlikely forms. To write such a novel successfully you must be able to invent char­acter and incident and to generate atmosphere, and all this Mr. Chandler can do, though he is a long way be­low Graham Greene. It was only when I got to the end that I felt my old crime-story depression descending upon me again—because here again, as is so often the case, the explanation of the mysteries, when it comes, is neither interesting nor plausible enough. It fails to jus­tify the excitement produced by the elaborate build-up of picturesque and sinister happenings, and one cannot help feeling cheated.

I got the let down in the implausibility of those stories and the stereotypical and racist characterizations from the start, not to mention the fist fights.  And there were the similes, if he'd used the word "like" one more time it would have worn through to the next page.

In Wilson's essay he implies that Chandler developed as a writer past the who-done-it but Farewell was only his second Philip Marlowe book and I don't think it's as well developed as some of the earlier authors Wilson criticized.  Some of his later ones are, in fact, better but I don't think he really developed that far. He drank too much to manage that.  Even his best book that I read,  The Long Goodbye has a rambling plot that is also, honestly, quite implausible but it's at least there.  Despite what we're supposed to think about the great Chandler, I think a real master of detective fiction, the one who really surpassed the "form" as they put it, was Ross Macdonald. Of course Wilson couldn't have read him because he hadn't started writing yet.   If they'd made movies of his books with Bogart in them, in black and white, people would transfer a good part of their affection to his books, I think  Though, Paul Newman was in one or so, as I recall.

The only other experience I ever had like this one,  reading one book that likely put me off of reading any more of the author was the month I spent sick in bed reading A Shropshire Lad.  I haven't been able to stand A. E. Housman ever since and I have a strong feeling I will never be able to read Raymond Chandler's writing with pleasure again. I should have stopped with The Big Sleep.   Farewell My Lovey has every one of the known defects in Chandler's writing and beats them to death.   I don't know if the couple of his others which I haven't read would have the same effect but, if you like Chandler and haven't read it, steer clear of the second of the Philip Marlowe books.   It almost made me wish I still drank or, rather, that he hadn't.   I strongly suspect that if Chandler didn't drink he would have been a far more productive writer and his books, even his admittedly good ones, would have been better.  Or maybe he just should have admitted to himself that what he really needed was one good man, one who didn't need to pretend that he was a tough guy but who would protect him.  It's obvious to me that what he most feared was what he most wanted and he destroyed himself over that internal conflict.

I think if I continue this project of reading detective novels, I'm going to read  Dorothy B. Hughes. I've had my fill of comic book tough guys, for now.

Update:  Dopey, if few people read Edmund Wilson I can guarantee you that the number of those who do is scores of hundreds of times more than who look at your archived oeuvre.   And there are probably hundreds of obsessive readers of the cosy school of who-done-its for every one who reads old ones of the hard boiled type.

There's a reason that the good writers of crime and detective novels always seem to aspire to transcend "the form" the "conventions" the "style" of the Hammett-Chandler type of novels.  I think Chandler, in his better books, pretty well wore that out.  I'm curious to see if  Dorothy Hughes, who didn't credit them but people like Faulkner and Graham Green as her literary heroes, was able to move things in a different direction.  I'm especially fascinated at how her story In a Lonely Place where the wife of the police detective and the girlfriend-neighbor of the killer figure it out got written out of the radio adaptations as important actors and how they pretty much destroyed her story to make the movie with Bogey.  That's not an adaptation, it's vandalism.   I will go so far as to say that that one book of hers I've read is better than any of Chandler's.  But I'm willing to read more of her before I go into it.

Update 2:  I do love offending your tender sensibilities and your knee-jerk upholding of the official, real, right way to think about things.

I think anyone who believes that Raymond Chandler was the greatest writer of his time probably never read anything anyone else wrote, they probably didn't read Chandler but watched the movies and read the PR bull shit.  Raymond Chandler was a good writer, in some of his books, he wasn't a great writer.   He sure as hell wasn't as good as Steinbeck or Faulkner or Katherine Anne Porter.

Update 3:  Yeah, I can tell a googled list when I see one.

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