Raymond Chandler, The High Window, in The Big Sleep/Farewell, My Lovely/The High Window, Everyman, 2002 (originally published 1942).
I was glancing at this omnibus volume on my bookshelf and realized that I hadn’t gotten around to reading The High Window. My dad has always been a Chandler fan, and I got into him sometime in my 20s, reading The Long Goodbye, which I still think is the best. Chandler’s alienated romantic detective is a bit harder to swallow now than in the 1940s, but there is something there, I think, in terms of interrogating masculinity (toxic and otherwise), but you do have to wade through a lot to get to it - a lot of casual racism and sexism that, while not as brutal or gratuitous as in other pulp fiction, still make for unpleasant moments, getting shocked out of the fictitious world, thrust into the very real problems and ugliness of the real world. Maybe that was part of Chandler’s project, his attempt to make of pulp something more than just action, action, and more action. His characterization of himself as primarily a stylist is, I think, both a little more and a little less than self-deprecation. Like Philip K Dick, there’s a lot here to work with, it’s just hard to know if it’s worth the effort.
The High Window is, I think, not as successful as the best of Chandler’s work; it probably falls somewhere between The Big Sleep and The Lade in the Lake (which I have a soft spot for). (In my estimation, the apex of the Marlowe saga is The Long Goodbye and its nadir is Playback). I found the unbroken succession of interview/interrogations felt very static, and I wished that at some moment the narrative would break loose, that something would actually happen. All the deaths (and other crimes) take place, as it were, off-stage, and there’s a strange claustrophobia that hangs over the novel as a result. It doesn’t help that the opening interview with a prickly client takes place in much the same setting as in The Big Sleep, with Mrs Murdock’s port taking the place of General Sternwood’s orchids. In fact, Marlow’s description of the effect of the orchids could describe the arid hothouse feeling of The High Window:
The air was thick, wet, steamy and larded with the cloying smell of tropical orchids in bloom. The glass walls and roof were heavily misted and big drops of moisture splashed down on the plants. The light had an unreal greenish color, like light filtered through an aquarium tank. The plants filled the place, a forest of them, with nasty meaty leaves and talked like the newly washed fingers of dead men.
From The High Window:
It was so dark in there that at first I couldn’t see anything but the outdoors light coming throug thick bushes and screens. Then I saw that the room was a sort of sun porch that had been allowed to get completely overgrown outside. It was furnished with grass rugs and reed stuff. There was a reed chaise longue over by the window. It had a curved back and enough cushions to stuff an elephant and there was a woman leaning back on it with a wine glass in her hand. I could smell the thick scented alcoholic odor of the wine before I could see her properly.
Given that there are only six novels in the Marlowe canon (does anyone include Poodle Springs?), I may take the time to reread them all and try to work out what’s really there versus what’s been layed on Chandler that he my not deserve. Jameson wrote a short book on Chandler last year, The Detections of Totality, so it might be worth starting with that.