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.
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.