Two Three By Chandler

Between trying to get settled in a new house, the Thanksgiving gathering and feast, and a bad cold, I haven't had any time and not much inclination for writing over the past four or five days. The cold is a bigger factor than perhaps it should be, as it's been accompanied by a fairly bad headache which makes me want to avoid exercise of both mind and eyes. But it's better today, enough for a brief post, at least.

The term "cozy mystery," or simply "cozy," refers to a species of detective fiction in the Agatha Christie mold: low in violence and other sensationalism, set in a small community, with an amateur detective. If you've read any Christie at all, or similar others (and who hasn't?) you'll understand the term (and probably already know it). The cozy usually depicts a decent and orderly world, and the killer or killers is/are not terrifying psychopaths or habitually violent. It doesn't usually give you the feeling that you're looking into the abyss; the orderly world is not deeply shaken by the crime, and order returns.

I'm not particularly drawn to the cozy mystery, but I get the appeal. And the detective stories I like most serve a similar purpose for me. It sounds absurd to suggest that there is anything cozy about the worlds of Raymond Chandler and Ross Macdonald's work, but there is something in my attraction to it that's similar to the appeal of the cozy. In Chandler especially it's a dark and violent world, and there isn't so much a breakdown of order as an established and conquering disorder into which the detective forces a very limited and often unwelcomed ordered space. And in both writers there's a pervasive melancholy with a romantic streak, a sense of the world as a fundamentally sad but beautiful place. That's the cozy-ness of it for me, and it's enabled by the knowledge that, unlike some contemporary crime fiction, there is not going to be a sudden injection of truly sickening violence, the kind of thing that will disturb me to the point of not wanting to read further. (That's probably a sad testimony to our culture's increased tolerance for realistic depictions of violence in books and film--and to mine.)

When we were packing up books to move a few weeks ago I held back The Midnight Raymond Chandler because I wanted, in the midst of all the stress, the kind of "comfort reading" I'm talking about. It's a collection containing several novellas and two full novels. I read the first piece, "Red Wind," a fairly early novella which, I just realized, is a Marlowe story which preceded Marlowe--that is, he first appears by name in The Big Sleep in 1939, which was after "Red Wind." But he's essentially the same character. 

"Red Wind" begins memorably:

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. On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands' necks. Anything can happen.

Crypto-Marlowe goes to a bar where the only other customer is a man who seems to have been drinking there for some time. A well-dressed man walks in and asks if anyone has seen a woman, whom he describes. The drunk...well, I'll let Chandler describe it:

[The newcomer] took three or four steps and stopped, facing the drunk. The drunk was grinning. He swept a gun from somewhere so fast that it was just a blur coming out. He held it steady and he didn't look any drunker than I was.... The drunk's gun was a .22 target automatic, with a large front sight. It made a couple of hard snaps and a little smoke curled--very little.

"So long, Waldo," the drunk said.

That's how they wrote 'em for Black Mask, where the story appeared. The story that unfolds from there involves a woman who is still pining for her first love, and who talks of him and that love in almost mystical terms which it is possible that they do not entirely merit. 

Then I skipped to the last work in the volume, The Long Goodbye, which is also the last novel Chandler wrote, published in 1953, and was a little surprised to find in it another woman speaking in much the same way of the same sort of lost lover. It's a big part of the plot in both works, and it makes me think that there was something in Chandler's life that made it an especially powerful device for him.

As far as I can remember I read The Long Goodbye once long ago, probably the early 1980s or maybe late '70s, and not since. It's as good as I remembered, though I can't say that this reading confirmed my opinion from back then that it's my favorite, since it's been more or less as long since I read the others. Suffice to say that it has all the vivid California color, romance, sleaze, and sadness that one expects of a Chandler work. 

The first time I laid eyes on Terry Lennox he was drunk in a Rolls-Royce Silver Wraith outside the terrace of The Dancers.... There was a girl beside him. Her hair was a lovely shade of dark red and she had a distant smile on her lips and over her shoulders she had a blue mink that almost made the Rolls-Royce look like just another automobile.

