Monday, February 14, 2011


With some hours of plane and train travel home ahead, I browsed through the airport bookshop, finding not much more than sporting bios, crime, and chickoporn, or as a writer of women's erotica once memorably put it, "female rodiga". 

Fortunately there was a stand of Popular Penguins, those orange toned generic paperbacks, through which Penguin is reviving its early heady days of quality writing at an affordable price. Back before the 1960s and 70s, when new imprints with fancy covers, like Paladin, Abacus and Picador started to appear, these generic Penguins were the source. Later, of course, they joined the new, flashier imprints, and we all paid more for, well, flashier covers.

Flicking through the stand of books, I encountered those I had read, and those that for some reason or another, some foolish ingrained prejudice no doubt, I had always declined to read. But then I came across one I thought would surely get me to the far side of my civil aviation footprint, The Lady in the Lake, by Raymond Chandler.

I don't as a rule go for crime, police and detective stories, and such. There's more than enough of that on the nightly news, and, in case you missed them, in shows on almost every channel after the news too, including the locally produced Underbelly shows, a "franchise" that glorifies criminals and glamourises violence. But what else is new? After all, television is the brown paper bag of the media, the one with the bottle of cheap port snuggled inside it. But then, there are crime stories and crime stories. Crime and Punishment is a, well, crime story. So for that matter is The Brothers Karamazov.

Like a lot of readers, I had read Chandler in the past, notably The Big Sleep and Farewell My Lovely. But despite its intriguing title, I had not read The Lady in the Lake, and so could look forward to an afternoon during which Chandler's inimitable voice (many have tried, none succeeded) would take me away from the airline seat where I sat wedged between a pair of transfatties, or on the train seat beside the bloke in trakky dacks loudly running his multinational corporation, house-hunting and sex life from his mobile phone. 

The Lady in the Lake did get me there with ease.  Chandler is renowned for his "hard-boiled", dry, droll tone, witticisms and epigrams, and here he was in fine form, with "All the expression went out of his face. There hadn't been much to go", and "The self-operating elevator was carpeted in red plush. It had an elderly perfume in it, like three widows drinking tea." But what was interesting reading him this time, was how ultimately unimportant were all the interminable twists and turns in a plot that felt like a ball of wool pawed at by a kitten. There were of course the murders, all equally macabre, lots of women with loose curls and smooth elbows, and a switchboard of stories so intricate the author is compelled to have his private dick hero, Philip Marlowe, update it to other characters, and so the reader, every so many pages. 

In the end, though, I felt he barely needed to have bothered, because this book is not about the lady who ended up in the lake - the big non-surprise he felt compelled in all authorial honesty to hint at early on - and around whom the entire multi-level plot hinges. This is because Chandler is not telling us a story about characters so much as about the Los Angeles of the 1940s, and the America of the 1940s, in which the merest scratch of the surface, to wit, a matrimonial enquiry, may readily expose the seething innards of a rotten world, of hypocrisy and brutality top to bottom,  of cops for hire and routine political corruption. Marlowe's cool acceptance that this is the way things are, is part of his "hard-boiled" quality throughout Chandler's works - but it is also about Chandler telling us what we might find if we delve a quarter inch below the sunny surface of California of the 1940s and 1950s.

The same might be said of the film I happened to catch the night after I got home, Polanski's classic Chinatown. Here again, as with so much in the pulp and noir genres, the story begins with a matrimonial job for a private eye. Again there are the sticky fingertips of wanton women and the fists of hard men, and a plot so complicated you need a magnifying glass to follow each spidery thread to its inevitably linked-in conclusion. Along the way you encounter murder, incest, brutality, and theft of the grandest kind. But in the end, this too is a work which is far more than a whodunnit, one which scrapes away the surface layer of American capitalism and exposes the workings of a system which rewards greed and theft, and punishes honesty and diligence. It is a system where even the water supply of an entire state is little more than a chip in a poker game, a hood ornament for an old prick. As with The Lady in the Lake, it's not so much where the story ends, which in each case is the outskirts of Nowhereville, but in what is glimpsed, often in one's peripheral vision, on the nasty ride down there.

Recently Penguin's plain covered books have been joined on the stands by a new outfit also publishing in generic covers, but in this case new Australian works. Press On has raised subscriptions from readers to publish, a scheme in which the subscriber pre-buys three books, at a discount rate. Their latest publication is Leaving Home with Henry, by Phillip Edmonds. 

Edmonds, who is an accomplished short story writer as well as publisher of Wet Ink literary magazine, has literally breathed new life into the Australian literary icon Henry Lawson in this book. His central character, whom we know only as Trevor, and about whom we know intriguingly little, sets off on a driving trip which takes him to Canberra, where after a visit to the National Library to read some of Lawson's letters, finds he has the real Henry stowed away in his back seat. Together then they take off on a road trip that skirts the Outback, as well as to Nimbin and the Gold Coast, where Henry comes face to face with modern Australia - warts, Pauline Hanson and all. 

Edmonds' superbly crafted novella is by turns funny, beguiling and thought-provoking, and running to a total of 89 neat pages, ideal for modern attention spans too.  He succeeds in bringing Lawson back to life in all his dimensions. After all, the man who wrote of "Red Revolution" in The Faces in the Street also wrote the poignant classic The Drover's Wife, the hilarious yarn The Loaded Dog, and the iconic urban poem The Bastard From the Bush. But as in the best works of the shorter forms, it's what isn't said, about Trevor, or about Henry, that gives this book the space for the reader to breathe, and to think. And as with the works mentioned above, again it is not ultimately about the plot, but about the land Lawson loved, and from which we casually avert our gaze each day, in favour of our laptops and our TV sets, and the shows we see upon them, almost inevitably, about people shooting people,  on the news, and in the crime shows that follow.

Unlike chickoporn rogida, which comes in lurid shades of pink and violet, usually with a scantily clad female form recumbent across the cover like a freshly shucked oyster, these plain-covered books give nothing away, tell not too much, nor protest too much. Yet quietly, Chandler and Edmonds both peel away the shiny outer layer to reveal the uncomfortable truths beneath. And is that not what books should do, and leave the pap and pulp to TV, that does it so very happily?

Leaving Home with Henry:


  1. 1. Have you tried The Long Goodbye? When I read them (years ago) I liked it best.
    2. Haven't seen Phil Edmonds (or read him) for many years. Must look it up...

  2. Thanks Rae. I have read that one, and yes, it's a joint favourite, along with Farewell My Lovely.