Monday, March 21, 2011

I'm reading The High Window, Raymond Chandler's third novel. Two years ago I wrote here about how an odd passage in his story "Red Wind" comes across as a little self-referential joke about the conventions of detective fiction – or perhaps not just detective fiction, but literary realism more generally, and the accumulation of surface detail that constitutes the springs in its mattress. There's a comparable bit in The High Window:

'Okay,' I said. 'It wasn't a girl. She had help. It was a man. What did the man look like?'

He pursed his lips and made another steeple with his fingers. 'He was a middle-aged man, heavy set, about five feet seven inches tall and weighing around one hundred and seventy pounds. He said his name was Smith. He wore a blue suit, black shoes, a green tie and shirt, no hat. There was a brown bordered handkerchief in his outer pocket. His hair was dark brown sprinkled with grey. There was a bald patch about the size of a dollar on the crown of his head and a scar about two inches long running down the side of his jaw. On the left side, I think. Yes, on the left side.'

'Not bad,' I said. 'What about the hole in his right sock?'

'I omitted to take his shoes off.'

'Darn careless of you,' I said.

No explanation is given for Mr. Morningstar's eidetic memory. He just happens to be a character who talks like a narrator!

The High Window also contains a few paragraphs about Bunker Hill, at the beginning of Chapter Eight, that rank among Chandler's very best descriptive passages. Reading Chandler after so many decades of Chandler imitators and Chandler parodies, it's sometimes easy to forget that he's not writing about some unreal and self-contained Marloweland, he's writing, brilliantly, about a specific city at a specific time. While researching The Teleportation Accident I've got through a lot about Los Angeles in the 1930s, but there's no non-fiction book that's as useful as Chandler.

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