I’m writing this in a plain office in the corner of a building that was described by the realtor as “exclusive,” though it doesn’t exclude despondent ultra-Orthodox Jews panhandling for cash, plumbers who break all the pipes you hadn’t called them to fix, or the cheerful lady who lets her dog pee in the elevator. There’s the hum of heavy traffic from the road below and a view across the valley of brake lights on a highway where no one ever seems to move. The air is clear enough up here that I usually only smell me, sweating through the desert heat, except when the garbage truck empties the trashcans and sends up a rotten fruit ripeness, or when the khamsin blows and I can smell the dirt on the hot wind. There’s a mosquito in here, but the bastard isn’t friendly enough to show himself. When he does, I’ll do what people in the Middle East do best. There are already spots of my blood across the whitewash where his brothers and sisters felt the thick side of my fist.
If that sounds like a spoof, you surely know who I’m caricaturing. We decided last week that you couldn’t do much better than the opening paragraph of Hammett’s “Red Harvest” for an introduction to the narrative voice, narrator, place and tone of the entire novel. But if anyone could beat it, we’d have to look at Raymond Chandler.
The grumpy god of the gumshoe genre claimed not to have much time for the
idea of a classic in crime writing. In one of his essays, he wrote that contemporary writers who aimed for historical fiction, social vignette, or broad canvas would never surpass “Henry Esmond”, “Madame Bovary”, or “War and Peace”. Crime writers, on the other hand, would easily be able to
devise a better mystery than the ones detailed in “The Hound of the
Baskervilles” or “The Purloined Letter”. “It would be rather more difficult
not to,” he wrote.
Still, the poet with the pipe (okay, no more quirky names for Ray) proved
himself wrong. Or rather he proved that he was right not to focus so much
on the mystery element and, instead, to build a mysterious atmosphere and a sardonic sense of humor. From the opening paragraph.
This is how he starts a long 1950 short story called “Red Wind”:
There was a desert wind blowing that night. It was one of those hot dry
Santa Anas that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair
and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that every
booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving
knife and study their husbands’ necks. Anything can happen. You can even
get a full glass of beer at a cocktail lounge.
Like the opening paragraph of “Red Harvest,” this gives us all the elements
we’d expect. It also tells you a lot about the narrator and his lifestyle.
The booze parties, and the sense of being gypped at the cocktail lounge.
But the opening paragraph which might be said to define an entire genre ––
and the sub-genres of attempts to copy the true representatives of the
genre, and also to parody it –– starts Chandler’s 1949 novel “The Little
The pebbled glass door panel is lettered in flaked black paint: “*Philip
Marlowe…Investigations*.” It is a reasonably shabby door at the end of a
reasonably shabby corridor in the sort of building that was new about the
year the all-tile bathroom became the basis of civilization. The door is
locked, but next to it is another door with the same legend which is not
locked. Come on in –– there’s nobody in here but me and a big bluebottle
fly. But not if you’re from Manhattan, Kansas.
That’s now a staple of the genre and, just as much, of its parodic/iconic
avatar –– the detective innocently awaiting the moment when the lady arrives (or in this case, telephones) his shabby office. But what makes it so compelling is the voice of Marlowe, with its sense of regret at having become involved in the story and its unspoken acknowledgement of the inevitability of a repeat performance. After all, if Marlowe truly learned the lessons he claims to have taken on board, he wouldn’t be who he is. He’d be corrupted or cynical. Of course he’s neither.
It’s this subtext of honor (the knight in shining armor element of Marlowe’s character, as Chandler called it) that allowed the Epistolarian of Evil (sorry, I said I wouldn’t do that again, didn’t I) to elevate himself above the many who have copied him.