Friday, July 4, 2014

Mean Streets, Dark Sides, and Our Other Selves

The mystery novelist Raymond Chandler has been the late Raymond Chandler for over fifty years.  But his ghostly literary presence still haunts the streets of southern California, reminding us in his still fresh narrative how often these palm-lined avenues and boulevards are paved over the edges of dark ambitions and mordant passions.

All Moose Molloy wanted was his former girlfriend,Velma Valento.  All Terry Lennox wanted was a ride to Tijuana.  All Orfamay Quest wanted was assurances her older brother, Warren, was not in any trouble.  Each of these individuals engage Chandler's noted private detective, Philip Marlowe, in pursuit of their goals, which are in metaphor and actuality as paved over as the streets of which Chandler writes.

If they are not mean streets at the outset, they become so as Chandler's orchestrations of Marlowe's ventures grow more byzantine.  "Down these mean streets,"  Chandler wrote in an essay called "The simple Art of Murder," a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid.  He is the hero; he is everything."

You could argue that Edgar Allen Poe articulated the driving principles for the mystery novel.  He indeed did so for the short story.  You have some connection to Poe and the mystery story beyond your own interest and subsequent attempts to master it, then turn a portion of it into your own narrative voice.  

For some years, as chair of the Southern California branch of Mystery Writers of America, you handed yearly awards, the Edgar and the Raven, to mystery writers.  More to the point, you can argue that Chandler left his fingerprints all over the mystery novel format.  

In a lovely turn of literary interplay, a writer still in his mid teens at the time of Chandler's death, living most of his life in Ireland, went on to become a critic, a literary novelist, a winner of the prestigious Mann Booker Prize, has gone on to write mystery novels of his own and, in recent years, mystery novels as though written by Chandler, featuring Philip Marlowe.  You speak of John Banville.

Chandler's streets have, if anything, grown meaner over the years.  His observation about Marlowe and his like still has resonance.  Craig Johnson's Wyoming sheriff, Walt Longmeyer, for an example, is an admirable fit.  But more contemporary types have a few crumbs of tarnish here and there, and try telling yourself that Michael Connolly's Harry Bosch does not have the occasional moment of fear.

This is all by way of suggesting the intensification of a growing layer of subtext, burrowing its way into one of the more quintessential of literary genera.  At coffee this morning, the subject of black mold came up and one of the Friday morning regulars, his daytime job painting houses, regaled the assembled host with ways in which the mold reveals itself--after having been painted over or in some deliberate way covered up.

You, who are not as cynical as your age might suggest, have just come from a teaching quarter called "Noir Fiction," your focus on the growing awareness of the literary equivalents of black mold, describing an arc from an early noir thriller, Lady Audley's Secret (1862), to Richard Price's masterly Lush Life, (2008), a New York Times  review of which compared Price to--can you guess?--Raymond Chandler.

The convergence of these bits of information and their potential implications do not suggest to you that humanity has become any darker than it already was when observant men and women began writing about them.  Raymond Chandler--back to him yet again--gives us a vital clue about Orfamay Quest in The Little 
Sister:  "nobody ever looked less like Lady Macbeth." 

 Call that observation "Chekhov's gun," why don't you?  Chandler was skilled enough to know that such an observation was the gun on the wall, the gun that had to go off before--or as--the play ended.  Telling us Orfamay did not look like Lady Macbeth is nothing less than a jab in the ribs, warning us to watch out for this drab, mousy sort from Kansas, a grown-up version of another young person from Kansas, Dorothy Gale. 

The convergence of these factors is a reminder of the richness of material under the pavement, under the rocks in the back yard after a rainstorm, the richness of agenda, observation, and scurrying under your own rocks and pavement.

In the same sense the subject of black mold arises in discussion at Friday morning coffee, you're still hearing the reverberations of the recent essay herein, where you were musing over the observation from the poet, Charles Baudelaire, 

It's Ennui! — his eye brimming with spontaneous tear
He dreams of the gallows in the haze of his hookah.
You know him, reader, this delicate monster,
Hypocritical reader, my likeness, my brother!

It begins nearby, on streets and boulevards and within your dark yearnings and suspicions.

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