on April 27, 1998
The High Window
by Raymond Chandler
Window" begins one hot day in Pasadena, when "everything
that grew was perfectly still in the breathless air they get over
there on what they call a nice cool day." If we don't know we are
in a Philip Marlowe novel yet, we do as soon as we meet his new
client--a wealthy, obese widow named Mrs. Murdock. From the
overgrown, dimly-lit sun room where she holds court, she gives Marlowe
his latest p.i. assignment. He's to find a rare coin, the Brasher
Doubloon, that was stolen from her possession. He's also to find her
daughter-in-law, a former nightclub singer named Linda Conquest, who
disappeared at the same time as the coin. "A charming girl--and
tough as an oak board," Mrs. Murdock tells him, through sips of
Marlowe's search for the pair leads to a tale more dense
and tangled than the thick foliage of his client's sun porch. He
quickly finds himself enmeshed with a rich gambler and his
philandering, showgirl wife; a thug with a frozen eye; and a mortician
who delves into politics. Marlowe also has to contend with the police
and a man in a sand-colored coupé who keeps tailing him. Then there
are the corpses that keep piling up in his path. There's also his
client, who has her own share of tightly-bound secrets. A
near-invalid who spends her days lying on a reed chaise lounge,
Mrs. Murdock still holds an iron grip on her effeminate son and the
fragile woman who works as her secretary.
The plot is fast-paced
and engrossing, but the real power of the novel lies in the snappy
dialogue and beautifully conveyed atmosphere. Chandler's style has
been copied endlessly by other writers over the past fifty years, but
no one can touch him. Marlowe's is a world filled with hard-eyed
Filipinos answering doors, nightclubs named the Tigertail Bar, and
women who are "all cigarettes and arched eyebrows and go-to-hell
expressions." Even his butterflies take off heavily and stagger
away "through the motionless hot scented air."
the other Marlowe novels, there's the usual gratuitous wisecracks
exchanged with minor characters--the sourpuss maid; the streetwise
chauffeur; the old, watery-eyed elevator operator who breathed hard,
"as if he was carrying the elevator on his back." Despite his
cynical words, Marlowe holds a special place in his heart for the
losers in the world. He sends cash to a pitiful handwriting expert
and takes an inept detective under his wing. "The shop-soiled
Galahad," an associate calls him.
For the rest of the
characters, however, he has nothing but contempt. A tough man in a
tough world, Marlowe doesn't hide his true feelings under a bushel.
He describes the gambler's wife: "From thirty feet away she
looked like a lot of class. From ten feet away she looked like
something made up to be seen from thirty feet away." His
instructions to the portly Mrs. Murdock: "Tell her to jump in the
lake...Tell her to jump in two lakes, if one won't hold her."
Chandler's master stroke as a writer is hyperbole. Even his silences
are "as loud as a ton of coal going down a chute." He may
write with a sledgehammer, but it's the best sledgehammer around.
on December 17, 2001
Chandler wrote his first four novels in rapid succession, then went to Hollywood for four years before writing the fifth Philip Marlowe novel, "The Little Sister." These first four are "original recipe" Chandler -- the novels that defined high-brow hard-boiled.
"The High Window" (the third) is the anomaly of the first batch because it is the only novel prior to "The Little Sister" that was written as a novel; "The Big Sleep," "Farewell My Lovely," and "The Lady in the Lake" were all built using three to four of Chandler's earlier pulp short stories. Chandler called this practice "cannibalizing."
Chandler actually put aside the third cannibalized novel, "Lady in the Lake," to work on "The High Window." It's plot is only slightly less convoluted than the other three early novels, and it is slightly contrived, but what is interesting is the way in which it deliberately re-emphasizes concerns developed in its predecessor, "Farewell, My Lovely." Chandler was pressed to make sense of a detective with so much cultural capital and the ability to turn such a fantastic phrase, and in these two novels the emphasis is on developing Marlowe's class animosities and his determination to preserve the free-agency afforded him by his vocation. He comes across as a relative high-brow determined to take out his sense of failure on those who pretend to be his betters, and who employ him, but who are phonies. It is a novel about class and about Marlowe working to control the exploitation inherent in hiring himself out.
