Impressions before Reading
I suspect everyone has a favorite atmospheric decade. That time period, regardless of the social problems and inconveniences it presents, becomes a place for the imagination to flourish. It is easy to find these in books, and though I’ve read plenty of novels written in and set in the 1930s, I had never before read noir. I had seen a far few noir films, classics with their skewed Dutch angles and impossibly high shadows arching up walls. I also knew of Chandler’s reputation, stretching as it does to films like The Big Lebowski. I know people who love the idea of the 1930s, even if it is just an idea preserved in pulp fiction.
I started with Raymond Chandler for the same reason that I’m going to suggest everyone else start with Raymond Chandler. He writes for character and atmosphere rather than plot. The novels have plenty of plot but it all tends to become an inextricably tangled set of shoelaces. To remember where one plot point began I would have to study that ball of loose ends and complications from the outside, and I mean really study it; I don’t think it’s worth the reader’s time, frankly, so just pull an Alexander the Great and snip that Gordian knot plot open.
I’m going to spare you the trouble of reading my convoluted plot set up. A mystery just requires a good teaser on the back cover to reel someone in, so here’s the official one on my copy: “When a dying millionaire hires Philip Marlowe to handle the blackmailer of one of his two troublesome daughters, Marlowe finds himself involved with more than extortion. Kidnapping, pornography, seduction, and murder are just a few of the complications he gets caught up in.”
I hadn’t seen the classic film version of this novel but I already knew that, upon opening to the first pages, that Humphrey Bogart was going to be my mental image of Philip Marlowe. It was inevitable. I also knew this potentially apocryphal anecdote about the film that, I think, nicely sums up why one doesn’t read Chandler for a typical hard-boiled mystery plot. During shooting, director Howard Hawks was so confused as to who actually killed the chauffer that he called up Chandler asking for an explanation. He admitted that he’d completely forgotten to identify the killer of this person in the book and had no idea who did it.
My advice is to just bask in the language. Chandler practically invented the smart aleck detective with Marlowe, who is at once collected, quick-thinking, and constantly throwing back a raw scotch at the end of hard day. (Seriously, I’m sure there are noir drinking games.) The prose was always a pleasure to read and the overall effect reminded me of P.G. Wodehouse, particularly in his Jeeves & Wooster books. The language is a nice slurring of slang and elegant simile. Like Wodehouse, Chandler also fashions a remarkable staying power out of his detective, who would go on to beat the mean streets in several sequels. On the framework of make it up as you go plot twists the character always maintains interest. Without further rambling, I’m just going to catalogue some 30s-tastic language.
“I was neat, clean, shaved and sober, and I didn’t care who knew it.”
“I don’t mind you showing me your legs. They’re very swell legs and it’s a pleasure to make their acquaintance. I don’t mind if you don’t like my manners. They’re pretty bad. I grieve over them during the long winter nights.”
“Dead men are heavier than broken hearts.”
“It seemed like a nice neighborhood to have bad habits in.”
“It was raining again the next morning, a slanting gray rain like a swung curtain of crystal beads.”
“She lowered her lashes until they almost cuddled her cheeks and slowly raised them again, like a theatre curtain. I was to get to know that trick. That was supposed to make me roll over on my back with all four paws in the air.”
“You’re broke, eh?”
“I been shaking two nickels together for a month, trying to get them to mate.”
“What did it matter where you lay once you were dead? In a dirty sump or in a marble tower on the top of a high hill? You were dead, you were sleeping the big sleep, you were not bothered by things like that. Oil and water were the same as wind and air to you. You just slept the big sleep, not caring about the nastiness of how you died or where you fell.”