The tough guy at the typewriter still sizzles

Tom Nolan is the author of "Ross Macdonald: A Biography" and the editor of "Strangers in Town: Three Newly Discovered Mysteries by Ross Macdonald." From 'Farewell, My Lovely'

Let's take it from the top. All right, Marlowe, you're on the air:

"It was about eleven o'clock in the morning, mid October, with the sun not shining and a look of hard wet rain in the clearness of the foothills. I was wearing my powder-blue suit, with dark blue shirt, tie and display handkerchief, black brogues, black wool socks with dark blue clocks on them. I was neat, clean, shaved and sober, and I didn't care who knew it. I was everything the well-dressed private detective ought to be. I was calling on four million dollars."

That's the distinctive voice of Philip Marlowe, the fictional Los Angeles private eye and first-person narrator of Raymond Chandler's seven novels, announcing his self-assured presence on the California literary landscape in the opening paragraph of Chandler's first book, "The Big Sleep."

With that voice of Marlowe's, wised-up but still romantic, Chandler told knowing tales of L.A. for 20 years -- from 1939, when there were streetcars on Hollywood Boulevard and orange groves beyond Pasadena, to 1959, when freeways were pushing ever west into the new suburbs of the San Fernando Valley. Through Marlowe's voice, Chandler defined Los Angeles for generations of readers around the globe.

How often it's the out-of-town artist, with an outsider's sharpened vision, who best sums up a city and its natives. Virgil, a hick from the Mantuan sticks, became the greatest bard of Rome. The provincial Balzac was the perfect guide to 19th century Paris. And a mystery writer named Raymond Chandler -- born in Chicago, schooled in England -- was posthumously crowned prose-poet laureate of Los Angeles.

Chandler won the laurels through his remarkable style, full of verve and color and a seemingly endless parade of sentences that demand to be quoted. He possessed, among other tools, what Sue Grafton (one of Chandler's many literary children and grandchildren) has called "the mean eye," and he used it without much mercy. The books zing with thumbnail bull's-eyes:

"His smile was as cunning as a broken mousetrap."

"Suspicion climbed all over her face, like a kitten, but not so playfully."

"Fuzz grew out of his ears, far enough to catch a moth."

"She was as cute as a washtub."

"He had beautiful teeth, but they hadn't grown in his mouth."

"She looked almost as hard to get as a haircut."

"His chin would never hit a wall before he saw it."

"There was lace at her throat, but it was the kind of throat that would have looked better in a football sweater."

"To say she had a face that would have stopped a clock would have been to insult her. It would have stopped a runaway horse."

But if one eye was mean, the other was susceptible to romance. Chandler also wrote mesmeric and evocative passages such as this one: "We went west, dropped over to Sunset and ... curved through the bright mile or two of the Strip ... past the gleaming new nightclubs with famous chefs and equally famous gambling rooms .... Past all this and down a wide smooth curve to the bridle path of Beverly Hills and lights to the south, all colors of the spectrum and crystal clear in an evening without fog, past the shadowed mansions up on the hills to the north, past Beverly Hills altogether and up into the twisting foothill boulevard and the sudden cool dusk and the drift of wind from the sea."

Chandler's visions of L.A. -- half-hard-boiled, half-lyrical -- proved irresistible not only to readers but also to Hollywood. The Marlowe books inspired several movies, a radio show and television series in both the black-and-white and cable eras. Other writers have created dozens of Marlowe imitators and successors for the page and screen. In recent years, there have been estate-authorized Marlowe "sequels" and Chandler "collaborations." Biographies have made Chandler's own exploits nearly as well-known as Marlowe's, and the author's collected correspondence has proved as quotable as his fiction.

In the last half-century's smog of homage, imitation and nostalgia, it's been easy to lose sight of Chandler's own work. Returning to the books themselves -- as this season's reprints of Raymond Chandler's novels and short stories in both hardcover and paperback create the occasion to do -- can be a revelation.

Read anew, Chandler's work seems as fresh and dazzling as ever. Of the seven novels, four can fairly be called masterpieces; and two of the three others, although flawed, have long flashes of brilliance.