It may not be the best of the early four novels, but "The High Window" provides a clear and deliberate vision of Chandler's original conception of Marlowe. After the hiatus in Hollywood, he would begin to loosen the detective conventions and develop Marlowe as a man in existential crisis (in "The Little Sister" and "The Long Goodbye").
In Chandler's third novel, Philip Marlowe is hitting his stride. He's getting his life under control, he's right on top of the bad guys, and his honorable intentions save the day.
In this outing, Chandler is hired by a rich woman to track down a missing coin. The woman assumes that a misbehaving family member has run off with it, but of course the story ends up far more complex than that and Marlowe wends his way through gritty LA streets in search of the truth.
Marlowe's penchant for doing the right thing is even more in evidence here, as he works to help out characters that many times don't realize they need help. He does it not for fame or fortune, but because it's the right thing to do.
Chandler's writing style shines with its usual brilliance, and he crafts his characters with an easy hand. He has brought Marlowe along from his initial hard-drinking despair into a detective who - buoyed with past successes - is now more comfortable with himself and taking better care of himself. The wit crackles, and the novel is as enjoyable and entertaining as anything Chandler has written.
Having read a lot of Raymond Chandler through the years and now, finally going back and re-reading everything with a more widened perspective on the genre, The High Window easily stands out as his finest work.
The High Window, unlike a lot of genre Private Detective stories, which so many other authors have spent lifetimes struggling to copy and coming up short, keeps you guessing until the very end. Some authors give you a nibble about half way through a story and it falls apart in your lap and you figure it out. The High Window defies that solidly. You will be guessing about this one until the very end. Nothing is done ham-handedly or over-quick just to wrap it up either. This book could serve as a role model to other authors about how to write an ending, as I'm sure it has -- even if you don't write Detective Noir fiction.
If you're reading this review and a certain Humphrey Bogart film brought you here, and you don't know much about Raymond Chandler, just know that he was and is considered one of the greatest writers of the 20th Century. During his lifetime however he was dismissed as just a regular struggling hack novelist, because of the Genre, and not given a lot of attention. A lot of other authors, like Philip K. Dick for instance, another Angelino, suffered greatly under this prejudice during their lifetime because of supposed conventionalities. Sometimes, looking back you just have to wonder if it really was a West Coast prejudice, where anything outside of the New York circle of authors was thought worthless, or the critics just didn't have enough insight into life. Probably both.
The High Window moves very quickly, very smoothly, never misses a beat or falls flat for a single page. Chandler did drink a lot and it sometimes shows in his other novels, but with this effort you can see a lot of genius, planning and careful, methodic work ... just like the protagonist Philip Marlowe working a case.
The dialogue is as witty as Farewell, My Lovely and the wisecracks are even sharper than The Big Sleep. This book is also absent of the one problem that I have Chandler and that is his disconnection of information from novel to novel. Some of his stories never mention a single word about anyone or anything from his other books, however, in The High Window, I underlined five direct references to his other works. These are nice touches and just things I like, because it's like going to a friends house and being able to recognize the furniture. The Little Sister does a better job with bringing out a familiar cadre of Policemen, but this book is seriously where it's at.
The main thought regarding the story though is all about protection of the client and their anonymity. Marlowe knows that if he has to turn over and talk, he's pretty much out of a job. This is a story about just that and Marlowe goes to great lengths to protect that trust and Chandler does a deft job in making it a subtle undercurrent throughout the book, giving The High Window a sort of 'Moralist' back-drop. While he takes on only one paid client, it feels as if he makes an exercise in proving that his word is his bond with just about everyone he meets.
Personally, this is easily my favorite Chandler novel to date.
