Monday, October 15, 2007

Channeling Raymond Chandler

The easiest bit of Raymond Chandler for the Chandler channelers to handle is the wisecracks, and a fair number do a good job of it.

More difficult are those convoluted plots of the kind that make the reader's or viewer's head spin when Philip Marlowe explains them.

Hardest of all for a contemporary author is to remain faithful to the mechanics of Chandler-like storytelling while capturing the tone of desperation, violence and depravity that the old pulp writers are said to embody. These days, Chandler's mean streets just don't seem as mean as they must have in the 1940s.

Oddly enough, though Declan Burke's Eightball Boogie abounds in Chandleresque wisecracks, it's best in those two more difficult areas. To avoid spoilers, I'll say little about its plot, a testament more to Burke's plotting skill than to my laziness.

Chandler is famously said to have had no idea what was going on in The Big Sleep. Eightball Boogie, while of a complexity confusing to its protagonist, is never so to the reader or, I suspect, to the author. Minor characters who lend color early play pivotal roles late. Events here make suspense-inducing sense there and, though there are surprises, all are believable. Everything, shocking as it may be, makes sense in light of ground that had been laid earlier. Burke, I suspect, mapped out his plot more carefully than Chandler did, and if I'm right, he had quite a bit of mapping to do.

The protagonist, Harry Rigby, is a private eye and a reporter, though the journalistic aspect falls quickly by the wayside. As a reporter, he pokes around the edges of a crime scene: a woman has been stabbed to death in her own house, and the killing has been ill-disguised as a suicide. The woman was married to a dodgy politician, and police will say little about the death, even about who found the body. A client then hires Rigby to find evidence that his wife is having an affair. Rigby the detective finds the wife. Rigby the reporter finds another reporter who was working on a profile of the murder victim at the time she was killed. Drugs are involved as are shady property deals.

The characters eventually intersect in unexpected ways, and then there are Harry's girlfriend, their son, and his brother. Family secrets and the good cop-bad cop theme are just two of the time-honored devices that Burke updates by upping the violence of feeling and action.

How does Burke accomplish his updates? With one scene of violence that may make sensitive readers queasy, with betrayals laid bare rather than hinted at, with beatings more violent than Chandler's, and with characters who give voice to sentiments that Chandler's characters never would have. If one accepts that Chandler's spirit is worth honoring and preserving, this seems a better way to do it than merely through wisecracks, battered coats and characters who could use some tidying up (though Eightball Boogie has all that, too).

For this reader, the wisecracks work better once Burke ratchets up the tension, about a third of the way through the novel. Once he's created a sense of menace, the wisecracks resonate all the more, as here: "If I squinted I could make out the bench where I'd been sitting just before taking my header into the river, so I didn't squint." Or this, faithful to the spirit of a resilient Chandler protagonist but with a dangerous edge that hinges on one four-letter word: "Adrenaline, the cleanest drug of them all, charged through my veins."

There appears to have been a post-Conan Doyle story about Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson called The Case of Harry Rigby. Could Burke have taken his protagonist's name from it?

© Peter Rozovsky 2007

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