“Burke shows again that he’s not just a comic genius, but also a fine dramatic writer and storyteller.” – Booklist. “Prose both scabrous and poetic.” – Publishers Weekly. “Proust meets Chandler over a pint of Guinness.” – Spectator. “Among the most memorable books of the year, of any genre.” – Sunday Times. “A hardboiled delight.” – Guardian. “Imagine Donald Westlake and Richard Stark collaborating on a screwball noir.” – Kirkus Reviews. “A cross between Raymond Chandler and Flann O’Brien.” – John Banville.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Down These Mean Streets A Man Called Job Must Go

I’m on a Raymond Chandler buzz at the moment, inspired by my annual treat of a Chandler novel, in this case THE HIGH WINDOW, which I haven’t read in many years. And before I go on, and before you waste your time reading on, I should declare an interest and say that Chandler is one of my many blind spots. I appreciate that some hail Dashiell Hammett as the original and the best, and that some claim Ross Macdonald as the man who finessed the private eye novel into the apogee of the form, and the truth is that I’m not learned enough to prove either faction wrong, if such were even possible. All I can say is that it was THE BIG SLEEP that properly introduced me to what a great crime novel was capable of, and that I love Raymond Chandler’s novels because first loves aren’t to be dissected and parsed and judged, but cherished with the giddy irrationality that characterises such things precisely because they were the first to expose you to love.
  Anyway, reading THE HIGH WINDOW confirmed a few things, as reading Chandler generally does. One is that, yes, his plots were cats’ cradles in which chauffeurs get bumped off because a chauffeur, at that particular point in time, needed to be bumped off. The second is that Chandler, as a writer, and at the risk of over-stretching the point, is Hemingway with a sense of humour. The third - and it’s unfortunate that I’m currently re-reading my latest book right now, in preparation for its final draft - is that no matter what I do as a writer, I’ll essentially be writing the equivalent of fan fiction; and the equivalent of fan fiction is, of course, fan fiction, which is rarely good, and is never good enough.
  The point of this post, however, is to invite your opinion of a question that has been dogging me through the latter stages of my current book, which has to do with the point of crime fiction; what it achieves and what it hopes to achieve; what its place is in pantheon of literature. Specifically, I’ve been wondering about its philosophy, and its stance vis-à-vis good and evil, if those terms aren’t too simplistic; and in terms of the bigger picture, about what it says about who we believe ourselves to be.
  I’ve recently been writing about my attitude towards violence, for example, murder being the most extreme form of violence, and querying my right as an author to make hay from other people’s misery. The conclusion I draw over at Elizabeth A. White’s blog is fine as far as it goes, I think, although I think at this point that when I wrote that piece I was getting bogged down in detail; or, to put it another way, I was confusing the issue of telling a story with that of telling a story within a certain moral framework. But is it the job of a writer to be some kind of moral pathfinder? To present a scenario in which good and evil go to war, with conclusions to be drawn from the eventual triumph of one over the other? Is it my role to affirm that the glass is half-full if good wins out, or half-empty should evil, at the death, slip away into the shadows with a maniacal laugh?
  At the time of writing I don’t have any good answers to these questions; and I should also say that I’m fully aware that every writer will have his or her own ‘philosophy’ in mind while writing, or none at all; and that the same applies to every reader, while reading.