There's a few youtube links in the comments regarding some documentary footage concerning Chandler as well a Chandler interview with James Bond author Ian Fleming, where Chandler states that he believes himself to be one of the greatest living American writers -- and Fleming agrees. Fantastic stuff.
To be honest, it seems kind of silly giving this book only four stars. If you compare it to the vast majority of hardboiled or detective novels ever written, it would deserve five stars. It is only when it is compared to Chandler's other books that it falls short. This was his third novel, published after THE BIG SLEEP (which started the vogue for starting books and movies with the words "The Big") and FAREWELL, MY LOVELY. In none of those books is plot and story as important as Chandler's exquisite prose, his wonderfully detailed descriptions, or his magnificently decadent characters. But even so the plots of those two look brilliant compared to this one.
The number of problems with the plot of THE HIGH WINDOW is legion, but I'll highlight only two. Chandler wants Philip Marlowe to discover a body. There are a million ways to do this, but instead of something elegant and simple, Chandler creates incredibly unlikely scenarios whereby the future corpse gives Chandler a key to his apartment so that he won't be forced to wait around if he somehow doesn't happen to be there. This is such a cheap device that it is almost as if Chandler were trying to parody storytelling. Perhaps even sillier is a bizarre gun swap, in which the killer goes into a nearby apartment, finds a gun under the pillow of the tenant, and switches it with his own. Much of the subsequent story hinges on the strange gun swap.
So, as an example of plot, THE HIGH WINDOW is a failure. Nonetheless, there is still the prose. Although Chandler is unquestionably one of the most imitated writers in literary history, no one has quite been able to match his power with words. Marlow enters a club. "A check girl in peach-bloom Chinese pajamas came over to take my hat and disapprove of my clothes. She had eyes like strange sins." He prepares to question someone. "From thirty feet away she looked like a lot of class. From ten feet away she looked like something made up to be seen from thirty feet away." He describes the residents of Bunker Hill: "Out of the apartment houses come women who should be young but have faces like stale beer; men with pulled-down hats and quick eyes that look the street over behind the cupped hand that shields the match flame . . . people who look like nothing in particular and know it."
And there are the characters. Though the best characters in THE HIGH WINDOW are not as memorable as the many, many memorable characters in THE BIG SLEEP or FAREWELL, MY LOVELY, there are still several so striking as to not easily slip out of mind.
But substandard Chandler or not, he is one of those writers so brilliant and original that he deserves to be read in toto. One should read not this or that novel, but all of it, short stories included. He is one of the few writers to have played a major role in shaping our culture as a whole. But besides that, his books -- even the lesser ones -- are just a great, great read.
on March 3, 2002
Raymond Chandler wrote 4 noir novels in the late 30s and early 40s that defined the Southern California hardboiled thriller forever after. I first discovered them 41 years ago and instantly fell in love with them. The High Window, though, I thought at the time, and through several subsequent rereadings, was by far the least of the four. I hadn't reread it in at least 20 years now, but, based on some of the favorable Amazon comments, I read it again yesterday. My opinion of it, I'm sorry to say, hasn't changed in 41 years....
Why do I think it's only a mediocre book? Forty-one years ago I couldn't have articulated it. Now, however, it's obvious:
Because, basically, it's a boring story.
As an earlier reviewer in these columns told us, The High Window was the only one of the first 4 Chandler books that was plotted as an entirety and not cobbled together from earlier short stories that Chandler had written for the pulp magazines. This, however, instead of being a virtue, actually turns out to be the major fault in the book.
Philip Marlowe, the first-person narrator and hero, is as beguiling as ever but the story he tells -- basically the search for a missing coin of great value -- is dull and listless. Each individual character is nicely sketched, as only Chandler could do at the height of his powers, and the writing sparkles and pops. But -- and this sounds strange but is absolutely true -- the story itself could equally well have been written by Agatha Christie with Hercule Poirot as the main character. An investigation is mounted; the detective moves from one character to the next; a couple of bodies are discovered; the detective exchanges banter with the police; he talks with a few more characters; he wraps up the case and tells us who murdered whom -- probably.
