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Book Review: Raymond Chandler's Trouble is my Business

In the introduction to this collection, Chandler looks with hindsight at these stories, which he wrote in the thirties, imagining a future literary historian who wonders when it was exactly that the detective story “shed its refined good manners and went native.” He finds his answer in the time in which they were written, when a “smell of fear” pervaded our society:

“Their characters lived in a world gone wrong, a world in which, long before the atom bomb, civilization had created the machinery for its own destruction, and was learning to use it with all the moronic delight of a gangster trying out his first machine gun.”

To tell the truth, in the stories of this book, a lot of whiskey gets drunk, countless cigarettes get smoked, and people, both good guys and bad buys, get shot in cold blood with pistols (.22s, Lugers, .38s, etc.). And yet, I think what makes Chandler’s Philip Marlowe stories stand out is not their violence, nor is it their plots; it is rather simply the sentences that Chandler writes. Although the tough-guy slang is obviously dated, his metaphorical language is as fresh as ever, and the sentences sparkle with energy. He manages it in his descriptive prose:

“She was sitting behind a black glass desk that looked like Napoleon’s tomb and she was smoking a cigarette in a black holder that was not quite as long as a rolled umbrella. She said: “I need a man.”

And it also shows in his dialogue:

“I need a man good-looking enough to pick up a dame who has a sense of class, but he’s got to be tough enough to swap punches with a power shovel. I need a guy who can act like a bar lizard and backchat like Fred Allen, only better, and get hit on the head with a beer truck and think some cutie in the leg-line topped him with a breadstick.”

“It’s a cinch,” I said. “You need the New York Yankees, Robert Donat, and the Yacht Club Boys.”

“You might do,” Anna said, “cleaned up a little…”

These stories were written as pulp fiction, and I doubt their original editors ever imagined they would pass the test of time. Yet here they are. Not only are they still alive on the page today, but also something of their swagger and style has become commonplace in a certain type of Hollywood movie (Quentin Tarantino is the extreme example).

These stories don’t live up to the excellence of Chandler’s novel, The Long Goodbye, but they are certainly still worth reading.

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August 2017

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