High Window

BY ANDREW MOODY

Raymond Chandler is one of 1940s America’s most influential writers, most famous for his Private Detective Philip Marlowe.

The High Window is the third Marlowe novel, preceded by Farewell My Lovely, and (the most famous of his Marlowe novels) The Big Sleep. It has to be said that the producers of the Humphrey Bogart movie version of The Big Sleep called Chandler to ask after the murderer of one of the characters, a chauffeur, but the author had no idea, having written such a complex plot that this murder simply slipped through the cracks.

The High Window, like every Chandler novel, has been filmed multiple times, first as Time To Kill in 1942, and then in 1947 as The Brasher Doubloon.

It opens with a missing, priceless coin as Marlowe is called up by a bitter old widow who drinks port “for my asthma” and Marlowe is sent on a journey into the Sunshine noir of the mean streets of Los Angeles. The dialogue is crisp and curt, take this example from midway through the novel as Marlowe follows a lead:

“The trouble with revolutions,” he said, “is they get in the hands of the wrong people.”

“Check,” I said.

“on the other hand,” he said, “could they be any wronger than the bunch of rich phonies that live around here?”

“Well, I’ll run along now and check with the officer of the club,” I said.

“tell him to go spit up his left trouser leg,” he said. “tell him I said that.”

The language predates obscenities – all books that included curse words were banned typically until the 1960s. There is something of the classic noir movie to both the narration (Chandler co-wrote Double Indemnity with Billy Wilder) and the action. There are murders, yes, but the murders are standard to the noir movies that the Marlowe books inspired. The bodies are discovered usually, and Marlowe has to somehow extricate himself from a crime he was not involved in but could well be accused of, in typical noir fashion.

Chandler spent time in Croydon England for his education as a child and teenager, and in 1932, at the age of 44 became a pulp fiction writer, submitting Blackmailers Don’t Shoot to Black Mask magazine after losing his job as an oil company executive during the Great Depression. He also fought honourably in the First World War, being wounded but not seriously.

Chandler typified Sunshine noir, inspiring not only a vast proportion of the noir movies of the 40s and 50s, but also Polanski’s Chinatown & the work of JG Ballard and the LA novels of Bret Easton Ellis, most specifically his 2010 Imperial Bedrooms.

In The High Window Chandler had by now mastered the hardboiled narration of his anti-hero. Take this passage, deep with the shadow of wartime conscription, drug addiction, rot and decay. Chandler, a depressive alcoholic, knew of what he wrote:

Bunker Hill is old town, lost town, shabby town, crook town…. In and around the old houses there are flyblown restaurants and Italian fruit stands and cheap apartment houses and little candy stores where you can buy even nastier things than their candy…Out of the apartment houses come women who should be young but have faces like stale beer….fly cops with granite faces and unwavering eyes; cokies and coke peddlers, people who look like nothing in particular and know it…

It’s a dystopian fiction that Marlowe populates and manoeuvres, even if Chandler has often been accused of sexism, homophobia and racism. Washington Post reviewer Patrick Anderson, despite calling him the “most lyrical” of the noir writers, also called him “rambling and incoherent” and “a rather nasty man at times”.

The High Window is not Chandler’s best Marlowe novel, that’s a toss-up between The Long Goodbye and The Big Sleep, but as the mystery unfolds and is solved by PI Philip Marlowe, it reaches a satisfying and beautifully written denouement and the jinxed Brasher Doubloon, the priceless (if deadly) coin, is a wonderful metaphor for corruption that could only exist within the world of Raymond Chandler and his haunted avatar Philip Marlowe.

Follow Andrew Moody on Twitter @VoguishFiction

Advertisements