Wednesday, December 18, 2013

The High Window – by Raymond Chandler

I just finished reading (re-reading) The High Window, Raymond Chandler’s third novel.  The first time I read through the Chandler canon, I put this down as one of the weaker efforts, along with Payback.   When you’re competing with books such as The Big Sleep, The Long Goodbye, The Lady in the Lake, and The Little Sister, well, it’d be tough to be in the top three. 

But this time through I was impressed with what a professional, polished effort this was.  I was struck by the descriptive efforts—settings for scenes, both indoor and out, and the appearances and clothing of the characters.  Chandler’s mystery and plotting is different—more traditional, in the British mode.  In the climactic scene Leslie Murdock says to Marlowe, “Get on with it.  I have a feeling you are going to be very brilliant.  Remorseless flow of logic and intuition and all that rot.  Just like a detective in a book.”  Marlowe proceeds to take Murdock apart, explain the case, the deductions, and the three murders step-by-step, for 14 pages, while Murdock “turns pale as a paper, froths at the mouth,” and confesses to the murder of Vannier.  It’s not that I didn’t know Marlowe (and Chandler) had it in him, but …usually a guy comes through the door with a gun, right? 

Murdock is a jittery as a mink on Benzedrine as Marlowe questions him, and Chandler in his writing turns up the “beats.”

·         “He shrugged and bared his teeth.” 

·         “He stared at it tightly.  His mouth set.”

·         “His shoulders gave a quick little jerk, as if he was cold.”

·         “He nodded and moved a hand wearily across his head.”

·         “He stared at the floor and didn’t speak.”

·         “He looked up quickly then, his face very white, a kind of horror in his eyes.”

And that’s only the first five pages of the 14-page scene. 

I think the book suffers, to whatever extent one might think it does, as the villain is not very horrible.  Sure Murdock killed Vannier.  But Vannier killed George Anson Phillips, and old man Morningstar, so who cares about Vannier?  And he wasn’t much of a villain either, just a blackmailer, one who’s dominated by his mistress, long-legged blonde, Lois Magic.  The stakes don’t seem very high for Marlowe—just the return of a rare coin, the Brasher Doubloon, and being a white knight for Merle, a virgin in distress (but no imminent physical danger).

The “white knight” is the essence of Phillip Marlowe’s character.  And the plot is one of Chandler’s stronger efforts.  It’s complicated but makes sense.  So The High Window is a good introduction to the Marlowe series.