Reading: Thoroughly Modern Marlowe 

Raymond Chandler's Poodle Springs Story should have been left to rest in peace.

When Aristotle wrote that metaphor is a sign of genius, he'd never read a bad detective novel. The threadbare comparison, the overcomplicated simile, are staples of the genre. Pulp writers treat these devices like wrestling holds; they're thrown in to lively up the action, to demonstrate a certain professional proficiency, and most of all because the crowd loves it.

A woman might be dressed like an overstuffed couch, and though her gestures lighting a cigarette may be as stiff as a shot poured by a drunk, when she walks, she rolls with the motion of the ocean. A crook is as straight as a sailor on shore leave, and the gun he points has a barrel as blue as the sky, as the sea, as a new moon, as the books beneath a bluestocking's bed, as a teamster's tale, as the hair of an old woman or her infant granddaughter's eyes. In these novels, the characters oftentimes take on the labels our observant detectives give them: these books are peopled with One-eyes and Hare-lips and Porkpies, and if a bottle blonde, the skirt, doesn't make my rod bark in one way, it'll be worse for her just the same in the end.

Or take these lines, spilling from a cheap detective novel held gingerly between thumb and forefinger at arm's length: "I nodded, blowing streamers of smoke at the ceiling." "Her eyes were smoldering embers ready to flame . . . a living statue in high-heeled shoes." "I felt like I was plowing my whiskers under instead of shaving them off." "Little veins and tendons stretched in bas-relief under his skin." "Her eyes lit up like candles at an altar." Then there are those old reliables, "I hugged the shadows," and "A shot licked back at me."

Mickey Spillane is written all over this anonymous prose. The greatest indictment of the tacky detective genre is that Spillane can claim, and his bank balance gives evidence, that he's its most popular practitioner. (The quotes above are drawn from his My Gun Is Quick, purchased at a used-book store for just this occasion.)

Metaphors, like puns (and detective novels), are a currency cheapened by heavy use. Yet metaphors are essential to a writer; words themselves are not the objects they call to mind but our agreed-upon symbols for them, as William Gass is so fond of pointing out. Metaphor suggests, with a delightful delicacy, "the correspondences between things" that Aristotle finds in all the best art, which is why he's so drawn to the device. Yet a writer of today with a feel for genuinely new metaphor has a difficult time of it: I've heard Gass's work likened to an after-dinner drink too rich and subtle for most people to appreciate. For the writer who intends to communicate with people and not college professors, the choices for metaphor are sparse.

It's not known whether Raymond Chandler would have turned to writing professionally in the 30s and 40s if he hadn't been so drawn to detective fiction. Certainly his letters betray him as a craftsman of style and a sensitive critic, but it can be argued that these were the products of his classical English education and a short-lived early career as a literary journalist in London. What is known is that Chandler lost his job as an oil-company executive during the depression, although whether this was the result of the company's financial condition or his drinking is also a subject for debate. He turned to writing detective stories soon afterward--because he thought he could, because the stories brought in money, and most of all because he was attracted by what he saw as the vitality of the form, the genre's dependence on strong characters, gripping stories, ethical complications, and a vivid, metaphorical language.

Chandler sets the standard for metaphor in detective fiction. Some of his lines lodge so solidly they are unforgettable. On the first page of Farewell, My Lovely--his second novel and perhaps his best work in the detective genre--Philip Marlowe observes that Moose Malloy looks "about as inconspicuous as a tarantula on a slice of angel food." Later on, Marlowe says a woman gives him "a smile I could feel in my hip pocket." Chandler writes with a punk's delight in slang and a pedant's precision; the combination is what makes his metaphors so distinctive. What makes them great is that they are always rooted in meaning. The gratuitous simile--so common in detective novels, as the writer plays to the cheap seats--is rare in Chandler.

The voice of the killer Canino in The Big Sleep--the most dreadful character in all of Chandler and, not coincidentally, the only person Marlowe ever kills--is described as having "a heavy purr, like a small dynamo behind a brick wall." Canino's efficiency--his professionalism and grace--is what makes him such a fearsome force. He kills not emotionally, like Spillane's Mike Hammer; not ponderously, because it needs to be done, like Robert B. Parker's more contemporary Spenser; but simply as a matter of course, as any professional would. It's telling that when Marlowe faces Canino for the first time, in an ambush Marlowe believes will mean his own death, he nevertheless describes Canino by saying that he "came almost dancing towards me across the floor." Marlowe's arms are pinned; Canino is carrying a roll of coins in his fist, but we can still see clearly the graceful way Canino's body prepares a knockout punch. What comes across is Marlowe's fear, under the veneer of his ever-functioning mind.

