Review: Poodle Springs, Chandler and Hardboiled Detectives in general


Yes, I’m late getting on this bandwagon. Poodle Springs is  a 1950s novel, by Raymond Chandler finished in the 1990s by Robert B. Parker. And I liked it. That’s coming from someone who has read “Red Wind” and “Danger is my Business,” which I apologize for not reviewing on this blog. I confess I never read “The Long Goodbye” which would have been the better book to read before judging this one. I have also seen the movie version of “The Big Sleep.”

All of them feature a classic hardboiled private detective of a kind more familiar to my generation thr0ugh parodies, such as in “Calvin and Hobbes” than serious works. His name is Phillip Marlowe, a man frequently threatened but not above joking when threatened.

Parker, jumping into that same universe, one of threats, twists, witty descriptions of characters and the like, seems to be enjoying himself rather than just imitating Chandler’s style. I won’t give away too many plot spoilers in this post, possibly saving them for another one. Having Phillip be married to Linda, rather than single as in other novels gave Parker a chance to have Marlowe explain his own obsessions, making the novel a far more self-conscious study of hardboiled detective norms, which actually made it more accessible to a modern audience.

But what is that hardboiled genre? It involves a detective, but the mystery itself isn’t always something there for the reader to figure out, although sometimes it is. It doesn’t start out with the murder, usually, but rather some other kind of case and the murder(s) happen midway. The plot can get convoluted. Although it’s not action on the level of a modern blockbuster, a hardboiled detective usually gets plenty of threats too and is pretty decent at shooting at punching.

Chandler popularized, though he did not create the hardboiled detective genre, which he explained in his essay “The Simple Art of Murder,” an artistic manifesto as interesting as it flawed.

In it, he declared why he wanted to break free of the more genteel mystery style popularized by Agatha Christie, although he uses A.A. Milne’s work as his main example.

The manifesto’s effects were wonderful and defined a genre, but its premises make little sense. So rather than give spoilers about any of the above book, I will discuss that manifesto, a little bit here, possibly returning to it.

Right off the bat he makes a small mistake:

Fiction in any form has always intended to be realistic.”

In reality, fiction runs the full gamut. There have always been people trying to write realistically, but there have also been people who intended to portray something bizarre and unlike reality. Some of the best fiction combines the two. In fact, Chandler’s world of a private eye taking on murders and surviving frequent threats on his life isn’t particularly realistic either to the average modern reader, even if it might be enjoyable. Reality contains implausible many things, however, and Chandler stories could happen, as, theoretically, could “Murder on the Orient Express,” which he picks on and which I have also read.

At a later point he almost contradicts himself: “There are no dull subjects, only dull minds,” he says at one point and yet earlier he says “The cool-headed constructionist does not also come across with lively characters, sharp dialogue, a sense of pace and an acute use of observed detail. The grim logician has as much atmosphere as a drawing-board.” In other words, he seems to hold that science is a dull subject. And besides which, go ask Joseph Bell how to combine observance of people with observance of say, medicine and as a result inspire Sherlock Holmes, who, as a side note, Chandler faintly praises as a trailblazer for being the first to popularize detective writing. It’s hard but can be done.

But what he was getting at, and this is probably more important than his superficial and confused pronouncements was a desire to speak to his own time period with a style that broke free of what some authorities considered the “best” style, with a different style, that of his contemporary Hammett, which he took and made it his own, although I’ll admit, I have not read Hammett and do not know how much the two resemble each other.

Having a different style, rejecting the established “good” style and speaking to the concerns of your own times: That is a worthy goal.

 

 

 

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Finding Beauty in a Broken World: Crazy, Hard to Get Through, Yet Somehow Awesome


“Writers break black letters out of lead and line them up on white sheets and ask others to read sentences we have created for ourselves.” -Terry Tempest Williams, Finding Beauty in a Broken World, in a section in which she compares herself to disembodied mosaic hands in prayer on Italian columns.

Terry Tempest Williams’s Finding Beauty in a Broken World is the kind of book that readers might want to send me to Siberia for recommending. It’s long, and has no chapters, making it hard to read at times. It moves from quiet, slow field-notes-style observations of prairie dogs to harsh testimonials about the Rwandan genocide.

Yet at the same time, perhaps because of all that, it’s brilliant, and I wish I could get away with writing like it.

Williams repeatedly talks about mosaics. It’s her cue for how she sets up the book, a picture of little fragments. The paragraphs, separated by spaces, are often short with only a few sentences.

If that style sounds familiar, it’s because, perhaps unintentionally, it’s the style you’re reading. The book is similar to the typical style of the internet in some ways.

Yet it’s undeniably “literary.”* It’s arty, poetic in places and it takes its time when it feels like taking its time, unlike the typical web style. It also has sections that are more like a single book, long masses of paragraphs.

*I absolutely despise the word “literary” because it’s too hard to define. I’m only using it here to mean “not stereotypically internet-y.”

Some parts are better than others. Her quick descriptions of action in nature read well: “The clam broke open and the gull swooped down to eat the fleshy animal inside.” She also speaks well about literal mosaics, “a dazzling narrative of cut stones and glass,” “a conversation between what is broken.” She falters at some moments though, like “What if the burrows of the prairie dogs follow the energy paths of the earth?”

In short I can neither sum up this book nor recommend it to most people. And yet I liked it.