I don't recall that Marlowe explains what he was doing at such a ritzy club. The "girl" with Terry Lennox is his wife, who disdains him and, when he slides out of the Rolls onto the pavement, drives away without him. Marlowe rescues him, gets to know him a bit, likes him a bit, and they have a sort of friendship that mainly involves meeting now and then for a drink. Then Lennox's wife, who, not surprisingly, was chronically unfaithful to him, is murdered, and he, the obvious suspect, disappears. And it seems for a while as if that little story is over and apparently unrelated to what comes after, in which Marlowe gets mixed up with an alcoholic novelist and his wife, but of course it isn't.

I'm quoting this passage not because it's important to the story but because I like it so much; it's a good instance of Chandler's skill:

I hit the office about ten, picked up some odds and ends of mail, slit the envelopes and let the stuff lie on the desk. I opened the windows wide to let out the smell of dust and dinginess that collected in the night and hung in the still air, in the corners of the room, in the slats of the venetian blinds. A dead moth was spread-eagled on a corner of the desk. On the window sill a bee with tattered wings was crawling along the woodwork, buzzing in a tired remote sort of way, as if she knew it wasn't any use, she was finished, she had flown too many missions and would never get back to the hive again.

There is a twist in the denouement which struck me as implausible. Very implausible. In fact there are several incidents in the plot which struck me that way, but only the last one broke through the suspension-of-disbelief threshold. You might suppose--at least I did--that the title is just a way of referring to death, like calling it "the big sleep." It doesn't, though, at least not primarily; it's more poignant than that. 

The Blue Dahlia is a 1946 movie for which Chandler wrote the screen play. It's Alan Ladd, Veronica Lake, and William Bendix again, this time Bendix playing a good guy but still a somewhat unbalanced one, due to a brain injury in the war. 

Three newly discharged veterans return home--to Los Angeles, of course. One of them is married, and after a couple of farewell drinks he leaves the others and seeks out his wife. She is not at all glad to see him; she has been living a life of partying, drinking, and infidelity. (That kind of betrayal was apparently not as rare as one would like to think.) He leaves, determined to have nothing more to do with her. Sometime in the following hours she is murdered, and of course he is the prime suspect. (As this pattern occurs in The Long Goodbye, it's worth noting that the film came first.)

As a whodunit puzzle, and just in general as a movie, it's very good, definitely one to see if you like this type of thing. Somehow, though, it didn't engage me as strongly as some others in this vein; not as strongly, for instance, as Detour, maybe because it isn't as noir. And it isn't a Philip Marlowe story; the hero is somewhat on the vague and ordinary side in comparison, but then he's not a detective, either, just a good man with a bad wife. 

Maybe it should have been in color. The effect of the blue dahlia is rather lost in black-and-white.


Goodreaders on The Summerhouse Trilogy; More Noir

Lat week when I wanted to check certain details about The Summerhouse Trilogy but didn't have access to the book, I looked around on the web a bit for reviews or summaries which might help. I didn't find any, but I ended up looking through all the reader comments at Goodreads. Most were positive, and at least one reader says that she reads the book every year. But the negatives...well, they say much more about the reviewer than the reviewed.

Some seem not to have paid very close attention, as the full story is not "retold" in the three sections, but rather revealed gradually and cumulatively. Unless my memory is wrong, which it could be, or I missed something, the most startling bit is not revealed until the third section. But these folks didn't get it. Or maybe they're just that jaded:

I could have done without the third re-telling of the story.

I had hoped this final chapter would shed some light on things, but it really didn't. I wish I had given up after the first chapter spent time with a book I enjoyed.

And these two people, especially the second, seem to be the sort for whom anything not of the present day and culture is for precisely that reason dull and irrelevant:

Depressing first section in a supposedly funny British satire on trite callous middle class values.

Gah. This book did not age well at all. It was awful and prehistoric.

I don't see exactly how "callous" comes into it. I do have some sympathy for those who found the book dull, as much of it is subtle and without visible drama. Several readers complained about Margaret, the miserable girl of the first section--"a dishrag," one said. That's not unjustified, but it's an aspect of Margaret's problem. Still, these three apparently would have preferred a romance or thriller: 

A perfectly adequate, well written, thoroughly dull book. Not even hashish, sex and suicide could save this book from the monotony of the characters.

