A total bummer of a pulp mystery, and I can only attribute the high star ratings on this site as the residual memories of the elegance and literary wiA total bummer of a pulp mystery, and I can only attribute the high star ratings on this site as the residual memories of the elegance and literary wit of the classic film noir that was adapted from it, 1947's Out of the Past. It's telling that all three of the enthusiastic quotes adorning the cover of this edition are taken from reviews of the film, and have nothing to do with the novel itself.
Homes constantly allows the plot to stray into long chapters dealing with peripheral characters who are hardly distinguishable from each other (I had a difficult time keeping them all straight--they all have similarly terse, one-syllable names like Guy, Slats, Lou, etc--and finally gave up when I finally realized they don't add much to the plot anyway), and there's a lot of focus on the good-girl Ann and her dogged suitor, small-town Jim. But at least there's the presence of Kathie, one of the most infamous femme fatales in all of cinema to compensate, right? Well, no--she barely makes an appearance here, and to add insult to injury, is named Mumsie McGonigle, which has to be the most ill-conceived name for a femme fatale ever.
So how did Homes, which is actually the pen name for Daniel Mainwaring who is credited with the film's screenplay, manage to transform his pigs ear of a novel into the silk purse that is the screenplay of Out of the Past? As it turns out, some archive detective work in the 90's by film scholar Jeff Schwager revealed that Mainwaring's screenplay was deemed completely unsuitable and discarded (the same goes for an additional draft by James M. Cain), and that the screenplay used in the film was actually by an obscure studio writer who went by the name of Frank Fenton. All of the elements that are most loved about the film's screenplay--the incomprehensibly sophisticated twists, the witty quips, the character of Kathie--only surface in shooting scripts after Fenton was assigned the project. He was never credited, however, and Mainwaring happily took all credit for the lauded screenplay (I read an interview with him from near the end of his life and he discusses it as if it was all his own creation).
But even if I was ultimately disappointed, I'm not sorry I read this. In the end, it merely made me love the film all the more. ...more
"In English, or at least in American, many subtleties of the dialogue escape me, but in The Red Harvest the dialogues, written in a masterful way, are"In English, or at least in American, many subtleties of the dialogue escape me, but in The Red Harvest the dialogues, written in a masterful way, are such as to give pointers to Hemingway or even to Faulkner, and the entire narrative is ordered with skill and implacable cynicism. In that very special type of thing it is, I believe, it is the most remarkable I have read" -Andre Gide, Journals, 1943
Far be it from me to argue with M. Gide, so I won't. But can I say that I agree with everything he says, and still admit that this just isn't my thing? My first experience with Hammett was back in high school where The Maltese Falcon left me distinctly unimpressed; I was curious if time had made me more receptive to Hammett's hard-edged, steel-splinter prose style, and the answer is… no, not really. Far more comprehensible than Chandler, but not nearly as fun to read, which is exactly what I read detective fiction for in the first place. ...more
Really only for die-hard fans and/or those who are already interested in this type of idiosyncratic marginalia. Distinguishing a "notebook" from a "joReally only for die-hard fans and/or those who are already interested in this type of idiosyncratic marginalia. Distinguishing a "notebook" from a "journal" or "diary" might at times come off as nit-picky, but it's an important one in this situation, as this is less a personal record than a ramshackle collection of sentence fragments, long lists of slang, a few rather unreadable writing exercises, and many excerpts of articles and essays from other writers that Chandler evidently drew inspiration from in some way (and while they might not be of the utmost interest in and of themselves, they're interesting in that Chandler found them interesting). Also included are a few more formal pieces, such as his published review of Diamonds Are Forever, a study of American vs. British English, and a previously unpublished screed outlining Hollywood's treatment of screenwriters that he ends up characterizing as "a testament of failure." The essay, certainly one of the best things about this collection, provides an illuminating, ground zero perspective on the collision of a screenwriter's creative impulses in the face of an unapologetic Hollywood machine (one choice bon mot: "integrity is a nice word, and you hear it a great deal in Hollywood, but you seldom meet the quality itself").
