Home > 1930, 20th Century, American Literature, Book Club, Chandler, Raymond, Classics, Crime Fiction, Polar > So long, Marlowe, you’re a swell private dick

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

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.

  1. May 26, 2013 at 11:26 pm

    I love Chandler’s style too. Its concision, it’s cleverness, the sheer amount of information he gets across with a brilliant metaphor! I’m slowly reading my way through all the novels, but didn’t realise there were stories, too. I love your closing sentence – that’s so true, and so unusual.

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    • May 27, 2013 at 9:51 pm

      I intend to read all his books too. You write better than me what’s so special with his style. I love concision and brilliant metaphors. This is also why I’m so fond of Djian.

      Like

  2. May 27, 2013 at 12:26 am

    While you’re at it there is an essay, too – “The Simple Art of Murder” is a kind of classic. ANd the book with that title has more short stories, shorter than the ones in Trouble Is My Business. Maybe they are earlier and do not feature Marlowe? My memory may be off.

    “Marlowe on film” is almost its own genre. He has been played quite differently by different actors.

    I am more of the mind that any mystery writer worth reading is worth reading for his style, which undoes the paradox. Chandler, Hammett, Chester Himes, P. D. James, Dorothy Sayers – all writers with their own meaningful style

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    • May 27, 2013 at 10:37 pm

      Thanks for the reference to this essay, very interesting. (For other readers, you can find it here) it brings me back to discussions we’ve had lately about Hemingway and realism. Funny how pieces from different puzzles make a new picture. I need to read Hammett, now. I know I’m “late” in discovering all these great writers but in a sense I’m glad I waited because I can read them in the original now.

      I enjoyed Chandler’s description of a good PI, he achieved his goal with Marlowe:

      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 kind of 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 honor, 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. I do not care much about his private life; he is neither a eunuch nor a satyr; I think he might seduce a duchess and I am quite sure he would not spoil a virgin; if he is a man of honor in one thing, he is that in all things. 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. The story is his adventure in search of a hidden truth, and it would be no adventure if it did not happen to a man fit for adventure. He has a range of awareness that startles you, but it belongs to him by right, because it belongs to the world he lives in.

      I read on Wikipedia that there were more than four stories to Trouble Is My Business but my edition has only four. I don’t know why.

      I think you misunderstood my conclusion. Chandler is the proof that some people still need to consider crime fiction as a literary genre as any others. Chandler says it better than me:

      Other things being equal, which they never are, a more powerful theme will provoke a more powerful performance. Yet some very dull books have been written about God, and some very fine ones about how to make a living and stay fairly honest. It is always a matter of who writes the stuff, and what he has in him to write it with. As for literature of expression and literature of escape, this is critics’ jargon, a use of abstract words as if they had absolute meanings. Everything written with vitality expresses that vitality; there are no dull subjects, only dull minds.

      I totally agree with that statement.

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      • May 28, 2013 at 1:01 am

        Misunderstood, quite likely. To put it another way, the “you” in your last sentence, and the “some people” in your reply, probably does not apply to too many people who stop by at this website..

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        • May 28, 2013 at 7:56 am

          Quite right.

          I haven’t been in school for a while now, so I don’t know the contents of literature programs these days. However, I’m not sure literature text books include crime fiction.

          About my writing. Sometimes I miss the possibilities offered by French grammar to be more precise in what I say by agreeing adjectives or verbs with the genre or the number. More said without adding words. Or I forget that grammar doesn’t reveal part of the meaning, like in French and I think what I write is clear and it isn’t. Let’s take an example. Impardonnables is the title of a novel by Djian. The English title is Unforgivable, the translation of the French. Except that in French, you have an S at the end of Impardonnables that tells you at once that more than one thing was unforgivable in this story.

          This is where English is deceptively easy. It’s easy to start speaking and have a basic conversation but it’s very difficult to write with subtlety and precision without an excellent knowledge of the language.

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  3. May 27, 2013 at 9:49 am

    He is one of my favourite writers. One of the few I’ve read everything of. I seem to remember I was less impressed with the short storie. Not sure why. I need to pick them up again, I like all the quotes you added and really love his style.

