Review: “The High Window” By Raymond Chandler (Novel)

Well, after reading Dashiell Hammett’s “The Maltese Falcon” a while ago, I was in the mood for some more “film noir” detective fiction. Since there isn’t a sequel to “The Maltese Falcon” and, because I’d already read Raymond Chandler’s “The Big Sleep” quite a few years ago, I decided to look for some of Raymond Chandler’s other novels.

Although they were relatively expensive individually, I was able to find a second-hand anthology of three of them (“The High Window”, “The Lady In The Lake” and “The Little Sister”) reasonably cheaply. I dont know how many of these novels I’ll eventually end up reviewing but, I thought that I’d take a look at Chandler’s 1943 novel “The High Window” – mostly because it was the first novel in the anthology.

So, let’s take a look at “The High Window”. Needless to say, this review may contain some mild SPOILERS.

This is the 2001 Penguin Classics (UK) paperback anthology that I read.

The story begins in Hollywood, with wisecracking private investigator Phillip Marlowe being hired by an elderly widow called Mrs. Murdock who believes that her no good daughter-in-law has stolen a rare golden doubloon from the family collection.

Needless to say, it is up to Marlowe to track down the missing coin. But, of course, it isn’t long before he finds himself in the middle of a twisted web of murder, intrigue and criminal conspiracy…..

One of the first things that I will say about “The High Window” is that it a lot more gripping than I’d expected. It’s also efficient too 🙂 In just 189 pages (in the edition I read), it manages to tell a compelling atmospheric story that is filled with psychological complexity, a cast of morally-ambiguous characters, a couple of dramatic plot twists and enough red herrings to sink a ship. Most modern writers would struggle to tell a story like this in less than 300-400 pages!

And, like with what I can remember of “The Big Sleep”, the plot of this novel is complicated. But, thanks to the novel’s concise length, it never really gets too confusing since you can easily binge-read this book in 1-2 sessions. Still, it might be worth taking notes whilst reading it. The novel’s complex plot works surprisingly well though, since it not only helps to add a bit of “realism” to the story, but it also rewards readers who can spot the clues and implications in various scenes.

Seriously, if there’s one great thing about this novel, it is that it tells a thrillingly readable story that also respects the reader’s intelligence too. It could be because of the time that the novel was written, but a lot of the novel’s most creepy or intriguing elements are sometimes implied rather than directly shown. And, yes, this novel contains more horror than I had expected. Whether it’s the grisly crime scenes, brutal moments of violence, some of the novel’s characters or just the novel’s general focus on the darker side of the human psyche, this is more of a horror novel than I’d expected 🙂

Likewise, the characters in this novel are mostly good. Although you shouldn’t expect ultra-deep characterisation, Chandler is able to create compellingly realistic, creepy and/or dubious characters with relatively little in the way of descriptions. Yes, the characters can occasionally stray into stereotypes (eg: the cringe-worthy phonetic dialogue used when an Italian character talks etc..), but many of the non-stereotypical characters are quite well-written.

Plus, for a novel of this length, there are a lot of characters too – yet, this never really becomes too confusing. This is because the novel devotes a larger amount of characterisation to several important characters (Marlowe, Mrs. Murdock, Merle etc..). In addition to this, several of the background characters also have very distinctive and memorable names too (eg: Breeze, Morningstar, Hench etc..).

The first-person narration in this novel is also surprisingly readable too. For the most part, it’s the kind of “matter of fact” narration that flows reasonably well. Yes, it’s a little bit more descriptive than modern narration often is, but this never gets in the way of the story (if anything, it adds atmosphere). Likewise, the novel is also filled with amusingly sarcastic observations and dialogue exchanges that help to balance out some of the grim horror of the story too.

As for how well this 76 year old novel has aged, it’s something of a mixed bag. On the one hand, the narration still flows well, the plot is still intriguingly complex, a fair amount of the sarcastic humour is still funny and most of the horror is still creepy. But, on the other hand, this novel is very much a product of it’s time and it contains quite a few “politically incorrect” moments. So, yes, this novel hasn’t entirely aged well. But, the parts that have aged well are really great.

All in all, even though I still prefer Dashiell Hammett’s “The Maltese Falcon”, Raymond Chandler’s “The High Window” is a fairly good film noir detective novel. Not only is the narration still very readable, but it packs an amazing amount of complexity into just 189 pages too 🙂 Yes, some parts of this book really haven’t aged well and the plot might be a bit confusing if you don’t binge-read and/or take notes. But, despite these flaws, it is a reasonably good novel.

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get about a a four.