Chandler was a poet; his book titles let us know it. His best titles--The Big Sleep, Farewell, My Lovely, The Long Goodbye--all suggest subtle metaphors. And all have that lilting l sound, as alluring as the romanticized depression within the books themselves.

His metaphors could be bracing as a slap--the homosexual who kills in revenge for his murdered mate in The Big Sleep has "a face as hard and white as cold mutton fat." They could also shock with their tenderness, as at the end of this passage:

"We drove away from Las Olindas through a series of little dank beach towns with shack-like houses built down on the sand close to the rumble of the surf and larger houses built back on the slopes behind. A yellow window shone here and there, but most of the houses were dark. A smell of kelp came in off the water and lay on the fog. The tires sang on the moist concrete of the boulevard. The world was a wet emptiness."

This is the sort of writing, the sentences tapering toward the metaphors as toward a point, that prompted Ross Macdonald to suggest that Chandler "wrote like a slumming angel." Yet Chandler's writing was always as entertaining as the next fellow's. Marlowe's descriptions of the various mansions he visits never fail to delight: he might be disappointed by an elegant house because it doesn't have as many windows as the Chrysler Building; the thick carpeting would be comfortable if it didn't tickle the ankles so. Marlowe is always somewhat uncomfortable with opulence, lampooning the rich.

A style, even when refined, can become little more than an ornate harness. Chandler showed increasing dissatisfaction with the stylistic demands of the detective form as the years went on, and his later work suffered.

His early work, however, was fresh. Chandler's first two novels and his fourth were all spliced together from shorter stories written for pulp magazines. Perhaps "spliced" is too harsh a word (although Chandler himself referred to his "cannibalized" early stories). The events are the same, but they're sewn together in ingenious fashion, then covered over with finer writing--extra details and accessories--to make them all of a piece. (The wonderful next-to-last paragraph of The Big Sleep, for instance, is all fresh material--and every bit as good, in its way, as the end of The Great Gatsby.) When Chandler did not use old material, had to start from scratch, the work suffered. Chandler's third novel, The High Window, is a failure, and his fifth, The Little Sister, though it represents a recovery, is subpar compared to the classic works.

Chandler was not a prolific writer; he finished only seven novels. Yet by the early 50s he was ready to write his masterpiece, the detective novel to end all detective novels--the companion piece to the decade's western to end all westerns, John Ford's The Searchers, and to the musical to end all musicals, Singin' in the Rain. Chandler never considered himself a genre artist--as a novelist, as an essayist, as a screenwriter, he was always merely a professional with an especially fine sense. But often in his letters he turned to the topic of what separates a genre artist from a serious artist, pointing out the many popular writers who had failed in their attempts to write a "serious novel." He explains Hammett's early retirement by saying that, though he yearned to write something better, he realized that he was nothing more than a mystery writer. The Long Goodbye, published in 1954, is Chandler's attempt to write a serious novel that's also a mystery, and to strip the genre of what he saw as its cartoonish elements--its lascivious detail and hyperbolic metaphor--in order to lay bare its complicated grain of ethical problems.

When I first read The Long Goodbye, I thought it was simply a tired, long-winded Chandler at the end of his days. It's almost twice as long as any of his other novels, yet there's almost no action, and the colorful language of the detective novel is abandoned. The most vivid metaphor in the book comes not from Marlowe but from the villain, Mendy Menendez, who looks Marlowe up and down and comments simply, "Tarzan on a big red scooter."

Chandler pursues instead the larger metaphor of his own life. His alter ego, Marlowe, confronts two characters who also resemble Chandler: a hard-drinking Briton, full of noblesse oblige even when he's full of gin, and an alcoholic writer of popular romances who no longer finds value in his own work. The two plots dovetail. Marlowe's metaphors, when they appear, tend toward the abstract, the philosophical: "You can never know too much about the shadow line and the people who walk it." And this one, which applies to the novelist as well as to Marlowe: "There is no trap so deadly as the trap you set for yourself."

The Long Goodbye was written while Chandler nursed his wife, Cissy, during a fatal illness, a fact that gives the title yet another application. He wrote later, in a letter, "While she was dying, and I knew she was dying, I wrote my best book. I wrote it in agony, but I wrote it." He was 66 years old; his wife was a good deal older. His descent after her death was rather abrupt. In 1955 he attempted suicide--the first of a few times--and later he took to wearing white gloves compulsively and falling in love with much younger women, but it was a kid's love, as romanticized as his own work was becoming. In 1958 he finished a novelization of his own unfilmed Marlowe screenplay, Playback, with predictable results; he died the following year, leaving behind four chapters of a novel called The Poodle Springs Story.