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    • May 27, 2013 at 10:39 pm

      I preferred The Big Sleep to the short stories, next one will probably be Farewell, My Lovely.

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  4. May 27, 2013 at 5:27 pm

    Glad you enjoyed this, Emma. I thought you would. Speaking of reading for style, I’d say that applies to Ken Bruen. I read a lot of crime books, and his unique style stands out.

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    • May 27, 2013 at 10:41 pm

      I’ve only read one Bruen, so it’s hard to speak about his style in general after one novel. I did enjoy it a lot too and I’m inclined to think he’s special too.
      So is Fred Vargas. There’s more to her than efficient crime stories.

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  5. May 27, 2013 at 9:19 pm

    I’ve not read anything by him – by the looks of it, this needs to change! And thus, the reading list grows some more… 😉

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    • May 27, 2013 at 10:43 pm

      Ah, the crux of the problem with blogs: great reading ideas and a growing TBR. 🙂
      I hope you’ll like Chandler.

      Like

  6. May 27, 2013 at 11:15 pm

    Vian did translate Chandler! “The Big Sleep” and “The Lady in the Lake.” I’d be curious what you thought of them…

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    • May 27, 2013 at 11:21 pm

      I know, I’ve read Le grand sommeil. His translation is fantastic, that’s why I mention it.

      Like

  7. May 28, 2013 at 2:32 am

    Thanks, I’ve been wondering about Vian’s translations. Chandler seems like a good fit for him.

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    • May 28, 2013 at 7:27 am

      Too bad he only translated two novels.

      Like

  8. leroyhunter
    May 29, 2013 at 1:37 pm

    Chandler is one of those I think of as being a filter, e.g. “I couldn’t trust someone who didn’t like Chandler (or Waugh, or Wodehouse etc.)”

    Like

    • May 30, 2013 at 8:06 pm

      Is that a statement like “Skinny cooks can’t be trusted”? 🙂

      Like

      • leroyhunter
        May 31, 2013 at 3:19 pm

        100%!

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        • May 31, 2013 at 9:47 pm

          that’s what I thought.

          Like

  9. May 30, 2013 at 12:54 pm

    “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.”

    Chandler for me is all about the style, so it’s no surprise to me that the style mattered more to you than the plots. He’s a superb stylist.

    I thought I’d read all the Marlowe works long ago, but I don’t think I’ve read this. I plan to restart with Marlowe (but then I plan to read/reread so many things) and will slot this into that.

    What I find interesting in the works of writers such as Chandler, Hammett, and of course Macdonald (whose Lew Archer is in part a tribute to Marlowe) is that their protagonists are men of virtue in a noir universe. It’s existentialist fiction for me – there is no god, no external source of morality or justice, there’s just a blind universe in which things happen, many of them bad. Despite that these PIs pursue a moral code, in a universe without a moral vision. It’s an act of pointless heroism. In the absence of meaning, they create meaning. Fascinating stuff.

    Anyway, glad you liked it. Like Leroy I’d struggle to trust someone who didn’t like Chandler.

    Lovely quotes by the way. Of course, throw a stone at a Chandler novel and it’s hard not to hit a great quote…

    Like

    • May 30, 2013 at 9:50 pm

      I agree about the “existentialist fiction” part. Totally true, it’s an adequate description of Marlowe. When I think of it, that’s probably why I like Thomas Pitt or William Monk, the characters created by Anne Perry.
      I haven’t watched a lot of westerns but aren’t these PIs a city version of the lonesome cowboy?

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      • May 30, 2013 at 11:49 pm

        The hard-boiled detective story was definitely a combination of the western with the detective story. A writer named John Carroll Daly is usually credited with mixing the two. Before that, detective stories were usually genteel puzzles, with perhaps a bit of local color, in the Sherlock Holmes vein.

        It’s interesting, too (to me, at any rate) that French popular fiction often featured the criminal, rather than the detective: Arsène Lupin, Fantômas.

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        • May 31, 2013 at 9:47 pm

          I’m not sure Arsène Lupin or Fantômas are so much read nowadays. IMO, they don’t feature criminals, they feature Robin Hoods. There’s a difference.