There is no menace directed at Marlowe, there is no suspense, there is no interest in finding out what is going to happen to any of the other characters, there is no action at all (unless you can call finding a couple of bodies action), and the plot itself is pretty dull if you stop and think about it for a few moments.
Why is this?
The short stories that Chandler wrote in the 30s for the pulp magazines (mostly Black Mask, I believe) were just that: pulp stories. They had action, violence, movement. Things happened to Marlowe (in his various incarnations) and Marlowe made things happen to other people. Guns went off, Marlowe got bopped on the head, he -- and other people -- were frequently in danger for their lives.
When Chandler cobbled these stories together into three of his first four novels, he brought all of these elements into the freshly created books. Guns fired, Marlowe was bashed on the head, locked up in padded cells, beaten up by crooked cops, menaced by *real* gangsters. There was danger and suspense -- even if you (and Chandler) didn't always know exactly what was happening or who was doing what to whom -- or why. Chandler's exquisite writing and marvelous evocation of Los Angeles of that time was laid over these pulpish elements and transformed these gothically plotted books into literature. But literature that was exciting and impossible to put down. What *is* going to happen next in The Lady in the Lake? And why? And how is Marlowe going to get out of *this* predicament? In these three books you really want to know.
In High Window there are none of these elements and the only reason you turn the pages is because of the wizardry of Chandler's writing and the picture he draws of 1941 Los Angeles and Pasadena during a few hot summer days. Here the cops are more friendly than threatening, all violence is off-page, the semi-gangster nightclub owner and his supposedly deadly bodyguard are minor characters who manifest nothing more than a few lines of tough-guy dialogue -- which then disappears when Marlowe is hired by them to do a job....
The transportation back to this vanished era of South California is well worth reading this book for (at least for me); but as a thriller up to the standards of the other early Chandlers it is simply a non-starter.
on April 12, 2015
I've given this detective novel a four star rating because as a modern reader, I mildly object to the Christie-esque, "Let's all retire to the drawing room for the big reveal." That's probably a bit unfair because that was always how the explanation was done in those days, but an even more modern reader than I might be put off by this archaic approach.
Though I'm an old broad (the book being only seven years older than I am), I have never read any Raymond Chandler. In the Fifties I checked Marlowe mysteries out of the library often for my mother, but I hadn't graduated beyond Black Stallion books back then.
Having spent the last twenty-some years enjoying Spenser, I now see the heritage from which he was drawn. He and Marlowe have clever minds, wise guy attitudes and the same ability to keep digging up trouble with every turn of the page. Marlowe is less literate and more aware of his vulnerability to police and their acceptance of his status as a private detective, but both are tough and tender, easy to like.
The plot of The High Window was intricate, the characters, even minor ones, well drawn and Marlowe's reactions were pleasingly not as hard-boiled as one might have expected. Look for the night nurse, the elevator operator and the drunken couple arguing in the rooming house, for examples of lovely characterization. That said, there are some really awful overblown descriptions of landscape and architecture. But people? Chandler knows his people.
I found myself intrigued by the time period. Since I'm 65, I realized the setting was the years when my parents were teenagers and young adults. The social mores of the Forties, the class system, the attitudes concerning women, and notably, the apparently universal acceptance of smoking, guns and drinking while driving, were obviously less developed than in many parts of the country in the present day. (Though I must admit, I've lived in several areas where I could have been living in 1942 for all intents and purposes!)
I have started reading Chandler with one of the lesser known Marlowe mysteries. I look forward to reading The Big Sleep and Farewell My Lovely. And I might even dig up those classic films I remember from Sunday afternoon TV in my childhood. Even after I accepted them as Hollywood treasures, I never felt the urge to watch them again. Maybe now....
