The father of six children, Dave Hill has been a writer for 25 years or so, starting out as a pop and youth culture pundit on various magazines, then broadening his range to cover sport, politics and social, gender and family issues for a number of newspapers, principally The Guardian. He has written several works of non-fiction - including Out of His Skin: The John Barnes Phenomenon - and in the last few years has turned his hand to fiction. His fourth novel, The Adoption, which follows Dad's Life, Man Alive and Single Men, will be published in August. Dave is a beginner blogger (and technophobe) who has found contributing to Comment Is Free extremely liberating and starting his own blog an education. Here he discusses the work of Raymond Chandler.
Dave Hill on Farewell My Lovely and Raymond Chandler
I discovered Raymond Chandler totally by chance after having been dumped by a girl. It was not, at first, a book thing. Slumping before the television I was distracted from my heartache by Elliot Gould head-scratching and deadpanning through a Robert Altman movie, The Long Goodbye. The film, made in 1973, was based on Chandler's Philip Marlowe novel of the same name - his sixth, published in 1954 – but very loosely: as I later learned, the plot had been altered completely and the setting was the LA of the early 70s, not the pre-war era one of Chandler's stories. I also came to discover that purists disliked Gould's portrayal of Marlowe, deeming him hapless by comparison with the hardboiled version that was already a cultural cliché.
These purists were wrong (as they usually are). As well as a slick way with words, the Gould-Altman Marlowe possessed exactly the same blend of reckless curiosity, eventual toughness and rough diamond moral code as the Marlowe I would go on to meet between the pages of The Little Sister (1949) and The Big Sleep (1939); the same virtues concealed by the same protective carapace of cynicism. Maybe those purists had bought too eagerly into Bogart's famous earlier portrayal of the character in The Big Sleep, the 1946 classic co-starring Lauren Bacall, from which the army of subsequent Marlowe caricatures stems. I like the Bogart Marlowe too. But it was Gould's who led me to the literature.
The thrill I got from reading Chandler was my first from the written word to match what pop music had long given me. His style contained the same ingredients in a different medium: rhythm, riffs, economy, wordplay at once poetic and wry, and all designed to hook you helplessly. Then there was Marlowe's outsider's angle on the world. Here was a man who lived and worked alone and viewed humankind through jaundiced eyes. That, though, was only because his heart was good and his integrity more important to him than money (Marlowe doesn't do divorce work). I had discovered an anti-hero I could relate to in my self-pitying young man's way and I'm afraid, at 48, the attraction has yet to fade.
I'll pick Farewell My Lovely (1940) for purposes of illustration, simply because it's the Marlowe story I have re-read most recently. It opens magnificently implausibly with Marlowe being hoisted into a 'dinge' club by a gigantic man called Moose Molloy who 'purred softly, like four tigers after dinner'. Molloy is fresh out of jail and looking for a girl he loved - 'little Velma', who'd worked in the bar when it had a different owner and white clientele. Molloy exits after killing the club's manager by mistake and Marlowe decides to track Velma down.
It's all creeps, crooks and coincidences from there on, with barely a pause for breath. It works, deliciously. Philip Pullman is not alone in quoting approvingly Chandler's maxim, 'When in doubt, have a man come through a door with a gun in his hand', and by the time an (inevitably) ruthless blonde has been unmasked, Chandler's plot has taken us through more garish convolutions than a circus freak. Some of Marlowe's attitudes will make literal-minded liberals blanche - his racism is frank and casual, his gynophobia always implicit, although he does warm to an example of what we would once have called 'a spunky girl' - but that, of course, is the way white guys like him were.
The part I like best is when fear shows through the harsh exterior. It happens on a water taxi ride to see a hoodlum called Brunette who runs an offshore gambling operation. Here, too, is the descriptive work for which Chandler is rightly revered:
I stared back at the lights of Bay City and tried not to bear down too hard on my dinner. Scattered points of light drew together and became a jewelled bracelet laid out in the show window of the night... The taxi slid up and down the swell now with a sinister smoothness, like a cobra dancing.On your feet, everyone please. And then consider what other lessons Chandler can teach us. One that he wanted us to learn was about fiction and pomposity, a topic touched on acidly in his famous essay 'The Secret Art Of Murder' and elsewhere when he observed that, 'The average critic never recognizes an achievement when it happens. He explains it after it has become respectable.' Another lesson he may not have had in mind. Marlowe is mostly a figure of reverie, as much because of his flaws as in spite of them. But he is also a stylized study of a particular ideal of masculinity, one that speaks knowingly to an awful lot of men including plenty who, like me, haven't knocked the skin off a rice pudding in years. It is a solitary mannishness, which in real life has a ruinous tendency to stay that way. But it has courage, honour and honesty too. There are worse kinds of male fantasy.