05.19.09: hard-boiled wonderland

when i mowed through stephenie meyer's supercheesy twilight series last year, the subject was the hook: i can't stand meyer's writing style, but i love all things vampire-related.* now, after reading the big sleep for my 101 in 1001 list, i find myself scrambling for raymond chandler novels with what seems like the flip side of those feelings: detective novels don't usually do it for me, and i really dislike guys'-guy characters...but chandler is so much fun, so bone dry yet maudlin, so preposterous and great. the upside of this is that i'm having windfall fun with a genre that had always seemed awfully flat to me; the downer is that i'm falling in love with a writer who might or might not be, well, a total asshole (if you take him and the novels at face value, a misanthrope's the nicest thing he could be). i'm turning to an expert (tom hiney, whose biography of the guy was a times notable book in 1999) for context; in the meantime, i'm going ahead with the shameless page-turning.** some of the passages i've dogeared:
(from the big sleep, 1939)

Overhead the rain still pounded, with a remote sound, as if it was somebody else's rain.

(from farewell, my lovely, 1940)

The big man said: "Now that we are all between pals and no ladies present we don't really give so much time to why you went back up there, but this Hemingway stuff is what really has me down."
"A gag," I said. "An old, old gag."
"Who is this Hemingway person at all?"
"A guy that keeps saying the same thing over and over until you begin to believe it must be good."

(from the long goodbye, 1953, my favorite thus far)

He was a guy who talked with commas, like a heavy novel. Over the phone anyway.

At three A.M. I was walking the floor and listening to Khachaturyan working in a tractor factory. He called it a violin concerto. I called it a loose fan belt and the hell with it.

I might even have got rich - small-town rich, an eight-room house, two cars in the garage, chicken every Sunday and the Reader's Digest on the living room table, the wife with a cast-iron permanent and me with a brain like a sack of Portland cement. You take it, friend. I'll take the big sordid dirty crooked city.

have you read chandler? what'd you think?

*and zombie-related, apparently. not sure when they shambled into the tent, but there they are.

**it's best when you read it aloud in your head with a beaky gumshoe voice.


Amanda Bruns said...

Gah. Going to the library now.

jen said...

omg i heart chandler. i went through a big chandler phase about 4-5 years ago. he basically invented the genre style; every hardboiled detective in fiction written since the 1940's is based on Philip Marlowe to some degree. also, his treatment of Los Angeles made me see it in a different way when i go there now - through my chandler-tinted glasses, under the tacky newness of everything there's this romantic sort of old school glam and grit.

random chandler factoid: he was an american citizen twice in his life: from 1888-1907, and again from 1956-1959. in between, he was british.

lauren said...

i think my favorite factoid is that he wrote bad romantic poetry prior to teaching himself pulp à la dashiell hammett; it gives me hope that those of us who began that way are bound for other things.

uncle paul said...

I quite enjoy Hammett despite his relative crudity of technique; Chandler I simply love. But for the reasons you mention, I was always a little leery of turning from the books to the man himself. Let me know if that biography turns up any gems.

Lethem's Gun, With Occasional Music is a fun, goofy homage. Patricia Highsmith takes the misanthropy to levels that a lot of people can't stomach, but I have to admit that I like her books too, possibly because I made a point of avoiding the Matt Damon movie.

Hannah Mae said...

Oh, Chandler, so good! I wrote an admittedly unrigorous English-class-at-art-school paper on whether Marlowe is gay (after a number of well-researched and persuasive pages in favor of "yes," I was forced to admit that Chandler is on the record specifically saying no, alas for logic), mainly to have an excuse to (re-)read every Marlowe book in three weeks. My own internal narrator really started sounding tough and punchy after a few days.

And as much as I love Chandler, in certain moods sometimes I think James M. Cain is my favorite writer of pulp noir, at least when I want something really heartless - with Chandler, you always know that Marlowe is going to survive til the end of the book (despite the mandatory once-per-book cold-cocking), but Cain didn't have series characters, so all bets are off. It makes for unsettling reading. He's also great at making his protagonists uncomfortable to sympathize with (a little too much casual racism, though Marlowe certainly rocks the antiquated slurs as well), and his pacing is so perfect, so full of a feeling of gathering momentum and hideous inevitability, that I can only look on in awe. The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity are the canonical works, but I read Three By Cain recently (Serenade, Love's Lovely Counterfeit and The Butterfly) and was knocked over.