Writers don’t think too much about genre; writers write what interests them. Genres are more important to booksellers as signposts to help readers find what they might enjoy.
Reading crime fiction is not only about who done it. It’s an escapist adventure into a strange world, almost filmic, where our fundamental assumptions are always confirmed: good, even if a little muddy, wins in the end.
The plot revolves around a rare, valuable and stolen coin, The Brasher Doubloon; a cranky client, two corpses, a wimpy son, wise-cracking dames, lazy police and nasty rich men. You get the picture.
Most crime fiction is written in the first person, which has its limitations. Unlike a third-person god-like narrator who knows everything, what people think and what they want including what will happen in the future, a first person narrator only knows what’s going on in their own head, and relies on what is seen, heard and felt to give clues to character’s motives and wishes. This is paramount in Chandler’s work: descriptions of people are all about physiognomy – the angle if a chin, clothes – the cut of a dress, gives clues to personalities, behaviour, and what might make them either smile at you or shoot you in the back.
“He was a lanky man with carroty short hair growing down to a point on his forehead. He had a long narrow head packed with shabby cunning. Greenish eyes stared under orange eyebrows. His ears were large and might have flapped min a high wind. He had a long nose that would be into things. The whole face was a trained face, a face that would know how to keep a secret, a face that held the effortless composure of a corpse in the morgue.”
All his characters are opportunists, if not after a quick buck, a quick fix, or a hook-up, they’re looking for gaps in your defense, eager to win a point, even if only for a little self-esteem. Characters with suggestive names: Eddie Prue, Jesse Breeze, Spanglet, and Linda Conquest – not unlike character’s names of Charles Dickens: Herbert Pocket, Charles Cheeryble, Bumble, and Mercy Pecksniff. The writing of Chandler is entertaining and lovingly cliché-free; it’s as if he searches for an ever-new cliché, uses it and immediately abandons it…
“Three dizzy-looking dames… all cigarettes and arched eye-brows and go-to-hell expressions.”
“She had eyes like strange sins.”
“Men … faces like lost battles”
“… enough clothes to hide behind a toothpick.”
” … there were quiet voices whispering of love or 10%”
“A tall fine-looking man in a grey suit cut by an angel…”
“women … faces like stale beer…”
“a great long gallows of a man…”
“She looked as flustered as a side of beef.”
“… as unperturbed as a bank manager refusing a loan.”
“You boys are cute as a couple if lost golf balls.”
Many commentators, such as the British crime writer, Mark Billington, praise the characterisation of Chandler’s work, but it’s all in Chandler’s outward description of them. Such commentators don’t realise how much descriptive work they do themselves to arrive at a rounded picture of a character; inspired, of course, by a few well-chosen and succinct words by the writer. This is higher praise, but it not the praise they’re talking about.
If anything is going on in anyone’s head it’s never mentioned except as a cause or result of a look, a tone, or snide remark. Raymond Chandler is s master of this. Detailed descriptions of a room, a desk, a face, are iconic: the perceptive awareness of an accomplished private eye like Philip Marlow, Chandler’s alter-ego. He sees everything, even the clues that a reader might miss. There is no psychological self-examination except for the odd purple passage of self-depreciation. There is no romance but more than a hint of the romantic hero, especially in The High Window, where he rescues a damsel in distress, but not from anything as corny as a caped villain, but more from her own self-delusion, bad choices, and shallow vulnerability. Marlow is a good guy, mistrusted but tolerated by the police, hired but not liked by his clients. He’s a loner but his apartment, and especially his kitchen, are neat and clean, unlike his talk to women he doesn’t trust…
“I don’t like this house or you or the air of repression in the joint, or the squeezed down face of the little girl of that twerp of a son you have, or this case, or the truth I’m not told about it and the lies I am told about it and …”
It would be fair to say that this is a minor Chandler; the plot lacks the sensationalism that popular crime fiction has come to nurture, even though it has been filmed twice in the 1940s but neither was a success. It is, however, classic Chandler, all the more enjoyable for the wise-cracking, plain-speaking, and indifferent, but work-man-like Marlow, who would never slap a woman; but then why would he when his wit and words are far more effective.
Chandler, although born in the USA in Chicago in 1888, was raised and educated in England, becoming a British subject in 1907 but returned to America when he was 30. He lost his job as an oil executive in the Great Depression and turned to pulp fiction, studying the Perry Mason novels of Erle Stanley Gardner. The Big Sleep was his first published novel and featured for the first time, Philip Marlow. The High Window is the third in the Marlow series.
You can read The High Window as an ebook here at the Canadian site of Project Gutenburg. In Canada it is in the public domain. You can only download it for free if it is out of copyright in your country.