Category Archives: Chandler Raymond

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.

The Long Good-bye by Raymond Chandler (book review)

‘…Organized crime is just the dirty side of the sharp dollar.’ (pg. 416) 

First published in 1953, The Long Good-bye is the sixth novel in Chandler’s Philip Marlowe series. I read most of them when I was a teenager, so they’re rereads now (my review of Farewell, My Lovely is here). I’d always considered The Big Sleep my favourite Chandler – after all, it was my first encounter with Marlowe and the hard-boiled crime novel in general.  The Long Good-bye , however, is giving Sleep a serious run for its money, certainly on the evidence of this reread.

As the novel opens, Marlowe stumbles upon and befriends a drunk by the name of Terry Lennox. Lennox has been abandoned by his ex-wife, Sylvia, who dumps him in the parking lot of a club. Over the course of the next few months, Marlowe runs into Lennox again, and the two men share the occasional drink together – gimlets at Victor’s bar. Lennox has remarried Sylvia, but their relationship remains rocky to say the least.

IMG_2013

Late one night, Lennox turns up at Marlowe’s home and asks if his friend will drive him to Tijuana where he plans to hop on a plane to Mexico. Marlowe agrees even though he suspects Lennox is fleeing the country because the cops are after him. Marlowe doesn’t want any details – he can tell it’s something serious, that’s enough.

On his return from Tijuana, Marlowe receives a visit from the cops who haul him in for questioning on suspicion of accessory after the fact. Sylvia has been found dead, apparently beaten to death with a bronze statue, and Lennox is the prime suspect. When Lennox’s body is found in Mexico along with a suicide note and confession to Sylvia’s murder, Marlowe is released without charge. But Marlowe doesn’t buy the confession – Lennox didn’t seem the type to murder his wife, certainly not in such a brutal manner. Marlowe continues to harbour suspicions about the case, a situation only exacerbated when he receives a warning from Harlan Potter’s lawyer, Sewell Endicott. Potter, a powerful media mogul and father to Sylvia Lennox, wants Marlowe to keep away from the case. Why stir up any unpleasant publicity now that the murderer has taken his own life?

As the novel progresses, Marlowe gets drawn into a web of corruption and conspiracy, a network that covers the District Attorney’s office, the coroner, various members of the police force and Harlan Potter’s media empire:

‘Newspapers are owned and published by rich men. Rich men all belong to the same club. Sure, there’s competition – hard, tough competition for circulation, for newsbeats, for exclusive stories. Just so long as it doesn’t damage the prestige and privilege and position of the owners. If it does, down comes the lid. The lid, my friend, is down on the Lennox case…’ (pg.78)

The novel contains a second plot strand, one involving an alcoholic writer, Roger Wade, and his wife, Eileen. Marlowe is approached by Wade’s publisher, Howard Spencer, who asks him if he will keep an eye on Wade until he finishes writing his latest novel. Wade has a habit of getting drunk and disappearing for a few days here and there. Marlowe doesn’t want to take the job but gets involved when Eileen Wade appeals to him personally.

Eileen Wade is a classic Chandler creation, a femme-fatale right up there with the best of them. No one writes a blonde walking into a bar quite like Chandler. Here’s Marlowe as he see Eileen for the first time:

She was slim and quite tall in a white linen tailor-made with a black and white polka-dotted scarf around her throat. Her hair was the pale gold of a fairy princess. There was a small hat on it into which the pale gold hair nestled like a bird in its nest. Her eyes were cornflower blue, a rare colour, and the lashes were long and almost too pale. She reached the table across the way and was pulling off a white gauntleted glove and the old waiter had the table pulled out in a way no waiter will ever pull a table out for me. She sat down and slipped the gloves under the strap of her bag and thanked him with a smile so gentle, so exquisitely pure, that he was damn near paralysed by it. She said something to him in a very low voice. He hurried away, bending forward. There was a guy who really had a mission in life. (pgs. 103-104)

I make no apologies for the length of that quote. I love Chandler’s style – it’s all about attitude and mood. Speaking of which, here’s a scene from the Lennox plotline – the cops are waiting for Marlowe as he arrives home from his trip to Tijuana. (I could have quoted it earlier, but it seems to fit better here):

It was two o’clock when I got back and they were waiting for me in a dark sedan with no police tags, no red light, only the double antenna, and not only police cars have those. I was half-way up the steps before they came out of it and yelled at me, the usual couple in the usual suits, with the usual stony leisure of movement, as if the world was waiting hushed and silent for them to tell it what to do.

‘Your name Marlowe? We want to talk to you.’

He let me see the glint of a badge. For all I caught of it he might have been Pest Control. (pgs. 41-42)

At first, the two plot strands seem separate from one another, but as the story develops it becomes clear that they are connected. Good-bye contains a plenty of twists and turns, but the storyline feels very satisfying.

The Long Good-bye, is reported to be Chandler’s most personal book. I can’t comment on that, but it certainly feels like his most ambitious work. This is a first-class hardboiled novel, but there’s more to it than that. Chandler uses The Long Good-bye as a means of raising questions about the society of the time – the rich and powerful are his key targets.

This novel, like the others, is set in Los Angeles. At times it feels like a lament for the loss of decency and justice in the city (if these things ever existed in the first place). Towards the end of the story we can sense that Marlowe is growing more than a little tired of this town.

