Continuing my rereading of the books of and about Raymond Chandler, I turn to The High Window, the third novel Chandler wrote (published 1942).
We knew that Philip Marlowe has a heart, and with the coming of this story we can hear its beating. In contrast to the flow of the first and second novels, this one shows Marlowe as a big brother sort of guy in certain well-defined situations.
There also is an interruption in the tight plotting around rich families. The High Window falls into line by starting with Marlowe meeting with a rich and strange matron who becomes his client, but the story soon takes a new path. The reader keeps expecting a certain character – one Linda Conquest, a torch singer — to be more prominent in the action, based on previous experience with Chandler, but it never happens. A certain gold coin gets more face time than Linda Conquest does, name withstanding. I appreciate the confusion. One plot written over and over would not make Raymond Chandler memorable or laudable.
The High Window offers a lot of arresting imagery about just what a detective is – one who plays God? a trickster figure? one who serves a priestly function? a showman like Hercule Poirot?
Finally there is the writing itself, always a treat with this writer.
Tough exterior, heart of gold
We have, after two novels, come to expect fairness from Marlowe toward all, a certain attitude toward women in general, and a certain something left over for the ladies. In The High Window, the secretary to the rich women who is Marlowe’s client becomes a sort of brotherly love interest. This young women cannot stand to be touched by men but comes to trust Marlowe, who shows admirable restraint and sensitivity in dealing with what amounts to a tightly wound time bomb wrapped in a plain but pretty bow.
This powerful dynamic replaces the usual sparring that Marlowe does with hard-shelled women with hearts of cold iron who are out for what they can get through the process of base attraction.
The substitution is satisfactory.
The plot sickens
Chandler, in The High Window, shows evidence of having come down with a good infection. He changes his attitude toward the detective story plot by following his inclination and being attentive to his lead character’s preference for the secretary over the torch singer.
In this novel, tough guys come and go, and gangsters and their minions, too, but they come and go and do not keep coming back like telemarketers who call every day during dinner. This is another welcome change.
Paired with a new attitude toward plot, there is a new way with the details of a good detective story. In the first and the second novel, Marlowe gives us permission to ignore the fine points of the plot, since the main point is Marlowe himself. In this third novel, there is a long passage of tying up the loose ends of the story that is worthy of detective showmen like Nero Wolf or Hercule Poirot.
All done in ironic mode, of course, which helps.
Usually it is the narrator or the author, or both, who seems to be playing God in third-person novels, but in the detective genre the first-person-singular sleuth joins the others in the high, heavenly clouds.
The High Window gives us several ways of seeing the detective while Marlowe works his way through a story that is pointedly about revealing and concealing criminal and reprehensible persons and behaviors.
While Marlowe is deciding who walks, and who talks, Chandler is working to reduce our moral scruples about the persons who die and the persons who kill. Some of them, anyway. A few characters stand on their own without any help of this sort, and we are expected to hate them without moderation and just because.
We see these alternative views of detectives —
First, as is usual in this genre, comes the view of the detective-as-one-who-plays-God. Concurrent with this is Marlowe’s sudden and occasional reference to himself as Marlowe –
Another day drawing to its end, the air dull and tired, the heavy growl of homing traffic on the boulevard, and Marlowe in his office, nibbling a drink and sorting the day’s mail.
To speak this way, Marlowe also has to sneak across the border that he shares with the author, but the point here is the slight inflation one undergoes when one speaks of oneself in the third person singular let alone plural. The Royal I and the Royal We.
Second comes the image of detective-as-trickster. A trickster figure like Coyote in the Native American tradition or Puck and his ilk from Shakespeare’s plays is short of being a god and long on capriciousness. Tricksters can be helpful or harmful, but they are the only ones who know what they intend. Late in the novel, after showing strong abilities of a tricksterish cast, puckish Marlowe takes his leave –
“I’m going the way I always go,” I said. “With an airy smile and a quick flip of the wrist.”
Third comes the image of detective-as-priest. In deciding who pays and who skates free, who laughs and who cries, the detective takes on a priestly function. The detective assumes the sins of others and will be the one who in the end pays the price and accepts the judgment.
Marlowe in The High Window develops this idea more than he did in the two novels that came before. After taking on some sins and farming out a few others, Marlowe heads for bottle and bed. He drinks like a kitten at a saucer of milk until he finally feels ready for the rest of oblivion –
I undressed and got into bed and after a while, but not soon enough, I went to sleep.
We can generally agree that the one who plays the priest is not also playing at being Christ. That would require suffering on a vastly greater scale, with the side effect of salvation and redemption for all who want and need it.
Fourth comes the image of detective-as-showman. You may be thinking of Nero Wolf or Hercule Poirot, preening before a roomful of likely suspects, but in this novel Marlowe plays the grand role for an audience of one, in the dark, and he does it squarely in ironic mode, and not just because he is stuck in ironic mode, though he is, but because this sort of grand show, in Marlowe’s world, is nothing if not ironical.
Chandler’s use of the grand-detective convention ties up his story without causing it an ugly case of bloat. One reason why the tough guys come and go is that they are not required to be present for the story to reach its climax. We all can be grateful for this.
Write as rain
For me, when it comes to Chandler (and Marlowe who after all says his lines like he wrote them himself), at some point it becomes a matter of similes, like a fan who knows all the rock star’s lyrics, gyrations, and gestures. Mind you, I do not recall many of Chandler’s similes the day after I read them but I do remember the feeling of my jaw dropping and trying to hit my Adam’s apple. Muscle memory.
One Chandler image that has stuck with me comes from The High Window –
… a green long open convertible sedan with three dizzy-looking dames in the front seat, all cigarettes and arched eyebrows and go-to-hell expressions. The car flashed around a curve and was gone.
Go-to-hell expressions has stuck with me for the decades that have come and gone since the first time I read that innocent-seeming sentence.
Of Marlowe’s client’s layabout son, Chandler writes –
His smile was as faint as a fat lady at a fireman’s ball.
Of a leggy blonde who found occasional work in the entertainment industry –
… the mascara was so thick on her eyelashes that they looked like miniature iron railings. … Her hair was as artificial as a night club lobby.
Of an old man who knew rare coins –
Fuzz grew out of his ears, far enough to catch a moth. … a black string tie poked a small hard knot out at the bottom of the collar, like a mouse getting ready to come out of a mousehole.
Always a pleasure.
About this series I call #rereading —
I’ve always figured that I have a book addiction. I just never intended to do anything about it.