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Today’s Art (18th January 2019)

Well, due to time and inspiration reasons, today’s artwork is a digitally-edited monochrome drawing that is loosely-based on this cropped version of a photo I took in Aberystwyth in 2009 (the photo also inspired this old painting of mine from 2014 too).

As usual, this drawing is released under a Creative Commons BY-NC-ND licence.

“Aberystwyth – Old College Gothic” By C. A. Brown

Four Tips For Writing Daily Short Stories

Last February, I randomly started writing daily short stories (like this one, this one and this one) and, unlike both these articles and the previous short story collections I’ve posted here, at least some of those stories were actually written on the same day that they were posted. In retrospect, I should have prepared a buffer of stories first (seriously, do this!) but it was a somewhat unexpected thing.

So, I thought that I’d offer a few tips about writing daily short stories.

1) Have an idea ready the night before: One of the best ways to make sure that you aren’t stricken by writer’s block when you sit down to write your next short story is to have an idea (or at least a theme) prepared for it the night before.

Even if you only have a general theme (eg: “I’m going to write a story about…”), then knowing which direction to go in before you start writing can make the horror of the blank page significantly less of an issue than it might be if you have no idea whatsoever. The tricky part is, of course, finding a theme that’s interesting enough for you to want to write about.

And, yes, if you have an interesting enough theme/idea/mental image, then your story will pretty much write itself. For example, the best one of the first three stories I wrote last February happened because I remembered that I was fascinated by Youtube videos about abandoned shopping centres in September 2017. So, yes, thinking of a good idea the night before you write your story can help alleviate writer’s block.

2) Read!: Even though I prefer other horror authors, there’s a very famous quote from Stephen King where he talks about the importance of both reading and writing regularly. And, yes, reading is more important than I’d previously thought. After I got back into reading regularly, I knew that it was only a matter of time before I’d start writing again.

But, why? Simply put, reading novels that you enjoy shows you how amazing the written word can be and makes you think “I want to do this!“. It shows you what techniques do and don’t work. Seeing lots of different people’s narrative voices also helps you to refine your own one too. Plus, reading something gripping also helps you to practice the sustained focus that you need whilst writing.

However, and this is the cruel irony of all of this, time spent reading usually means less time spent writing (or vice versa). So, finding a way to balance both reading and writing can be a little bit of a challenge. Even so, it is worth at least attempting to do both because of the motivation that comes from reading regularly can really help your writing.

3) Opening sentences: It’s a good idea to develop an instinct for what a good opening sentence sounds like. This is because coming up with one of these sentences can make you want to write more of the story, which can be a good way to get past writer’s block.

For short stories, good opening sentences usually consist of intriguingly mysterious statements, first-person narration that makes the reader feel like they’re being let in on a secret, moments of dramatic action and/or slightly unusual descriptions. In short, your opening sentence needs to be something that grabs the readers attention and makes them want to read more (in addition to making you want to write more).

This, again, is one reason why reading is a useful activity to do if you’re writing short stories regularly. Because, when you’ve seen enough opening sentences in professionally-published books (the thriller genre is an especially good source of examples), you’ll start to develop an instinct for what a good opening sentence sounds like.

4) Minimalism:
If you’re writing short stories every day, then they’re probably going to be on the shorter side of things. The three stories I linked to earlier are all about 600-800 words in length. This is something that can be written in an hour or two. But, how do you tell a story that is this short?

Simply put, you focus on what is essential. In other words, you should only include 1-2 locations, 1-3 characters and one central event or theme. In a lot of ways, a short story is a little bit like a painting or a panel from a comic. In other words, it’s a depiction of a single well-chosen moment that hints at a larger story (through implication, visual elements etc..).

So, yes, part of writing a good short story is cutting away everything that isn’t essential and focusing entirely on a single location, a single moment, a couple of characters etc…

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Review: “Lamentation” By C. J. Sansom

Well, it has been way too long since I last read a C. J. Sansom novel! During 2009-11, I read about three of Sansom’s “Matthew Shardlake” novels (“Dissolution”, “Revelation” and “Dark Fire”, I think).

But, for some reason or another, I didn’t get round to reading another one until a while after I got back into reading again and realised that second-hand copies of Sansom’s 2014 novel “Lamentation” were going rather cheaply.

Although the “Shardlake” novels all feature the same protagonist, they each tell fairly self-contained stories. So, you don’t have to read them in order (although it’s worth reading one or two other Shardlake novels before reading “Lamentation”).

So, let’s take a look at “Lamentation”. Needless to say, this review may contain some mild-moderate SPOILERS.

This is the 2015 Pan Books (UK) paperback edition of “Lamentation” (2014) that I read.

