Re: RARA-AVIS: Chandler's short stories

From: Brian Thornton (
Date: 03 May 2005

Miker wrote:

> "Blackmailers Don't Shoot" (1933) is bad. And
> Chandler struggled for five months writing it. The
> dialogue is poor and the writing leans heavily toward
> cliche. Guns talk and characters squeeze lead and
> laugh mirthlessly (a phrase used repeatedly in Paul
> Cain's FAST ONE, which Chandler praised). The
> hardboiled that Chandler was imitating often had
> finely interwoven plots. Chandler was never good at
> this.

I couldn't agree more. I recently slogged through it, and it honestly *is* woeful. I actually pictured Chandler sitting in a darkened theatre, watching Jimmy Cagney leer and growl and glare and then leer some more in
"Public Enemy" and dreaming up "Mallory." If you read the dialogue, you can almost hear Cagney's familiar "You dirty rat" cadences in Mallory's speech. At least I could.

> The story doesn't approach the quality of his best
> work, but it still contains themes and elements that
> continue through his oeuvre. Descriptions of Los
> Angeles reinforce the story's atmosphere. A rich and
> beautiful woman invokes death and destruction, and
> there's a crooked cop who the story is not totally
> unsympathetic to. There's a big-time gentleman
> criminal who's debonair and dangerous. There's the
> homosexual theme that would have delighted Leslie
> Fiedler if he'd ever gotten around to reading
> Chandler. Although the story is written in third
> person, it's strongly centered on the protagonist.
> And the story starts out with Mallory wearing a
> powder-blue suit. Was Marlowe wearing hand-me-downs
> in the beginning of THE BIG SLEEP?

Don't forget the grey hat.

> A year later he wrote "Smart-Aleck Kill". It wasn't
> much better. Written a couple months later, he began
> to show promise in "Finger Man." It's still fairly
> poor, but there were passages that showed Chandler
> coming around. The first person narrative allowed the
> cynical protagonist to get in some good shots: "I
> didn't say anything. I was way past the age when it's
> fun to swear at people you can't hurt." Or: "He was
> the kind of man who liked to have a desk in front of
> him, and shove his fat stomach against it, and fiddle
> with things on it, and look very wise." And he was
> warming up to the simile: "As a bluff, mine was
> thinner than the gold on a week end wedding ring."
> The biggest problem with the story is that Chandler
> had a lot riding on a mediocre plot.
> His writing continued to mature. "Spanish Blood"
> (1935) is a well-done tribute to Hammett's MALTESE
> FALCON. "Goldfish" (1936) is excellent. Chandler
> took a break from his obsession with the rich folk and
> worked the other side of the tracks. Easing off the
> logistics of a complex plot, Chandler concentrates on
> the mood and atmosphere, hammering out a dirty sordid
> background. Later he would attach an esoteric beauty
> to this ugliness.
> Chandler was on a roll when he wrote "Red Wind"
> (1938). The story is narrated in first person by a
> tough yet romantic protagonist who moves in a dark
> world. It starts out with his oft-quoted passage
> about the hot dry Santa Ana, and how it touches
> everyone with madness. It's all there in this
> beautiful bluesy piece, the cynicism, the similes, and
> the scenery.
> I didn't care for "Trouble is My Business." I thought
> it sorta backslid towards his earlier cliched stuff.
> But if you liked it, Mario, then I suspect I missed
> something and should probably reread it.

I think it's interesting that you liked "Red Wind," but not "Trouble is My Business." I felt as if they were both at or near the top of Chandler's available selection of short stuff. Of course, he cannibalized (his word for it) most of the really good stuff from his shorts for inclusion in many of his novels, so perhaps I didn't pay as much attention to the "cliched" aspects you mention in "Trouble," because by then it all seemed really familiar to me.

Back to Lurkdom-

Brian Thornton

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