I get unaccountable pleasure from reading crime and detective novels, especially those in the prewar era and extending into the 1950s. I’m sure that a lot of this is selection bias, since anything that’s going to be available at all these days will have stood the test of time and be way better than most of the pulp fiction written in the actual era. Anyway, Raymond Chandler is one of my favorites, but his work is inexplicably difficult to find. I’ve been searching the used book stores for years trying to find the twelve-story version of this book, since there are two different collections; one contains twelve short stories, the other just four. But I had to settle for the four story version, because that’s what I could find.
The Philip Marlowe contained within these stories is a little different than the character that we know and love from Chandler’s novels, and well he should be, since these stories were originally written with other detectives in mind and then re-edited to put Marlowe’s name in there after the novels became hits. But Chandler was writing about an archetype and the Marlowe novels themselves vary in quality immensely (Playback, for instance, is really not very good), so these could just as well have been written for Marlowe originally. Why not?
Perhaps the pleasure I get from reading these comes from the slightly through-the-looking-glass milieu that is contained there. Everyone’s speaking English and it’s allegedly America but it’s really not the same place we live in today. You can get a beer at a drive through window and even a street bum is wearing a suit, there’s everyday casual racism but everyone’s surprisingly polite and eloquent about everything. For instance, suppose you’re coming back from a business meeting and get jumped by two armed gunmen in your apartment. Could happen to anyone, I guess. And since you’re in something of a bad mood and a little drunk you decide to take them on anyway and beat them up. Afterwards the ringleader gives a little explanation and a compliment, noting that you’ve got “nice arm action there, pal. I will say that for you.”
I’m pretty sure in all times and places a real-life lowlife thug would throw in some cursing there as well, no matter how pretty your swing is.
The portrayal of the cops is pretty astounding too. They’re not all corrupt or on the make – although some are – but it’s pretty typical for them to manhandle every perp after every arrest, just on principle. They also smack around anyone who is suspicious, looks suspicious, or may become suspicious in the future. Or anyone who wise talks, which is everyone. No one’s surprised at being threatened with violence or death, at learning of the deaths of their associates, of being beaten into unconsciousness. Just give a stoic or smartass remark and go on.
I won’t lie, this is great stuff, and Chandler does it better than anyone. Except maybe Dashiell Hammett.
And it’s good that the writing and atmosphere is so excellent, because, with all due respect to Marlowe, he’s a terrible detective and no one should read these stories for the mystery. Marlowe almost never has to do any actual detective work since everyone comes to him. Seriously, it usually pans out that he doesn’t have a clue where to begin until some shadowy thugs come to try and menace him, and this gives him the information that he needs to find the next thug, and so on up the chain. A word of advice to any villains who discover that Philip Marlowe’s on your tail – do nothing. He’ll never find you. And if he does suspect you, then the mere fact that you haven’t hired some goons to hit him in the head with a blackjack and dump him in a ditch somewhere will throw suspicion off you. I think Chandler did realize that he tended to abuse these sorts of situations, so he tried to make the confrontations as exciting as possible; he also throws in a couple of deadpan internal critiques as to why he even bothers carrying a gun, since everyone takes it off him and beats him up anyway. Although someone who had sustained as many blows to the head as Marlowe did might not be capable of much abstract reasoning. Just saying. (There's also a famous story that while filming the movie version of The Big Sleep, Humphrey Bogart asked the director who had killed one of the victims, and the director contacted Chandler, who didn't know either - so definitely an author who didn't get little things like that get in the way of the plot.)
Marlowe’s a great character because he’s such a pain in the ass. There are plenty of times when, if he would just leave well enough alone, he could get out of a situation with no liability, no bruises, and occasionally some money as well. He doesn’t have a commitment to justice in the abstract and is just as likely to help cover up a murder as bring a murderer in, so that’s not it – he just absolutely hates to not have a situation resolved to his satisfaction. Also he reads poetry and plays chess, that’s a fighting man I can get behind. But what exactly drives him is never really gone into or explained, you just have to puzzle it out from his actions, which are infuriatingly contradictory sometimes, as he’s just as likely to perform some sort of altruistic act as to use sarcasm or violence.
In possibly the best of the four stories, “Red Wind”, Marlowe is drinking in a cheap bar when a man walks in, looking for a woman. No one’s seen her, but a drunk gets up and shoots the man dead, then leaves. Soon, both the woman who was being sought and the shooter end up at Marlowe’s apartment, the woman to ask for help and the shooter to eliminate the witness (see what I said about leaving well enough alone?) This one’s a little unusual since Marlowe, for once, wasn’t looking for trouble, and he ends up doing something pretty nice for no particular reason other than it is a good thing to do. For some reason, I enjoyed that best of all. “Goldfish” was the weakest of the four in my opinion, it felt the least like Marlowe and was somewhat more of a gimmick than you usually see in Chandler’s work. The other two are pretty solid and have a lot of double-crossing and violence in the best pulp tradition.
I still don’t know what makes Marlowe tick and I certainly wouldn’t want to live in his world, but I did enjoy this collection. When your greatest complaint about a story collection is that you want eight more stories, that’s a good use of your entertainment dollar.