Like a Metaphor

The Big Sleep

The three-word titling metaphor, seen here in its natural habitat.

The source of the charm of pulp fiction is its freedom from the manners imposed on high literature leaving it, like the imagination of a child, unfettered and unfiltered by any notion of shame. Popular fiction is as free as beat poetry to be as absurd and exaggerated as its readers will stand, and the limits of what readers of pulp fiction will stand have never been plumbed.

The phenomenon reproduces like rhizomes, popping up in improbable plots as outrageous characters and gaudy dialogue and, most particularly in the case of American crime fiction, the effusive simile.

The simile and her abstract sister metaphor have been with us for as long as it’s been helpful to describe something by comparing it to something else, which probably literally predates language itself or at the very least adjectives. Statistically, this is probably a bad thing, but for occasional passages of spun gold it’s objectively not.

It’s in American crime fiction where, like Braque’s tableaux of found objects, this handy instrument is elevated to an art form. Yet its utility and ubiquity mean that the device largely goes unnoticed in context, like shoelaces and every line in this article so far.

The etymological wellspring of the practice is the word “hardboiled”, so succinct that the rest of the metaphor isn’t even necessary to encapsulate the stoic cynicism of the private detective as twenty-minute egg. The best of them are like that, hard and hurting and, ideally, humorous.

Arguably the first hardboiled fiction is The False Burton Combs, by Carroll John Daly, and it builds a good case on tough-talkin’ street jargon of dames and dicks and a sparse but convincing distribution of juxtaposition:

“There ain’t nothing in governments unless you’re a politician. And as I said before, I ain’t a crook.”

“One of the others was fat and looked like an ex−bartender.”

“He paints up those three crooks like they were innocent young country girls.”

These were early days, though, before Hammett really got going and nearly ten years before Chandler would give up the oil game and bring us…

“He collapsed like a half-filled sack of sand.”

“ It glittered like a Ziegfeld chorus.”

and

“His clothes fitted him as though they had a soul of their own, not just a doubtful past”

which is a respectable showing for the first time out of the gate (Blackmailers Don’t Shoot, Black Mask, 1932).

The best of them paint a picture too big to be seen in anything but the abstract, composed of jungian touchstones and communal memory…

“Waves rose like apparitions at the surf-line and fell like masonry.”

Ross MacDonald, The Barbarous Coast

“The rain was hitting the streets as though fired from a machine gun.”

Philip James, Deceased and Residing in Oakland

“The house itself was not so much. It was smaller than Buckingham Palace, rather gray for California, and probably had fewer windows than the Chrysler Building. I sneaked over to the side entrance and pressed a bell and somewhere a set of chimes made a deep mellow sound like church bells.”

Raymond Chandler, Farewell My Lovely

“It was ten minutes by foot, if you were on your way to church, about two and a half minutes if your old lady was chasing you with a razor.”

Chester Himes, All Shot Up

“There was nothing wrong with Southern California that a rise in the ocean level wouldn’t cure.”

Ross Macdonald, The Drowning Pool

Or they sketch a character in the present with the full pallet of past and personality…

“As far back as Lieutenant Anderson could remember, both of them, his two ace detectives with their identical big hard-shooting, head-whipping pistols, had always looked like two hog farmers on a weekend in the Big Town.”

Chester Himes, A Rage In Harlem

“…the stigmata of the trouble-prone.”

Ross MacDonald, The Chill

“His nose spread itself across his face like an inadequate police cordon trying to hold back an ugly mob.”

Philip James, Deceased and Residing in Oakland

“Even on Central Avenue, not the quietest dressed street in the world, he looked about as inconspicuous as a tarantula on a slice of angel food.”

Raymond Chandler, The Big Sleep

Of course it’s the danger, deception and desirability of the inevitable femme fatale that test the distance between cynicism and sentiment…

“She smelled the way the Taj Mahal looks by moonlight.”

Raymond Chandler, The Little Sister

“She gave me a smile I could feel in my hip pocket”

Raymond Chandler, Farewell, My Lovely

“She was all legs and hair with a pleasantly hilly terrain in between.”

“Her lips were full and quivery. When she talked she looked like she’d been dubbed into English from a language that had 900 words for ‘foreplay’.”

Philip James, Deceased and Residing in Oakland

“She ran the tip of her red tongue slowly across her full cushiony, sensuous lips, making them wet-red and looked him straight in the eyes with her own glassy, speckled bedroom eyes.”