I’ll finish with a final quote, one that captures this feeling. Marlowe mixes himself a stiff drink, stands by the open window and looks out over the city:

Twenty-four hours a day somebody is running, somebody else is trying to catch him. Out there in the night of a thousand crimes people were dying, being maimed, cut by flying glass, crushed against steering wheels or under heavy car tyres. People were being beaten, robbed, strangled, raped and murdered. People were hungry, sick, bored, desperate with loneliness or remorse or fear, angry, cruel, feverish, shaken by sobs. A city no worse than others, a city rich and vigorous and full of pride, a city lost and beaten and full of emptiness.

It all depends on where you sit and what your own private score is. I didn’t have one. I didn’t care.

I finished the drink and went to bed. (pg. 322)

Jose at The Game’s Afoot has reviewed this novel. I haven’t reviewed The Big Sleep, but there’s a great selection of quotes from the novel in this post by Tomcat in the red room.

The Long Good-bye is published by Penguin Books. Source: personal copy. Book 16/20 in my #TBR20.

Farewell, My Lovely by Raymond Chandler (book review)

The hunch I had was as vague as the heat waves that danced above the sidewalk (pg. 19, Penguin Books)

Ah, how I love Raymond Chandler and his hard-boiled private investigator, Philip Marlowe. In my other life, I would be Vivian from The Big Sleep, but that’s another book…

IMG_1673

In Farewell, My Lovely, Chandler’s second novel, the action opens with Marlowe investigating a run-of-the-mill missing-person’s case. During his pursuit, Marlowe stumbles upon something far more interesting altogether. He encounters Moose Molloy, a big bruiser just out of jail and on the lookout for his former love, Velma. The scene is Florian’s, a ‘dine and dice emporium’, a place where Velma worked as a singer at the time of Moose’s conviction some eight years ago. Before he knows it, Marlowe is right in the thick of it; Moose, who doesn’t seem to know his own strength, ends up breaking the bar manager’s neck and heads off with a gun leaving Marlowe to get drawn into the investigation.

One of the things I love about Chandler is his brilliant knack for describing scenes in such a way that we, as readers, feel we’re right there with the characters themselves. Here’s Marlowe as he meets the cop in charge of this case:

A man named Nulty got the case, a lean-jawed sourpuss with long yellow hands which he kept folded over his kneecaps most of the time he talked to me. He was a detective-lieutenant attached to the 77th Street Division and we talked in a bare room with two small desks against opposite walls and room to move between them, if two people didn’t try it at once. Dirty brown linoleum covered the floor and the smell of old cigar butts hung in the air. Nulty’s shirt was frayed and his coat sleeves had been turned in at the cuffs. He looked poor enough to be honest, but he didn’t look like a man who could deal with Moose Molloy.

He lit half of a cigar and threw the match on the floor, where a lot of company was waiting for it. (pg. 15)

Marlowe quickly discovers that Florian’s used to be owned by a guy named Mike Florian, now deceased but survived by his widow, Jesse. And when Marlowe pays Mrs Florian a visit, she appears to have something to hide…

‘Well, what do I do – date her up?’ Nulty asked.

‘I did it for you. I took in a pint of bourbon with me. She’s a charming middle-aged lady with a face like a bucket of mud and if she had washed her hair since Coolidge’s second term, I’ll eat my spare tyre, rim and all.’

‘Skip the wisecracks,’ Nulty said.

‘I asked Mrs Florian about Velma. You remember, Mr Nulty, the redhead named Velma that Moose Molloy was looking for? I’m not tiring you, am I, Mr Nulty?’

‘What you sore about?’

‘You wouldn’t understand. Mrs Florian said she didn’t remember Velma. Her home is very shabby except for a new radio worth seventy or eighty dollars.’

‘You ain’t told me why that’s something I should start screaming about.’

‘Mrs Florian – Jesse to me – said her husband left her nothing but his old clothes and a bunch of stills of the gang who worked at his joint from time to time. I plied her with liquor and she is a girl who will take a drink if she had to knock you down to get to the bottle. After the third or fourth she went into her modest bedroom and threw things around and dug the bunch of stills out of the bottom of an old trunk. But I was watching her without her knowing it and she slipped one out of the packet and hid it. So after a while I snuck in there and grabbed it.’

I reached into my pocket and laid the Pierrot girl on his desk. He lifted it and stared at it and his lips quirked at the corners. (pg 37-38)

Having read a few of Chandler’s books, I’m starting to admire this author more for his writing than his storylines. Farewell, My Lovely is all about sharp dialogue, attitude and mood. The plot itself is important of course, and this one has twists and turns aplenty, but the storyline almost seems secondary to those other aspects. The narrative is peppered with Marlowe’s wisecracking quips and one-liners (which just cry out to be quoted) and Chandler’s use of metaphor and simile is quite something:

A bogus heartiness, as weak as a Chinaman’s tea, moved into her face and voice. (pg. 26)

Her eyes stayed on the bottle. Suspicion fought with thirst, and thirst was winning. It always does. (pg.28)

It was a blonde. A blonde to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained-glass window. (pg. 97)

Alongside the search for Moose and Velma, Chandler introduces another stand to narrative as Marlowe picks up a job accompanying a man aiming to buy back a stolen necklace. At first the two cases appear unconnected, but Marlowe sniffs out a link, and our down-at-heel detective gets sucked into a web of corruption and power that has infected the affluent classes. Marlowe works on hunches, gets into all manner of scrapes, but we seem to know he’ll make it through somehow.

Farewell, My Lovely is a great noir – perhaps not quite up there with The Big Sleep, but it’s a downright enjoyable read all the same. Highly recommended.

Farewell, My Lovely is published in the UK by Penguin Books. Source: personal copy.