  But I was struck the other day by a quote I came across and its similarities to Chandler’s description of the ideal detective from his essay ‘The Simple Art of Murder’. For those few of you unfamiliar with Chandler’s celebrated appraisal, it runs like this:
“In everything that can be called art there is a quality of redemption. It may be pure tragedy, if it is high tragedy, and it may be pity and irony, and it may be the raucous laughter of the strong man. But down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. The detective in this story must be such a man. He is the hero; he is everything. He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honour - by instinct, by inevitability, without thought of it, and certainly without saying it. He must be the best man in his world and a good enough man for any world …
  “He is a relatively poor man, or he would not be a detective at all. He is a common man or he could not go among common people. He has a sense of character, or he would not know his job. He will take no man’s money dishonestly and no man’s insolence without a due and dispassionate revenge. He is a lonely man and his pride is that you will treat him as a proud man or be very sorry you ever saw him. He talks as the man of his age talks - that is, with rude wit, a lively sense of the grotesque, a disgust for sham, and a contempt for pettiness …
  “If there were enough like him, the world would be a very safe place to live in, without becoming too dull to be worth living in.” - Raymond Chandler, ‘The Simple Art of Murder
  My first book, EIGHTBALL BOOGIE, was very much a homage (aka third-rate knock-off) to Chandler’s Marlowe novels; the current work is a sequel to that story, in which the main character, and narrator, Harry Rigby, takes a fairly heavy beating throughout. I liked the idea of Rigby’s experience being akin to that of the Biblical Job, and we’re all familiar with the notion that the crime novel essentially follows the three-act structure of classical Greek tragedy, as Chandler alludes to above; so when I came across a book by Horace M. Kallen called THE BOOK OF JOB AS A GREEK TRAGEDY, I could hardly resist.
  That’s when I came across the quote below.
It’s worth bearing in mind, I think, that Chandler wrote (or had published) the ‘The Simple Art of Murder’ in 1950 (I’m open to correction on that), whereas the quote below, in which Kallen summarises Job’s confrontation with Yahweh, comes from a book first published in 1918:
“To cling to his integrity while he lives, to assert and to realize the excellences appropriate to his nature as a man, as this particular kind of man, knowing all the while that this is to be accomplished in a world which was not made for him, in which he shares his claim on the consideration of Omnipotence with the infinitude of its creatures that alike manifest its powers - this is the destiny of man. He must take his chance in a world that doesn’t care about him any more than about anything else. He must maintain his ways with courage rather than faith, with self-respect rather than with humility; or better, perhaps, with a faith that is courage, a humility that is self-respect. When ultimately confronted with the inward character of Omnipotence, man realizes that, on its part, alone moral indifference can be justice. Its providence, its indifference, its justice - they are all one.” - Horace M. Kallen, THE BOOK OF JOB AS A GREEK TRAGEDY
  They sound quite similar in tone, I think, and even in certain phrasing; but while Chandler asserts that his hardboiled protagonist exists in a world which may be improved if a certain kind of moral code is adhered to, Kallen’s Job operates in a universe that is essentially indifferent. Kallen, who gives ‘The Book of Job’ a Euripidean reading (and goes to on convert the text into a classical Greek tragedy), and further suggests that Job emerges as an early, subversive example of a particular brand of humanism in the Old Testament, is more hardboiled, to my mind, than Chandler. His conclusion runs thusly:
“In [Job’s story] the soul of man comes to itself and is freed. It is a humanism terrible and unique. For unlike the Greek humanism it does not enfranchise the mind by interpreting the world in terms of its own substance, by declaring an ultimate happy destiny for man in a world immortally in harmony with his nature and needs; it is not an anthropomorphosis, not a pathetic fallacy. It is without illusion concerning the quality, extent and possibilities of man, without illusion concerning his relation to God. It accepts them, and makes of the human soul the citadel of man - even against Omnipotence itself - wherein he cherishes his integrity, and so cherishing, is victorious in the warfare of living even when life is lost.” (ibid)
  We do good not because we fear divine retribution, or because our actions might improve our lot, or that of mankind in general; but because the alternative, in the active or passive sense, is to succumb to indifference and atrophy and sink into the premature death of apathy.
  Or, this:
“When a man’s partner is killed he’s supposed to do something about it. It doesn’t make any difference what you thought of him. He was your partner and you’re supposed to do something about it.” - Dashiell Hammett, THE MALTESE FALCON
  You’ll appreciate, I hope, that all of the above may well just be a symptom of my desperately thrashing about trying to retrospectively justify a story that started out Chandleresque but slips the noose, for better or worse, of Chandler’s own retrospective assessment of Marlowe and his code. Come my next book, I may well be arguing something else entirely. For now, though, I quite like Kallen’s take on the ‘terrible and unique’ humanism of a Euripidean Job; for the want of a mast of my own construction, I’ll pin my colours to it.