Chester Himes, A Rage in Harlem

“From 30 feet away she looked like a lot of class. From 10 feet away she looked like something made up to be seen from 30 feet away.”

Raymond Chandler, The High Window

But it’s arguably when the poetry of the pulp fiction simile stays close to its hard boiled roots that it’s at its sad, cynical, psychological best…

“…as though I had written a poem and it was very good and I had lost it and would never remember it again. “

Raymond Chandler, The High Window

“In wine was truth, perhaps, but in whisky, the way Hoffman sluiced it down, was an army of imaginary rats climbing your legs.”

Ross Macdonald, The Chill

“He felt like somebody had taken the lid off life and let him see the works.”

Dashiell Hammett, The Maltese Falcon

“She visibly weakened when she said that. She always visibly weakened when she said that, and the feisty went somewhere quiet to have a good think.”

Philip James, Deceased and Residing in Oakland

“He looked around at the daylight as if it had betrayed him, again.”

Ross MacDonald, Black Money

Advertisements

Deceased and Residing in Oakland

Deceased, And Residing In Oakland - Philip James

Deceased and Residing in Oakland is available now on Amazon
as an ebook
or paperback

Deceased and Residing in Oakland is a mystery thriller in the tradition of American Crime Fiction, set twenty-five years after the beginning of the zombie apocalypse. San Francisco is a city under siege — it’s heaving with refugees and it’s seething with crime — but it’s still a city. It’s got cops and courts and commerce, and it’s got one burned out cop in particular living a careful life a bay away from the rot that still stalks the suburbs, looking for a heartbeat. All he wants is a quiet life, but when he’s hired to track down the mysterious daughter of one of the city’s elite and the case starts killing his friends, he’s forced on a high-velocity ride among the eccentric citizens and dangerous diversions of fortress San Francisco and all the way back to the last place he ever wants to be.

The story is a fast-paced genre-mixer presenting a hard-boiled mystery in the style of 1940s noir but with characters, twists and tension that can only occur in a Bay area struggling to sustain the remains of civilization. The result is a world-building exercise that depicts a thorough and convincing city of high-density, multi-purpose buildings, Frankenstein cars and an economy based on dark entertainments and goods retrieved from the suburbs by daredevil privateers.

Author Philip James makes no effort to hide his admiration for preceding pulp greats and the narrative regularly veers very close to homage, with an endless supply of Chandlerisms like “Mean in a feral, fundamental way. Mean the way cats are stealthy and bees are industrious and vultures are indiscriminate diners.”,  “She finished her drink and brought the glass down like the gavel of a hanging judge” and “There was a night behind her that was more than mere darkness.”

But the attention to noir narrative doesn’t make this any less a zombie thriller, and the style extends to the undead as “like an army of macabre marionettes made of broom handles and sack cloth” and “staggering and broken and with parts missing and debris acquired, like a taxi that’s just driven madly through a dense jungle.”

The plot and poetry are matched by the population of eccentrics including a one-armed barkeep, a philosophy professor preaching Nietzsche beneath the ruins of the Golden Gate Bridge, a alluring blonde pinup girl who can out-drink the toughest detective, a ruthless villain with a sadistic henchman, the world’s luckiest pirate and a shell-shocked former zombie-squad officer with an overdeveloped sense of symmetry and paralyzing fear of the undead.

Cheaters And Their Readers

By 1944 Raymond Chandler had written The Big Sleep and Farewell My Lovely and the line “She had eyes like strange sins” and he was accordingly at the top of his game when he wrote “The Simple Art of Murder” for Atlantic Monthly and sank the sturdiest and most explicit signpost at a major turning point for pulp fiction.

Since then the essay has held its ground as an important and seminal summary of what’s good and bad in fiction in general and detective fiction in particular, at least from the perspective of one of the genre’s recognised greats. It amounts to a declaration of victory for a certain type of rigorous realism and American-style iconoclasm, especially with regards to the insufferably mannered, formulaic and imperious English forbears of detective fiction. Chandler takes on Dorothy L. Sayers and an editorial he describes as an “essay in futility” as representative of the pompous view that detective fiction can never be real fiction.

There are no vital and significant forms of art; there is only art, and precious little of that.

Chandler also takes issue with E.C. Bentley’s “Trent’s Last Case” and condemns Freeman Wills Crofts, S.S. Van Dine and, naturally, Agatha Christie for the lead-handed cop-out that is “Murder On The Orient Express”.

