My frustration with Chandler’s convoluted plots caused me to forget what an incredible writer he is.
I recently read a great anecdote about Raymond Chandler that I hope is not apocryphal. While working on the screenplay for the original film adaptation of The Big Sleep, the screenwriters called Chandler for some clarification on some plot points that they found confusing. After waffling a bit, Chandler eventually confessed that he himself had lost the thread at that point in the story and basically just bluffed his way through.
It’s a great story because it’s not only funny but it reassures me that it is not some personal deficiency that prevents me from appreciating Chandler’s overly complex plots.
Chandler is universally considered to be the master of the hard-boiled genre and it’s easy to see why. When I first picked up a Chandler novel, I was immediately enraptured. My introduction to the genre was Dashielle Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon, and Hammett remains my favorite hard-boiled author, but it’s hard not to fall in love with Chandler’s prose. Chandler is a brilliant stylist and every sentence is perfectly constructed and loaded with wit.
My infatuation, however, was soon tempered by frustration brought on by Chandler’s willfully confusing plots. Eventually I gave up and so Playback has been sitting on my bookshelf unread for years. So long, in fact, that I had forgotten what is was I loved about Chandler in the first place until I finally picked it up. It was like falling in love for the first time all over again. No one, not even my beloved Hammett, writes with more style than Raymond Chandler. Take the opening paragraphs of chapter six from Playback for example:
The first sensation was that if anybody spoke harshly to me I should burst out crying. The second, that the room was too small for my head. The front of my head was a long way from the back, the sides were an enormous distance apart, in spite of which a dull throbbing beat from temple to temple. Distance means nothing nowadays.
The third sensation was that somewhere not far off an insistent whining noise went on. The fourth and last was that ice water was running down my back. The cover of a day bed proved that I had been lying on my face, if I still had one. I rolled over gently and sat up and a rattling noise ended in a thump. What rattled and thumped was a knotted towel full of melting ice cubes. Somebody who loved me very much had put them on the back of my head. Somebody who loved me less had bashed in the back of my skull. It could have been the same person. People have moods.
The beauty of Playback, Chandler’s last published novel, is that it lacks the overly complex plotlines that marked his other novels. Marlow is hired by an unknown client to track a woman traveling under an assumed name. Everyone Marlow encounters over the course of the investigation, including his client, gives him the runaround. Marlow, of course, manages to navigate the resultant labyrinth and, for once, Chandler succeeds in helping the reader to navigate the labyrinth as well.