Sunday, 27 November 2011

The Lady in the Lake by Raymond Chandler

Once again, circumstances have conspired to keep me from blogging in a timely way. My commitment to blog about all the books I read has been sorely tested in the last month or so by a new job, house hunting, a bad cold, some other writing missions and – perhaps worst of all – a desire to do the books I read justice. Well, something's got to give, and I can't quit my job just yet, so on this occasion I'm going to have to admit up front that I'm not going to do this one justice.

Which is a huge shame, because this is a terrific book. This and The Big Knockover are two of the best I've read this year. I read both as part of my education in classic private eye stories for the sake of a project I'm working on, and by “project” I of course mean novel, and by “working on” I of course mean largely ignoring. What I'd really like to do here, in particular, is take the plot to bits, because that seems to be what I have the most trouble with. It's been so long that I'm not going to be able to do this in details, but let's see what I can do from memory.

Warning: this is not just boring crap about me, but boring crap about my boring struggles with my boring muse.

I've read a few Chandlers now. One thing that really struck me early on – shocked me even! – is how often Marlowe is handed clue tokens more or less at random as a consequence of being in the right place at the right time.

The Lady in the Lake isn't quite so bad for this. Chandler does a better job of moving through the plot points, but there's still more than a few freebies laid out for Marlowe to pick up. Bill Chess, for example, is pretty free with what he says, to the point, in fact, where Marlowe himself remarks upon his garrulousness. How does he get away with it, then?

Well, he doesn't always: If I recall correctly, there's a scene in The Little Sister where he's in someone else's office (perhaps the caretaker at the apartment house) and the phone rings and the man on the other end of the line pretty much spills the beans over some particular point of the mystery where Marlowe had gotten stuck. Just like that! No attempt to give Marlowe agency, or have him follow the breadcrumb trail, just a big fat “Uh oh, we're stuck! Here you go Marlowe.”

The scene with Bill Chess, however, is made more palatable through some excellent characterisation. Chess is presented in a lot of subtle ways as a broken man, a drunk and emotionally all over the place. Marlowe  gives him a drink to get him talking (it's a regular Marlowe trick; Hammett's Continental Op does it too, in fact), and it all just spills out of him.

All this makes Bill Chess something more than a plot dispenser. Chandler works hard to make him convincing and he becomes, in fact, a portrait of a certain type of guy at a certain time in his life. Not too bright, a quick temper and poorly treated by life he's a tragic figure in many ways, the sort of guy that Tom Waits used to write songs about during the Atlantic years. In fact, Chess's wife is called Muriel, and there's a song “Muriel” on Foreign Affairs that could almost be about Bill Chess's feelings of loss and regret when he talks to Marlowe.

There's a few less subtle clue hand-outs while Marlowe's up at the lake – the lady journalist who pops up to offer some timely observations, the night clerks at the hotel – but even here he gives these characters enough substance to give them a motivation and a reason to talk.

These episodes, and the less subtle plotting in The Little Sister, lead me to wonder if I've got this mystery thing all wrong. Most of the sorts of things I write (or want to write) have a mystery kernel, and now I wonder if I'm being over-punctilious, making a rod for my back by wanting a super-tight breadcrumb trail that'll lead from A to B to C, all the way to Z with each step being logical, consistent, properly fore-grounded and so on and so forth.

Thinking about that in the context of this book, and The Big Knockover earlier in the year, a couple of things now strike me. The point of this type of fiction isn't the breadcrumb trail at all, the point is the people. The Hammett stories just use the context of the crime to reveal the lives of the characters within them, lives that are driven by conflicts and trouble. The mystery is the pull that drags the protagonist through, and they'll usually develop a push as well as the story goes on that propels them forward with equal power, but the story is really about the people involved in the mystery, the decisions they make and the consequences that fall from these.

That's probably why the central characters have so little back story. Marlowe has no past, barely seems to have a home to go to, and the Continental Op doesn't even have a name. They don't need any background, because the story isn't about them, it's all about the people around them.

That's all very nice, but what does this mean to the way I write my own stories? Well, Chandler novel in particular feel like he's making it all up as he goes along, in fact that he's enjoying making it all up. He is, after all, the man who said “When is doubt have a man come through the door with a gun in his hand.”

I always feel paralysed when I don't know what's happening next, even though I understand that if I don't sit down and write it I'll never find out. I tell other people all the time in workshops that you can plan and make character sketches and ponder and think all you like, but you'll never know for sure what's going to happen without sitting down and writing it out.

Maybe the reason I'm so fond of giving out this advice is that I recognise my own inability to take it. It's all that crossing out, all that watching hazy idealised plans turn to solid crap that gets me down. The only answer is to keep bashing away at it until the dam breaks and it all floods out. I've seen it often enough in other writers I know; I've done it before myself, plenty of times in fact. But at this early stage it's like pulling teeth, and then having to put have of them back in and pull them out all over again, and again and again.

Who'd be a writer, eh? Based on the evidence so far, not me. 


  1. I will recommend "Killer in the Rain", the collection of some of Chandler's earlier short stories, which contains some excellent stuff.

    I think Chandler tended to be a pretty uneven writer: "The Little Sister" and "The High Window" aren't in the same league as "The Big Sleep" or "The Long Goodbye", for example

  2. I've read The Big Sleep as well, which I enjoyed a great deal. When he's on he's pretty terrific, those nutty gnarly human issues. Marlowe's like a witness rather than a protagonist himself: I think this one is Muriel's and Degarmo's story, just like Hammett's The Thin Man is actually the story of the Wynant family rather than Nick and Nora.

    I'll keep an eye out for Killer in the Rain, as short-form detective stories are something else I'm interested in: not sure how you'd do it at shorter than novel length at the moment. I read a collection of Dorothy L Sayer stories, and her technique seemed to be to do the set up and then cut straight to the solution, basically eliding all the running around.

    However, I tend to only pick these things up if I see them second hand or get them otherwise cheap or free. This copy was part pf a big pile of second hand books that was my leaving present from my last job. Are they know me so well!


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