          I haven’t read a lot of Francophone crime fiction, especially detective stories. The inevitable TV versions put me off the books too which is a shame. (like Maigret, Nestor Burma…)

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          • June 1, 2013 at 11:33 pm

            Well, paperbacks seem plentiful, even here in NYC. I’ve read some of both, and they’re pulpy fun, featuring glamorous criminals. Why do you say they’re Robin Hoods?

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            • June 2, 2013 at 3:20 pm

              Because they’re glamorous and don’t commit crimes out of nastiness. They’re not creepy criminals. I’ve never read Fantomas, so it’s only the image I have, but I’ve read Arsène Lupin. (Btw, do you know the song by Jacques Dutronc, Gentleman cambrioleur?)

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              • June 2, 2013 at 5:20 pm

                I didn’t know the Dutronc song, but I looked it up. Funny!

                Well, Lupin was a gentleman, but he was a thief; and having an unpunished thief as protagonist would have been unthinkable in anglophone popular fiction at the time. Fantômas was very nasty, a sadistic psychopath — but brilliant and elegant. The French seem to have understood the appeal of the anti-hero earlier than we anglophones.

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              • June 2, 2013 at 6:44 pm

                Jacques Lanzmann wrote most of the lyrics of the songs by Jacques Dutronc. They’re often very good. (Have a look at Il est cinq heures, Paris s’éveille and J’aime les filles)

                Very interesting comment about the character of the unpunished thief. I’m trying to remember if there are other characters like this in French literature.

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              • June 2, 2013 at 6:54 pm

                Th classic French example is not literary but real – Vidocq, the master criminal who becomes the master detective.

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              • June 2, 2013 at 7:13 pm

                Well, just like hackers can be reformed and hired by the police, no?

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              • June 2, 2013 at 7:31 pm

                Exactly. French history boasts the premier example.

                Like

  10. May 30, 2013 at 2:24 pm

    I’ve read a few short stories by Chandler and have loved what i read. Am really tempted to buy a copy of this book now

    Like

    • May 30, 2013 at 8:10 pm

      I’m glad if my billet reminded you to read Chandler again.

      Like

  11. June 2, 2013 at 4:18 pm

    Wonderful review, Emma! I love Chandler’s style. ‘The Big Sleep’ is my favourite novel of his. I don’t know anyone else who writes such stylish, perfect sentences like him. I saw the movie version of ‘The Big Sleep’ which had Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, and I liked it because of them, but Chandler’s novel was better, way better. I loved reading your thoughts on the title ‘Trouble is my Business’ and its French translation. I hope you enjoy reading ‘Farewell, My Lovely’. Thanks for this beautiful review!

    Like

    • June 2, 2013 at 6:28 pm

      I’ve seen the movie with Bogart as well, after reading the book. I liked the book better too.
      There are issues regarding early translations of Noir. They were considered as “romans de gare” (railwaysation novels) and they had to be simple, not too long. So translators were allowed some liberties to meet the format.

      Like

      • June 3, 2013 at 8:01 pm

        I like that name ‘romans de gare’ 🙂 It is also interesting that your favourite French translator of Raymond Chandler’s novels is Boris Vian. I am planning to read one of Vian’s books soon 🙂 So, it was a real coincidence to read about him in your review.

        Like

        • June 3, 2013 at 9:04 pm

          I think Vian did an outstanding job translating Chandler. Which one of his books are you going to read? Froth on the Daydream?

          Like

          • June 6, 2013 at 3:56 pm

            Yes, yes, that is the book! The edition I have has the title ‘Foam of the Daze’ 🙂 I actually can’t imagine what both the titles mean, but I can’t wait to start reading it. I discovered that, very oddly, there is only one indie publisher which is publishing English translations of Vian’s books and so they are not easily available. I am glad I was able to get it.

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            • June 6, 2013 at 9:19 pm

              I’m interested in reading your review. It’s hard to say what the title means in French too. It’s not a common expression, it’s something Vian invented. This book is unusual and a classic of adolescence reading. (I’m not saying it’s a YA novel. It’s just something most French readers read as a teenager)

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              • June 8, 2013 at 4:35 pm

                Interesting to know that, Emma! I can’t wait to start Vian’s book.

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