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Raymond Chandler: Stories and Early Novels: Pulp Stories / The Big Sleep / Farewell, My Lovely / The High Window (Library of America) Hardcover – October 1, 1995
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If you're looking for the perfect gift for yourself or some other lover of mysteries, this beautifully-made volume from the Library of America series will definitely prove that you care enough to send the very best. And if you haven't picked up The Big Sleep, Farewell, My Lovely, or The High Window recently, you'll be amazed at how well they stand up to the test of time. (A second handsome volume, Later Novels & Other Writings -- including The Long Goodbye -- is also available.)
From Library Journal
These additions to the venerable series make official what mystery fans have always known: Raymond Chandler is one of the gods of American literature. Following the trail blazed by Dashiell Hammett, Chandler created Philip Marlowe and set the standard against which all private detective fiction is measured. This two-volume set covers the full canon of Chandler's work from early pulp stories to all the Marlowe novels, the screenplay for Double Indemnity, and essays on the mystery genre plus the usual Library of America goodies such as notes on the text and a chronology of the author's life. In terms of literary inventions, the Wild West cowboy and the hard-boiled P.I. are this country's only true native sons and are deserving of respect. One of them at least now has it.
Copyright 1995 Reed Business Information, Inc.
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It certainly shows in this collection. Chandler came to detective novels through the format of pulp fiction, which focused on violence and titillation rather than logic. Pulp writers wrote thrillers and action stories more than mysteries. Chandler did the same. To be honest, most of his early short stories are unreadable, and his one later story "The Pencil" doesn't even make it into the volume. Stuff like "Blackmailers Don't Shoot" adheres to tough-guy posturing and mannerisms on every page, but it's impossible to figure out who is blackmailing whom, and why, and also why these thugs are shooting those thugs. Of the whole lot, only "Pearls Are A Nuisance" turns out to be a sort of gem, mostly because it is a screwball comedy written in a ridiculously pedantic tone, very out of character. But you can't make a career writing stuff like that.
We all know that this humble start eventually led to a huge success. However, revisiting The Big Sleep, it is surprising just how much it is indebted to the early work, and just how much it continues in the vein of the pulps. The rapidly accumulating murders are impenetrable; Chandler famously stated that he had no idea who killed the driver. (It seemed to me that it was an accident, but if so, it was a very improbable one.) Also reflecting Chandler's rough beginnings, this first Philip Marlowe novel is the only one where Marlowe kills a criminal.
But at the same time, you can also see that something else is emerging. The ending of The Big Sleep is a stunning flash that instantaneously solves the main mystery, even if it does mean that all the sideplots fall by the wayside. It also introduces Marlowe as a unique character in American fiction. Tough guys who fight crime for great justice were nothing new in the 1930s, much less now. But Marlowe's concept of justice appears to be motivated by some instinctive sixth sense of honour, combined with a profound visceral disgust for criminals. Chandler understood that a little principle goes a long way -- Marlowe does not deliver long speeches or action-hero wisecracks, and often Chandler focuses so much on the routine details of the investigation (as well as Marlowe's whiskey-drinking) that it's impossible to tell exactly what the detective is thinking about everything. But in the ending, you see that he never forgot about principle, and that he understood the people he was dealing with long ago. His solution of the case is not based on any particular clue as much as on his instinctive perception of Carmen's character.
That's not exactly detective fiction, but it is phenomenal drama. Chandler was a natural fit for Hollywood (where he wrote at least one classic screenplay), and yet no director or actor ever got Marlowe. Hawks has Bogart smirk too much and talk too fast, and Altman is clueless about Marlowe's motivation. The best Marlowe was Mitchum.