I am still reading this book, which is a book club nomination. It is awful! The characters are extremely unlikeable (except for Aunt Lily, and that is only because she is intoxicated most of the time and wears garish clothes). Even the dog has no name. It is the most uninspiring, slow moving, non-interesting book I have read.

Blecchhhh! I can't believe I finished reading this book, or that anyone would think it was interesting enough to make a movie out of! I hated it to the very last page.

At least that last one did push through every hated page.

This one I rather liked, and would suggest to the reader that she keep thinking about the book:

The author is an English Catholic whose work I’ve seen compared to that of Flannery O'Connor. She does not provide a nice, tidy, Christian ending or even tidy Christian answers. If I had read this book in my youth, I think I might even have interpreted it as anti-Christian.

*

Detour is an excellent example of the noir genre, apparently considered one of the classics. It has a pretty simple plot, which makes it different from many of its type. A famous story has it that William Faulkner and another writer working on the script for The Big Sleep were puzzled by a plot point and asked Raymond Chandler for clarification--and he didn't know, either. 

A young man and a young woman are working together as a night club act in New York. They plan to be married, but the young woman leaves for Hollywood, hoping to become a star, and the young man stays behind. (It isn't entirely clear to me why he didn't go with her, but never mind.) Later he decides to follow her after all, and begins hitchhiking across the country. He gets as far as Arizona when he gets a ride from a man in a big expensive car. Thus begins the detour. 

Detour

It's a low budget movie, starring people I hadn't heard of before (Tom Neal and Ann Savage), and it's not much more than an hour long, but it really works. 

*

I'm often struck in these older films by little things indicative of the degree to which many things have changed since the films were made. Many big things are striking, too, of course, but I mean the almost trivial ones. When was the last time you heard someone say "Give me change for a dime"? Or one which I think I may have heard as a child or a teenager, but which has disappeared for very good reason: "That's white of you." I mean that it's disappeared as a compliment. You may still hear it today, but if you do it will be  as an insult. 

Before the young man leaves for California, he calls his girlfriend. Remember long-distance calls? His brief New York-Los Angeles call costs him five dollars. That's eighty-two dollars in today's money, according to this site, which says that the dollar has lost 94% of its value since 1945. That sounds like a catastrophe, doesn't it? 

Another phrase you don't hear anymore: "sound as a dollar."


Alice Thomas Ellis: The Summerhouse Trilogy; A Couple of Noirs

I'm going to be more brief than this book deserves, because it's been several months since I read it and I want to refresh my memory about certain things, but I've just moved to a new house and almost all my books are still in boxes awaiting the resolution of questions about bookshelves. And I have no idea which box this book is in.

I think it was Charlotte Bronte who said of her sister Emily's creation, Heathcliff, that she was not sure that the creation of such a being was morally justified. I had a somewhat similar thought about Lili, the central character in this book. When I say that she is central I don't mean that she is what we usually call "the protagonist," that it is her fate which mostly concerns and engages the reader. But she is central in that she is the agent whose powers of action cause so much else to happen, or, more importantly in this case, not to happen: this is the story of a wedding that does not take place. And she is in a sense more than the others: not only her human self, but the expression, at least, of a powerful, mysterious, and fundamentally unholy force. If "strong female character" is one of your criteria for value in fiction, you'll certainly get your money's worth from this novel. 

In fact it is effectively an all-female cast of characters, though not all are strong. There are men present, but they're more or less stupid, unfortunate necessities. The book is not so much a trilogy as a trio of novellas (or three very long chapters) telling one basic story from the point of view of three different women. The three narrators are all very much a part of each other's lives, and the contrast between what each sees and assumes about the others, and the others' inner life, is striking--as striking as it probably would be in life. It's a technical tour de force, the points of contact among the narratives polished and precisely fitted. I recall one brief incident in particular, involving a dog's attention to a woman's foot, which is very different and rather more significant when seen for the second time and from a different point of view. 

