Occasional musings, Geistesblitze, photos, drawings etc. by a "resident alien", who has landed on American soil from a far-away planet called "Germany".

Monday, October 5, 2009

Chandler--which novel is the best?


On a different blog, several fans of Raymond Chandler have outed themselves, which motivated me to start a discussion dear to my heart: Which of his half-dozen or so novels is the best?

19 comments:

Ulrich said...

I can say a lot of good things about almost all of the novels (with the possible exception of The High Window and, of course, Playback, which I don't even count).

Farewell, My Lovely: Unforgettable set pieces, like the description a Malibu at dusk. Classic quotes (from memory--don't crucify me if don't get them right): "he was as inconspicuous as a tarantula on a piece of angel food cake" "Whatever you wanted, wherever you happened to be, she had it." But I do not like the Ann Riordan character, deus ex machina, too good to be true, source of some unbearable compliments directed at Marlowe ("You're so brave!")

The Little Sister: An unbelievably well orchestrated sequence of opening chapters that start from absolute zero (Marlowe with the fly in office) and then slowly starts to build momentum. Great movie scenes ("she was pushing forty so hard, her knuckles were white."). But it somehow fizzles out in the end.

The Long GoodBye; A little too long, Malowe a little too Christ-like, as Chandler himself admitted.

...which brings me to: THE LADY IN THE LAKE (see my next post)...

Ulrich said...

Why I like The Lady in the Lake best.

A high level of writing and suspense are maintained throughout. Some set pieces are so good, I consider them high literature, like the description of the summer folk vacationing on a lake, the arrival at the cabin, the discovery of the body on the lake...

The set of characters is more varied than in the other novels, where we have basically the criminal low-lifes and the criminal high-lifes, and not much inbetween. Here, we have those, but also the sheriff, the guy who hires Marlowe, and his lady-love (I'm terrible with names--if it matters to someone, I can look them up)--all people of the kind one would like to meet in real life.

The plot, traditionally considered Chandler's weakness, although complicated, holds together, including the usual misdirection, particularly well-handled here.

In my view, set pieces and dialogue are two of Chandler's main strengths, and I think even "serious" novelists can learn from them. Unforgettable are also, of course, his similes ("crazy like two waltzing mice")

George NYC said...

It has been a long time since I read Chandler, and I read most of his books in quick sequence. Unfortunately, the paperbacks were lost during a cross-country move.
But I do remember having low expectations for Lady In the Lake (no movie, never heard of it) but ending up thinking it was indeed his best.
Do I hear Amazon calling?

Ulrich said...

@George: Paperbacks, with the type of cover Rex showed on his blog, are indeed the proper way to own Chandler novels IMHO--I have only The Little Sister in that form, and it's falling apart from too many moves.

If you want to refresh your acquaintance, there is now a new option: He has made it into the Library of America: two volumes "printed on lightweight, acid-free paper that will not turn yellow or brittle with age [like my Little Sister UF]. Sewn bindings allow the books to open easily and lie flat... The page layout has been designed for readability as well as elegance." i.e. he has become a classic--hope it won't kill him with readers!

Anonymous said...

To Ulrich: I respectfully disagree. Moose Malloy and Little Velma are the most unforgettable of his characters for me (you quoted how she is characterized on her first appearance), and therefore, Farewell, My Lovely holds the prize. There's also a great cast of supporting characters, lead by Jessie Florian and Lindsay Marriott. I must agree, tho, that Anne [!] Riordan is not among them.

bookmark said...

To Ulrich: If you're the one who posted the Chandler quote on Rex's blog, I can't thank you enough. It is exquisite! I haven't read RC in many years, but you can be sure I'm going back to him soon. And I'll also give The Lady in the Lake a read. Thanks for making my day.

Laraine said...

Hi Ulrich, Well I never would have read Chandler if it hadn't been for you. When I read him, I was deeply into my pretentious phase of literary loves and detective stories didn't make the cut. But since you loved Chandler and I loved you, I, with secret scorn, started reading Chandler and was, of course, hooked.

That admission of my initial snootiness made, I have to say I agree with Anonymous, "Farewell, My Lovely" is just the best of all the Chandlers. Those two characters, Moose and Velma, are simply unforgettable and Moose Malloy got one of the best of the Chandler similes. "He was as unobtrusive as a tarantula on an angel food cake."

Even with my mangling the original-- I don't hear Chandler using the word "unobtrusive"-- it's still a spot on, perfect simile. Chandler is one of the American greats.

Ulrich said...

@Laraine, my lovely: ... and here we are, 40 years later, and you just told me that you love Richard Price, not the least b/c of his dialogue, and I started to read him...

humorlesstwit said...