In Chandler's debut detective novel, 1939's "The Big Sleep," the (for-now) sober Philip Marlowe is hired by that millionaire from the first paragraph, the aged General Sternwood, to keep blackmailers and gamblers from bothering one or both of his two high-living daughters. The case soon opens up to include a pornography racket, a missing ex-bootlegger and several corpses, in a plot that races all over the Thomas Bros. map: Pasadena to West Hollywood to the ocean, Laurel Canyon to beyond Bunker Hill.

"The Big Sleep," beautifully paced and written, in some ways remains Chandler's best book -- for its energy, its sense of Southern California history and the feeling it gives of showing what "really" goes on in a big town behind the civic facade. "Old" money, reckless youth, suave mobsters, common grifters, stony-faced cops -- and in the middle, Marlowe: wise-cracking, mostly likable and following a private code of ethics that he remembers as he goes along.

"Farewell, My Lovely" (1940), Chandler's great next book, is even broader in scope than "The Big Sleep," and at times more comic. The comedy helps make bearable an L.A. that can be as horrible as Nathanael West's, whose "The Day of the Locust" was published the same year as "The Big Sleep."

The "entertainers" Marlowe glimpses in a shabby pile of publicity photos in "Farewell" would be right at home in West's "suicide note" of a novel (as Chandler called "Locust"): "Hoofers and comics from the filling station circuit. Not many of them would ever get west of Main Street. You would find them in tanktown vaudeville acts, cleaned up, or down in the cheap burlesque houses, as dirty as the law allowed ... grinning, sadistically filthy and as rank as the smell of stale sweat. The women had good legs .... But their faces were as threadbare as a bookkeeper's office coat. Blondes, brunettes, large cowlike eyes with a peasant dullness in them. Small sharp eyes with urchin greed in them. One or two of the faces obviously vicious."

Marlowe seeks a woman named Velma, who's escaped this sordid milieu, on behalf of one Moose Malloy, an oversize thug carrying a torch to match. The soon-deadly hunt takes him from Central Avenue joints to seaside mansions, from a "fakeloo" psychic's parlor to a gambling ship anchored off "Bay City" (a.k.a. Santa Monica). The book's voice -- Marlowe's -- seems objective, poetic and personal all at once, giving both the geographic specifics of the journey and the sense of nearly audible music beyond some distant hill.

The feel is lighter still in the satisfying "The High Window" (1942), in which Marlowe tries to retrieve a valuable coin stolen from a private collection. It's as if, having given the lay of the land in his first two books, the author is able now to relax and write a more streamlined, straight-ahead story. Not that the case is simple, of course; before long, the missing (or is it?) coin leads to murder. Once again, Chandler achieves his literary goal of writing scenes that seem never to have been written before, scenes that shimmer with smart dialogue and those patented descriptions.

Also elegant and enjoyable in its unfolding is "The Lady in the Lake" (1943), written (and reflecting homefront conditions) during World War II. A downtown business executive asks Marlowe to find his estranged wife, missing after a trip to Little Fawn Lake (read Big Bear). The detective goes up to the man's vacation cabin and there makes a grisly discovery.

These mountain scenes have an airy feel, in keeping with their setting. Chandler didn't keep writing the same book over and over but varied his approach, trying for different effects. It's surprising to see the range he achieved, in mood and structure, within the private-eye form he was so responsible for popularizing.

Less pleasant to note is Chandler's casual use of racial and other slurs; although, technically, it's Marlowe who refers to various characters in the seven novels as a "fat greasy sensual Jew," a "short dirty wop," a "nice-mannered Jap," a "pansy," a "big buck Negro," a "greaseball" and the like. "It was the times," we may say in partial excuse (although 1953, when "The Long Goodbye" was published, seems a bit late in the century to be calling a Mexican houseman "a cockroach in a white jacket"); and indeed, other great writers used similar language. But it's no more fun to find it in Chandler than in Hemingway, Mencken, Eliot or any other American master.