It is the sketchy beginning of a very bad book.

If The Poodle Springs Story holds any interest at all, it is in Chandler's attempt to take the character who served him so well for so many years, who suffered so frequently at his hands, and do right by him once and for all--it's Chandler's Marlowe at Colonus. He had married Marlowe off to Linda Loring at the end of Playback (a doubtful choice, as all Marlowe's friends know he missed his best chance for happiness with Anne Riordan in Farewell), and The Poodle Springs Story is the continuation--Marlowe attempts to find wedded bliss in a sterile rich community modeled after Chandler's own Palm Springs. It parallels Hammett's last novel, The Thin Man, but Chandler takes it in the opposite direction. Where Nick Charles seeks to retire and enjoy his wife's wealth, Marlowe seeks to retain his identity by opening up shop right in Poodle Springs.

The writing strays into self-parody as Marlowe returns to his metaphorical ways. Their mansion "stank decorator," and his wife throws herself at him "like a medium fast pitch, high and inside." Their dialogue--which makes up almost the entire first chapter--attempts to re-create the rough but good-natured sparring between equals found in The Thin Man, but Marlowe comes off as overly testy. He feels his wife is oversexed, although he tries not to complain about it too much. Where Chandler was going with this, no one knows.

This is a book that should not have been finished. It's not that Marlowe's character is sacred ground--I've read too many interesting treatments of classic characters, from Nicholas Meyer's reverent work with Sherlock Holmes to Jerry Scott's improvement on "Nancy" in the funny papers, to adopt that position. But this is so clearly Chandler's story. Chandler's concerns--trying to come to terms with his own flawed but revered marriage, trying to settle his detective once and for all into a position he deserves--dictate the shape of the novel to come. For another writer to attempt to finish this novel--the equivalent of an "unfinished" symphony in which the first theme has only been hummed to friends by the dying composer--is ridiculous.

The four chapters appear as a curiosity in the book Raymond Chandler Speaking, and that is where they should have remained.

But Raymond Chandler Speaking never appeared on the best-seller list. And the lawyer who represents Chandler's estate, Ed Victor, probably never saw any of the profits from that book--if there were any. A year ago, however, another book came out: 23 contemporary mystery writers making their responses to Marlowe. The occasion was the Chandler centenary (he was born in Chicago, oddly enough, in 1888); and the results, I've heard, are quite often interesting and sometimes quite good. Yet Victor--to whom that book was dedicated--delayed the really big payoff. Robert B. Parker, the living heir to the Chandler throne, was missing from that collection. The reason: at Victor's request, he was completing The Poodle Springs Story--now called simply Poodle Springs.

If anyone is to assume the Marlowe character, it would have to be Parker. He's not only popular and stylish but the ablest writer of detective novels now working. What's more, Chandler was a subject of Parker's doctoral thesis (times have changed since the days when alcoholics bought their next bottle with work sent to Black Mask). Parker knows Chandler and Marlowe inside and out, and it shows. Yet as a detective novelist, Parker is clearly derivative. His Spenser series--which began in the mid-70s--fixes the character as the traditional detective hero, but with new elements intended to update the stereotype. With hindsight, even the early Spenser books peg him as the natural hero of the 80s--which indeed he eventually became. Yet as far as the genre is concerned, the new details are all just the embellishments of a decadent, baroque age. The trips to the gym, the infatuation with brand names, the adeptness in the kitchen, the acknowledgment of ethical difficulties, which never inhibit action--all give Parker's detective novels a distinctly 80s feel.

Gass writes that characters in fiction are mostly empty canvas, and that's generally true of detective heroes, and certainly of Marlowe. Yet in Marlowe's case the empty canvas is sometimes as important as the particulars--especially when we look at the plethora of particulars given Spenser. Marlowe, Ross Macdonald's Lew Archer, and even Hammett's short, squat Continental Op are all broad-shouldered, but they would never have thought about lifting a barbell, much less pumping iron on a regular basis. Likewise, Marlowe may swing--according to his mood--from whiskey to gin and from cigarettes to a pipe, but the most we know about his whiskey is that it's rye. The brand of cigarettes he smokes remains nameless, and the reader never discovers whether he smokes a Peterson or a Savinelli--though his pipe is described as a humble briar, in contrast to Holmes's calabash. Like Spenser, Marlowe is adept in the kitchen; he is uncharacteristi- cally eloquent on the subject of making good coffee. Yet he would never think of describing how he broiled a steak, much less how he chopped the mushrooms for an omelette.