“Lamentation” is a historical detective novel set in Tudor England during the year 1546. The novel begins with the lawyer Matthew Shardlake attending a burning of heretics in London. Although he dislikes the macabre spectacle, he is compelled to attend by his boss at Lincoln’s Inn. Whilst there, he meets a rather friendly lawyer from Gray’s Inn called Philip Coleswyn.

A while later, Shardlake learns that Coleswyn is on the opposite side of a rather acrimonious legal case between two siblings feuding over their mother’s will. But, before Shardlake can get too involved with the case, he is summoned to meet Queen Catherine Parr. A collection of her controversial private religious writings have been stolen and she gives Shardlake the secret task of recovering them before they are published or the King learns of their existence.

However, a fragment of the document is soon found near the body of a murdered printer and it seems like Shardlake’s investigation will be even more dangerous than he had originally thought…

One of the very first things that I will say about this novel is that it is a compelling, intelligent and atmospheric story, but one that could possibly have done with a bit more editing. Even without the 20-30 pages of historical notes at the end, this story is still an absolutely titanic 706 pages in length! Whilst the story makes use of this length to add atmosphere and to allow the story to flow at slightly more of a “realistic” pace, it would be an even better novel if it was 100-200 pages shorter.

Even so, the actual story itself is fairly solid. If you like detective novels, historical novels, legal thrillers, spy thrillers and/or political thrillers then you’ll enjoy this one. The plot is full of interesting little clues, cunning machinations and other such things. Plus, the novel occasionally contains short recaps of previous events that can help you to keep track of the story if you aren’t binge-reading this book and/or taking notes.

The story is also kept compelling through the use of several different types of suspense. In addition to a few moments of more traditional drama and/or action, this novel also focuses on the paranoid religious politics of mid-16th century England.

In short, this novel takes place during the later parts of Henry VIII’s reign. The official faith of the land is a conservative form of Protestantism, which still follows some elements of Catholic doctrine (such as transubstantiation). Of course, being 16th century England, anyone who doesn’t follow the official faith is in danger of being executed for heresy if they aren’t careful. Needless to say, many of the novel’s characters are either more radical protestants or at least sympathetic to their cause to some extent. This, of course, helps to add a lot of suspense to the story.

In addition to this, there is also a sub-plot about the legal case between two feuding siblings. Although, on it’s own merits, this is a reasonably well-written sub-plot that contains elements of mystery and horror, it has relatively little relevance to the main story. Yes, it affects the main story during a couple of moments but, for the most part, it’s just there as a reasonably large background detail. In other words, the novel would be a bit more streamlined and focused if this sub-plot was removed. The same could probably be said about a few of the novel’s other smaller sub-plots too.

In terms of the historical atmosphere of this story, it is as good as ever. The novel is filled with descriptive moments that really help to add to the ambience (even if they do slow the story at times, and may account for some of the story’s ridiculous length).

This historical atmosphere is also helped by Sansom’s brilliant narration too. Like in the previous Shardlake novels I’ve read, this one is narrated by Shardlake himself, and the narration uses a modernised version of the more “matter of fact” tone of non-fiction writings from the 16th century, whilst also adding the occasional historical word or idiom for flavour. This means that, although the narration richly evokes an older age, it is still very easily readable. And, given that this is a detective thriller novel, this helps the story to keep moving at a reasonably decent pace too.

Plus, as you would expect, this novel has a rather interesting cast of well-written characters. Some of these characters are historical figures (eg: Henry VIII, Catherine Parr, a young Elizabeth I etc..) and some of them are fictional characters. To the story’s credit, it is occasionally difficult to tell which is which. Likewise, even the clearly fictional characters still seem like realistic people from this time in history.

Plus, there are also a few familiar faces from the earlier novels too, such as Guy and Barak – although they are slightly more background characters this time round. Even so, Shardlake’s occasionally complicated friendship with both of them is an important part of the story and it is interesting to see how their lives both have and haven’t changed now that they are older. Not to mention that, to my cynical delight, Bealknap also makes an appearance too.

All in all, this is a really good historical detective novel. However, the novel’s length is a little bloated – which robs it of some of the sharp focus that I loved in some of the other C. J. Sansom novels I’ve read. Even so, it’s still a reasonably gripping book that tells a fascinatingly complex detective/thriller story that positively drips with historical atmosphere.
But, although this novel tells a self-contained story, it is a book that is best enjoyed after you’ve read a couple of other Shardlake books (such as “Dissolution”) since it is clearly aimed at fans of the series rather than new readers.

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get a four.

Three Clever Hidden Tricks That Writers Use

Well, I thought that I’d write about a few of the clever hidden tricks that writers use today (kind of like how game designers use hidden mechanics in videogames).

