Poodle Springs.

I’m generally not a fan of continuations or parallel novels where one author attempts to complete or extend the work of another. Very few such works earn any kind of critical acclaim; I think Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea, a prequel to Jane Eyre that tells the story of Rochester’s first wife before madness overtakes her, is the only one I’ve read that is considered a strong work of literature in its own right, and it was more a work of social criticism than a narrative.

Continuations are, in my view, tougher than “authorized” sequels or prequels, because they stitch together two different prose styles and require the second writer to guess at the intended direction of the first – or to ignore it altogether. I’ve read the most popular continuation of Jane Austen’s unfinished novel Sanditon* and found it utterly lifeless; where even a bad Austen novel has its memorable moments, usually humorous ones, all I recall of the completed Sanditon is a lot of walking around on the rocks.

*It’s funny how often these final, unfinished novels are proclaimed by fans of the authors in question as potentially the authors’ best work; you’ll certainly hear how Sanditon, which Austen abandoned after eleven chapters due to ill health, signaled a new direction for her writing, blah blah blah – just look at the unsourced praise in the Wikipedia entry on the book. This is nearly always wishful thinking on the part of fans, combined with the fact that a fragment of a novel is miles away from a completed book.

This is the long way of telling you that I entered Poodle Springs, in which Robert Parker (creator of the Spenser character) starts with the four short chapters left behind by Raymond Chandler and builds a Philip Marlowe novel on that scant foundation, with some skepticism. Chandler is, in my view, a prose master (although novelist Martin Amis would disagree), and his style is often imitated but never matched. Take the sparse, clipped phrasings of Hammett and add some of the greatest similes ever put to paper and you might build a reasonable fake, but Chandler’s writing remains unique in this or any genre. I gave Poodle Springs a fair shake, but at the end of the day it is just a nice detective novel, nowhere close to any of the five Marlowe books I’ve read.

Chandler’s four chapters include a shocking opener – Marlowe is married to Linda Loring, who first appeared in The Long Goodbye
and seems as ill-fitting a wife for the loner detective as any candidate. They’ve moved to a tony California hamlet called Poodle Springs, but Marlowe insists on earning his own living rather than becoming a kept man for his wealthy bride. He’s approached by the proprietor of a local casino of dubious legality, at which point Parker takes over. He wisely dispenses with the Loring subplot (if we can even call it that) for much of the book and focuses instead on the crime story, one that has the typical hallmarks of hard-boiled detective fiction (small number of characters in a tangled web) but with a leering crudeness that is horribly out of place in a Marlowe novel, and prose that simply can’t match the master’s:

There was a big clock shaped like a banjo on the wall back of the receptionist. It ticked so softly it took me a while to hear it. Occasionally the phone made a soft murmur and the receptionist said brightly, “Triton Agency, good afternoon.” While I was there she said it maybe 40 times, without variation. My cigarette was down to the stub. I put it out in the ashtray and arched my back, and while I was arching it in came Sondra Lee. She was wearing a little yellow dress and a big yellow hat. She didn’t recognize me, even when I stood up and said, “Miss Lee.”

That’s a lot of words without telling us anything at all. The waiting room in question has no relevance in the story. Chandler doesn’t normally waste the reader’s time like that, nor does prose ever have that choppy sound like ever period is an obstacle you hit at full speed. Parker occasionally hits with a good metaphor – “Hollywood Boulevard looked like it always did in the morning, like a hooker with her make-up off” – although even that one would never have come out of Chandler’s pen.

Parker’s plot revolves around a bigamist, some nude pictures, and a few people with behavioral issues, standard stuff for this sort of novel, but his obsession with sex borders on the puerile, at least compared to the subtle approach of Chandler, where sex is always under the surface but never out in the open. An exhibitionist wife bares all to Marlowe – who passes because he’s married, so really, what was the point of this? – and we get too much about Marlowe in the boudoir with Linda when she’s not involved in the plot at all, including a tacked-on ending that feels like a nod to Chandler’s stillborn introduction.

Which gets back to the fundamental problem with Poodle Springs: It seems likely that Chandler never intended to finish this book. Marlowe probably shouldn’t be married, and certainly shouldn’t be married to Linda Loring. Perhaps these four chapters were just Chandler exploring an idea; perhaps he realized it wasn’t going to work. Perhaps it was his own depression after the death of his wife Cissy that led him to put Marlowe into a marriage. (He only finished one novel after her death, Playback, which I haven’t read but which seems to be considered his worst completed work.) The continuation of Poodle Springs was a commercial success, but the positive reviews of the time that claim that “you can’t see the seam where Chandler stopped and Parker picked up the pen” are an insult to fans of the master’s work.

Next up: A Finnish novel, Arto Paasilinna’s The Year of the Hare, currently on sale through that link for $5.60.

The Little Sister.

I’m back at mental_floss today with an article about the designing of the game Dominion, based on an email exchange I had with designer Donald X. Vaccarino.

“Do you drink, Mr. Marlowe?”
“Well, now that you mention it–”
“I don’t think I’d care to employ a detective that uses liquor in any form. I don’t even approve of tobacco.”
“Would it be all right if I peeled an orange?”

Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe isn’t just hard-boiled – he’s dry, sarcastic, self-effacing, and mercurial, making him one of the most compelling protagonists I’ve found in any novel in any genre. Consigning Chander’s novels to the detective-fiction bin does him a great disservice, as his greatness is in his mastery of the language; not only is the prose itself readable and rich with metaphor, but it becomes the tool by which Chandler creates well-rounded characters through a handful of seemingly effortless lines.

I understand that The Big Sleep is considered Chandler’s best work, and it is phenomenal … but there’s little to no difference between that and Farewell, My Lovely, or the work I just finished over the weekend, The Little Sister. They’re all superb, all following the basic Chandler template of putting Marlowe in a situation where the line between solving the case and saving his life is blurry.

In The Little Sister the titular character – quoted above – shows up in Marlowe’s office, asking the gumshoe to help find her older brother, who has disappeared in Bay City not long after leaving his family in Manhattan, Kansas. Marlowe takes the case against his better judgment (S.O.P. for him), even though he believes the girl is holding back information. With a modest amount of investigating, Marlowe ends up in the middle of a blackmail scheme, a dope ring, and a lot of questionable identities – something Chandler creates in his usual economical way, with just a handful of new characters outside of a few corpses.

I picked the wrong time to read The Little Sister by starting it on day one of the winter meetings, which left me very little time to actually read the book until the meetings ended on Thursday – frustrating when it’s a book you never want to put down in the first place. I found it moved more quickly than The Big Sleep, but the plot was a little less complex – it was relatively easy to figure out what most of the characters were up to, and I say that as someone who almost never figures things out in books – so the question of which is the better book is one of personal taste. (It’s possible that The Big Sleep enjoys its status at the top of Chandler’s canon because of its film adaptation, directed by Howard Hawks with Humphrey Bogart as Marlowe.) No matter where you start, though, if you haven’t given Chandler at least one shot, I can’t recommend his work highly enough.

Farewell, My Lovely.

My first notes piece from the Tournament of Stars is up, along with a video of right-hander Christian Montgomery.

I got up on my feet and went over to the bowl in the corner and threw cold water on my face. After a little while I felt a little better, but very little. I needed a drink, I needed a lot of life insurance, I needed a vacation, I needed a home in the country. What I had was a coat, a hat and a gun. I put them on and went out of the room.

How can you not like Raymond Chandler? He was a serious, literary writer who chose the detective story as his milieu and even wrote one of the greatest essays ever on the art of writing (“The Simple Art of Murder”). His prose was sparse and forceful like Hammett’s, but with a constant undercurrent of wry, self-deprecating humor. And his influence has been enormous.

I think the critical consensus has The Big Sleep as his best novel, but for my money Farewell, My Lovely surpasses it, with a more involved plot, much more insight into the character of the detective, Philip Marlowe, and more dry humor. Marlowe stumbles on a giant man, Moose Malloy, who storms a black nightclub that was previously whites-only, and is more or less dragged upstairs where he sees Malloy slug the bartender and hears him shoot the owner. Shortly afterward, Marlowe gets a cold call from a potential client who wants him to provide protection for a brief job that night, and despite his own suspicion, goes along … and that’s where the fun really starts.

Chandler weaves the two cases in and out of each other as Marlowe chases one while the other might be chasing him, and while there’s a natural suspicion that the two tracks are related, the answer to that isn’t clear until the very end of the story. I thought we got more insight into Marlowe’s character in this book, from the way he uses the weakness of Jesse Florian to get more information from her to the way he manipulates her nosy neighbor to his handling of the liberated young Anne Riordan. There’s a con-man psychic, marijuana cigarettes, a kidnapping, lots of booze, and the usual spot-on prose from the master of the genre.

Next review: Philip K. Dick’s Ubik.

The Simple Art of Murder.

Playing catchup on the reading list a bit here … Raymond Chandler, one of my favorite authors in any genre, wasn’t an especially prolific writer; he published nothing until he was in his forties and his total output was seven completed novels and (according to this Chandler bibliography) 25 short stories, some of which he expanded into novels years after they were published in pulp magazines. The Simple Art of Murder includes eight of his short stories as well as his famous essay from Atlantic Monthly that gave the collection its title. That essay is a spirited defense of the detective story as a literary art form while also serving as a criticism of the degeneration of the genre through what Chandler seems to have considered hack writing, including contrived plot details and unrealistic motives.

The short stories seemed to lack the crisp writing and brisk pacing of the Chandler novels I’ve read, but the constant change of detective characters and milieus means that if you like the genre at all, you’ll probably find a story in the collection that hits all the high notes for you. It’s more a matter of taste than quality, but I enjoyed “Pearls Are a Nuisance” with its main detective’s stilted language and light parody of bad detective stories, and the closing story, “Nevada Gas,” which had a faster pace, higher stakes, and a slightly more intricate plot than any of the other stories. None of them can match The Big Sleep or The Long Goodbye for character or tension, so if you’re new to Chandler I’d recommend you start with those novels and save Murder for later.

Worth checking out: The Raymond Chandler fansite I mentioned above is the best resource I’ve seen on his works. You can read the full text of the essay “The Simple Art of Murder.”