The High Window by Raymond Chandler

Something slightly different from me today, a little look at one of Raymond Chandler’s novels, The High Window (1942), his third featuring the legendary private eye, Philip Marlowe. As I’ve written about Chandler before – there are links to my previous posts here: Farewell, My Lovely and The Long Good-bye – I’ll try to keep this review fairly brief, certainly as far as the plot is concerned.

The novel opens in traditional hard-boiled fashion with Marlowe visiting a new client at her home, an elaborate but soulless mansion in Pasadena, Los Angeles County. The woman in question is Mrs Elizabeth Bright Murdock, a wealthy, cantankerous old widow whose main pleasures in life appear to involve the consumption of large quantities of port and the systematic bullying of her repressed secretary, a rather neurotic young lady by the name of Merle Davis.

Mrs Murdock is in need of ‘a nice clean private detective,’ someone to investigate the theft of a rare gold coin, the Brasher Doubloon, the pride of her late husband’s private collection, normally kept under lock and key in a secure room in the house. As far as Mrs Murdock is concerned, the coin has been taken by her wayward daughter-in-law, the former nightclub singer, Linda Murdock (nee Conquest), a woman she has never liked – both the coin and the girl disappeared at the same time, hence the suspicion surrounding her involvement in the case.

I love this first passage – it’s taken from a scene where Marlowe is sizing up Linda Conquest, just from a photograph given to him by Mrs Murdock. It’s textbook Chandler.

A wide cool go-to-hell mouth with very kissable lips. Nice nose, not too small, not too large. Good bone all over the face. The expression of the face lacked something. Once the something might have been called breeding, but these days I didn’t know what to call it. The face looked too wise and too guarded for its age. Too many passes had been made at it and it had grown a little too smart in dodging them. And behind this expression of wiseness there was the look of simplicity of the little girl who still believes in Santa Claus. (p. 18)

As the Doubloon’s disappearance is a private family matter, the police are not to be involved. Instead, Mrs Murdock wants the coin back in her possession, along with an uncontested divorce for her rather ineffectual son, Leslie, of whom she is very fond – this in spite of his foolish marriage to Linda. Marlowe, for his part, smells a rat from the start; and when he tries to probe Mrs Murdock for further information about Leslie, the shutters come down. Along with the police, Leslie must also be kept firmly out of the investigation…

“Young man, do you want this job or don’t you?”

“I want it if I’m told the facts and allowed to handle the case as I see fit. I don’t want it if you’re going to make a lot of rules and regulations for me to trip over.”

She laughed harshly. “This is a delicate family matter, Mr Marlowe. And it must be handled with delicacy.”

“If you hire me, you’ll get all the delicacy I have. If I don’t have enough delicacy, maybe you’d better not hire me. For instance, I take it you don’t want your daughter-in-law framed. I’m not delicate enough for that.”

She turned the colour of a cold boiled beet and opened her mouth to yell. Then she thought better of it, lifted her port glass and tucked away some more of her medicine.

“You’ll do,” she said dryly. (pp. 16-17)

Somewhat reluctantly, Marlowe takes the case – after all, there are bills to be paid and bottles of liquor to be purchased. So, he sets off to find Linda’s former flatmate from before her marriage, a nightclub entertainer named Lois Magic.

As is often the case in these stories, the opening premise is simply the first thread in a complex web of deep-rooted corruption, an entanglement of messy crimes and grubby misdemeanours. The underlying situation is much more involved and intricate than it appears at first sight. Turns out that Leslie Murdock is in hock to Alex Morny – the nightclub manager and husband of Lois Magic – to the tune of $12,000. And that’s merely the start of it; there are many more twists and developments to come.

Marlowe’s quest for the coin takes him into seedy offices and apartments, glamorous nightclubs and bars, a veritable myriad of sleazy locations in the city. Along the way, he discovers evidence of murder, infidelity, blackmail, counterfeiting and sexual harassment, some of which have been kept under wraps for several years. Perhaps unsurprisingly, there comes a time when Marlowe finds himself caught between the police and his client in the quest for some kind of moral justice. While never losing sight of the need to stay on the right side of the law to maintain his status as a private eye, he is also aware that there is the confidentiality of his client to protect. Either way, our protagonist is trapped between a rock and a hard place, grappling with a situation he can barely begin to understand.

