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So long, Marlowe, you’re a swell private dick

May 26, 2013 40 comments

Trouble Is My business by Raymond Chandler. French title: Les ennuis, c’est mon problème.

Chandler_TroubleTrouble Is My Business is our Book Club’s choice for May. It’s a collection of four long short-stories, all featuring the iconic Philip Marlowe. It includes Trouble Is My Business (1939), Finger Man (1934), Gold Fish (1936) and Red Wind (1938). I’m not going to describe each story, I think it would be tedious to read. Suffice to say that I enjoyed the two last ones better than the two first, I found the plots easier to follow. To be honest, I took more pleasure in the atmosphere of the stories, the descriptions of the characters, the snapshots of LA than in the actual stories.

Trouble Is My Business is all about atmosphere. It’s gambling in shady places, crooks who cheat at the roulette, dubious politicians, gangsters, real and fake pearls, beautiful women, insurance rewards and encounters with the law. It involves a lot of guns, fights, killings, settlement of scores and kidnappings. Marlowe generally manages to lose his gun, takes physical blows with philosophy and gets away from all kinds of perilous situations. Being a European, I have never seen a gun in my life, so I sure don’t know the difference between a .22 and a .38. It seems to matter as Chandler keeps mentioning the calibre of the weapons. I had to look for pictures on the internet.

We’re in what we now call classic Noir. The stories are set in Chandler’s faded office in LA, in casinos or impersonal apartments or luxurious hotel suites. It means cigarettes smoke, hats, cigars and whiskey. A lot of whiskey. Marlowe’s judgement is sometimes clouded by alcohol:

So far I had only made four mistakes. The first was mixing in at all, even for Kathy Horne’s sake. The second was staying mixed after I found Peeler Mardo dead. The third was letting Rush Madder see I knew what he was talking about. The fourth, the whiskey, was the worst.

These four stories show different facets of Marlowe: friend with a crook, cooperating with the DA, working for an insurer, accepting jobs as a subcontractor for another PI. He’s always short of cash and thus ready to take on any job to earn money as long as it doesn’t flirt too dangerously with illegality.

More than anything else, I LOVE Chandler’s style. His style is brilliant and I’m not even sure I really catch how brilliant it is since English isn’t my native language. I just know I don’t want to read him in French, unless it’s translated by Boris Vian. For example, I don’t agree with the French translation of Trouble Is My Business. In English, business can be understood as “it’s my occupation” since taking care of other people’s troubles is a PI’s job, and also as a reference to his meddling in other people’s life, like in the expression it’s none of your business. When it’s translated into Les ennuis, c’est mon problème, only the second meaning remains. With Les ennuis, c’est mon business or Les ennuis, c’est mes affaires, you can keep both meanings. In any case, this translation is still better than the former one, Les pépins, c’est mes oignons. But back to Chandler’s style. Brilliant, I was saying.

I love the short sentences, the economy of words, the punching images that paint a whole picture with short, strong and confident strokes of his literary paintbrush. In the blink of a paragraph, he takes you to a troubled night in LA.

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.

In a few sentences, you see a man, his social position and have a glimpse of his character:

The man who sat behind a flat desk was Frank Dorr, the politico. He was the kind of man who liked to have a desk in front of him, and shove his fat stomach against it, and fiddle with things on it, and look very wise.

Chandler_ProblèmeIn a phrase, he can describe a woman (A redheaded number with bedroom eyes.) or a predicament (His eyes measured me for a coffin, in spite of their suffering.) Is there another adjective than brilliant?

His stories are engrossing because they’re told by Marlowe himself. We hear Philip Marlowe. Although I haven’t seen a lot of black and white movies – for some reason I have trouble staying in front of a film when I’m not in a cinema—I could see the cinematographic side of the short-stories with Marlowe’s voice-over. I couldn’t imagine it differently from a low voice, spoken smoothly but with clenched teeth and typical American pronounciation that makes me read subtitles because I don’t understand everything. The fact that the PI relates the story himself creates a bond with the reader and makes the stories more attractive. Of course Marlowe’s attitude toward life and its little coincidences, adventures and disillusion add to the mix.

I ended up musing about the Chandler paradox: he writes in a genre you usually read more for the plot than for the style and I ended up reading him more for the style than for the plot.

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