I became a Raymond Chandler fan only a few years ago because I’d seldom wandered beyond the genre walls I threw up for myself — historical fiction, history, fantasy, the occasional space opera or hard science fiction novel. As I’ve mentioned previously on this blog, I fell for Chandler’s prose, so it was only natural that I explore his canon.
On my birthday last year my friend Brad gifted me with a copy of Chandler’s complete short stories. They include a slew of tales Chandler never wanted reprinted during his lifetime, perhaps because he wasn’t as fond of them, but more likely because he had cannibalized them in the construction of many of his Phillip Marlowe novels. It also includes a final Marlowe short story.
My thoughts? Well, first, there are some great short stories in here that any fan of mystery fiction might have heard of, like “Gold Fish” and “Red Wind.” If you don’t already own a Chandler short story collection that contains these tales — and some other strong ones as well — then this collection is a must have. But that other stuff? It varies. “The Pencil” is the last Marlowe story and it seems somehow faded and removed and tired. It has some of that famed polish, but it’s not written at the height of Chandler’s game and is probably only worth a look for completists.
I was more surprised by the cannibalized stories. In many cases Chandler took two short stories and twisted them around each other to build a novel from, so that if you enjoy the books these originals are an interesting read. Are they good? Well, some are markedly NOT as good as what came out of combining them. I quite like the novel The Lady in the Lake but didn’t much care for “No Crime in the Mountains,” which hasn’t aged well at all.
Some of the others were more or less on good footing but not as strong as the books that came after. However, I loved “Try the Girl.” It contains core elements of Farewell, My Lovely, perhaps my favorite of the Marlowe novels, so that might have disposed me to enjoy it. “Try the Girl” goes in a different direction from the novel, yet arrives at just as moving a conclusion. Honestly, it may even be a stronger short story than Farewell, My Lovely is a book. It’s definitely worth seeking out.
A peculiar side effect of reading these tales is that you can thereafter see the seams in Chandler’s novels where he stitched these tales together, just as he might have feared. If you’re a big Marlowe fan you might want to follow Chandler’s directive and avoid them… except for “Try the Girl,” which is, simply, excellent.