Parker does not toy with the blank canvas of Marlowe's life; the detective does not suddenly adopt brand names, and he sticks to rye whiskey and kitchen matches he can light with his fingernail. But Parker fails to make Marlowe comment on the luck involved in this trick, and Marlowe surrenders the coffee-making chores to his Poodle Springs houseboy without a complaint. Likewise, though Marlowe was always middle-aged, here he shows signs of senility: in memory of The Long Goodbye's Terry Lennox, he stops in at their favorite bar for a gimlet--the symbol of their friendship--but he orders a vodka gimlet, when Lennox particularly states that the perfect gimlet is half gin and half lime juice (proving, once and for all, that one should never trust a man who likes his gin gimlet wet and sweet).

Otherwise, Marlowe fares well in Parker's hands. In fact, there's a noticeable lift in the tone when Parker takes over on page 30. (It takes Parker only a page and a half to get Marlowe to say, in response to a gibe, "I let that slide," letting the Marlowe faithful know at once that they're in good hands.) Marlowe is also shown to be quite randy, a change I think Chandler would have liked. Marlowe's ethics remain intact; he leads the characters toward a denouement that, though it violates the law, is in keeping with his own ethics. (Spenser, on the other hand, is apt to lure criminals into lethal ambushes--only, of course, if they deserve it and if Spenser, of course, remains the underdog during most of the gunplay. And when he resorts to such devices, he lets Susan Silverman scold him about it afterward.)

But Parker is also stuck with the funk that weighs Marlowe down in the first few chapters; that funk continues throughout the book. Marlowe is so eager for something to grab onto that he makes some sappy judgments, all in the interest of preserving romance. This tone, typical of very late Chandler, is Parker's penance for picking up a book already started, and he suffers it as well as can be expected. The one sign of the hard brilliance typical of vintage Marlowe comes midway through the book in a scene with a Mr. Blackstone. It's a classic Chandler-Marlowe setting, in which the detective goes up against a very powerful man, both trying to pump the other discreetly for information and trying not to tip their own hands. Watching them lay their information on the table, bit by bit, is like reading a grand-slam bridge hand explained in the newspaper--all details, subtlety, feints, and false triumphs. Parker shows good instincts in returning Marlowe to the same setting for the book's climactic scene.

Parker's metaphors, unlike Chandler's, are instinctive, off the cuff. Some are so accurate they seem to have been culled from The Big Sleep or Farewell. One character has "the mouth of a man who tips people a nickel," while the loose screen on a door frame has "curled up like the collar points on an old shirt." Police detective Bernie Ohls puts in an appearance--although he's not as friendly as usual with Marlowe--and his office is described as being "blank as a waiter's stare." A character in a tough place looks at Marlowe's office bottle "the way a cow looks at a meadow."

But others fall flat. Hollywood Boulevard looks "like a hooker with her make-up off," and a woman smiles "like sunrise after a rainy night." And then there's this miserable scrap, after Marlowe searches another woman's home: "I had tossed her house like a Caesar salad and found nothing. Not a crouton." These aren't the worst. When Marlowe finds a character easy to tail, Parker has him say, "I could have followed him in a ferris wheel." The metaphor, as it's written, means nothing: everyone follows everyone on a ferris wheel. And then, when Marlowe is out on a limb, he says he feels "like a coconut"--when coconuts grow on palm trees, which have no limbs. These are the sorts of mistakes the slow, precise Chandler rarely made; they would have been revised or edited out. In Poodle Springs, they foul the mood of a book already suspect as a cash grab.

The larger metaphor of the book is also made painfully obvious, although to do Parker justice it is about all that can be made of the first four chapters. Poodle Springs here becomes the antithesis of Jake Geddes's Chinatown: one represents the painful, corrupt past; the other, the comfortable, sanitized future, which a fellow like Marlowe finds twice as repulsive. The actual mystery, though serviceable, will seem derivative to readers of The Big Sleep.

In the end, of course, since this is the 80s and not the 50s, since this is Parker and not Chandler, Marlowe finds a way to have both his freedom and his comfort. It's an ending as dishonest as the reasons for finishing the book, but it makes Marlowe happy, and in that it attains one of Chandler's apparent aims.

May Marlowe lie where Parker has left him "forever," as the last word of the book suggests. Or at least until another slumming angel happens along.

Poodle Springs by Raymond Chandler and Robert B. Parker, Putnam, $18.95.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Kurt Mitchell.

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