Tuesday, October 23, 2018
Books

Bancroft: Despite his thorny place in culture, Raymond Chandler remains a great love

Some writers you enjoy, some writers you admire.

A handful of writers you love, and one of my handful is Raymond Chandler.

His seven novels, published between 1939 and 1958, were transformational for me when I first read them in the 1970s. They sparked my enduring fascination with crime fiction and led to my unfinished doctoral dissertation about his work that has long been tucked away in a desk drawer.

My crush on Chandler endures: My dog is named Marlowe, after his great character, gallant, wisecracking Los Angeles private detective Philip Marlowe.

I’m just one of a legion of fans and followers. Chandler died in 1959, but his style and substance have deeply influenced countless writers in the mystery genre and beyond. The early generations of his successors included Ross Macdonald, John D. MacDonald and Robert B. Parker. How many contemporary crime fiction writers follow in his footsteps? Let’s name a few alphabetically: Megan Abbott, Ace Atkins, Benjamin Black, Lawrence Block, James Lee Burke, Michael Connelly, Robert Crais, James Ellroy ... you get the idea.

The 130th anniversary of Chandler’s birth came around on July 23, and it was marked by the publication of two books: The Annotated Big Sleep, a new edition of Chandler’s first novel, edited by Owen Hill, Pamela Jackson and Anthony Dean Rizzuto; and Only to Sleep: A Philip Marlowe Novel by Lawrence Osborne, the third author commissioned by the Chandler estate to write new novels about the private detective. (The others were Parker and Black.)

The anniversary was also noted in "The Big Seep: Reading Raymond Chandler in the Age of #MeToo," an essay published in Slate by bestselling author Megan Abbott, whose own new novel, Give Me Your Hand, gives one of Chandler’s recurring themes a radical twist.

Abbott confesses to being as much of a Chandler fangirl as I am (and she finished her dissertation about tough detective heroes). But she notes that she has been looking at his work in new ways. "What fascinates and compels me most about Chandler in this #MeToo moment," she writes, "are the ways his novels speak to our current climate. Because if you want to understand toxic white masculinity, you could learn a lot by looking at noir."

Marlowe is a romantic, a modern knight errant, but he’s also a guy with a lot of conflicted feelings about women. And one of the standard elements of the hard-boiled detective story, which Chandler helped to create and shape, is the femme fatale — the deadly woman. From the wild Sternwood sisters in The Big Sleep and Helen Grayle, the "blonde to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained glass window" of Farewell, My Lovely, to icily enigmatic Eileen Wade in The Long Goodbye, Marlowe pursues and is pursued by dangerous women.

As Abbott writes, these women evoke a dual reaction, desire and revenge: "Kill a guy, rob a bank — the femme fatale made me do it. These novels simmer with resentment over perceived encroachment and a desire to contain female power."

In short, the femme fatale embodies a misogynist viewpoint, one that even fans like Abbott and me can’t just brush off as a relic of the times in which Chandler wrote. (If only it were a relic.) It’s more complicated, as Abbott says in her essay: "The writers we love speak to us on subterranean levels we seldom understand. They speak to conflicts within ourselves."

Sexism is just one of many issues addressed in The Annotated Big Sleep. (Quick caveat: If you have never read The Big Sleep, don’t begin by reading with annotations; the notes are excellent but necessarily interruptive. Read the book straight through for Chandler’s striking style, seductive tone, dazzling use of Los Angeles and the indelible narrative voice of Marlowe. Then read the notes.)

Hill, Jackson and Rizzuto provide tons of useful historical details for contemporary readers of The Big Sleep as well as plenty of dishy arcana. (But, Chandler fans, even they don’t know who killed Owen Taylor.)

The notes also address some of the book’s thornier issues for 21st century readers. There’s no question the plot of The Big Sleep is dated. Marlowe is hired by the wealthy, dying Gen. Sternwood to pursue Arthur Geiger, who runs an illegal business renting pornographic books to rich clients. Geiger is trying to blackmail the general with a nude photo of his daughter Carmen Sternwood. These days nothing about that plot would be plausible — porn is about as hard to get as a haircut, and Carmen’s naked photo would probably be her Tinder pic.

