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Mystery Monday – The High Window

 

The High Window by Raymond Chandler

 

 

Review by Matt B. (BuffaloSavage)

 

 

In the third novel featuring LA PI Philip Marlowe, our series hero is hired by a mean old rich lady to recover a rare coin that was allegedly stolen by her daughter-in-law. Later a killing baffles everybody, since the person of interest didn’t even know the victim. A second killing makes no sense either. Readers like me will be relieved that the plot is not as convoluted as The Big Sleep or Farewell My Lovely. Rousing action is on the skimpy side. Nor does the private eye do much detecting. Chandler, always experimenting with language and going beyond the conventions of the mystery genre, focusses on setting, character and theme.

Marlowe’s investigations take him to locations ranging from ritzy to sleazy. On the first page, we get a sense of the tasteless consumption of Pasadenans in the boom years during WWII. The client’s mansion is decorated with “a stained glass window about the size of the tennis court.” We are then introduced to the mean old rich lady, with her “pewter-colored hair set in a ruthless permanent, a hard beak and large moist eyes with the sympathetic expression of wet stones.” No fault of Chandler’s that many writers imitated these dazzling expressions, too often not with as much literary taste.

The poor and middle-class characters don’t act better than they should either. Of a dubious dealer in old coins: an “elderly party in a dark grey suit with high lapels and too many buttons down the front… Fuzz grew out of his ears, far enough to catch a moth … a Hoover collar which no decent laundry would have allowed on the premises nudged his adam’s apple  and a black string tie poked a small hard knot out of the bottom of the collar, like a mouse getting ready to come out of a mousehole.”

Our hero Phil Marlowe is the only likeable character, although we readers are happy when in the scene we find Merle, a young secretary who has lost faith in herself. Her broken appeal is believable and moves the plot. Tough and resourceful, Marlowe can deal with all types of crook, such as the drunken stick-up artist Hench and the smooth villain Vannier. But Marlowe has a profound side too. He relaxes by doing chess problems. When he delivers Merle back to her parents back in Kansas he thinks, “I had a funny feeling … as though I had written a poem and it was very good and I had lost it and would never remember it again.”

Chandler brought serious themes to mysteries. In this one he examines the effect of power and coercion of human relations. For instance, his mean old client runs roughshod over her son and secretary and thus blights their lives for no discernible end. Chandler looks at the corrosive effects of infidelity on marriage. Marlowe’s sensitive relationship with the police is subtly and intelligently handled here than in most mysteries.

 

 

 

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