Pulp Noir - Raymond Chandler's The High Window & The Lady in the Lake

Raymond Chandler's The High Window was published in 1942. In this story Philip Marlowe is hired by Elizabeth Bright Murdock to find a valuable coin that has been plundered from her safe. Mrs Murdock's chief suspicion falls on the estranged wife of her son, a showgirl who she has never trusted or liked much.
As ever, Marlowe fearlessly throws himself into the case but (equally as ever) finds it to be far more complicated than it appeared on the surface when he was hired in the first place. Who took the coin? And who exactly is Mrs Murdock anyway? Is she hiding something?
The High Window lacks the audacity and freshness of The Big Sleep and Farewell, My Lovely but it's still a decent enough outing for our very down to earth hero. There is a palpable weariness to Chandler by now and Marlowe is becoming rather Holden Caulfield as he rails against the phoney world he is forced to inhabit. Chandler was drinking a lot again when he wrote this and booze sodden passages abound.
"Then he picked the glass up and tasted it and sighed again and shook his head sideways with a half smile; the way a man does when you give him a drink and he needs it very badly and it is just right and the first swallow is like a peek into a cleaner, sunnier, brighter world."
The low rent world that Marlowe increasingly finds himself in is even more Hellish than usual here and although the descriptive flourishes and smartarse asides and lines from the detective are still great ("From thirty feet away she looked like a lot of class. From ten feet away she looked like something made to be seen from thirty feet away...") this story doesn't quite live up to expectations if you are familiar with the first two Chandler Marlowe books.
The plot this time is propelled by coincidence and chance and seems to indicate that Chandler was not quite at the top of his game when he wrote this. There is still a jaunty and confident quality to the prose but the actual construction of the story is not as strong. Still a fun book though and Chandler's dialogue and prose crackles in its best flourishes.
The Lady in the Lake was published in 1943 and while not regarded to be the best of the Marlowe books (I think even Chandler said that he didn't enjoy the book much whenever he picked it up) it's still very readable if you are familiar with the other stories in this series.
Chandler is becoming almost as jaundiced and tired as his hero by now and this bitterness gives the book some extra grit and edge. The story begins with Marlowe being hired by a man named Derace Kingsley. The private detective is wary whenever he has a new client but money is money and he has enough street smarts to be a decent judge of character by now. The fact that he doesn't trust anyone is a good defence mechanism.
Kingsley is a company director for a perfume business and wants Marlowe to track down his estranged wife Crystal. The last that Derace heard from Crystal was when she sent a telegram declaring that she was about to get married to a man named Chris Lavery.
The problem is that Lavery, a gigolo who Kingsley already knows quite well, is currently in Los Angeles and steadfastly claims to know nothing about Crystal's whereabouts. Marlowe begins his investigation by questioning Laverly and then taking a trip to Big Bear Lake where Crystal was last seen in one of the cabins.
Laverly seems to be on the level and genuinely innocent of any involvement (although Marlowe doesn't exactly take a shine to him) so what did happen to Crystal Kingsley? This could turn out to be the twistiest and most complex case our downbeat hero has been involved with yet.
The Lady in the Lake is maybe a bit too complicated for its own good at times but this quality does help to whip the rug out from under the audience once or twice and I like the fact that you really have to concentrate to make sense of the story and the investigation that Marlowe undertakes.
Marlowe, despite his sardonic assurance, inevitably finds that these cases are far more complicated than they appeared to be at first glance and is always on the cusp of being completely in over his head. It gives him a nice everyman quality and this feels more pronounced in The Lady in the Lake.
I liked some of the Chandler flourishes too as Marlowe increasingly regards all around him with a mild distaste and disdain. The perfume business at the start of the story for example seems to Marlowe (and for Marlowe read Chandler) to almost be a perfect metaphor for the emptiness and superficiality of life in the city.
The detective seems to be at his most misanthropic here and it's as if Chandler was in an especially bad mood when he wrote this novel -  artificial phoniness now almost more than he can currently stand. Marlowe trusts absolutely no one in this story and seems to be becoming increasingly desensitised to death and the more macabre side of his line of work.
This story is not as immediate as The Big Sleep or Farewell, My Lovely but it does have some great passages (or Chandlerisms I suppose) and is notable too for taking our hardboiled hero out of the city for a while. Chandler knew all the locations in the book, or at least approximations of them, in real life and seems to enjoy writing about them.
One thing you do notice with this book is that Marlowe seems to be increasingly centre stage and although he's a great character one senses that Chandler is increasingly disinterested in other characters.
It's almost as if he can't be bothered anymore sometimes (although Chandler was less than impressed when the film version was constructed in a somewhat bizarre "Marlowe perspective" as if we were him for the duration of the film). The Lady in the Lake is flawed but still a lot of fun.
- Jake

c 2016 Alternative 007

james bond alpine