Paltering in Literature

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When I talk about light pollution stopping us from seeing the stars, and you start talking about a Christmas tree ornament.

“You didn’t like working for Wilde?”
“I was fired. For insubordination. I test very high on insubordination, General.”
“I always did myself, sir. I’m glad to hear it.”

—Raymond Chandler, The Big Sleep

The General asks a question; the detective responds with a truthful statement which may or may not answer the General’s question. It’s a shifting of focus with intent to mislead.

If you’ve ever listened to a political debate, you’ve heard it in action.

If you’ve ever listened to a sale’s pitch, you’ve heard it.

There’s little doubt you do it too, at least once a day.

It’s called paltering.


A recent BBC article titled The devious art of lying while telling the truth claims a new term has recently been coined for this misleading tactic of truth-speakNamely, paltering.

As it happens, the verb palter—meaning to shift, equivocate, or prevaricate in action or speech; to act or deal evasively, esp. for treacherous ends; to use trickery (OED)—dates from at least 1580. Also, except for the verb, the OED contains all the usual associated words: palterer (n.), paltering (n. & adj.), palterly (adv.). Hardly a new term, but that’s not the point.

The BBC article got me thinking about the role of paltering in fiction.

The rise and fall and rise of paltering (Google Ngram Viewer)

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Understate to Underline

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California—where Chandler’s novels are set—on a good day

 

Wealthy client speaks first. Detective-for-hire speaks second.

Quote: 

“Tell me about yourself, Mr. Marlowe. I suppose I have a right to ask?”

“Sure, but there’s very little to tell. I’m thirty-three years old, went to college once and can still speak English if there’s any demand for it. There isn’t much in my trade. I worked for Mr. Wilde, the District Attorney, as an investigator once. His chief investigator, a man named Bernie Ohls, called me and told me you wanted to see me. I’m unmarried because I don’t like policemen’s wives.”

It’s humour this week, and today I’m featuring one last Quote from Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep (for a while, at least).

If you read my previous post, Stained-Glass Romance, or indeed any of last week’s posts about Marlowe’s adventures, you’ll have a context for the Quote, and it’ll mean something if I say the client speaking is General Sternwood, whose front door accommodates Indian elephants and whose stained-glass windows feature clumsy, sociable knights attempting to untie scantily clad damsels bound to trees.

If you don’t have the context, you need none.

What makes the Quote quiver?

Ironic self-deprecation.

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Stained-Glass Romance

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One baby elephant coming through

Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep sets the standard for humour against which I measure other similar hard-boiled detective novels. In the second paragraph of the book, Chandler uses a number of figures to achieve his signature deadpan style. His private detective and first-person narrator, Philip Marlowe, is visiting a wealthy client, Mr Sternwood. Marlowe describes the place.

Quote: The main hallway of the Sternwood place was two stories high. Over the entrance doors, which would have let in a troop of Indian elephants, there was a broad stained-glass panel showing a knight in dark armor rescuing a lady who was tied to a tree and didn’t have any clothes on but some very long and convenient hair. The knight had pushed the vizor of his helmet back to be sociable, and he was fiddling with the knots on the ropes that tied the lady to the tree and not getting anywhere. I stood there and thought that if I lived in the house, I would sooner or later have to climb up there and help him. He didn’t seem to be really trying.

If you’re curious about the first paragraph of the book, I discuss it in No One Knows About the Dark Blue Clocks.

Whilst the genre was already replete with humour before he started writing, Chandler managed to give Marlowe imaginative, literary metaphors and an eye for the amusing, making him both a pulp-fiction hero and poet of droll wit. Metaphors I discussed last week; this week is about humour.

(By the way, droll, the adjective, can be thought of as an auto-antonym, or Janus-word, meaning both intentionally and unintentionally amusing in a quirky, queer way.)

What makes the Quote quiver?

Imagery, innuendo, imaginative irony.

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Metaphor: Quirks and Perks

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Hearts of crockery: easier to break. Or are they?

 

Quote: Dead men are heavier than broken hearts.

This is one of Raymond Chandler‘s most famous quotes. If you haven’t read The Big Sleep you may think it comes as a closing line of a grand argument or as a poignant reminder of life’s tragedies during a display of heightened emotional turmoil. You may think it, but er … I guess I shouldn’t tell you. It is at least true that the protagonist says it and not some minor character or the antagonist (e.g. in Goethe’s Faust Mephistopheles gets some of the best lines).

Hard-boiled detectives in general, and Chandler’s Philip Marlowe in particular, are descendants of the nineteenth century romantic heroes—think Goethe’s Young Werther who got it all started, Dumas’s Dantès, Pushkin’s Onegin—those self-destructive, misunderstood, lonely souls that pursue justice or a higher truth on society’s margins. So it is to be expected that Marlowe should contribute to this romantic tradition with a statement about love, death, and the thing that causes both and lies in the middle: life.

What makes the Quote quiver?

Shimmering depth.

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Tail-and-Twist

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Not quite tumbling, not quite the right colours, but close enough

 

The American hard-boiled crime genre of the mid-twentieth century threw up at least three models for the private detective: Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade, Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe, and Ross Macdonald’s Lew Archer. Of those, only in Marlowe do I find an unabashed ear for the poetic and the elegantly humorous. And only in Chandler’s writing an unapologetic use of rhetorical figures to achieve both ends.

In No One Knows About the Dark Blue Clocks, I highlighted the introductory paragraph of Chandler’s The Big Sleep; today, and in the next few posts, I continue to discuss a selection of quotes from the same book and what tips&tricks can be gleaned from them.

Here’s Marlowe describing a scene

Quote: The ivory furniture had chromium on it, and the enormous ivory drapes lay tumbled on the white carpet a yard from the windows. The white made the ivory look dirty and the ivory made the white look bled out.

What makes the Quote quiver?

The near-symmetric structure.

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No One Knows About the Dark Blue Clocks

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If the back-cover blurb is a book’s CV, then the opening lines of a book are the opening lines of its job interview. Whether the book stays with you is likely to depend on your first impression.

Exceptions abound, as exceptions do—but not in today’s Quote.

The opening sentence of Raymond Chandler‘s novel The Big Sleep (the book that introduces his protagonist, private detective Philip Marlowe), concerns the time of day, the month, and the weather.

It was about eleven o’clock in the morning, mid October, with the sun not shining and a look of hard wet rain in the clearness of the foothills.

We cut him some slack, because it was 1939, and you were still allowed to start a page-turning crime novel with the weather and skip the action for a whole 140+4 characters; even today’s readers can get as far as the length of a tweet and still be interested in the text that’s on the accompanying picture. (Also, according to The Guardian, that first line could have been one of Fitzgerald’s, so that’s alright.) The next few sentences of The Big Sleep are given in the Quote. 

Quote: I was wearing my powder-blue suit, with dark blue shirt, tie and display handkerchief, black brogues, black wool socks with dark blue clocks on them. I was neat, clean, shaved and sober, and I didn’t care who knew it. I was everything the well dressed private detective ought to be. I was calling on four million dollars. 

Most good books will start touting their wares as soon as possible, if not in the first line and not in an obvious fashion, then soon and subtly. Which part of the Quote caught your attention?

What makes the Quote quiver?

Attitude.

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