Thursday, March 27, 2008

Learning from a master

Yesterday I started reading Raymond Chandler's The Long Goodbye, the Chicago Public Library's current "One Book, One Chicago" selection. Before I turned the first page, I had learned a valuable lesson.

In the opening scene Chandler's private eye, Philip Marlowe, watches as a young woman gives her drunken escort "a look which ought to have stuck at least four inches out of his back."

Now that is a famous Raymond Chandler line. But, God help me, I at first thought it could be improved. Old copy editors are like that. That "which" ought to have been a "that," and the sentence would have been sharper if "at least" had been omitted.

But a second thought quickly overtook me. This is first-person narration, not omniscient exposition. A character is talking to us, and characters don't talk in perfect sentences. Nobody does.

Chandler is shaping his character with his interior speech. That "which" is a whiff of the old-fashioned, a time when a man's honor meant something. That deceptively banal "at least" suggests how people speak, not how they write. In this way it actually intensifies, rather than softens, the metaphor.

All this hints at something important: Marlowe is an intelligent and literate sleuth, although he can (so we will learn as the novel unfolds) think and speak in the argot of the street. Much of Chandler's genius lay in his ability to create a vivid and believable voice this way.

This is what I need to concentrate on in my own mysteries. One of my sons once observed that my characters tended to speak with identical voices and that I needed to make a few of them more distinctive. He's right.

More lessons as I read on . . .

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