Sunday, March 20, 2016

The High Window

The High Window
by Raymond Chandler
Recommended Ages: 14+

In this hardboiled mystery classic, Hollywood private detective Philip Marlowe receives the following description of himself: "You are not as smart as you think you are, but... you are a guy things happen to, and a guy like that could be a lot more trouble than a very smart guy." The second half of this description could not be more true, as the lonely, existentially world-weary sleuth starts out looking for a rare coin and ends up discovering three murdered bodies. But even while some people take him for a fool, he fights his way doggedly to the truth - his way, adhering to his own code of honor, and steering a tight course between cooperating with the police (who could put him out of business in a heartbeat) and protecting his client (who does everything in her power to make the passage perilous). He is a paladin of justice in a corrupt society. He is a narrator whose wise-cracking observations of character and scene are a marvel of lyricism and economy, and whose description of his own personal space is just flat-out haunting. Check out the closing paragraphs of this book for a good example.

In this mystery, a rich widow hires Marlowe to find her daughter-in-law and prove she ran away with a mint-condition gold coin called the Brasher Doubloon. But almost immediately, he realizes someone has hired another detective to follow him. The young, not-too-bright detective confides in him as far as to say he has gotten out of his depth in something, and invites Marlowe over to his apartment to discuss it. That's where, bang! the first body drops. When Marlowe goes back for a second crack at a rare coin dealer who seemed to know where the Brasher Doubloon was, thud! goes the second corpse. And then his client's secretary, a neurotic young woman, shows up at his apartment in hysterics, and when he goes to look at the blackmailer she was trying to pay off, he finds the third cadaver crawling with frame-ups, secrets, and clues about not only the first two murders in this case, but about another body that dropped - whoosh! - out of the high window of the book's title.

It's a whodunit scarlet with red herrings, to say nothing of other red substances. Its dialogue crackles with wit, toughness, and danger. Its pages are laced with sentences and paragraphs that I would quote at you if space permitted. Just one more little example, just to whet your appetite: "A check girl in peach-bloom Chinese pajamas came over to take my hat and disapprove of my clothes. She had eyes like strange sins." How do you like that for a throw-away description of a throw-away character? Chandler writes, and Marlowe speaks, words that I want to hold on my tongue until they melt. And even after all the mystery has been demystified, there remains that raw nerve of Philip Marloweness jangling at the end, taking my breath away (as he always does) with his closing words.

This 1942 masterpiece is the third of seven Philip Marlowe novels completed by Chandler, coming after The Big Sleep and Farewell, My Lovely, but before The Lady in the Lake, The Little Sister, The Long Goodbye, and Playback. Chandler also published a short-story collection, Trouble Is My Business.

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