Also included is the short story "English Summer: A Gothic Romance," a piece Chandler was reportedly very fond of and held hopes for reworking into a full-length novel. It is, well, immediately apparent that this would have been a horrible idea. The story, interestingly, reverses Chandler's usual narrative strategy—rather than uncovering the unexpectedly poetic in squalid urban spaces, he begins with the picturesque English coast and attempts to uncover the unsavory elements lurking beneath. And while I'm sure that if Chandler had pursued this tactic in earnest he could very well have mastered it in time, but as is this is a British romance-mystery as pedestrian as it is cliché, the type, unfortunately, involving such exchanges as "'I'm afraid you're flirting with me'/ 'I'm afraid I am'"). The proceedings are livened up with the occasional Chandler witticism ("I had gone, a little to be near her, a little because asking me was a sort of insult, and I like insults, from some people"), but they come off here as painfully shoehorned, as incongruous as memorable. It's not made clear if Chandler considered this a complete work, but as is it's (at best) a dry run or even an early draft, which means, I suppose, that it's perfect for including in an informal "notebook" such as this. ...more
Had an overwhelming craving for a dose of Chandler's sordid urban poetry and opted for this, one of his novels that I've read only once. Promptly procHad an overwhelming craving for a dose of Chandler's sordid urban poetry and opted for this, one of his novels that I've read only once. Promptly proceeded to devour it within the course of 36 hours. Usually not considered one of the highlights of Chandler's compact oeuvre, about halfway through it struck me how difficult it is to distinguish between "great" Chandler and the "merely good," as this is really terrific stuff.
But after finishing it became clear again why this isn't one of Chandler's finest moments: after a rip-roaring first half, it quickly and inexplicably goes very flat in the second. Less terse verbal shoot-outs between Marlowe and his jowly, draconian client Mrs. Murdoch, and less witty dealings with the quintessentially Chandler-esque mélange of colorful, perfectly delineated support characters. In their place are looooong explanatory chapters, typically with representatives of the law, which seem to drag on endlessly. Chandler himself chalked up to his disappointment with the novel to it having "no likable characters,"* which does become a problem upon the conclusion when (for me, at least), I couldn't muster up much interest who ended up being the good guys and who the bad.
But even if The High Window ultimately doesn't reach the heights of Chandler's best work, the fact remains that second-tier Chandler is still better than most.
Looking back now, The Big Sleep looks like a crucial point of transition from being an voracious but indiscriminate reader to, well, a more discriminaLooking back now, The Big Sleep looks like a crucial point of transition from being an voracious but indiscriminate reader to, well, a more discriminate reader of serious Literatuh. Before that time most of my reading was centered on Agatha Christie mysteries and equally amusing diversions, so after the Bogie and Bacall classic brought this novel to my attention about halfway through high school, I figured "awesome, more mysteries!" and checked out Chandler's novel from my local library.
I don't remember many specifics of that first reading, other than the unbridled enthusiasm it inspired (I went on to read everything by Chandler available to me over the next year or two). But boy did those similes and poetic descriptions stick with me—for whatever reason the characterization of a street as a "curving ribbon of wet concrete" imprinted itself on my memory ever after. If I wanted to attempt analyzing my life as a chain of neat cause-and-effects, I could very well select this as the lightbulb moment where I finally began to perceive the power of writing and literary artistry, and truly realize how the mundane can be transformed into the sublime through just a few well-selected words.
It wasn't a conscious decision, of course, but after that encounter with The Big Sleep less and less Christie novels were checked out from the library; it was also during this time I began taking my English classes more seriously. By the time I entered college several years later I dimly perceived that I might actually want to devote my attention and major in these book thingies (it took a while, but I did ultimately did head in that direction).
Just after Christmas I revisited the film, a favorite that I hadn't seen in years. Afterwards I picked up the book, but not without a bit of trepidation. I never reread The Big Sleep, but over the years my returns to Chandler had yielded disappointments (The Lady in the Lake underwent a particularly drastic fall from grace).
But much to my surprise, I found The Big Sleep even better than I remembered it. Oh, as a mystery narrative it's more or less a bust—the legend surrounding both the novel and film regarding the plot holes are surely justified. But that seems rather beside the point to me: the brilliance is in the vivid individual episodes rather than the sum of the narrative parts. Frankly, I could care less who killed who—I read this to savor Marlowe's constant wisecracks and wry musings, and to meet the eccentric character that seems to emerge from behind every door. And I'll just straight out say it: within The Big Sleep are some of the most evocative, unexpectedly beautiful similes and descriptions I've ever come across in all 20th century American literature.
"She gave me one of those smiles the lips have forgotten before they reach the eyes."
"It was a crisp morning, with just enough snap in the air to make life seem simple and sweet, if you didn't have too much on your mind. I had."