Twelve hours to tie up a situation I didn’t even begin to understand. Either that or turn up a client and let the cops go to work on her and her whole family. Hire Marlowe and get your house full of law. 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. (p. 129)

Once again, I am struck by just how many of these hard-boiled stories coalesce around dysfunctional families, often headed up by a poisonous matriarch as is the case here. Mrs Murdock is a prime example, a cold, bitter, unscrupulous woman who will stop at nothing to protect her own position. She really is quite a character.

While The High Window isn’t quite up there with the best of Chandler’s novels (for me, that would be The Big Sleep or The Long Good-bye), it still makes for a terrific read. Once again, I find myself admiring this author more for his writing than his plotlines. It’s all about the exhilarating prose style, peppered as it is with sharp dialogue and quotable one-liners. Here’s one of my favourites from the book, a wonderful description of the Idle Valley Club, the joint where Linda and Lois used to work.

The lobby looked like a high-budget musical. A lot of light and glitter, a lot of scenery, a lot of clothes, a lot of sound, an all-star cast, and a plot with all the originality and drive of a split fingernail. (p. 135)

Then there’s the irresistible combination of atmosphere, mood and indisputable sense of place. No one writes about Los Angeles quite like Chandler, from the plush estates of Bel Air to the rundown areas like Bunker Hill. I’ll wrap things up with a final quote, one that captures something of the dark underbelly of the city.

Bunker Hill is old town, lost town, shabby town, crook town. Once, very long ago, it was the choice residential district of the city, and there are still standing a few of the jigsaw Gothic mansions with wide porches and walls covered with round-end shingles and full corner bay windows with spindle turrets. They are all rooming houses now, their parquetry floors are scratched and worn through the once glossy finish and the wide sweeping staircases are dark with time and with cheap varnish laid on over generations of dirt. In the tall rooms haggard landladies bicker with shifty tenants. On the wide cool front porches, reaching their cracked shoes into the sun, and staring at nothing, sit the old men with faces like lost battles. (pp. 70-71)

The High Window is published by Vintage Crime/Black Lizard; personal copy.

32 thoughts on “The High Window by Raymond Chandler

  1. madamebibilophile

    I’ve only read The Big Sleep but cantankerous widows and missing doubloons really appeal, so this will be my next Chandler! i completely agree, it’s the prose style that is his strength, the plots are secondary.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, absolutely – I always see Bogart in my mind whenever I read these novels! Howard Hawks definitely set the mould with his marvellous adaptation of The Big Sleep. Even though other actors have played Philip Marlowe since then, he’ll always be synonymous with Bogart for me.

      Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          Yes, indeed. I know there are others who prefer Dick Powell or Robert Mitchum in the role of Marlowe (as per the adaptations of Farewell, My Lovely), but he’ll always be Bogart to me. :)

          Reply
  2. gertloveday

    I’ve never forgotten the opening chapter of this, the description of the street and the house. And the description of Mrs Murdock as having ‘a lot of face and chin”. Maybe not his best, but one of my favourites.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, it’s a great opening, full of little details that bring the picture to life. I couldn’t help but think that this novel (and the character of Mrs Murdock in particular) must have been an influence on Ross Macdonald’s The Drowning Pool which was published in 1950. There are some clear similarities between Mrs M and Maude Slocum, the matriarch in The Drowning Pool…

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ah, no worries, Ali. I remember you saying that you had some difficulties with The Big Sleep a year or so ago – it was your book group’s choice if my memory serves me correctly? While I love Chandler’s style, I can appreciate why it might not appeal to everyone!

      Reply
  3. Lady Fancifull

    Oh Chandler, oh Marlowe, against which every hardboiled must be measured and will be found wanting.

