Oh, To Be Wrong As Dazzlingly As Chandler!

$_35Don’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,

Raymond Chandler

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.”

 

To Read or To Re-Read? (Musings and mini-reviews)

My To Read list is decades long, so I rarely stop to re-read a book, no matter how much I love it. Lately I’ve made exceptions, though, for books that mattered to me long ago. With some, I’ve been curious about whether they would hold up. With others, I’ve simply wanted to reunite with old friends.

Thus, over the last year, I have discovered that these books hold up well:

Stand on Zanzibar by John Brunner, a 1960s skew on a dystopian future, many details of which are now Life As We Know It. Brunner writes this in a style that was unusual in the ’60s and remains distinctive today. Some people lose patience with it. Give it 50 pages to settle in.

In Deep by Patricia Cooper, a brooding character study of a smart, troubled woman with tangled, suspect relationships. Cooper’s writing is edgy yet smooth and insightful. I wish she had continued to write novels.

After Leaving Mr. MacKenzie and Good Morning Midnight by Jean Rhys, portraits of independent, sensual women, damaged by life in a society where women were supposed to be neither.

If chick lit had books like the above, I would seek it out.

Double Indemnity by James M. Cain, a perfect slice of noir. Here, every word counts, making it an excellent training for any aspiring writer. Reading it reminded me I need to watch the movie again, with a brilliant script by Raymond Chandler.

Which brings me to Chandler.  I have been happy to (again) reconnect with all seven of Raymond Chandler’s novels.  He remains my favorite author. If you have never read him, start with Farewell My Lovely.

As you may have guessed, I recommend all of these books.

All Mod Cons

Elmore Leonard published the novel Pagan Babies back in 2000 but I just read it this week. It is an Elmore Leonard book, therefore the plot is full of cons and double crosses, the dialog is witty, the prose is terse, and the characters are gritty and lively – oddball yet believable.  In this book, Father Terry  leaves Detroit half a step ahead of the law to become a rural priest in Rwanda during the recent genocide. During his first mass, some forty souls are slaughtered in front of him where they have sought sanctuary. After five years, Dunn returns to Detroit and gets caught up in the schemes of local mobsters and with Debbie, an aspiring stand-up comic who just got out of prison for hitting her ex-boyfriend with her car. The ex-boyfriend conned her out of $67 grand and she hatches a succession of schemes to get payback.

On LibraryThing and Goodreads I gave this book 4 stars. It probably only merits 3 stars. Consider the fourth a gratitude star. I can always depend on a Leonard novel to be worth reading.

I really needed a good read after having just forced my way through Quinn by Iris Johansen. My first and last Johansen. The writing was  flabby and weak. All the dialogue sounded just like the narration and I hated the narration. The characters were romance novel cliches crowbarred into a thriller format. And the plot. Oy, the plot. Sensual, fragile yet tough forensic artist Eve quests for decades to find out what happened to her missing daughter, aided by hunky FBI man and former Navy Seal Quinn. One suspect is her hunky ex-lover, former Army Ranger and father of the missing girl, who doesn’t know whether he killed the girl or not because sometimes his brain short-circuits thanks to torture by North Koreans. But he must be innocent because the daughter’s ghost appears to him as well as Quinn and Eve. Aaaaaaaaaaaa. I can’t say why I wasted the time to finish this (I skimmed the second half) except I knew it was a best seller and wanted to see why. I found no explanation. To restore my faith in book buyers, I tell myself that the other two books in this trilogy must be way better. You won’t get me to test that theory.

Johansen fans – I regret if I have offended you. Looking for a positive – we will never compete for her library books!

(This post comes from this Daily Prompt.)

The Daily Prompt: Person of the Year – Philip Marlowe

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Marlowe was at his finest in this book.

Detective Philip Marlowe is the person of this or any year, but don’t give him the award. He’ll be a no show at the ceremony and not just because he’s a work of fiction.

Of all the characters I have met and loved in novels, Marlowe is my favorite. I recently re-read his seven novels and found them as fresh and relevant as they were when I last read them, decades ago.

Marlowe has an unswervable moral code. He makes mistakes, he has doubts, but he always knows what’s right and acts accordingly. His morality is personally customized. It may not jive with law or mores but when there’s a discrepancy, Marlowe’s right.

Marlowe despises phonies and looks out for underdogs. He’s smart but he mostly operates on instinct. He’s often alone and frequently lonely. He’ll never be rich and he doesn’t care because wealth costs honor. Not that he’d ever put it like that. He doesn’t go on about honor or loyalty or justice or dignity but he lives his life in ways that promote all four.