There were two things that brought me to Raymond Chandler. The first was reading the lyrics to Robyn Hitchcock’s “A Raymond Chandler Evening” in James O’Barr’s graphic novel The Crow when I was in high school. I still haven’t hear the song, but the lyrics are smooth and hypnotic, yet evoking a dark, very physical world with the threat of violence lingering just outside one’s field of vision. It’s the kind of teasing introduction that you’d think an author would have a hard time living up to. (You’d think.) The second thing is when I read an essay or interview or something by an author (and I have this horrible, guilty suspicion that it was Margaret Atwood, though it seems unlikely that she would stoop to reading genre fiction) in which she went on and on about how Chandler wrote about furniture with exceptional ability. That’s more a writerly comment than a readerly one, but it got my attention. I may have told that story before.
Farewell, My Lovely was my second Chandler mystery, and it was just as mind-blowing as the first. Chandler is giving me flashbacks to my first Ian Fleming experience, really, in terms of resetting the bar on what I expect from genre fiction (that would be by raising it, of course). I’m continually surprised by how different Chandler’s Los Angeles is from the image that’s formed in my head from television and movies. (It does bear a striking resemblance to Michael Mann’s LA.) I’m even more surprised by how violent a place it is. There’s two competing notions of the past at work in that surprise. First there’s the gangster mythos that has built up over the years about the period between the wars, a lashing, thrashing picture of America’s major cities as combat zones where corrupt cops and wealthy bootleggers gun each other down in the streets. Second, there’s the fairy tale fed to us by men and women of an older generation about how “in the old days” people were kinder, gentler, never cursed, and wouldn’t even think about having sex before marriage. The truth of the matter is most likely somewhere in the middle, but it’s always the more directly reinforced “home sweet home” version of events that seems to stick.
There’s other things that struck me as strange. The character of Lindsay Marriott, who is intended to be a handsome, dashing ladies’ man, by modern standards would be flagged as flamboyantly gay from over a hundred paces. He could be a prototype for Liberace, or an unsophisticated acolyte of Oscar Wilde. I hate to dwell on this, but it was striking. I’m tempted to think that Chandler modeled Marriott after a closeted man (or several), but given the period, didn’t understand (or perhaps more likely, didn’t acknowledge) what he was seeing.
I know I’m focusing too much on the differences between the context Chandler wrote in and my context as a reader, but to be honest I still don’t feel like I know the genre well enough to write an intelligent, informed review based on both the quality of the writing and conventions of the genre. I hope I’ll get there eventually.
Next is The High Window, by Raymond Chandler.