    I was late coming to him. And steered to him by someone who knew my need for superlative writing. Like you, it is that writing, those observations and those characters. You just might send me back to a Chandler collection on the shelves. And Bogie, Bogie. Though I do like Mitchum.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, Chandler certainly set the standard as far as this genre is concerned. Out of interest, have you ever read any of Ross Macdonald’s novels – the ones featuring his LA-based private eye, Lew Archer? If not, they’re definitely worth a look. The early entrants in the series definitely bear the hallmarks of Chandler’s influence, but then the books start to settle into their own style. If anything, I find Lew Archer a little more sympathetic than Marlowe, a little more compassionate I guess. That said, Chandler was my first love as far as hardboiled fiction is concerned, so I’ll always have a fondness for the world-weary Marlowe.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      You know, it’s funny – I never seem to tire of these stories of corrupt and dysfunctional families, especially if they’re set in the 1940s or ’50s. There’s something about this era I find endlessly fascinating. And yes – it’s got to be Bogart, hasn’t it? No other actor comes close…

      Reply
  4. Caroline

    This was my favourite writer for years. Or one of them but it’s been a while since I’ve read him. I still remember a few of his books very well but not this one. Nothing in your review sounded familiar. I remember the first I read, Farewell, My Lovely and the last, which I think is the best, The Long Goodbye.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I thought I had read this one (along with all his others) several years ago, back in my teenage days, but I couldn’t remember much about it either. Maybe it just didn’t stick with me at the time or the others proved more memorable on account of the various film adaptations – I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve watched The Big Sleep and Murder, My Sweet (Farewell, My Lovely) over the years! I love The Long Good-bye, too – it feels the most melancholic of the series.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It’s interesting how we all develop our own favourites when it comes to certain genres and styles. I have to confess to preferring Chandler over Hammett. Nevertheless, I can understand his appeal – The Maltese Falcon is terrific.

      Reply
  5. 1streading

    It’s a long time since I read Chandler, and I haven’t read this one. I do like to squeeze in some crime fiction every so often, but with so many Simenon novels coming out it’s difficult to manage anything else! Hopefully I can return to him later.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It’s been really interesting to return to him after all these years. Luckily, the novels still hold up very well – I would definitely recommend them, this one included.

      Reply
  6. Brian Joseph

    I have been meaning to read Chandler for some time. I think that I will like these books. I have seen multiple films based upon his works. I tend to love them. This very famous book sounds fantastic.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Every reader should try Chandler at some point, just to get a taste of his style. Even if you don’t go on to read the whole set, it’s worth trying one of the first two in the series. The films are wonderful, aren’t they? Particularly The Big Sleep and Murder, My Sweet. I’m losing count of the number of times I’ve seen them…

      Reply
  7. Max Cairnduff

    I read this years ago. I don’t remember it well but in terms of where it ranks my recollection fits with your thoughts here – lots of fun as ever even if not one of the best. I do need to reread these.

    Have you read any John Fante? The reference to Bunker Hill reminded me of him. There’s a review of his Ask the Dust at mine as you may recall and it is worth reading alongside some Chandler or Ross Macdonald.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Even slightly-less-than-stellar Chandler is better than a lot of other things. As you say, they’re great fun – there’s much to enjoy here.

      No Fante yet, but I do have a copy of Ask the Dust somewhere – probably purchased off the back of previous recommendation from you. I really must dig it out. I think you’re right to suggest that it would make interesting reading alongside Chandler’s and Macdonald’s views of LA, even if the period it covers is a little earlier.

      Reply
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  9. Richard Lopez

    I have this lined up for a reread this year, so I’ve been skirting around reading your review in full until today. Agree with your basic premise (i.e. that it’s not Chandler’s best) and the idea that his prose and atmosphere make up for any deficiency re: plot. Great writer all the same.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Absolutely. Even a slightly less than top-flight Chandler is better than many other crime novels. He had a wonderful way with words, a true prose stylist. I hope you enjoy the re-read.

      Reply
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