"The Lady in the Lake," with its exciting finale, is the last completely pleasing Chandler novel. It would be six years between it and the next Marlowe book, "The Little Sister" (1949) -- six years during which Chandler earned much money writing screenplays and stored up much bad feeling toward Hollywood. "The Little Sister," which has Marlowe trying to help a movie actress become disentangled from blackmailers and racketeers, seems burdened with Chandler's own movie-studio grievances. Although the book has many good passages, there are also several sour Marlowe diatribes against modern California. Chandler's urban knight-errant is getting older and crabbier. There's also a jarring disparity between "The Little Sister's" realistic sequences and its sillier-seeming interludes. One wants to say to Chandler what Marlowe tells someone in another book: "You're slipping your clutch."

Read in order, Chandler's novels form a sort of vexed Marlowe's Progress: from professional copaceticism to personal confusion. In "Farewell, My Lovely," a placid Marlowe says of the detective business: "There's not much money in it. There's a lot of grief. But there's a lot of fun too. And there's always a chance of a big case." By "The Little Sister," however, the P.I. is talking to himself with a desperation that's only semi-comical: "Who am I cutting my throat for this time? ... I don't know. All I know is that something isn't what it seems and ... the wrong person is going to lose the pot. Is that my business? Well, what is my business? Do I know? Did I ever know? Let's not go into that."

Marlowe's ambivalence escalates in the more subdued and ambitious "The Long Goodbye," in which detective, author and client all seem to be wrestling with interchangeable questions of self-worth, alcohol, honor, the meaning of life and the value of writing.

In one strand of this long book's plot, Marlowe helps a friend elude the law and flee to Mexico the morning after the murder of his wife (the friend insists he's innocent). In the other half of the story's double-helix, Marlowe attempts to keep an alcoholic popular-novelist from hurting himself or others while he finishes his latest manuscript.

"The Long Goodbye" seems sprawling and self-indulgent, annoying in its complexity and arbitrary in its moralizing. Yet it contains some of Chandler's most memorable paragraphs (including Marlowe's oft-quoted catalog beginning: "There are blondes and blondes ... ") and several convincing encounters between Marlowe and the cops -- good cops, bad cops and ones in between.

Scenes with police were a Chandler specialty, giving drama and credence to his fiction from the start. All the elements of Chandler's great talent were present even in his apprentice work, two dozen or so eminently readable "Collected Stories," the first of which saw print (in pulp magazines) six years before "The Big Sleep."

By the time of Chandler's final Marlowe book, "Playback" (1958), only faint glimmers of that once-bright talent remained. Built on the framework of an unproduced Chandler screenplay, "Playback" does not properly belong in the Marlowe canon. Yet even this weak work is not without interest, and even merit, as the last game effort of an extraordinary writer who imaginatively and magically rendered his place and period for all time.

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From 'Farewell, My Lovely'

"TROUBLE," he said softly. "A little trouble."

He turned in his chair and crossed his thick legs and gazed thoughtfully towards one of his pairs of windows. That let me see handspun lisle socks and English brogues that looked as if they had been pickled in port wine. Counting what I couldn't see and not counting his wallet he had half a grand on him. I figured his wife had money.

"Trouble," he said, still softly, "is something our little city don't know much about, Mr. Marlowe. Our city is small but very, very clean. I look out of my western windows and I see the Pacific Ocean. Nothing cleaner that that, is there?" He didn't mention the two gambling ships that were hull down on the brass waves just beyond the three-mile limit.

Neither did I. "That's right, Chief," I said.

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Books by Raymond Chandler

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Available from Vintage Crime/Black Lizard:

The Big Sleep, 232 pp., $12 paper

Farewell, My Lovely, 292 pp., $12 paper

The High Window, 266 pp., $12 paper

The Lady in the Lake, 266 pp., $12 paper

The Little Sister, 250 pp., $12 paper

The Long Goodbye, 380 pp., $13 paper

Playback, 166 pp., $11 paper

Trouble Is My Business, 214 pp., $12 paper

The Simple Art of Murder, 378 pp., $13 paper

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Available from Everyman's Library/Alfred A. Knopf:

Collected Stories, 1,306 pp., $27.50

The Big Sleep, Farewell, My Lovely, The High Window, 656 pp., $27.50

The Lady in the Lake, The Little Sister, The Long Goodbye, Playback, 974 pp., $30

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