The first section, The Clothes in the Wardrobe, takes us into the mind of Margaret, a young woman who is about to be married. The marriage would be against her will except that she doesn't seem to have much of a will. She has suffered a romantic and religious trauma which has sent her into despair, including the specifically theological sense of that word, resigned and indifferent to the pressures exerted by her mother and the suitor, a boorish older man, Syl. Significantly, Margaret's narration begins with a description of Lili. 

The second book, The Skeleton in the Closet, is the viewpoint of Syl's mother, Mrs. Munro, a somewhat embittered older woman who doesn't think a great deal more of Syl than does Margaret. Alice Thomas Ellis is not the only novelist to give us strikingly different views of a character from outside and inside, but the movement from the first section to this one is a particularly effective turn. Margaret has had much to say about her future mother-in-law, most of it negative and also inaccurate, and we are a little surprised--well, at least I was--to find her so different, and so much more sympathetic. She thinks Margaret is making a mistake. But she is as weary of and resigned toward the troubles of others as she is of her own.

The Fly in the Ointment gives us Lili as she really is and not as we have been seeing her through the eyes of Margaret and Mrs. Munro. She is among other things the sort of person who is often described, with a touch of envy, as a free spirit, or, with a touch of dread, as a force of nature. She is also more or less amoral in many ways. But it is she who not only sees the disaster into which Margaret is sleepwalking but acts to prevent it. I think I can promise you that you won't forget what she does.

When I finished this book I made this comment in an email to a couple of friends:

My reaction is a kind of astonishment, not 100% positive. I read the last paragraph, closed the book, and said "Golly, what a book." Not "golly" but "gah-LEE," the "golly" of someone coming out of a storm shelter after a tornado and taking a look around. 

This was a reaction not only to the closing incident but to the whole thing, superbly executed by an intelligence that sometimes seems a little malicious. The atmosphere is so full of feminine resentment, suspicion, and struggle that I found myself wondering if this sort of thing is what goes on in the minds of most women most of the time. There is an almost cold, almost merciless quality about Ellis's intelligence and wit (there is a fair amount of humor here). I keep the word "almost" because there is more than cold clinical skill at work. The quality which makes me think "merciless" is an unflinching willingness to see these people as they truly are, to let them, so to speak, get away with nothing. And in the end there is mercy, though it comes in such a manner as to lead one to the old question about good coming from evil. This is a religiously grounded work, but, like Flannery O'Connor's and in some ways even more so, hardly comforting. At least two reviews that I came across used the words "witch" and "witchy" of the author, and I can see why. 

*

For various reasons, none especially good but some better than others, I've gotten almost entirely out of the habit of watching serious movies. My Criterion Channel subscription has gone mostly unused for months, and I've wondered whether I should keep it. But they're calling this month "Noir November" and are running a number of noir titles which piqued my interest. 

The 1942 adaption of Dashiell Hammett's The Glass Key is a good one, starring Veronica Lake and Alan Ladd. I admit that I have a thing for Veronica Lake. After watching it I would have immediately picked up the novel, because I want to know whether the somewhat happy ending is Hammett's or not; I suspect not. But that book is also packed away.

The plot is complex, as one expects of Hammett, and the film is more genuinely dark than some of its kindred, especially in the sequence where the hero, Ed Beaumont, is held captive and beaten repeatedly by thugs. It's rare in these movies to see a depiction of the effects of violence that's remotely plausible. Beaumont is beaten almost to death, and we believe it. Far from bouncing back with a band-aid or two on his face, he spends a significant amount of time in the hospital. I have a vague childhood memory of William Bendix as a likeable cloddish sort of guy in a TV series called The Life of Riley, so it was a bit of a surprise to see him as a malicious brute. 

I also watched Call Northside 777 and This Gun for Hire. The former is not really noir, but it features Jimmy Stewart as a reporter trying to exonerate a man convicted of a murder he didn't commit. The latter stars Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake again, so is automatically appealing to me. It's based on a Graham Greene novel, modified for an American audience in the midst of World War II, and maybe a notch below The Glass Key as a film--less plausible on the whole, for one thing--but still very worthwhile for those who like this sort of thing. And anyway, Veronica Lake. 

VeronicaLakeImage swiped from this site which sells prints. I'm not usually drawn to the Hollywood Blonde types, but there is something about her that charms me.