The High Window
“In everything that can be called art there is a quality of redemption. It may be pure tragedy, if it is high tragedy, and it may be pity and irony, and it may be the raucous laughter of the strong man. But down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. The detective in this kind of story must be such a man.
He is the hero, he is everything. He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honour — by instinct, by inevitability, without thought of it, and certainly without saying it. He must be the best man in his world and a good enough man for any world. I do not care much about his private life; he is neither a eunuch nor a satyr; I think he might seduce a duchess and I am quite sure he would not spoil a virgin; if he is a man of honour in one thing, he is that in all things.
He is a relatively poor man, or he would not be a detective at all. He is a common man or he could not go among common people. He has a sense of character, or he would not know his job. He will take no man’s money dishonestly and no man’s insolence without a due and dispassionate revenge. He is a lonely man and his pride is that you will treat him as a proud man or be very sorry you ever saw him. He talks as the man of his age talks — that is, with a rude wit, a lively sense of the grotesque, a disgust for sham, and a contempt for pettiness.
The story is this man’s adventure in search of a hidden truth, and it would be no adventure if it did not happen to a man fit for adventure. He has a range of awareness that startles you, but it belongs to him by right, because it belongs to the world he lives in. If there were enough like him, the world would be a very safe place to live in, without becoming too dull to be worth living in.” — from The Simple Art of Murder by Raymond Chandler (November 1945, The Atlantic Monthly).
Humor is the only test of gravity, and gravity of humor; for a subject which will not bear raillery is suspicious, and a jest which will not bear serious examination is false wit. –Aristotle
Why worry? Why be doubtful or confused? Why be gnawed by suspicion? Consult cool, careful, confidential, discreet investigator. George Anson Phillips. Glenview 9521. –Raymond Chandler, The High Window (1943)
Why worry? Why be doubtful and confused? Why be gnawed by suspicion? Consult cockeyed, careless, clubfooted, dissipated investigator. Philip Marlowe, Glenview 7537. See me and you meet the best cops in town. Why despair? Why be lonely? Call Marlowe and watch the wagon come.–Raymond Chandler, The High Window
Some 65 years ago, author and critic Edmund Wilson (‘Bunny’ to his friends) used his regular New Yorker column, ‘Books’, to villify crime writing. Between the end of 1944 and early 1945 he wrote three columns in which he launched a vitriolic attack on detective fiction and those who read it. (In an error-filled column later in 1945, Wilson dismissed the writing of H. P. Lovecraft as “hackwork”.)
The columns: “Why Do People Read Detective Stories?”, “Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd: A Second Report on Detective Fiction”, “Mr. Holmes, They Were the Footprints of a Gigantic Hound”, were, in turn, mean-spirited, ignorant, contradictory and illogical. Wilson is mostly forgotten now (hands up everyone who’s read To The Finland Station. No? Memoirs of Hecate County? No? Oh, well…) while the objects of his scorn, writers like Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett and Agatha Christie are still read by millions. Sorry, Bunny.
It’s worth mentioning because I believe Wilson’s essays had a powerful and long-lasting effect on the reading public or rather, that part of the reading public that shapes opinion and the attitudes of editors and publishers.
The after-effect is with us still. Crime fiction is regarded as somehow less worthy of thoughtful consideration and criticism than so-called ‘serious’ fiction despite the fact that one Raymond Chandler novel is worth everything that Iris Murdoch ever wrote…and then some.
My introduction to crime fiction (or what I think of as ‘modern’ crime fiction) was courtesy of my mother, who has eclectic tastes. Her shelves contained the country-house, locked-room, Col. Mustard-with-the-candlestick stuff of Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers and Mary Roberts Rinehart alongside the almost psychopathic brutalism of James Hadley Chase and James M. Cain, the simplistic and jingoistic thrillers of Edgar Wallace and the complex, subtle works of Simenon and Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo. Somehow, my mother had missed Chandler and Hammett. I discovered them on my own, especially Chandler.
My discovery of Chandler was a game-changer for me. Suddenly, here was crime fiction that could hold its head up in any company. My discovery came about like this: as a 16 year-old in Kuwait, I was in the habit of driving over to the Sheraton Hotel most mornings and installing myself by the pool, there to read and swim and smoke cigarettes in what I fondly imagined was a tough/urbane/suave manner.
It wasn’t any paucity of swimming pools that drove me to the Sheraton; no. What the Sheraton had was, for a 16 year-old with raging hormones, one irresistible advantage over other available pools. Air hostesses. Lots of them.
All the airlines put their flight crews up at the Sheraton for lay-overs and the pool fairly pullulated with pulchritude of a morning. The girls, many of them not much older than myself, were friendly and chatty and…well, anyway. On my way into the hotel in the morning, I’d stop off at the news-kiosk/bookshop in the lobby and pick up the papers. On my out, I’d stop and peruse the books.
One day, as I scanned the books on offer, a garishly covered paperback caught my eye. A violently day-glo orchid, a man’s tortured face in profile, a gun, a palm tree. It was The Long Goodbye by Raymond Chandler, a Doubleday paperback. I’d never heard of him but the enthusiastic encomiums on the back cover persuaded me. I took it home and started reading it. I didn’t put it down until I’d finished it. I was enthralled. The laconic private eye, Philip Marlowe, delivered the narration with a wry, knowing wit. The dialogue had a snap and crackle like nothing I’d read before. It was the opposite of the long-established whodunit. Nobody, least of all the reader, gave a damn whodunit.
It whetted my appetite for a new kind of crime fiction and that appetite grew. The next morning, I was in the Sheraton’s lobby, waiting for the news kiosk to open. I bought every Chandler they had (and they had most of them). I read and re-read them compulsively. That was 40 years ago. I re-read them all recently and they’re every bit as good as I remembered them.
Down these mean blogs a poet must go…so give us a Chandler-esque poem
The Big Sleep
The dream’s always the same:
the alley at night,
the dame, the pooled blood
reflecting the light,
the gun in my pocket:
the perfect frame.
The one thing the cops know for sure
is my name.
The hiss of cars on a rainy street,
the squeal of tires braking hard,
the voice in my head says you’re anyone’s meat
she lied and she lied:
time to turn a new card.
Break for the border, down Mexico way
bribable cops and no questions asked
always some space for a man with no name
a man with no face, no ties and no past.
Even down south, the shadows are deep,
the sand blows in under the door while you sleep,
the grit that disturbs you’s a capital crime
that robs you of solace and murders your time.
Our friend Tom Clark wrote a very fine Chandler-esque poem HERE. Puts my paltry effort into context, sadly…