Friday 1 April 2011

Guest Top Five - Raymond Chandler novels by Richard Allen

The second guest top five comes from Richard Allen, writer of Craven Cottage Newsround, the best Fulham blog on the internet, and editor of the annual Fulham Review. CCN started about 6 days before my own Fulham blog, and it was Richard who encouraged me to keep on writing. That means it's partly his fault you have to read my weekly ramblings! Over to Rich ...

Were I ever to find myself on MasterMind this might well be my specialist subject, although in writing this I've realised just how much I've forgotten, and most of my memories are fuzzy notions of excellence rather than anything specific I can write about; I'll just have to read them again, won't I?

The appeal here is several-fold: I love private eye novels (I would like to be one); I love novels set in California (Ross McDonald's Lew Archer books have the same X factor - an openness, and excitement, a dark shadow underneath a glittering surface); I love Chandler's writing, which would be diabolical were he not so brilliant (which is why attempts to copy it just don't work); but most of all I love Philip Marlowe, the tired, beaten-down protagonist in all this. I can't describe Marlowe any more than I can describe the books he's in, but suffice it to say I would very much like to be him.

1. The Lady in the Lake

Hard to say why I like this so much. It showcases Marlowe at his best, and seems to be the Chandler book that *works* better than any of the others (the Big Sleep, good as it is, is over plotted and doesn't really fit together, for instance; the Lady in the Lake has no such concerns). Crooked doctors, crooked cops, and some excellent secondary characters along the way. A winner.

"Police business is a hell of a problem. It’s a good deal like politics. It asks for the highest type of men, and there’s nothing in it to attract the highest type of men. So we have to work with what we get."
— Raymond Chandler (The Lady in the Lake)

2. Playback

This is supposedly one of the weaker efforts, cobbled together later in Chandler's life from a movie script that hadn't worked out. The plot doesn't really go anywhere, but for whatever reason I really enjoy this (short) book. I've read it a couple of times now, too. Compared to, say, The Big Sleep, the plot is almost non-existent, but by now Marlowe is almost unbearably human. It's a very lively book, but there's a weariness between the lines. Lots of travelling and hotels here, which also adds to things (a sense of transience or what have you).

"Common sense is the guy who tells you that you ought to have had your brakes relined last week before you smashed a front end this week. Common sense is the Monday morning quarterback who could have won the ball game if he had been on the team. But he never is. He's high up in the stands with a flask on his hip. Common sense is the little man in a grey suit who never makes a mistake in addition. But it's always someone else's money he's adding up."
— Raymond Chandler (Playback)

3. The Big Sleep

The first of the series and made up of several short stories Chandler had written for the pulp magazines. This is a good thing in that a lot of his best lines get in here - it's alive with astonishing turns of phrase - but a bad thing because the plot doesn't really work and has almost too much going on. Chandler's most famous book, and keeps getting into "top x books" lists, but it almost feels too high at #3. It's here because of the aforementioned turns of phrase: absolutely electric stuff.

"Tall, aren't you?" she said.
I didn't mean to be. Her eyes rounded. She was puzzled. She was thinking. I could see, even on that short acquaintance, that thinking was always going to be a bother to her."

— Raymond Chandler (The Big Sleep)

4. Farewell My Lovely

I haven't read this for a while but my initial instinct had been to place it at #2. Marlowe has to work with (or for) the troublesome Moose Molloy, and finds himself in several sticky situations, drugged on an offshore gambling den, knocked out at a late night rendez-vous, and much else besides. Side note: several episodes in the book are supposedly examples of Marlowe's repressed homosexuality, which is an interesting angle for Marlowephiles to consider.

"It was a blonde. A blonde to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained-glass window."
— Raymond Chandler (Farewell, My Lovely)

5. The Long Goodbye

See, when I read this I thought "this is my favourite Chandler" but that was probably 2004 and I've forgotten most of it (I've re-read most of the other books since, but like a number of good things, don't necessarily want to go back to this for fear of something hard to explain). So it's at number 5 because it needs to be in here. Chandler's longest, saddest and most reflective book; I'd better read it again.

"I was as hollow and empty as the spaces between stars."
— Raymond Chandler (The Long Goodbye)


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