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.