But back to the collection. Chandler's second novel was Farewell, My Lovely, which surpasses The Big Sleep as much as the latter surpassed the short stories. It introduces Chandler's lyricism. Marlowe's disgust for criminals is blended with self-criticism (in a mordantly funny inner monologue when he attempts to obtain information from a key witness by plying her with gin), loneliness, and a kind of detached sorrow. The book is still full of disconnected incidents (the entire trip to Amthor turns out to be a pointless digression -- actually the movie with Mitchum improved on this part), but there are also actual clues, such as a business card that the reader is unlikely to notice in time. In any case, the digressions don't matter as much, as the book is full of vivid supporting characters...or, rather, the most generic supporting characters become vivid through Chandler's ornate, stylized dialogue, full of evasions and double meanings. A routine investigation scene, taking place in the hotel across from the bar where the book begins, is full of rich, quotable dialogue. The token cop character, omnipresent in detective fiction, splits into the lazy, jaded Nulty, desensitized by routine and unrewarding investigations, and the scarily professional detective Randall, every bit as sharp as Marlowe (and maybe more), but constrained by the law as well as by extra-legal politics.
Chandler's third novel The High Window is probably the best detective story in this book. It is an extremely enjoyable read, and the investigation is more streamlined, and makes more sense, than in the first two books. Pleasantly, the token cop character this time around turns out to be a very reasonable man who tries to work together with Marlowe, a welcome change from the stereotype. The book generally has all the same elements as the others, with an unexpected twist and a somewhat more uplifting ending than usual, even if it doesn't cut quite as deep, and the endlessly masochistic Merle is neither interesting nor sympathetic enough to make a good emotional lynchpin. Still, as far as entertainment value is concerned, it delivers fully.
This collection offers a lot of lasting value, and it's not even Chandler's best. That came later, with The Lady In The Lake, The Little Sister, and The Long Goodbye. He never quite became a mystery writer, but his contemplation of loss, isolation, and loyalty deepened, and his evocative, yet simple language and metaphors are just about unmatched in American literature.
"Blackmailers Don't Shoot" - is a misnomer for sure. Everybody in this tale will shoot at anything that moves quickly given half a chance. Four men - three hoods and a "maybe" kind of good guy - are roughed up, betrayed by each other and killed within a short span of time over the foibles of a beautiful actress with more "whim encouraged by ego" than good sense.
"Finger man" - testifying before a Grand Jury and helping put away a wise guy can be bad for the health. So can Casinos, mob money, political influence in underworld activities; putting a street-wise detective at risk for taking the rap after receiving skimmed money from a desperate woman working both sides of the fence. One of the most intriguing parts of the action involves using a cat as a most effective weapon of opportunity.
"Nevada Gas" - the first casualty of the night belonged to a shady politico who promised to grease the wheels of justice and "get the half-brother of a gangster" out of the hot seat for a respectable fee; the service was bought and paid for, but wasn't delivered. That usually spells trouble in the world of exchanged favors and crooked politics, especially when playing for keeps with "tough guys". These particular people had their own way of "dealing with a double-dealer" - a back seat with no door handles and a sweet odor of almonds.
"Pearls are a Nuisance" - in a vast departure from the others comes this bit of tomfoolery. In fact, you have to get into it awhile to figure out what he is doing; then it dawns on you with a big laugh. Picture Tom and Dick Smothers as private detectives, only Tom has a snootful. Or Leslie Neilsen with a sidekick. It starts off with the "detective" getting a call from his girlfriend who suspects a strand of phony pearls has been heisted from her employer and she thinks she knows who did it. As she outlines the theory to him, she casually mentions that the suspected perp "tried to kiss her." Bristling with testosterone, our man makes his way immediately to the perps address to confront him - not about the pearls so much as about the "tried to kiss" thing. Brandy and Scotch bottles appear as if from nowhere; after a very unusual brawl the two tipsy adversaries become fast friends and determine they can solve the mystery over another bottle of Scotch. It is truly a hoot, and totally unexpected. Forsooth, after reading Chandler's bio, one might suspect he had been hitting another flask of his own as wrote this one.
"Goldfish" - in another tale of precious pearls heisted, "goldfish" turned out to be a password of sorts - once that password was delivered, the answers to the next questions better be right and our detective is flying by the seat of his pants in that department; he knows just enough to get himself killed if he doesn't play it right. But the mastermind had outsmarted himself as most of them ultimately tend to do. The theft itself turned out to be the easiest part of the idea; because the merchandise became too hot to handle. A bloodhound-type pursuit ensues with a thrilling ending that was one of a kind.
These short stories, mingling with the novels, make for long, lingering evenings of reading enjoyment if you're in the mood for mystery, well done.