So, as I periodically do, I decided to take a book off “serious” fiction and have a bit of a relax, a literary lie-down (if you will) and indulge my occasional hunger for mid-20th-century pulp: so I read a Raymond Chandler.
Embarrassingly/fittingly, it was Ian Fleming who first put me on to Chandler. The two men were friends and correspondents, and (several years ago) I once saw a first edition of a Bond novel inscribed by Sir Ian to Mr Chandler:
— Scott Manley Hadley (@Scott_Hadley) June 27, 2012
Just wow, right???
In one of the Bond novels (I think Goldfinger, but please correct me if not, I don’t want to get Bond wrong), Fleming has his hero pick up a Chandler novel in an airport bookstore and comment on how much he enjoys the writer’s work. “Well,” I thought to myself, “If a man as aspirational as JAMES BOND likes the writing of Raymond Chandler, I probably should too.” So, every once in a while, I read a Philip Marlowe novel, now that years have passed since I finished all but the non-Fleming Bonds.*
They’re all pretty similar, to be honest: there are glamorous women who turn out to be evil, there are corrupt police, there are rich men in big houses with mysterious business interests, there are lots of guns, lots of murders (often of the glamorous evil women), there is lots of drinking, lots of violence***, lots of men walking through urban environments alone, staring through windows at happier lives, there is a fluid cohesion between every character introduced, there is a neat conclusion at the end and there is usually a plot twist so obvious that not revealing it becomes a bit of a joke. In The Lady in the Lake, the twist is that the identity of the dead woman found (no spoilers) in the lake. It is a damaged, half-rotten corpse of a short woman with big blonde hair. Before and after she is pulled out of the lake, about five different characters make the sweeping generalisation that “All short women with big blonde hair look alike”. This is repeated so many times that I’d presumed it was a “red herring” due to the fact that it came to no fruition… until three pages before the end of the novel.
I’ve read three or four Chandler novels now, and all of them I’ve enjoyed to a reasonable extent, this one perhaps more than the last couple. They are simple, though. Marlowe (the recurring detective – I just realised I’ve kinda presumed that knowledge the whole way through this so far) lives alone, works alone, gets beaten up and – in every novel – knocked unconscious. However, he earns enough money to live and drink, and he seems satisifed whenever he cracks a case, which he always does eventually. There is no simple, black and white moralising either: race and gender are no guarantee of personality traits, and no one is ever devoid of suspicion of anything. Marlowe is cruel in some respects, and very much a pessimist when it comes to the way he views the world around him, but he is good at his job and he exists outside of society. He trusts no one, but that is largely because he is repeatedly given evidence that no one is to be trusted. No matter how respected someone is within a community, they can still turn out to be a murderer; no matter how corrupt or stupid someone seems, they can still become a hero to someone. Chandler can be criticised for a lot of things (again, like Fleming, this mostly comes down to treatment of women****), but his ability and willingness to allow characters to surprise is something very touching in his work.
Yes, it’s usually the men who turn out to be brave and good when not expected, but it’s often the poor men, the black men, the old men, and that’s something, right? Chandler may not have been liberal in many ways, but he wasn’t as relentlessly class-bound as his over-the-Atlantic brother-in-arms. Marlowe flits from the low to the high, his status shifts as his intelligence transforms the ways he sees other people. He isn’t prejudiced (though by the end of the series of books he probably should be wary of any attractive woman he meets – in his world they do tend to be dangerous), but nor is he the sharpest tool in the box. He grows and he learns within each text, unlike his creator and author.
So, in short, Chandler’s detective novels are worth a read because they are exciting, they are frequently witty and they contain a surprising amount of warm humanity. Marlowe is wiser than Bond, sadder than Bond too, but he’s also far more American and far more chaste.
It’s interesting to read the two men as different cultures’ approximation of the same ideal of a man – both drink too much, both live alone, both encounter violence daily; but the real difference is that Bond is as Establishment as anyone could be, whereas Marlowe is an outsider, from pretty much everything.
To be honest, that makes for a more interesting character. These are, it pains me to say, better books than those written by Fleming. Not as fun, perhaps, but they have more literary weight.
Does that matter when you’re reading sexist pulp as escapist fiction? Possibly not, but it’s worth remembering…
* I feel, for the purposes of this blog, it would probably be worthwhile for me to reread a Bond, just so I can give a more informed review of it to myself and the (albeit small) following that this blog has. I feel very much that my opinions would not really have changed – I doubt that the humour, the excitement and the masochism will have diminished over time – although I do worry that, as a more mature (i.e. open-minded and selfish) adult, I would be offended by the misogyny but would simultaneously respond to my own outrage with disapproval and thus be left confused. I’d tut at myself for thinking “These female characters are not fully rounded individuals” and point out to myself that they don’t need to be. Fleming didn’t care – he wasn’t trying to write literary fiction, he was writing spy fiction for money. Also, Bond isn’t QUITE a fully-rounded character either. And Fleming wasn’t stupid, he knew that homosexuals are able to whistle, for example. It doesn’t matter that the women aren’t rounded (though are often “fully fleshed out”, if you know what I mean**), because there was no attempt made to make them representative of people. Fleming was writing fantasy, and though that fantasy may have been misogynistic, that’s exactly what it was, and no one reads a Bond novel expecting to find otherwise. (Also, he couldn’t write properly rounded women, check The Spy Who Loved Me for conclusive prove of this, and a full demonstration of all Fleming’s faults as a novelist.) My interactions with women are not coloured by reading old trash every few months, however the argument against everything I’ve just written is that some men’s are. And that is the reason why Fleming’s work still being in the zeitgeist is a problem, because it enforces negative ideas of gender and could be subsumed by less culturally astute individuals who read Bond as genuinely aspirational. (I was joking when I said he was earlier.) I’ve argued myself out of an opinion here. Everything Fleming wrote should be burned, as he has directly contributed to the poor treatment of millions of women during the last 60 years. Then again, he did come up with the name Pussy Galore. Oh, wait, that buries him deeper. Logic and not thinking contemporary sexism is fine have together defeated my defence of Fleming. Ouch.
** This is an attempt to make a bawdy reference to many of Bond’s lovers having large breasts, but I’m struggling due to my class and politics.
*** You can see why it’s a good replacement for the Bond in my life, right???
**** In his fiction – I don’t know enough about his personal life to comment on that, and right now I can’t be bothered to look it up. Actually, I looked it up as well as Wikipedia would tell me in an instant – had a long marriage to a woman who left another marriage for him, so cut up was he when she died that he tried to kill himself, and never had the strength of heart to bury/scatter/pick up from the crematorium her ashes. Actually, maybe that was laziness rather than love…