A Last Act of Desperate Men

Raymond trouble

It took me a few years living in Georgia to realize just how much California is in my bones.  I grew up a Midwesterner but then spent 14 crucial years – 1995-2009, or age 22 to 36 – on the West Coast.  I never made a conscious decision to self-identify as a Californian, but after living in the Atlanta area for a couple years I suddenly realized just how much my time in California had shaped my personality.  And now, even though I’ve been in the South for nearly six years, no author takes me back to Los Angeles like Raymond Chandler.  When he writes, “There was a desert wind blowing that night.  It was one of those hot dry Santa Anas that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch,” I immediately think, I know that wind! Even though he’s writing about 1930’s L.A., I read his work and immediately return to late-night Santa Barbara streets, driving home after a show, the marine layer rolling in to slick my arm hanging out the open window and ghost a hazy nimbus around the amber streetlights.  The state still haunts me, but under Chandler’s influence it’s not an unwelcome possession.

Although I feel pretty firmly that Elmore Leonard is the undisputed master of crime fiction and, more narrowly, James Ellroy has cornered the market on a certain adrenalized, bare-knuckle strain of Los Angeles noir, it’s impossible not to see Chandler as the Rosetta Stone of the modern detective story, with Leonard and Ellroy and Rankin and Lehane and Hiaasen all tracing their lineage back to Chandler’s pitch-black tales of Philip Marlowe and the street-smart broads with whom he associates.

It’s been a long time since I last read Chandler – probably fifteen years or more since I closed The Long Goodbye – and the first paragraph of the title story in Trouble Is My Business is just like sinking into a warm bath.

Anna Halsey was about two hundred and forty pounds of middle-aged putty-faced woman in a black tailor-made suit.  Her eyes were shiny black shoe buttons, her cheeks were as soft as suet and about the same color.  She was sitting behind a black glass desk that looked like Napoleon’s tomb and she was smoking a cigarette in a black holder that was not quite as long as a rolled umbrella.  She said: ‘I need a man.’

For my money there’s nothing not to like about that passage, and the rest of the four stories in this collection are just as razor-sharp.  If I’m going to be honest, though, the actual plot mechanics are almost beside the point.  Chandler admits as much in a forward to the collection, where he says there’s no such thing as a classic mystery story because the only thing that really matters is the denouement, where everything is revealed, and everything that comes before is just process to get to the conclusion.  So to that end  – and I’ll come back to the kinda sorta problematic denouement theory in a sec – the stories in this collection are composed of more or less interchangeable parts:

  • Private eye Philip Marlowe as the world-weary narrator
  • A con involving money (two stories) or pearls (two stories)
  • A brassy dame with a gun
  • A scene where Marlowe gets hit in the back of the head with a sap
  • Two wise-cracking bad guys, one of whom might be garrulous and charismatic, the other taciturn and sullen, and only one of them will be a good shot
  • The mastermind of the con who isn’t nearly as smart as he thinks he is
  • A Los Angeles cop who reluctantly lets Marlowe go about his business
  • One or more scenes involving scotch or rye, which may or may not be set in a bar
  • Rapid-fire exchanges of dialogue where Marlowe says things like, “Some days I feel like playing smooth and some days I feel like playing it like a waffle iron.”

None of this is criticism, mind you.  The reason Chandler is so good is that he mixes and matches all these pieces and manages to put them together in novel and exciting ways each time.  In one story it’s about a guy who cheats a local mob boss out of $20,000; in another, Marlowe tracks some missing pearls to the Pacific Northwest.  Even though we recognize the parts, the thrill is in seeing how Chandler repurposes them from story to story.  Everything in this collection crackles with electricity.

Everything, that is, except for the denouement Chandler references, the part of the story he views as most vital to its success.  This is the only thing in Trouble Is My Business that feels antiquated: the scene where all the principal players are gathered in one room and Marlowe explains the nuts and bolts of everything that’s come before.  It’s a variation on what Roger Ebert called The Fallacy of the Talking Killer.  You know that tired scene from movies – where the bad guy has the good guy trapped and all he has to do is kill him but he spends five minutes explaining why he’s so bad and then the good guy escapes.  It’s kind of the same thing here, where Marlowe has to explain the contortions of the plot so we’ll see everything the way he sees it.  It’s a scene that I don’t really see in modern crime fiction, and in these stories it’s always necessary (Chandler is big on convoluted plots), but it also grinds the story to a halt.

But again, I don’t really mean this as criticism.  It’s an early hallmark of the genre Chandler essentially invented (yes yes, I know – Poe, Doyle, Christie, etc., etc. I’m talking contemporary crime fiction here), and by pointing it out I don’t want to dissuade anyone from reading what is an unequivocally delightful collection of stories.  It’s one of those rare occasions where I don’t mind substance taking a back seat to style.  Chandler’s not going to make me ponder the meaning of the universe, but he will dazzle me with sheer inventiveness of craft.  And of course take me back to California, where gravel roads disappear “around a shoulder of scrub oak and manzanita” and “plumes of pampas grass flare on the side of the hill, like jets of water.”

I wasn’t born in California, but reading Chandler is like going home.

*****

Current listening:

Red ocean

Red House Painters – Ocean Beach (1995)

Advertisements