Don’t ask me what book I would have if I could only have one book. I hate that. Choose one book-record-movie-food. Perhaps I approach the game with an excess of realism. I imagine being stuck on the obligatory desert island, reading the same book while eating blueberries, over and over and. No matter how long or wonderful the piece, at some point my adoration must sour and someday I’ll come down with hives.
I can say that Raymond Chandler is my favorite author. I’ve re-read his seven novels multiple times and each time my appreciation grows. I don’t know why it has taken me so long to get around to reading The Selected Letters of Raymond Chandler by Frank MacShane, which I have owned for many years. Maybe I’ve been afraid to learn too much about Chandler the man. I like having heroes and that typically requires blinders to the person behind the artist.
Alternatively, I could evolve to the point where I don’t need to pretend my heroes are perfect. But that’s another post – and maybe another person – entirely.
Another hardboiled noir masterpiece that is among my favorite books is Double Indemnity, by James M. Cain, for very different reasons. I usually need characters to root for, and there are none in Double Indemnity. But the writing is remarkably evocative, in part because it is so spare. Every word is the right one, and every word is required. I’ve encountered very few novels like that – so these qualities are not essential to greatness, but are impressive.
A predecessor of Chandler and Cain’s was Dashiell Hammett, who many people revere as a founder of the hardboiled detective genre. Hammett always leaves me flat, although I keep coming back to his books, in part because Chandler so admired him.
Turns out that Chandler didn’t think much of Cain. In fact, here is what he wrote in a letter to his publisher, Knopf, in 1942, at a time when he was unhappy about the quality of his recently-completed third novel. That novel, The High Window, is one of my favorites! Chandler was a messy and reassuring mix of self-confidence and self-doubt.
I do hope the next one will be better and that one of these days I shall turn one out that will have that fresh and sudden touch that will click. Most of all perhaps, in my rather sensitive mind, I hope the day will come when I won’t have to ride around on Hammett and James Cain, like an organ-grinder’s monkey. Hammett is all right. I give him everything. There were a lot of things he could not do, but what he did he did superbly. But James Cain – faugh! Everything he touches smells like a billygoat. He is every kind of writer I detest, a faux naif, a Proust in greasy overalls, a dirty little boy with a piece of chalk and a board fence and nobody looking. Such people are the offal of literature, not because they write about dirty things, but because they do it in a dirty way. Nothing hard and clean and cold and ventilated. A brothel with a smell of cheap scent in the front parlor and a bucket of slops at the back door. Do I, for God’s sake, sound like that? Hemingway with his eternal sleeping bag got to be pretty damn tiresome, but at least Hemingway sees it all, not just the flies on the garbage can.
Heigho. I think I’ll write an English detective story, one about Superintendent Jones and the two elderly sisters in the thatched cottage, something with Latin in it and music and period furniture and a gentleman’s gentleman: above all one of those books where everybody goes for nice long walks.
Yours most sincerely,
Oh yeah. He didn’t like Agatha Christie much, either.
All of which reminds me that my favorite speech in the movie of Double Indemnity was a Chandler addition. He adapted the novel to the screen for director Billy Wilder. Now that is one of my favorite movies, although it would not be on a loop in my screening room on the desert island. I didn’t know that Fred MacMurray was a great actor until I saw Double Indemnity. But that is a digression within a digression. (Nested digressions!) Anyhow, the added dialog was in the opening confession: “Yes, I killed him. I killed him for money and for a woman. I didn’t get the money and I didn’t get the woman.”