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.




HG vs. BR

I had wanted to see John Carter.   I was planning on seeing it with Goyo (an exchange student staying with us) who said he wanted to. Later though, Goyo said that he would prefer to watch The Hunger Games because he said that John Carter “is the same as Avatar.” Maybe, but by that logic Avatar is the same as Dances with Wolves. Also, isn’t the story for John Carter a century old?


Fiction generally has always stolen or borrowed things. Science Fiction especially. In part that’s because audiences to relate to things on other worlds if they resemble something familiar. Also, stealing is good if it works and is convenient for what you’re trying to do. What better way to show off all the odd alien costumes you can come up with than by putting all of them in an old western saloon? To make it less obvious, replace the piano player with an alien Benny Goodman knockoff band, and then you have one of the most famous scenes in movies period.


But I didn’t really care that much, so I figured I could see the Hunger Games. I hadn’t read the book, but I could say the same for John Carter.


We got there early, but because of the crowds we had to sit near the front, which may have been a mistake. Yes, people complain about the shaky cam thing, but I felt like making the audience dizzy was exactly what the movie was going for, so it worked.


Much of the movie was off-putting in one way or another, but again, that was the movie’s intention. I had heard that it took place in the future. Given that we’re in the 2010s, I figured that Earth people in the future would dress like earth people do now (as in the 90s-2000s films Avatar, AI, Minority Report, or to a lesser extent V for Vendetta). But not here. Here they  took their cues from my own home region, some time between the  1860s and the 1960s, right down to the home-stitched dresses.


Then we get to the Capitol. In the Capitol, most people seem to dress as if they though Jacobim Mutagu (the villain from Zoolander) had taken over (I would not put it past him). It’s not just fashion. Even the names are foreign sounding.  It’s through the lens of a foreign world that the movie throws us into issues of power and spectacle.


Why am I talking so much about these aspects of setting? It’s because I just now finished watching the 2000 Japanese film Battle Royale, which is also an adaptation of a novel. In it, a group of teens fall asleep while they think they are riding home from their boarding school on a bus only to wake up and find that the Japanese government randomly selected them to fight to the death on a deserted but guarded island and they are all wearing tracking collars. Oh, and only one of them can survive. They all start out from a central location, each with a bag that contains a weapon.


I’m not going to go any further into summarizing Battle Royale because I want people to see it. The odd plot turns and random chance encounters are part of what make it a good movie, and I don’t want to ruin it for anyone.


For obvious reasons though, even without some of the plot points I didn’t go into (most of which go in totally different directions) some people accuse The Hunger Games of plagiarizing Battle Royale.  Suzanne Collins author of The Hunger Games, claims she’d never heard of it. I’m with her on this one. She may well have heard of it, but my impression, just from comparing film adaptations, is that it wasn’t her initial inspiration. Even if it was, she took it in a totally different direction. The two are far more different than Avatar is from Dances with Wolves.  


The Hunger Games is a single protagonist’s story set in a far-future world different from ours. Battle Royale switches between perspectives and plot lines and in Battle Royale it’s our world, slightly in the future after a wave of youth violence and a bizzare adult reaction to it. Not only that, but  BRi is just a small section of the world, one particular class of kids who already know each other, while in HG they’re from all over the country, and few of them know each other. In Hunger Games the Game is an accepted fact of life. In Battle Royale the Game is a bizarre thing thrown on the teenagers, and one of the kids laughs at the idea before getting stabbed.


Again, though, just based on the adaptations, if I had to choose one, I’d say that Battle Royale is the better movie. The different plots pay off when one set of people collides with the other and you don’t know when they will collide. Anything could happen. Although it’s set in Japan, the world of the story is so similar to the present-day world that the murders has a  more jarring, “These could be people you went to school with”-type feel. That the island has empty houses on it adds to that mood. The government’s motivation is more confusing, but the motivation of the man running the operation, a former teacher, could not be clearer. Again though, this is a matter of comparing movies with very different focuses and themes, and I’m glad that both movies exist. If it wasn’t for the Hunger Games, I would not have heard of Battle Royale.


On Helping: a Movie and Life Review

I saw The Help and liked it. It’s about a woman (called “Skeeter”) who collects the stories of black maids in her town. Movies like it should be made, and more movies need to deal with the working class. Also, I hate criticism that we white people shouldn’t write about people from other backgrounds. If we can’t then I think we’re leaving out a lot of stories. Still, the movie got me thinking. My thoughts had less to do with the movie and more with movies in general and the idea of helping.

There’s a whole genre of “helper” movies from Hollywood. Movies in which a white person goes in to a non-white community to help them and succeeds. The Help doesn’t really fit in this category, as we don’t see Skeeter victoriously ending discrimination. Instead it ends with her damaging the relations between people around her, even if she does bring out the non-racist side of her mother. Also, her goal is not to help so much as sell her book, so she’s a little more complex than your average Hollywood helper.

Helper movies split into two types: Helper dramas (The Blind Side,Music of the Heart) and warrior helpers (Avatar, Dances with Wolves, The Last Samurai, Laurence of Arabia).

Ironically, given the focus on action, the warrior helper movies seem to have  more dynamic helper characters (they often switch sides). Helper Dramas are usually about characters who start out right and end just as right. Again, The Help just barely fits here, but there’s one side it doesn’t show, and that’s struggling at first. To be fair, she does struggle at first, but none of it is her fault, more to do with the risks of the time period.

I worked with migrant farm workers in South Carolina, signing people up for a health program and then recording an interview with one worker about his life. You can read more about my memories of that time at this blog. When I started out I was asking people what they ate for breakfast, who cooked for them and other weird awkward questions as icebreakers. I took notes even when I was just making light conversation, making me look like a census taker. People had to point these things out to me for me to change them. Usually these people were Latino. Why are there are no stories about people who try to help but start out doing it all wrong? Or even more importantly, a story of a helper failing?

In SC doing healthoutreach work.
Ben doing health outreach Work

I may, in the future, write the story I’m describing, although I have other projects at the moment. Right now I just thought I’d throw the questions out there and see what people thought.