This article was initially inspired by a few of the books that I’ve read since I got back into reading regularly about a month and a half before I wrote this article. But, although I’ll be talking about some of these books, the cool hidden features I’ll be describing can be found in other books too. In fact, you might have seen a few of them without even realising it.

1) Internal recaps: At the time of writing, I’m binge-reading a ridiculously long 700+ page historical detective novel called “Lamentation” by C. J. Sansom. One of the interesting things about binge-reading a novel of this length is that it means that I was able to spot a really cool hidden feature that is designed to help out people who read it at a slightly slower pace.

In short, every once in a while (such as on page 201) there will be a recap of some of the previous events of the story. Either the narrator will briefly mention how some new clue connects to a previous clue that he has found, or there will be a scene where he spends a few paragraphs thinking about the earlier events of the investigation.

My initial reaction to all of this was “I know!!! I’ve been taking notes!” or “I worked that out on my own already!“. But then I realised that these short recaps are actually a really clever way to make sure that people who, say, only read thirty or fifty pages a day can still follow the complex events of the story. They’re kind of like the “previously..” segments at the beginning of TV show episodes – which are annoying if you’re binge-watching a boxset, but great if you’re watching one episode a week in the traditional manner.

So, if you’re telling a novel-length story, then it can be useful to occasionally include brief recaps of what has happened earlier in the story. Just like how novels in a series will sometimes quickly mention events from earlier novels in the series (to help both new readers and long-term readers), it can also be useful to briefly recap the earlier events of the story that you’re telling right now.

2) Hinting at a larger world/story: This is a technique that I noticed during both the final novel in Jocelynn Drake’s amazing “Dark Days” series and in Dashiell Hammett’s excellent “The Maltese Falcon“. Both stories will hint at a much larger story or “world” than is actually shown on the page – either through brief descriptions (that imply background stuff that isn’t directly explained or shown), through tantalisingly brief descriptions of really fascinating background events or through showing a dramatic event and then partially leaving what happens afterwards to the reader’s imagination.

When used well, this sneaky technique is useful because it helps to immerse the reader in the story. Although this might sound like it would annoy the reader, it has the opposite effect – it makes them curious. It makes them want to imagine what else happens in your story’s “world” and it makes them want more. It can also be a sneaky way to give your characters and/or story more depth than is shown on the page.

This technique is nothing new though and the most famous example of it can be seen in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s “Sherlock Holmes” stories. Although most of Doyle’s stories will focus on just one of Sherlock Holmes’ cases, there will occasionally be ultra-brief references to some of Holmes’ previous cases. Some of these will be cases that appear in other stories but, in a stroke of genius, some of them aren’t.

This hints to the reader that they’re only seeing a few of the many intriguing mysteries that Holmes has solved. Not only does this make him seem like a character that exists independently of the events shown in the stories, but it also makes him seem like a more prolific detective too.

3) Easily- readable historical narration: One of the clever things that I’ve noticed in historical novels written in the 21st century, like Natasha Pulley’s “The Watchmaker Of Filigree Street” and C. J. Sansom’s “Lamentation”, is how they’re able to create an ‘authentic’ historical setting whilst still using first-person narration that is very readable to modern audiences.

The narration in both these novels still sounds a lot like something from Victorian London/Tudor England, but these novels are as easy and intuitive to read as a non-historical modern novel would be. And, if you’ve ever tried to read anything that is actually from Victorian or Tudor times, then you’ll know how… challenging… these things can be to read when compared to modern writing.

So, how do they do it? These writers look at the general linguistic features of writing from these times and then apply some of the underlying “rules” from this to more straightforward modern-style narration. The important thing is choosing which rules to follow and which ones to ignore. Basically, if a rule gets in the way of the story, then it has to go.

For example, the Victorian-style narration in Pulley’s “The Watchmaker Of Filigree Street” keeps the formal language and style used in 19th century fiction, but sticks to using words and sentence structures that modern readers will easily understand. On the other hand, the narration ditches the frequent references to classical mythology that are a common part of 19th century fiction (because modern readers will be confused by these).

Likewise, the 16th century-style narration in Sansom’s “Lamentation” is kept very readable because it uses a slightly modernised version of the more “matter of fact” tone used in non-fiction writing from this time (rather than, say, the elegant theatrical poetry of Shakespeare). In other words, it focuses on using the more “timeless” parts of the English language, but with modern spelling and grammar. This is then complimented by a few carefully-chosen historical words and phrases that usually make sense from the context that they’re used in.

So, yes, if you want to make historical fiction narration more readable, then look at the “rules” used by writers of the time you are studying and then try to find an unobtrusive way to apply some of them to more modern-style narration.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