They do not come off intellectually as problems, and they do not come off artistically as fiction.

And he’s particularly merciless with the progenitor of Winnie The Pooh, AA Milne, for his crime against fiction “The Red House Mystery”. The problem with the Milne Story is that it’s implausible and relies on far too many very unlikely or unnatural or irregular occurrences. Chandler picks the story to pieces, in fact, and the best he can say about it is that it’s “not a deliberate fraud”.

In short, Chandler dislikes a cheat. And this is the meat of the essay for any writer who cares about adding to the modern canon as begun by Hammett and sustained by Chandler and MacDonald (but clearly not Spillane). It needs to be realistic. This doesn’t mean that mad things can’t happen and that character and morality can’t be tested to limits beyond that which most readers will ever see, but it has to be logically consistent and you can never go back and try to fill in a litany of plot-holes with the cheap pitch of coincidence and oversight and the assumption that your readers are lazy or stupid.

That means no deus ex machina, no sending Hastings down to London in chapter three to return at the denouement with evidence of a secret twin or a second will or true likeness of the deceased, no squadrons of policemen too stupid to notice that which the amateur detective picks up on instantly. It means, simply, that your reader has to stand a chance to solve the problem with the evidence presented. You can misdirect your reader, as Hammett does so originally in the Maltese Falcon, or shock him as Chandler does so cynically in the Little Sister, but you can’t lie and you can’t cheat and you can’t deprive the reader of a fighting chance.

You don’t need to like the advice or follow it to be a good writer unless part of your take on that means being a good writer according to the harsh and authoritative definition of Raymond Chandler. Or if you simply agree with the hypothesis that rigour in writing inevitably surfaces as quality then you could certainly choose a worse measure than an obligation to reward your readers for their attention all the way through to the end.

Indefensible Publi…

redhandWe weren’t initially going to do Twitter. Not because Twitter’s not the state-of-the-art in delivering pointlessly curt messages to people who don’t care what you think, but because it feels a little late in the game. There are zoo animals with over 100 000 Twitter followers and as much as we might like a piece of that pie we don’t know that we’re prepared to do what it takes to get it.

But the age of Twitter, for better or worse, is still upon our throats like a career oriented jackal and we’re led to understand that it can get you a few extra sales on Amazon which, in the future, is all anyone will care about and it’ll probably be the only way to get a desirable mate.

So please follow us on Twitter. In return we’ll follow you, of course, but we’ll also only tweet things which are relevant and helpful – specifically we’re going to tweet when we publish a new blog or book and whenever we find a clever bit of pulp fiction writing that we think isn’t already widely known.

The Cherry Tree Genre

Chandler? Of course we have Chandler. He's on the top shelf, between Bronte and Dostoyevsky.

Chandler? Of course we have Chandler. He’s on the top shelf, between Bronte and Dostoyevsky.

It’s been decades now since Chandler and Hammett and, to a lesser degree, Spillane were elevated in the gallery of American letters to a level similar to the likes of Fitzgerald and Hemingway and so one could be forgiven for assuming these days that categorizations like pulp fiction would be merely that – categorizations – and no longer pejoratives.

But of course that’s not the case and the pioneers of pulp fiction weren’t so much recognized for their contribution to their genre as co-opted by the gatekeepers of high literature who recategorized them into the unfamiliar halls of academia by virtue of some arbitrary measure of staying power in much the same way that populist mainstream movies like Casablanca and the Maltese Falcon are now art because they’re in black and white and we’ve still heard of them.

And of course this heartless appropriation occurred post-mortem because no Spillanes nor Himes nor Chandlers would have otherwise gone without a very entertaining and unequal fight. Particularly when they came to get the resolute everyman Chandler, who once wrote in a letter to the editor of The Fortnightly Intruder:

The best writing in English today is done by Americans, but not in any purist tradition. They have roughed the language around as Shakespeare did and done it the violence of melodrama and the press box. They have knocked over tombs and sneered at the dead. Which is as it should be. There are too many dead men and there is too much talk about them.

And nobody doubts that. The debate isn’t over whether or not Chandler and his contemporaries are giants of American literature but whether they rose above their genre or are simply very good examples of it. Academia at some point cast an imperious eye over pulp fiction, saw an untapped source of overlooked genius and selected a few authors from the ranks for icon status. Well you know what? You can’t have them. They started as pulp fiction writers and they’ll remain pulp fiction writers and what’s more you missed a few. Rather a lot, in fact, and we’re not telling you where they are.