Last night I was reading the comic adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s story Goldfish. It was years since I’d read the original — too long ago to remember the details. There was a vestige of dry wit in the comic but not much. The story was taut but dull. I put it down, unfinished. The original story, I remembered, was not as compelling as Chandler’s best work but I certainly read it to the end.
Fortunately, the collection it’s in — Trouble Is My Business — is not one of the books I’ve thrown out recently so I started to read it again this morning. What a revelation! Sometimes it’s only when you see something done badly that you appreciate the same thing done well.
Chandler has nailed his medium completely and achieved perfection. In the first four pages he sets up his story, foreshadows the ingenious conclusion, makes me laugh half a dozen times, creates some sultry sexual tension, appeals to my compassion and even sneaks in some poetry, while keeping everything (in Kathy Horne’s words) “as tight as a fat lady’s girdle.”
He does it partly through dialogue and partly through description. You’d expect the description to be cut. But in the comic even the dialogue has been cut so that the characterisation, the humour and even the sense of place are lost.
Carmady’s office (he’s called Marlowe in the comic but Carmady in the original story) is opposite the Mansion House where Kathy Horne works.
A warm gusty breeze was blowing in at the office window and the soot from the Mansion House Hotel oil-burners across the alley was rolling across the glass top of my desk in tiny particles, like pollen drifting over a vacant lot.
That is all the description we need for now. Later, Chandler picks it up again in the dialogue.
‘Did you ever hear of the Leander pearls?’ she asked. ‘Gosh, that blue serge shines. You must have money in the bank, the clothes you wear.’
‘No,’ I said, ‘to both your ideas. I never heard of the Leander pearls and don’t have any money in the bank.’
‘Then you’d like to make yourself a cut of twenty-five grand maybe.’
I lit one of her cigarettes. She got up and shut the window, saying: ‘I get enough of that hotel smell on the job.’
This is beautifully done. Kathy Horne may be a stereotypically “seedy, sad-eyed blonde” but the writing is a masterclass in economy. Economy in writing doesn’t mean leaving things out. It means putting things in. That’s what Chandler is so good at. The readers of hard-boiled detective stories didn’t want compassion, complex characterisations or sensitive descriptions. They just wanted the writer to get on with the story. Chandler does get on with the story but he smuggles those other things in anyway.
If you read what he’s written about his writing you know he had to work hard at that. It’s a shame to see all that effort undone by a careless adaptation of his work.