A lot of the attitudes that crop up in the book are just as dated — sexist, racist, homophobic. The editors of The Annotated Big Sleep do a fine job of putting them in the context of the historical period and Chandler’s biography, and analyzing what they mean to readers today.

In Only to Sleep, set in 1988, Lawrence Osborne gives us Marlowe in retirement. At 72, the detective lives in a pleasant house in Baja California and whiles away the afternoons drinking on the terrace of a nearby hotel. He walks with a cane "inside which slept a Japanese blade that a master smith had made for me in Tokyo. ... the weapon of old age, of impotent slyness." Cut off from his natural habitat of Los Angeles, he’s adrift.

Osborne (Beautiful Animals), a British writer who lives in Bangkok, begins the book with a pair of insurance investigators turning up to offer Marlowe a job. "They’d heard I was retired, but a man they trusted in La Jolla had said I was the best that money couldn’t buy."

It seems one of their clients, a retiree named Donald Zinn, drowned while yachting around the Pacific coast of Mexico. He had a lot of debt and a large life insurance policy, and the insurance company just wants to be sure he’s really dead.

Marlowe, bored out of his skull, can’t resist. But, unlike Chandler’s novels, which show us the detective energetically on the hunt, Only to Sleep is elegaic and even macabre in tone. Marlowe is not just 72 but a rough 72; he seems exhausted much of the time, at one point pulling over to the side of a road to nap in a field of poppies, like some aging Dorothy lost in Oz. What’s more, he’s drinking so much he suffers blackouts and watches his hands tremble the next day.

With its hallucinatory rendering of Marlowe’s road trip through Mexico, all bullfights and endless bars and mysterious ancient rites, Only to Sleep reminded me of Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano, a ruthless account of a man’s last day, as much as it did Chandler’s novels.

But there is, of course, the femme fatale. Zinn’s widow is a much younger Mexican beauty named Dolores, a name she shares with Dolores Gonzalez, a lethal Hollywood star in Chandler’s The Little Sister.

Marlowe might be aging, but he recognizes Dolores Zinn for what she is the moment he meets her: "She had the level interest in something new that a leopard has. While it decides whether you can be killed or not, its eyes are remarkably gentle and serene."

Serenity is in short supply in Abbott’s Give Me Your Hand, but you won’t have to look far to find a femme fatale. Abbott’s female characters, however, are not rich men’s wives or gangsters’ molls. They’re brilliant, accomplished, highly competitive scientists, and their deadly story plays out largely in a research lab.

The book’s narrator, Kit Owens, first meets Diane Fleming when they’re teens at camp. With a couple of other girls, they swap stories of bad things they’ve done. Diane tells a rueful Kit, "My mom always says, you don’t have a self until you have a secret."

Later, Diane will become a student at Kit’s high school, and despite Diane’s aloofness the two will be close friends and competitors for a coveted science scholarship, spurring each other to top grades. But their friendship will end abruptly when Diane shares a most terrible secret of her own.

A decade later, Kit has a stellar position at a research lab run by a vauntingly ambitious and successful scientist, Dr. Lena Severin. Kit is up for one of the few slots on a new grant Severin has won for research into premenstrual dysphoric disorder, an extreme form of premenstrual syndrome that can cause women to commit violent crimes — femmes fatale indeed.

Abbott’s quite aware she’s making a trangressive choice with that subject, one more challenge to those who might think women characters (and writers) should know their place. Kit tells us the male scientists in the lab "can’t even talk about (PMDD) without twisting their mouths or ducking their heads or making Carrie or Lizzie Borden jokes."

But men play secondary roles in Give Me Your Hand; with the male gaze irrelevant, the deadly cat-and-mouse (and I do mean mouse) games play out between Kit and Diane, whom Severin also hires for the team. All sorts of blood will flow.

Abbott is brilliant at building tension, moving the plot from the present to Kit and Diane’s past, leading us from one secret to another. Give Me Your Hand builds to one savage final twist and one poignant one, as we see the femme fatale from the inside out. Chandler, I think, would be intrigued.

Contact Colette Bancroft at [email protected]
or (727) 893-8435. Follow @colettemb.

   
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