I have nothing to contribute to the comparitive nature of this discussion, as I've only read "The Long Goodbye". My picking this up was akin to Laraine's, a deliberate venture away from Important literature. I picked up "The Thin Man" at the same time, which I thought was fine, but the Chandler amazed me. The blondes monologue (I posted over @ Rex's) was as good a monologue, in terms of its purity of voice and character, as I think you'll find almost anywhere. Chandler knows his characters, their type and their voice as well as anyone.

Ulrich said...

@humotlesstwit: I couldn't say it better myself...

As to Hammett, if I remember correctly, I liked The Maltese Falcon better than The Tin Man--so, if you're getting into this, you may give it a try. But neither of the two motivated me to read it again, as opposed to the 4 Chandlers I mentioned, which I do reread occasionally.

Laraine said...

I'm with Ulrich and Humorless Twit (I've used that as an epithet so many times, I feel funny using it in a friendly manner) on this. Hammet has that terse style, which is fun to read, but it's not like Chandler's dialogue and description, which make the characters appear before your eyes. Hammet's characters talk tough. Chandler's just talk.

And H.T.--I can't call you by your formal name; it's too close to one of my favorite insults--if you like dialogue that seems so natural you feel like you are easedropping, you gotta read Richard Price, who also wrote for "The Wire."

His novels have no Chandleresque glamor--his subjects are pretty much angry (but oddly sympathetic) cops and desperate poor people--but they are inhabited by characters who come alive as soon as they arrive on the page. He's uncanny. And if you thought "The Wire" was depressing, it was a sit com compared to Price's novels, but they are still so worth reading. And if you haven't seen "The Wire," you gotta get your hands on a copy.

humorlesstwit said...

I am proud to say I can now add to the comparative nature of this discussion. I am sad to say that the best Chandler is most definitely not The Big Sleep.

Ulrich said...

@humorlesstwit: Is this the one that has a really nasty homophobic slant? At least that's what I remember, and it's a reason why I didn't discuss it. I think its everlasting claim to fame is the movie based on it, with Bogey as Marlowe and Lauren Bacall as one of the sisters.

The opening chapter in the hot green house is great, tho--no?

I have to get a name other than humorlesstwit said...

Actually, I was pretty surprised by the homosexual content, and thought it was handled pretty even handedly for 1941.
He got some parts right, everything with the senior Greenwood, the minor character Harry at the end, but others seemed lacking somehow. All this is probably comparative to his later works, had I read them in the order that he wrote them I most likely never would have noticed.

I also was likely biased by remembering the movie which focussed much more on the Lauren Bacall character than did the book. The most famous scene in the movie wasn't in the book, the endings were different, little things like that.

Ulrich said...

@whoever you are: Are reading the novels now in order?

I'mNotATwit said...

If in order you mean whatever the little mini-Borders in town has in stock, yes.

Ulrich said...

@To the reader formerly known as humorlesstwit: I hope they have Farewell, my Lovely; The Little Sister; and The lady in the Lake. At this time, I would not do The High Window.

BTW The Little Sister is the basis for the movie "Marlowe", with James Garner as Marlowe, Gayle Hunicutt (sp?) as the movie star "pushing forty so hard her knuckles were white", and Rita Moreno as her Latina side-kick ("con cojones" is her remark after first laying eye on Marlowe)

Anonymous said...

Haven't read all of the novels myself, so I don't know how much my opinion counts for. Plus, this post is a year old.

Nevertheless. I have read The Big Sleep, Lady in the Lake, Farewell my Lovely, and The Long Goodbye. Overall, I probably enjoyed Farewell my Lovely the most. It has a good amount of Chandler's witticisms. The story itself flows wonderfully, with a nice balance between the monologue, dialogue, and action. It ends with a memorable bittersweet ending.

For the best chandlerisms, though, I would have to pick The Big Sleep. That book felt like it was full of them from cover to cover, non-stop. Plus, it has my favorite one: "Dead mean are heavier than broken hearts." Chandler's similes are what mark his stories apart from his predecessors, like Hammett. So, if you're reading to get a sense of Chandler's style, The Big Sleep will hit you with a deluge of it.

Ulrich said...

@anonymous: My posts are meant to stay alive forever, and since I get e-mail for every new comment, no matter how old the post, I at least will notice. And if I have something to say, I will respond.

So, with Chandler, I hope you'll get to the Little Sister eventually. And I would add that another distinguishing feature of his writing is his ability to set up a scene, in which the details accumulate to establish a mood or to suggest the character of the inhabitant of some house or apartment (who, most likely, will be found dead in the shower at the end). Chinatown BTW got this right--the script writer often acknowledged his debt to Chandler.

Hope you'll see this...