Friday, January 16, 2009

Falling in love with Raymond Chandler . . . wait, isn't he, um, dead?

By Lonnie Cruse

As a reader, I love mysteries best of all, followed loosely by science fiction, followed slowly by romance, depending on the romance. And I read a lot of non-fic, but this is about fiction.

There are authors I only buy in hardback, regardless of the room they take up on my book shelves. There are authors I buy only in paperback, and I'm willing to part with some of them when I'm done. Others I keep. Sadly, sometimes my fave author's latest work only come in paperback, sigh. Hardbacks are so nice to hold. But I digress.

I buy mostly new mysteries, but I'll by vintage versions if I come across an interesting looking one at an antique shop or hear about it online. (Tip: IF you are looking for an old book you read years ago or heard about, try an Internet search. Much quicker than antique stores.)

The biggest problem with vintage mysteries is how much tastes have changed over the decades, so some are difficult to read, for several reasons. Political correctness is probably the biggest change. Things that could be said or terms that could be used in the thirties and forties certainly can not be said/used in modern-day writing. And often the talent is lacking, except for the legends like Chandler, Hammett, and Agatha Christie. Well, okay, that's still true today, sometimes talent is lacking, sometimes it's so powerful it blows the reader away. Still buying/reading a vintage book can be chancy. Which brings me back to Raymond Chandler.

I've loved the movie THE BIG SLEEP since I first watched it, and I pull it out at least once a year. Bogart/Bacall. Who can beat that combo? Add to the mix one Peggy Knudsen who plays the part of Eddie Mars' blonde wife and who gives me four degrees of separation from Bogart/Bacall. Stick with me here. Bogart/Bacall play the leads, Knudsen plays a minor part, her mother, Mrs. Knudsen (mercifully I can't remember her first name, IF I was every allowed to know it) taught seventh grade at Fifth Street Elementary School in Las Vegas, Nevada in the 1950's, and I, sadly was not her favorite student. Not even close. Still, four degrees of separation, no? And I think we heard about "my daughter, the movie actress" at least once a day either before math or after spelling. But again, I digress. I'm good at that.

Recently I read a discussion of Raymond Chandler's works on the DorothyL mystery discussion list. Intrigued, I broke down and searched the Net for his books. Lucked onto THE RAYMOND CHANDLER OMNIBUS, published in 1964. It includes The Big Sleep, (1939) Farewell, My Lovely, ( 1940) The High Window, (1942) The Lady In The Lake (1943.)

I started reading with Lady In The Lake, at the back of the book, because it's been made into a rather a silly movie with Robert Young and Audrey Totter, but it's set at Christmas. I'd been warned that the actual book was set in warm weather and the movie very loosely followed it. Chandler's writing immediately engrossed me. And, yes, the book was far better than the movie.

From there I moved to reading The Big Sleep. Ahhh, how the man can turn a phrase. I particularly love Chandler's descriptions. Rarely does he simply describe a character's clothing. Generally he says what it is, then compares it to something surprising, creating a wonderful word picture not only of the clothing but of the character who wore it. Below are two of my favorites:

After describing his own wardrobe choice for the morning, powder-blue suit, blue shirt, blue tie, etc. Marlow says: I was neat, clean, shaved and sober, and I didn't care who knew it. (Chapter 1 para 1) That got a laugh out of me.

In chapter 11 para 1 Marlow describes the clothing of Vivian Regan. The last sentence of the paragraph reads: Her black hair was glossy under a brown Robin Hood hat that might have cost fifty dollars and looked as if you could have made it with one hand out of a desk blotter. One hand? A desk blotter? Wahahahah!

Okay, maybe I'm easy to please, but the descriptions the man used blow me away. Often better than in books written this decade.

I don't know about Chandler's day but in this day and time, newbie authors are taught pretty quickly the do's and don'ts of writing. Don't use words ending in "ly", don't start a sentence like this: Crossing the room, she saw . . . . Punctuation rules, argh, some have changed over time, and what hasn't changed I forgot before Mrs. Knudson ever turned me loose on the unsuspecting reading world. Vintage mysteries often break these rules, mostly because the rules didn't exist back then. Writers like Chandler do it, get away with it, and make you like it. Their writing is timeless, wonderful in the thirties and forties, still wonderful seven decades or so later.

IF you've not read anything by Raymond Chandler, or IF you think you know his writing from the movies, don't kid yourself and don't cheat yourself out of a wonderful read. Get a copy of one of his books (or luck onto an omnibus, ABE books online carries them and they are nice ones) and start reading. You won't be sorry.

Thankfully, I still have two more in the omnibus to read, along with THE PENGUIN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH by Donna Andrews, among other reads. Sigh, so much time, so many books.

And I hope you, dear reader, are not one of those people who was taught to clean your plate and read every page in a book, whether you like the book or not. Life is too short. If you hate the book, skip to the end, IF you have to know the end, then put it down and pick up something you know you'll enjoy. IF your to-be-read (TBR) pile begins to shrink, there is bound to be a new book somewhere by one of your favorite authors to read. Personally, I'm three and a half books behind on reading Donna Andrews, at least one by Bill Crider, and I daren't even look at my Anne Perry or Dorothy Cannell list. Sigh.


Anonymous said...

I think you could count on one hand the number of books I began and didn't finish in my whole life! I always believe that the story is a whole piece and that it can't be fully appreciated until I've taken in all of it -- all the way to the end. Often books will redeem themselves as they go on, the points of the plot falling into place for example. In the case of Portnoy's Complaint the last sentence really is the big payoff for the rollicking ride all of the preceding pages took you on.

Granted, I haven't found all books to redeem themselves, and I have finished some books out of a sense of obligation than desire.

Anonymous said...

The Big Sleep. You got me, Lonnie. I immediately went to the Toronto Public Library on-line catalogue to start with the movie (movie first, then book). It might please you to hear that there are 4 copies of the DVD in the system--and 89 holds on it.

The classics live.

Dana King said...

To me, Chandler is where it all starts. Some things are dated, some of the dialog doesn't wear well, and there are holes in a few of the plots, but the writing is everything. As Ross Macdonald said, "Chandler was a slumming angel."

I've read all the novels (and re-read at least one a year) and all the short stories. I never get tired of them.

My favorite description:
From thirty feet away she looked like a lot of class. From ten feet she looked like something made up to be seen from thirty feet.

Lonnie Cruse said...

Paul, good point about the whole piece!

Susan, you are in for a treat both with the movie and the book!

Dana, I remember that line too. His descriptions are wonderful.

Sandra Parshall said...

I used to stick with books all the way through, even if I hated them, but those days are long gone. Now a book has to enthrall me very quickly or it is put aside. (Hey, I sound like an agent or an editor.)

Chandler had some of the greatest lines in fiction, and genuinely intriguing plots. It's a little alarming to consider how much the noir/hardboiled subgenre has changed, how much more violent and ugly it has become. Chandler seems tame by comparison, but more readable, IMO.

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