I’m gonna admit right up front that the fourth star of my rating comes entirely from Raymond Chandler and his way with words. Nobody knew how to turn a phrase like good old Ray-Ray. I mean, what a guy. What a kick he must have been at parties.
I don’t normally read books for language alone. I’m an emotional reader, and my emotions tend to be tickled by character development and plot rather than language, and I’m a sucker for a well-turned phrase in service of plot or character. But Raymond Chandler’s books I really couldn’t care less about character or plot. With him, it’s all about atmosphere, and despite the dark seedy underbelly exposed in his books, his sense of diction is so playful. Just take a look at this gorgeous passage. It’s so simple, but so full of attitude:
“The call had come at 10:08. Marriott had talked maybe two minutes. Another four had got us out of the house. Time passes very slowly when you are actually doing something. I mean, you can go through a lot of movements in very few minutes. Is that what I mean? What the hell do I care what I mean? Okay, better men than me have meant less. Okay, what I mean is, that would be 10:15, say. The place was about twelve minutes away. 10:27. I get out, walk down in the hollow, spend at the most eight minutes fooling around and come on back up to get my head treated. 10:35. Give me a minute to fall down and hit the ground with my face. The reason I hit it with my face, I got my chin scraped. It hurts. It feels scraped. That way I know it’s scraped. No, I can’t see it. I don’t have to see it. It’s my chin and I know whether it’s scraped or not. Maybe you want to make something of it. Okay, shut up and let me think.”
I mean, come on! I was going to try and imitate his writing for this review, but I just don’t have that kind of sass in me. Who calls getting banged on the head “getting my head treated”? I don’t know. There’s just something about it that makes me laugh.
And the plot in this one is extra discombobulated because Chandler cannibalized three separate short stories he’d already written and reworked them into one story. so it’s like he’s got three separate things going on with very little to connect them: a story about a very large man just released from prison who Marlowe witnesses killing a black man in a night club, and who the police are looking for; the search for a night club singer that used to work in the night club, but hasn’t been seen for eight years; and a story about a psychic who also deals in organized crime, and has bought off sections of the police force. But still, he makes it work because what he’s concentrating on is the writing and the characters, not the details of the plot. He’s like a magician waving his hands and getting you to look at one thing, and forget the other exists.
I highly recommend the Philip Marlowe audiobooks, specifically the version narrated by Elliott Gould. His voice is absolutely perfect for Marlowe, and he nails the deadpan tone of the thing.