Any reader interested in today's mystery and detective fiction should look into an ancestor of the genre. You may have a pleasant surprise.
on October 29, 2014
When I first started reading novels, I hated reading descriptions. They were long and boring. Just get to the dialogue! Then I read Thomas Hardy. His descriptions were so good it was like watching a movie--I could SEE what he wrote. Then I started reading Raymond Chandler. His descriptions were so good it was if I was there. When he described how hot it was, I would sweat. He wrote so well I didn't want to miss a word. There's a scene where the detective Philip Marlowe is in his high rise office and Raymond Chandler describes the noises from the street below and how still the air was, and the phone starts to ring. I get chills every time I read it.
Chandler did not believe in plots. There's a story that while filming The Big Sleep Humphrey Bogart asked who had killed the chauffeur and no one knew. They called Raymond Chandler, and he didn't know either. Chandler was once asked about plots and he said he just wrote and when he couldn't figure out where to go next, he would have a character pull out a gun.
People confuse Philip Marlowe with Sam Spade (Dashiell Hammett), mostly because Humphrey Bogart had portrayed both detectives, but the writing of the authors is dissimilar. Philip Marlowe is the original hard boiled detective, complete with a gat and sometimes a doll. Read this book. You won't be disappointed.
In Chandler’s third installment in the Marlowe series, The High Window, we see our cynical detective given a job by a cranky and boozy widow, Mrs. Murdock, to search for a rare coin that was allegedly swiped by her daughter-in-law. As is the case with many other Marlowe novels, the initial request to find someone or something is only the appetizer to the full scale mystery that eventually reveals itself before the reader’s eyes.
Inevitably, Phillip Marlowe, as is the case with many of the other in the series, will at some point realize that he is not being given all the facts, that he is being given the run around, and so, this is when Marlowe is at his best, his clever, witty, terse, best. Things just don’t add up. He can size up a situation and figure out people quite well. This includes motives. And when he realizes that this whole search for a precious coin, the Brasher Doubloon, is a case much, much more involved, then things get a little more interesting. More confusing, yes, but more interesting. Still, I think The High Window’s plot is fairly linear in many ways (in comparison to say, The Big Sleep); there are some convoluted aspects, but these are not too overly confusing. Although I did find the “explanation of everything” at the end a bit much, which is about the only beef I had with this novel.
I think that Marlowe is a little bit more restrained at points in this one, as opposed to the other two I’ve read in the series (The Lady in the Lake, The Big Sleep). I say this based on his treatments several of the minor characters in The High Window. While Marlowe is jaded, and cynical, he seems to have a morality about him on a higher plane in this one. Still, before you think the guy a saint, let’s just say he is willing to “tell it like it is” to anyone anytime.
And, Chandler was a pro at his craft. Let’s face it: Chandler’s prose is something exceptional. He can paint a scene, a mood, with a brush so eloquently that it becomes undeniable noir: “The ringing bell had a sinister sound, for no reason of itself, but because of the ears to which it rang. I stood there braced and tense, lips tightly drawn back in a half grin. Beyond the closed window the neon lights glowed. The dead air didn’t move. Outside the corridor was still. The bell rang in darkness, steady and strong.”
While the ending was a little too pact, this is still a fantastic crime novel.
The High Window is noir personified.
The High Window is a fast paced, intricately plotted story inhabited by an abundance of interesting and colorful characters.
Once again, Raymond Chandler has succeeded in painting very vivid pictures of the various locales depicted with his unique brand of highly descriptive prose. A relatively short novel, The High Window is packed with page after page of interesting twists and turns, memorable characters and sharp dialogue.
Hard-boiled detective Philip Marlowe is, as always, hard drinking, wise cracking and supremely self confident. A walking, breathing paradox, he adheres to a very high minded code of honor when it comes to protecting client confidentiality yet is not above tampering with evidence.
What starts off as a rather mundane search for a missing rare coin quickly becomes much more complex. Murder, blackmail and the psychological abuse of a vulnerable young woman all play a role in the compelling plot. This novel should appeal to all fans of detective fiction as well as to those who appreciate good writing regardless of subject matter.