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Vintage Marlowe -- But a Boring Story & a Mediocre Book
on March 3, 2002
Raymond Chandler wrote 4 noir novels in the late 30s and early 40s that defined the Southern California hardboiled thriller forever after. I first discovered them 41 years ago and instantly fell in love with them. The High Window, though, I thought at the time, and through several subsequent rereadings, was by far the least of the four. I hadn't reread it in at least 20 years now, but, based on some of the favorable Amazon comments, I read it again yesterday. My opinion of it, I'm sorry to say, hasn't changed in 41 years....
Why do I think it's only a mediocre book? Forty-one years ago I couldn't have articulated it. Now, however, it's obvious:
Because, basically, it's a boring story.
As an earlier reviewer in these columns told us, The High Window was the only one of the first 4 Chandler books that was plotted as an entirety and not cobbled together from earlier short stories that Chandler had written for the pulp magazines. This, however, instead of being a virtue, actually turns out to be the major fault in the book.
Philip Marlowe, the first-person narrator and hero, is as beguiling as ever but the story he tells -- basically the search for a missing coin of great value -- is dull and listless. Each individual character is nicely sketched, as only Chandler could do at the height of his powers, and the writing sparkles and pops. But -- and this sounds strange but is absolutely true -- the story itself could equally well have been written by Agatha Christie with Hercule Poirot as the main character. An investigation is mounted; the detective moves from one character to the next; a couple of bodies are discovered; the detective exchanges banter with the police; he talks with a few more characters; he wraps up the case and tells us who murdered whom -- probably.
There is no menace directed at Marlowe, there is no suspense, there is no interest in finding out what is going to happen to any of the other characters, there is no action at all (unless you can call finding a couple of bodies action), and the plot itself is pretty dull if you stop and think about it for a few moments.
Why is this?
The short stories that Chandler wrote in the 30s for the pulp magazines (mostly Black Mask, I believe) were just that: pulp stories. They had action, violence, movement. Things happened to Marlowe (in his various incarnations) and Marlowe made things happen to other people. Guns went off, Marlowe got bopped on the head, he -- and other people -- were frequently in danger for their lives.
When Chandler cobbled these stories together into three of his first four novels, he brought all of these elements into the freshly created books. Guns fired, Marlowe was bashed on the head, locked up in padded cells, beaten up by crooked cops, menaced by *real* gangsters. There was danger and suspense -- even if you (and Chandler) didn't always know exactly what was happening or who was doing what to whom -- or why. Chandler's exquisite writing and marvelous evocation of Los Angeles of that time was laid over these pulpish elements and transformed these gothically plotted books into literature. But literature that was exciting and impossible to put down. What *is* going to happen next in The Lady in the Lake? And why? And how is Marlowe going to get out of *this* predicament? In these three books you really want to know.
In High Window there are none of these elements and the only reason you turn the pages is because of the wizardry of Chandler's writing and the picture he draws of 1941 Los Angeles and Pasadena during a few hot summer days. Here the cops are more friendly than threatening, all violence is off-page, the semi-gangster nightclub owner and his supposedly deadly bodyguard are minor characters who manifest nothing more than a few lines of tough-guy dialogue -- which then disappears when Marlowe is hired by them to do a job....
The transportation back to this vanished era of South California is well worth reading this book for (at least for me); but as a thriller up to the standards of the other early Chandlers it is simply a non-starter.