A while ago I started making my way through Raymond Chandler’s excellent Philip Marlowe novels in order. Sadly for this blog, I completed the last full length novel Playback shortly before starting to write reviews for Hot Bullets. It’s not all over for Philip Marlowe however, as I still had the short story collection Trouble is my Business to read. I say short stories, they’re probably more properly defined as ‘novellas’, but I detest using that word, so to me they’ll always be – fairly long – short stories.
The first of the four stories in this collection is Trouble is my Business, from which it gets its name. This 1939 story sees world-weary private eye Philip Marlowe hired to scare away a disreputable woman from the adopted son of a wealthy businessman. He’s no sooner started following this potential gold-digger before he stumbled across the first murder. From there, the bodies just keep piling up – but who’s responsible? Chandler cheekily waves suspects and red herrings in your face, so the reader – as well as Marlowe – hit many false leads before the final pay-off.
This is much more explicitly a whodunit than most of the longer Philip Marlowe books and even has an Agatha Christie-esque line-up of suspects at its climax, but all of the classic Raymond Chandler elements are still present and correct. Brusque police chief – check! Sharp-tongued femme fatale – check! Troubled offspring of rich industrialist – check! I don’t mean this as a criticism; it wouldn’t be a Philip Marlowe story without this unique cast of archetypes. And this is definitely a Philip Marlowe story.
Trouble is my Business definitely gets this collection off to a great start. It doesn’t suffer from being in the short form at all; it’s like a compressed novel and subsequently cracks along at a hell of a pace. Also moving at a swift pace is Finger Man, the second story in the collection, though it’s quite a different beast from its predecessor.
Finger Man starts with Philip Marlowe being basically hired as a bodyguard for a gambler who’s all set up for a big win from a local mobster. Because this is Raymond Chandler, things naturally don’t go according to plan; Marlowe is separated from his client, who subsequently ends up dead while his lady friend disappears with the cash and Marlowe is blamed for the murder. He’s got both the cops and the mob on his back and nobody’s even paying him for the inconvenience.
I didn’t enjoy Finger Man as much as Trouble is my Business; the pace is a little too frenetic and it seems crushed into its short story format. This is a story that could definitely have done with being longer. I’m not sure that Marlowe really fits into the role of hired bodyguard either; is it a job that he would have accepted? He’s usually so shrewd about what he will and won’t do for money and it doesn’t seem to ring true that he would take such a case.
Any problems I had with Finger Man are more than made up for by Goldfish, probably my favourite story in this collection. In this, the shortest story collected here, Philip Marlowe is put onto the trail of some stolen pearls worth $250,000 (a lot of money in 1936!) but another less scrupulous party is after the pearls and his main lead is already dead by the time Marlowe goes to see him – tortured to death with a hot iron to the soles of his feet. Ouch! Yes, Goldfish is a surprisingly violent story, with more than one gun fight spelled out in operatic detail.
It’s a brisk story, briskly told in almost real time, and full of larger-than-life characters. Like Chandler’s novel The Lady in the Lake, it strays away from the big city and into a picture book countryside which is full of hidden secrets. Oh, and there’s a cracking twist at the story’s end which just reeks of the cynicism that makes Chandler’s stories so great.
Pearls also play an important role in the final story, Red Wind, only this time Marlowe isn’t specifically aiming to find them. In fact, he’s not aiming to do anything much, other than take a quiet drink in his local bar, but this is Chandler-world, so pretty soon there’s a dead body and a gorgeous dame to deal with. Unusually for a Philip Marlowe story, Red Wind doesn’t start with the detective taking on a case; he’s just kind of thrown into the action against his will.
It’s a strange jigsaw of a story that presents a series of seemingly unrelated events that only really fit together towards the end. Also, there’s not really any good guys, certainly not the cops and possibly not even Marlowe himself. The story is told with an interesting sense of detachment – a sort of Day in the Life of Philip Marlowe – that sets it apart from the other stories in this volume.
Trouble is My Business is a worthwhile coda to the adventures of Philip Marlowe and an interesting collection of stories, though in truth I could probably live without Finger Man. The next (and last) Raymond Chandler book in the Penguin series I’m working my way through is Killer in the Rain; short stories again but this time without Philip Marlowe. Ah, I’m going to miss him.
TROUBLE IS MY BUSINESS by Raymond Chandler is published by Penguin Books in the UK