Phil Marlowe is a clever bastard who can never drink enough and plays life with a close hand. He’s not a tough guy, but he talks tough when he needs to. He is a private detective, and he is not bad at what he does because he is dedicated to the pursuit of truth, even when that pursuit takes him outside the law and against the wishes of his clients. It’s not that he’s curious; he just can’t help himself.
Marlowe is probably named after (among other bastards) Joseph Conrad’s character Chris Marlow, who descended in the heart of darkness of the African jungle and colonialist psyche. Phil Marlowe’s life takes him through the darkest heart of Depression-era LA. He regularly witnesses the horrors of pre-modern culture, and takes a drink in response. The drink rarely helps.
The High Window is the third case Marlowe took that he needed a novel’s length of words to yap about. Marlowe rarely talks at any length unless he’s figuring something out, so it makes sense that after a case he’d talk himself through the whole thing, trying in vain to find out the real meaning behind everything – like why the world is full of such bastards.
In the case of The High Window, Marlowe is employed by a rich widow named Murdock whom he describes as a “warhorse.” Mrs. Murdock swills port and demands that he recover a valuable coin, the Brasher Doubloon. She’d also like him to get her son to divorce his lower class wife and not any questions about her family.
The plot, just like real life, is complicated. It involves blackmail, social class disputes, sex affairs, double crosses, pornography, and what have you. Over the course of the book, Marlowe happens across a few murders. He asks questions about the Murdocks and he gets answers.
The plot is so complex it almost doesn’t matter. What matters is the writing and now good it is. The High Window is written by Raymond Chandler, and Chandler was one of the best writers to ever use modern American English. Few have written sentences as clear and descriptive and poignant as his. Ernest Hemingway was one of his peers; Cormac McCarthy is another. Both came after Chandler, and Chandler is wittier than both. Chandler can write a sentence like, “She had a smile that I felt in my hip pocket,” and get away with it.
Chandler’s style fully realizes Marlowe’s voice and character. Chandler’s also a smart enough writer that Marlowe’s investigations lead him to realizations of great psychological depth. Marlowe probably didn’t know what psychology was; if he did, he’d think it was a load of hooey. But to him, finding out who did what is less interesting than finding out why. He’s less interested in finding out who stole the Brasher Doubloon and who murdered to cover it up than why Murdock called him in the first place and why she is a widow. He finds out all of these things because he is a good detective.
Chandler’s books do not contain one central mystery of whodunnit, but instead explore the intricate and intimate secrets of people who are rotten. His characters are always rotten for more than one reason, and Marlowe finds out what some of those reasons are. Mrs. Murdock, it turns out, is an especially rotten woman.
The genre of detective fiction lends itself to clever investigation of deep, societal truths. It became prominent during the Great Depression, when such investigation was necessary. Raymond Chandler was probably the best writer working within the genre at the time. We could use someone like him today, sending Phil Marlowe into our tortured streets to find out what the hell is wrong with us.
At the very least, he could remind us that we could all use a good drink. Even if it might not help.